I first heard Primus when a stoned philosophy major lured me out of a dorm hallway with the offer of a new version of rock that would "blow your mind like an orgasm."
She was standing in her doorway holding a CD, which I took to check out the cover art--it looked like a Claymation circus freak's head cooking in a cast-iron skillet. Bold purple letters read: Frizzle Fry. Behind her, the album's title track boomed from a shelf stereo that propped up a volume of Nietzsche.
The thrust of the song was a bone-crushing bass/drums groove, accessorized with loose, warbling guitar and lyrics about the dangers and wonders of LSD, as told by acid itself: "Hello, all you boys and girls/I'd like to take you to the inside world/It's quite an irregular place to be/But never fear, you're safe with me/(pause) Well, maybe."
"Play me another track," I said. She turned the knob to eight.
Next up was "Spaghetti Western," the quintessential Primus song. It comes at you in layers: first, a fast, hypnotic drum beat; then the guitar, moaning and wailing, half whale song, half banshee cry; then the lyrics--random musings by a slacker who's planted before the tube, "mind numbed by THC."
"Funny thing about weekends when you're unemployed," the vocalist sings. "They don't mean quite so much/'Cept you get to hang out with your workin' friends/. . . I like spaghetti Westerns/I like the way the boots are all reverbed out, walkin' across the hardwood floor."
The cherry on top, though, is an intricate bass solo executed at brazen speed.
True to my Nietzsche-reading friend's word, Primus blew me away. Most impressive was the band's deft flip-flopping of the usual bass/guitar relationship to bring the mad virtuosity of its four-string front man into high relief.
The San Francisco trio's odd stylings, however, were not an instant success on the Bay Area club circuit. Many early audiences were turned off by the band's whimsical lyrics and unorthodox structure, and on several occasions, Primus got shouted down with cries of, "You suck!"
As the band's regional fan base grew from a smattering to a legion, however, Primusites reclaimed that term, howling, "Primus sucks!" in lieu of applause. The band's first recording, a 1989 live album that flew out of Bay Area record stores like it had wings, was titled Suck on This!.
A few weeks after I first heard Frizzle Fry--the band's first studio album--Primus played my college's dining hall. From that show, I remember bass wizard/vocalist Les Claypool's contortionist facial expressions and the way he goose-stepped across the stage during "Too Many Puppies," a plodding march that goes "Too many puppies/Are being shot in the dark/Too many puppies/Are being trained not to bark."
I remember that no matter how complex the rhythms got, Claypool and drummer Tim Alexander never had an inch of slack between them. And I remember how strange it seemed to see a rock guitarist, Larry Lalonde, reduced to a background figure, hair hanging in his face as he coaxed unearthly accents from his instrument.
"Larry has quite a hard job," Claypool says during an interview conducted last week. "Generally, when we create songs, the bass and drums dominate. So Herb [Alexander's nickname] and I will lay something down, and poor Lar has to come along and find a space within the madness without stepping on either of our toes."
Yet on Primus' fourth and latest studio album, Tales From the Punchbowl, Lalonde is a noticeably larger presence. His distorted tinkering is more prominent, and he and Claypool even interact as duo leads on several tracks--alternately doubling lines and complementing one another with two variations on a theme.
"We spent more time working on Larry's parts this go-around," explains Claypool. "What really helped was the more relaxed atmosphere we had recording this one. See, Larry likes to really take his time working. But since we used the studio at my house to record Punchbowl, for once we weren't sitting around itching to go home at three in the morning going, 'Come on, Lar, let's go already.'"
Another notable change for Primus is the band's move to a prop-heavy live presentation. Past Primus shows relied on little more than the music and Claypool's quirky mannerisms, but for the tour in support of Punchbowl, the band is employing an elaborate set Claypool characterizes as "a giant puppet show."
"It looks like a vaudeville stage setup. We're utilizing different old theatre techniques with scrims. It's eye candy, but it shifts to fit each song."
Scrims? Puppets? What is this, an Iron Maiden show? Come on, man, Primus didn't used to be about all that. Primus used to be about packed, sweaty houses seething with intimate, locked-jaw intensity--the kind of shows where a giant puppet would have been a distraction to be destroyed at the earliest opportunity.
