Les Claypool has always done things, well, his way. Whether with Primus, his main band, or any number of side projects including the Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, Oysterhead (featuring Phish’s Trey Anastasio, though perhaps Claypool’s most accessible project), or Sausage, Claypool has always looked outside rock conventions for something a little different. His latest musical adventure finds him joining forces with Sean Lennon in The Claypool Lennon Delirium, a project that explores and extrapolates on the musical incantations of 1970s-style heavy progressive rock.
Yet, the music cannot be so simply defined. The pair’s debut album, The Monolith of Phobos, is alternately psychedelic, spacey, gritty, progish, metalish (“Cricket and the Genie Movement 2” sports some wicked Black Sabbath-like riffs), Beatlesque (there’s no hiding Sean’s harmonic connections), and kind of weird in creepy, scary, fun ways.
“The music doesn’t really represent how my brain thinks. I use those words [prog, psych, etc.] as guides to navigate through the creative process, but I’m not strictly trying to be anything,” Lennon says from a Kansas City hotel room. “In fact, I think the record sounds exactly like a psychedelic record, or whatever that means. It’s just words we throw around. We’d both been listening to a lot of random prog music and psych music and sending each other playlists. I was sending him random stuff from the '60s. It was just kind of what we were into listening to, so that laid the groundwork for the direction.”
One act Claypool exposed Lennon to was the Dukes of Stratosphere, a 1980s XTC side project that, given the disguises Andy Partridge and the band wore, to this day remains somewhat obscure.
“It was like ‘Let’s start our own Dukes of Stratosphear.’ No one knew it was them [XTC]. We were like, ‘We should have a side project that’s our weird alternative egos.’ We talked a lot about it, made up weird song titles and that sort of thing. So there was a vague plan, but it wasn’t too specific,” he says.
While there are tell-tale signs of both artists—Claypool’s slap-happy bass fills and Lennon’s atmospheric guitar interludes—the music certainly took both artists in new directions as those influences began to merge and melt.
“Things never really turn out exactly how you think they are going to, but I think that is always better. When things turn out exactly how you plan then it’s going to be boring,” Lennon says. “It’s always better when things happen in a kind of surprising way. I feel this record qualifies us for surprisingly good.”
Any project the pair undertook, looking back, might have always been destined for “surprisingly good.” Lennon first met Claypool when his band, The Ghost, opened a series of Primus concerts. Lennon admits he was always impressed with the oddball nature and progressive musical attitude of Primus, so when Claypool invited him to sit in one night on “Pachyderm,” his favorite Primus song, he did.
“I was a little nervous because I’d never played with them, and no we didn’t rehearse, so it was kind of spontaneous. I just remember asking Les what I should play and he just said, ‘Make whale sounds,’” Lennon says with a laugh. “So I just made a lot of abstracted, delayed squeals.”
The jam went off without a hitch—at least none Lennon will own-up to—but it made one thing was clear, the two needed to work together.
“I think that was it,” Lennon says of the unplanned jam. “It’s not like it was reduced to one single moment, but in general when we played ‘Pachyderm’ it felt natural. It was easy and fun. That was the impetus.”
Lyrically, The Monolith of Phobos touches on some dark topics. While there’s the lyrically frivolous “Captain Lariat” (Claypool, an avid fisherman, must have at least one song about the sea), there are songs about a voyeur spying on little girls (“Mr. Wright”), an OxyContin addict (“OxyContin Girl”), and a pushy door-to-door salesman (“Breath of a Salesman”).
“I know what you mean about Les, he’s fishcentric,” Lennon says with a laugh. “But we weren’t talking about making any statements. We were just following our intuition and song inspiration, doing stuff that we thought would be cool. I get inspired by lots of things. Not just music, but the world at large, innovations in science, history books, art. … Les and I share a lot of the same tastes, so if we were reading a newspaper and talking about some article that had some topic in it that we thought might make a good song subject, then we might do it. It wasn’t that something we thought would make a good statement, just a cool song subject. Like the ‘Monolith of Phobos.’ There’s obviously something dark about the subject matter, but also something whimsical. The combination of whimsy and darkness is what you’ll find in a lot of Les Claypool’s projects, and I think you might find that in mine, too. We’re just making stuff that’s cool to us.
“It’s like something David Lynch said,” he continues. “Someone asked him: If you meditate every day and have all this enlightenment, why do make such dark films?' And he said, ‘Because that’s what makes a good story.’ And he’s right. With songwriting, if you have some darkness in there, it’s good.”
And then there’s Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s chimpanzee. “Bubbles Burst”— with an accompanying video featuring The Mighty Boosh’s Noel and Michael Fielding as Jackson and Bubbles, respectively — is a combination of light and dark; a sad lament, but also an ode to the famous chimp, who Lennon met as a child when he spent time at Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.
“I don’t feel it has to be one or the other, does it?” Lennon asks. “As well as both of those things, it’s us having fun. … It’s a song about a chimpanzee I did happen to meet in real life. For the most part, the song’s a poem about a memory. It’s not a biopic or a historical document. Writing a song about Bubbles is not about me writing my life story. It’s an homage to Bubbles and my experiences in meeting him. It is an ode to Michael Jackson, of course, but it’s really an ode about Bubbles. Michael is sort of secondary character.
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“The video is just us playing around,” he adds. “I like it a lot. Some people got offended, but the only people who got offended were bizarre, almost fascistic illiterate Michael Jackson fanatics. Not normal people.”
For all its heavy, spacey workings, whacked-out lyrics, dark secrets and tingling energy, The Claypool Lennon Delirium certainly lives up to the expectations of two more, uh, unusual artists working together and aiming for something different. Lennon also sees it as two friends just having a good time.
“It sounds like Les Claypool and myself having a music party,” he says. “It sounds like we’re having a lot of fun. That’s what’s kind of cool about it. It sounds like we’re inspired and playing around and have fun. We’re not taking life too seriously, but trying to get a good place musically.”
The Claypool Lennon Delirium are scheduled to perform Thursday, July 30, at Marquee Theatre.