Primus frontman, novelist, film director and bassist Les Claypool isn’t your average musician. For starters, he doesn’t think like you and I do. As he says: “I don’t necessarily think of my bass as a bass. If I’m playing for somebody, like if I got a gig with Booker T and the MGs, I would approach it much differently. I would do my job. But for me, the bass or whatever instrument I play just happens to be the crayon that I pulled out of the box. I would still be drawing the same type of picture if I was playing an accordion or a guitar – it would just have a different timbre.”
You probably know Les as a highly technical player, squeezing off flurries of notes from his bass like there’s no tomorrow. However, this isn’t all he can do: on his 2009 album, Of Fungi And Foe, he throws all notions of technical playing for its own sake to one side, specifically on jammed tracks such as ‘A Bite Out Of Life’. As he explains: “I recorded that song with Eugene Hütz (of the gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello) after a night of vodka debauchery, and we were hungover and just fussing around in the studio. I was in such pain from the night before that drinking was the only way to survive it, so the vodka came out again and we started recording. We were just blithering away on our instruments. I just accompanied the guitar part – and what came out was almost like an old Bow Wow Wow bass-line! There was no preconceived anything with that song. It was purely an accident.”
Claypool recorded the album at the studio in his house in northern California. “My studio would make some engineers cringe and some engineers ejaculate,” he laughs, “because I’ve got an amazing collection of old vintage gear. I call it a studio, but it’s just a room full of crap. It’s basically two outbuildings on my property, where I live out in the country. For the bass guitars, I have a plethora of boxes all wired together, and every now and then I hit a button and a sound comes out. I have a Line 6 delay and a Line 6 distortion; a Boomerang pedal; an old device that has multi-effects for bass, I don’t even know what model it is; and a couple of MXR DI overdrive pedals. I use Ampeg cabinets with a Mackie power amp and two API Channel Strips. I’m endorsed by Ampeg, and EMG have been very helpful, and I use Dean Markley strings.”
Bass-wise, Les is still using his famous Carl Thompson four-string. You know the one – it has the funky scrolled-up horns and the bit of wood bearing Geddy Lee’s autograph nailed to the headstock. Asked if manufacturers ever approach him about a signature bass, he replies: “Not really, because most people know that I play a Carl Thompson. Actually he just made me a new one – a replica of the first one I had. At first I played it and thought, ‘This one’s weird’, but the thing about Carl is that all his basses are completely different – you have to adapt your playing to his instrument. And once you do, it’s pretty sweet. That original four-string just has a sound and quality that I haven’t found anywhere else, even in this new bass. He makes so few of these things: I ordered this one 18 months ago and I’ve just got it – but then he’s a little old fellow in an apartment in Brooklyn. If I was to play a production bass, I’d probably play a Fender Jazz.”
Like Geddy Lee, eh?
“Or Larry Graham. Actually, if I wanted to sound like Geddy Lee I’d play a black-and-white Rickenbacker. I do have an old Rickenbacker 4001. The thing about those basses is that they all sound different, depending on what year they were made. I have a really old one with the herringbone binding signed by John Entwistle. I bought it the week before he died. It is a spectacular-feeling and sounding bass, but then I have another one that I got from Alex Lifeson which doesn’t play as well and doesn’t sound as good. So they’re not that consistent. I love the tone, though – it’s super-cool.”
As well as the Carl Thompson, Claypool employed a range of other instruments on the new record, including the famous Whamola, the one-string gizmo whose variable pitch is heard on several tracks. “It’s a one-string instrument with a handle on it, and I hit it with a stick,” he explains. “It’s basically a percussion instrument, the way I play it: it doesn’t have a lot of tonality to it. But I tend to pick up whatever’s handy. On the song ‘Booneville Stomp’ I’m actually playing a Dobro bass – just a cheap thing made in China. I picked it up and detuned it, and had EMG stick a pickup in it, and it’s great because I can bang on it and not worry about it. EMG told me that it was a total piece of crap, but sometimes these little finds have a lot of personality.”
For years now, the off-the-wall nature of Claypool’s various activities – Primus, Oysterhead and others, plus his many guest spots with artists such as Tom Waits and Metallica – have led to him being labelled as an eccentric. It’s all part of taking the path less traveled, he insists: “You can apply what I’ve said about bass to many aspects of existence on this planet. We’re all taught and encouraged to conform and fit in, and wear the same style of collar and hair and shoe, and watch Friends, and the people who raise a few eyebrows are the ones who change things. Your experience with any new people is such a good way of expanding your perceptions. For example, with Oysterhead, I got the added benefit of playing with Stewart Copeland, who is one of my heroes and also one of my best friends. He has such an odd approach to music, and I learned quite a bit from him. One of my favorite bass players in the last 15 years – someone who made me think, ‘Wow, that’s incredible!’ – was Mark Sandman from Morphine, who played a two-string bass with a slide. It was unbelievable: he played glorious music.”
As bass players, perhaps the most important thing we can learn from Les is to place ourselves within the music and not worry about the details so much. As he says, “I’ve always tried to be pretty casual about the way I approach things. Because I have so many different projects going, I just start assembling songs, like making a junkyard sculpture. Y’know, like there’s an old gas tank over here and a bit of tractor over there… so when it comes time to record, I look and see what lyrics I’ve got and start building. It’s like doodling on a scratchpad. That’s what I do – a lot of doodling!” In which case, bring on the crayons.