But there's little point in whining. No need to be like people I knew who, when the video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was in overload rotation on MTV, would stalk out of the room whenever it came on because they remembered seeing Nirvana in clubs the size of your average rec room.
A truth of the world is that, for better or worse, good bands get big sometimes. Combined sales for Primus' last two recordings, Sailing the Seas of Cheese and Pork Soda, easily topped the one million mark, and Tales From the Punchbowl entered the Billboard Top 200 chart at number eight. As Claypool puts it, now that Primus is playing arenas rather than college dining halls, he wants an alternative to "your standard big-venue rock 'n' roll light show."
"I've always been a big fan of Laurie Anderson and other performance artists who use visuals to support what they're doing onstage," he says. "It's just never really been cost-effective. Finally, we're at a point where we can fool ourselves into thinking we can afford it."
Claypool's penchant for theatrics, however, ran him and his bandmates afoul of a Late Show With David Letterman producer recently when they appeared on the program dressed as giant penguins. Here's his story:
"We thought we were just getting into the whole Dave thing, but she like totally flipped out. Right before we went on, she saw us and freaked, but it was too late to stop us. Still, I've never seen anyone overreact to anything like she did to us and our penguin suits. Evidently she thought we were doing something devious, but I was like, 'How devious can penguins be?'"
Claypool and Lalonde, both self-confirmed computer geeks, designed the cover of Punchbowl (smiley-faced spoon creatures rising from an emerald cyber-sea) as well as the album's liner-note art, which includes a photo of the band in full penguin regalia, spliced into an iceberg landscape.
Counting the penguin picture, Tales From the Punchbowl is home to a menagerie of animal images and allusions, including "Southbound Pachyderm," Primus' comment on the global environmental crisis.
The computer illustration for that song's lyric sheet shows a happy, winged elephant soaring over the Oakland Bay Bridge, but Claypool says the song was inspired by a more somber muse.
"Years ago I had this vision of an elephant walking away, just this big elephant's ass basically, and then it sort of turned into the idea of all the pachyderms that are disappearing, all the rhinos, hippos and elephants that we're killing off. They're slowly disappearing, going south."
The first radio-ready single off Punchbowl, though, pays homage to a different constituency of the animal kingdom: the beaver. "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver," to be precise.
Claypool, who owns the entire Looney Tunes library, claims he had in mind "a Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck kinda character" when he penned the tune. But with lyrics like "Wynona loved her big brown beaver/She stroked him all the time," it's hard to overlook the double-entendre.
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"It's safe to say there's an obvious pun there," says Claypool. "It's supposed to make you chuckle a bit."
For record execs, the choice of "Wynona" as Punchbowl's marketing spearhead was presumably obvious. The song is easily the album's most accessible (ahem) point of entry for new Primus listeners, best described as a slightly eccentric Nineties answer to "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."
Here's the idea: Lalonde takes it down home with some achy-breaky slide guitar over the usual (but excellent) formidable bass line as Claypool does a country-boy rap about Wynona, her beaver, and Rex the Texan, who ". . . traveled with the carnival shows/Ran bumper cars and smoked cheap cigars and candied up his nose."
Primus virgins who give up their dough for Tales From the Punchbowl based on the album's single and corresponding video (currently a hit with the kids on MTV) may be in for a twisted surprise. The rest of the recording holds some of the band's most esoteric work to date: rhythm-driven, marathon jams brimming with wild time signatures, bizarre guitar effects, out-of-nowhere lyrical vignettes and, as always, Claypool's finely wrought bass playing. Especially weird and fine are "Space Farm," an aural adventure of ambient and animal noises, and the radical, seven-minute epic "Professor Nutbutter's House of Treats."
"We sorta view each record as a small step of progress, one that'll gain us a few new fans," says Claypool. "Our broad base is already established. It's broad enough to keep us going, but we know there's only so big a market out there for three mutants with sex appeal."
Primus is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, August 22, at Mesa Amphitheatre, with Mike Watt. Showtime is 7 p.m.