Les Claypool is one quirky dude. That’s probably why I like him so much. He is, without question, one of the most talented bassists in music today. He’s also a wildly eclectic composer, capable of bringing a signature sound to a wide variety of musical styles. Everything he touches sounds like him, while simultaneously sounding like something altogether different. No two of his projects are identical, but Claypool’s sound is the element holding everything together.
Like so many others, I came to know Les Claypool by way of his first signature band, Primus. Like me, Les is a major fan of Tony Levin, another bass playing legend. Fans of King Crimson will no doubt be able to hear where the bass line is this Primus hit came from.
While I consider myself a Primus fan, I always felt the band didn’t do enough for Claypool on a musical level. Primus made him a rock star, capable of selling out live shows everywhere. But Claypool is an immensely talented musician. He needed other outlets to bring those chops to life. The Holy Mackerel was the first of his many stretches. They released Highball with the Devil in 1996. They had me from the first bass note.
The Holy Mackerel was a musical bridge. Waiting on the other side was Oysterhead, an amazing collaboration between Claypool, guitarist Trey Anastasio (from Phish) and drummer Stewart Copeland (from the Police). Their album, The Grand Pecking Order, was in heavy rotation on my CD player for quite some time. A look at the musicians’ faces says they were having a pretty good time, too.
My favorite tune from the album is called “Mr. Oysterhead.” Everything I love about each musician is put on display in this tune. It’s better heard than described. I think my dad would have summed up the bands sound like this: “DAMN!!!”
Up next for Claypool was the Fearless Flying Frog Brigade. Claypool not only put his chops on further display, he surrounded himself with musicians just as quirky as he was. The result was a relentless band of eccentrics I wish I had the chops to keep up with. Every time I hear this band, I want to grab my guitar and join in. Their take on King Crimson’s “Thela Hun Ginjeet” is a blast, even if Claypool doesn’t exactly nail Adrian Belew’s vocal part.
Even more fun is a tune from the same gig, called “Whamola.” It’s named after the instrument Les is using. It’s amazing what you can do with one string, a hand lever, and a drumstick. I hope Claypool forgives me for saying less is truly more. (See what I did there?)
The band released a studio album called Purple Onion and two CDs of fantastic live material, including the whole of Pink Floyd LP Animals. They are well worth seeking out.
The above performances were recorded at the Bonnaroo Musicians Arts festival in 2002. There was another happy accident at that festival when Claypool jammed with keyboardist Bernie Worrell, guitarist Buckethead, and drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia after the latter three were unable to perform with bassist Bill Laswell as Praxis (another favorite band of mine). My mother used to tell me that everything happens for a reason. I have no doubt this is the case here.
The jam went so well, Les and company discovered they had a new band, which came to be known as Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains, or C2B3. Lucky for those of us who couldn’t make it to Tennessee, the band was able to record an album, called The Big Eyeball in the Sky. It was a favorite mine upon its release, and it remains a favorite of mine today.
The album is absolutely loaded with amazing musical moments, like this one. It’s my understanding “Elephant Ghost” came to life as an improvisation. When the band tried to replicate what they had done, the vibe was lost. Thus, the original improv made its way to the album. Incredible!
I didn’t love everything Les Claypool did — like his Fancy Band — but I could always find a gem here and there, like “Dee’s Diner.” Even if didn’t always work for me, I respected Claypool for continuing to stretch.
The same could be said for the Duo de Twang. I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to catch Claypool and guitarist Bryan Kehoe, but they certainly had their moments. That’s why their album, Four Foot Shack, sits on my media shelf, and isn’t going anywhere any time soon. And I bet you’ll never think of the BeeGees the same way again.
When I heard Claypool was making a record with Sean Lennon, I had only one question: WHY? And then I heard The Claypool Lennon Delirium’s Monolith of Phobos. My question was answered quickly and rather definitively. It is delightfully quirky music. A music critic once described Primus’s music as “King Crimson meets the banjo player from the movie Deliverance.” Add a layer of psychedelic Beatles to the mix, and you have the CLD. I haven’t played this album nearly enough. I’ll be rectifying that soon.
There aren’t many bass players like Les Claypool. That’s why he remains on my radar. I look forward to everything he does. Regardless of what happens after I press “play,” I know my musical world will never be the same.