Les Claypool and Sean Lennon Explore Uncharted Melodic Territories

As Les Claypool lounges in his “Rancho Relaxo” home studio in Northern California on a Wednesday morning, the 52-year-old bass maestro has two thoughts occupying his mind.
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As Les Claypool lounges in his “Rancho Relaxo” home studio in Northern California on a Wednesday morning, the 52-year-old bass maestro has two thoughts occupying his mind: rehearsing the songs he just released with Sean Lennon for their upcoming tour, and getting out on his boat to catch a salmon. While the former task seems to be the more pressing matter, Claypool’s mind remains anchored on the latter. “It’s been pretty thin out in the water so far this season, but I bet I can wrangle one in before I hit the road.”

Boosting his fishing skills isn’t the only evolving Claypool has been up to lately, as the Primus frontman known for his tenacious slap work, oddball compositions, and virtuosic riffing has stepped into a new melodic role in the Claypool Lennon Delirium, his collaboration with Sean. The duo’s debut, The Monolith of Phobos, exhibits just how compatible the unlikely bandmates are, as Lennon’s naturally Beatles-esque vocals and laid-back instrumentation force Claypool to dive into more of a supportive role. This led to the bassist exploring new harmonic ranges rather than relying on his usual percussiveness. And it all marinates together beautifully to create a throwback ’60s psychedelic sound that Claypool affectionately refers to as a “freak stew.”

Swapping out his iconic Carl Thompson 6-string for basses with unique vintage qualities, such as his Eko violin bass and his acoustic “dobro,” Claypool’s tone still boasts his signature midrange-heavy sound. Yet even having produced the album on his own, there are spots where he cops uncharacteristic tones, including deep rumblings on “Bubbles Burst” and the gain-filled “Boomerang Baby”—neither of which Claypool has yet to practice for the impending tour. First he has fields to mow, a boat to repair, and somewhere swimming off the California coast, there’s a salmon that he’s determined to catch.

How did you initially link up with Sean?

We were doing a Primus and Dinosaur Jr. tour, and bands were being submitted for the opening slot. Our manager said that Sean’s band, The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger, wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t know much about the project, so I watched a few videos and I was blown away. Once they came on the tour, he and I started doing some backstage acoustic jams, and there was definitely a spark. A lot of interesting ideas were developing because we were such different kinds of players. Sean sat in with us one night on “Southbound Pachyderm,” and it was amazing. So, after the tour, he came up to my studio and ended up staying there on and off for six weeks, and we made a record.

Coming off the road, what made you want to hop right into a new project?

Well, I have a kid in college, so I have to keep working. There ain’t no taking a year off. But really, if I take too much time off I get depressed, to be honest. I have to feel like I’m accomplishing something all the time or else it bums me out. There was talk of Oysterhead getting back together, and then it didn’t pan out, and after five years of Primus we needed to let that breathe for a bit. Then this kind of fell together, and it worked out spectacularly.

Did the album’s ’60s psychedelic vibe come about organically?

It was extremely organic. At first we talked about doing a concept album, and we tossed around some ideas. But when you do that, it puts up parameters that I instantly like to start pushing against. What turned this record away from sounding anything like one of my solo projects is that Sean got on the drums right away. Unless it’s Primus or Oysterhead that I’m working on, I always get on the drums first during the writing process. Sean gave it a totally different, laid-back late-’60s vibe. He lopes through his fills, which adds a soothing feel.

That’s very different from what you’re used to playing with.

It is. When I’m on the drums I tend to push things forward quite a bit. Sean definitely has that Ringo Starr, Nick Mason, Bill Ward kind of feel. I generally don’t play with guys like that. It’s not like I avoid them, but those usually aren’t the guys who come audition for my projects and get the gig. I’ve always been into those Stewart Copeland kinds of guys, who push the beat forward and lean on the edge. So when Sean started loping away it made me approach my instrument differently.

How so?

Music is a conversation, and when you start talking to people with different perspectives, different backgrounds, and different mindsets, the conversation turns. That translates to music. When I started playing with Sean, it made my bass playing different; I was playing a lot more loping, too, with more walking lines and melodic parts.

One of the only slapping parts comes in the chorus of “Ohmerica.” How did that part come about?

