DID YOU KNOW? White sturgeon are the largest freshwater fish in North America and can weigh over 1,500 pounds, be 20 feet in length, and live for over 100 years.
We had no idea. But Les Claypool certainly does. Claypool -- bass player, singer-songwriter, and avid angler -- has been musically mythologizing the gargantuan fish for more than a decade. It started in the early '90s with his cult-fave punk-funk band Primus and a song cycle known as "Fisherman Chronicles" that extended over three influential records. It continues with South of the Pumphouse, his soon-to-be-published first novel, about a pair of brothers who return home for a sturgeon fishing expedition. And his brand-new album, Of Whales and Woe, includes a couple more tunes about dragging line and hauling nets.
So has the busy 43-year-old had time to trawl the San Pablo Bay near Rancho Relaxo, his rural northern California home?
"I went out and chased salmon the other day," he says in a terse, nasal drawl. A character seemingly as strange and singular as the blue-collar tweakers, big brown beavers, and drunk race-car drivers that populate his songs, Claypool is laconic about his personal life. But ask about his other myriad projects all set to launch this summer and he's got a lot to say.
"I've given up on calculating when to release my stuff," he says about his current creative confluence. "We used to do that. We'd say, Okay, we're gonna shoot for a spring release with this Primus record, let's make it here and we'll record it then and blah, blah, blah. I have a life now beyond music. I have family. I just make the stuff, and when it comes out, it comes out. It's the schedule that suits my life."
It's a schedule that also allowed Claypool to make Of Whales and Woe on his own time at Rancho Relaxo, playing nearly all the instruments himself, having his son and daughter sit in on a track, and calling in musician friends to aid and abet as needed.
"I started recording this stuff a couple years ago, and at the end of this last year is when I really hammered at it and polished it and finished it up," he says. "I ended up playing the drums on pretty much all of it. And guitar and bass and singing. So it's really a solo record. And it's a much more in-your-face record than I've made in a long time, if not ever."
Claypool veered from "in your face" after the dissolving of Primus in 2000. That year, he inadvertently embarked on what's become the second major phase of his career by putting together a band to play New Orleans Jazzfest. Dubbed Oysterhead, that supergroup included Claypool on bass, former Police drummer Stewart Copeland, and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio.
"First of all, I hate the term supergroup,'" he says. "That to me always means something along the lines of various elements of pop culture coming together to make something that's marketable. And to me it's more about playing with people that are interesting to play with. But you know, once I did the Oysterhead thing, I got asked to do various things for various festivals for a while. And so I entered into this world."
That world -- the jam band world, with its festival bacchanalia, nonstop tours, and undying devotion to bands that refuse to play three-minute songs -- initially seemed a strange refuge for the post-Primus Claypool. But the scene embraced his virtuosity and darkly eccentric brand of mad funk. Claypool, in turn, tailored his sets to include more improvisation and psychedelia.
"I never really paid much attention to what scene I'm involved in. I'm like Underdog -- I go where I'm needed," he says. "If I get offered an interesting gig or opportunity to play with somebody, that's what I'm gonna go do. You know what I mean? And if various people show up, that's who shows up. I didn't think to myself, Hey, I really wanna be a part of this jam band scene.'"
But with Oysterhead on the bill at last weekend's massive Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee, he got the chance to return to its Mecca.
"But I've seen this scene -- over the past five years I've been involved with it -- rapidly evolving," he says. "Look at Bonnaroo this year -- you see bands like Ween and Radiohead and Flaming Lips, and, of course, my stuff. It's not so much the style of music as it is the approach to the music."
Additionally, Claypool's aiming his unique perspective on the jam band scene through the other major work he's releasing this summer. Electric Apricot: The Quest for Festeroo is a mockumentary spoofing jam band culture the way This Is Spinal Tap did heavy metal. After getting into the scene through the back door, he has no qualms about poking a little fun at it.
"Um, yes. That's very true," he says. "But the movie is a very endearing look at the scene. The spoofing that's going on is we're taking the piss out of these guys that make up this band, Electric Apricot. It's a composite of musicians I've known and worked with my entire life. You amplify their traits -- I was gonna say defects -- and you get these people. . . . It's similar to what Ricky Gervais does with The Office on the BBC. It's not so much about the paper mill industry as it is about the individuals within it. And these are observations that I've been able to make throughout my time in the music industry."
From Primus to Oysterhead and a slew of spin-offs in between, from the grungy alternative nation to the freewheeling jam band tribe, from free shows in the UC-Berkeley dorms to the main stage at Bonnaroo, Claypool has seen a lot. His music has always evolved on his own terms and never lost him credibility.
"That's what defines time, you know?" he says. "When you look at the styles and the sounds of the '70s, it defines that era, to a certain extent. I live in a house that was built in the '70s, that's very '70s. It looks like Mike Brady designed this place. And I love it. I will never remodel it. Because it's gonna go in and out of vogue or whatever the hell as time moves along. When I bought the place, the Southwestern thing was very popular. Now you look at Southwestern-style homes or decor and you go, God, that's cheesy.' Now everybody's doing bleached pine -- French pine or whatever. All this pine, which back in the day it was all oak." He pauses to take a breath. "It's the same with music."
And with sturgeon.