That’s one of the only parts with thumping and plucking on the record, aside from “Breath of a Salesman.” We actually wrote “Ohmerica” around that bass part. I had recorded that slap part, and it reminded me of a song I wrote called “Up on a Roof” [Purple Onion]. But Sean really liked it, so I tweaked it a little to sound less like “Roof.” Then we changed the chords and put the rest of the parts in, and voilà!

Was it a conscious decision to not do more slapping?

This record is more about composition than anything else, and that’s the way it is when you do any collaboration. You’re working with the elements that you have. In Primus there’s a lot of … I don’t want to say “over the top” playing, but there’s a different approach to the bass because I’m trying to play rhythm guitar and bass parts at the same time. Here, I played what was called for. There really wasn’t anything that required me to dig in and start thumping away. I didn’t approach this like a typical “Claypool record.” That usually comes from me sitting on the drums and building songs from a riff. But here we supported each other and swapped riffs and created parts that became songs. I haven’t had a cooperative project like this since Oysterhead.

Like many of your projects, you were behind the board at your studio. Has it become easier over the years to dial in your bass tone?

I don’t think I’ve ever been happy with my tone. I always think, “I should’ve done this, I should’ve done that, it needed more of this.” But then I listen back after a few years and I think it sounds very cool. Or the opposite, where I wonder what the hell I was thinking. But I’m always chasing the ultimate tone. For me, my favorite bass part of this record was the tone I got in “Bubbles Burst.” I have no idea how I got that sound.

Does it ever bother you that your skill as a songwriter can get lost behind your bass technique?

I’ve never thought about it, to tell you the truth. I see bass players who have the whole package: amazing technique, musicianship, and versatility, and I’m not that guy. I’m just a very elaborate hack. I refer to those kinds of players as the Michael Jordans of our instrument; I’m not that. I’m the Evel Knievel of bass. I go for it big time, trying to do a jump on the Vegas strip; sometimes I make it over the fountain and sometimes I crash right into it.

How have you matured as a bass player?

I hear things differently now. My ears are way more in tune. I think that comes from playing bass, but also from engineering and producing and knowing how to run the gear. I wish I had the discipline to sit and practice and expand my horizons in different musical realms, but that’s just not me. People think I’m this workhorse, but I was the kid who would never do homework, but would go into class and cram until the teacher walked into the door, and I’d somehow pull a B. That used to drive my dad crazy; he’d call me “Last-Minute Les.” I wait until the last second to prepare for everything. That’s what I enjoy about being in the studio and creating music spontaneously, because often it’s out of laziness. I love the element of not knowing what’s going to happen next.


By Chris Jisi

Being cast in more of a supportive role on Monolith of Phobos shapes Les Claypool’s melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic approach, as well as his tone, all while he retains his signature raucous edge. Example 1 picks up Claypool’s Pachyderm 4-string line on the title track, at 3:32. Having gradually developed his part on this four-bar phrase earlier on the track, Les goes all-out, adding 6ths and 9ths to the Ab and E chords, a bluesy minor 3rd to the Eb chord, and a double-stop on the Bb chord. He offers, “This is my homage to the early greats of walking through the changes, like Paul McCartney, Jack Casady, and Carol Kaye with the Beach Boys.”

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Example 2 shows Claypool’s basic “dobro” resonator-bass part on “Mr. Wright.” “That’s a nod to Sir Paul on songs like ‘Taxman’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows.’ Like a lot of bassists did in that era, I played up around the 12th fret, which adds more of a percussive, punchier tone than playing in the lower positions.” The second and third endings contain turnarounds that Les uses repeatedly on the track. “The second ending has a Geddy Lee lick; I wasn’t thinking it at the time, but looking at it now, I never would have played that had I not grown up listening to Rush. The third ending, that’s a Les Claypool lick!”

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Finally, Ex. 3 presents two Pachyderm-played parts of “Captain Lariat.” The first two measures have Claypool’s hammer-and-open-string bass line, first heard at 1:06, and peppered with a double-stop on the last eighth-note. The final two measures feature Les’ vocal-doubled melody, at 1:19. “This will be a killer to play and sing live, because the entire melody is on the G string, so I could keep the open D string droning underneath it.” Listen as Les strikes the open D numerous times while issuing the G string melody.

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