For those of us who remember the dawn of Primus—the freakishly askew funk/rock/experimental power trio that first brought rubber-limbed bass virtuoso Les Claypool into the public eye—nothing seemed quite so unlikely as the prospect of this loopy little band and its delightfully demented svengali becoming fixtures in pop culture. Decidedly odd fixtures, no doubt, occupying a singularly strange niche. But fixtures, no less.
Now a solo artist, collaborator/bandleader supreme, novelist, and filmmaker, Claypool is a veritable cultural cottage industry unto himself. In addition to Primus, which went on to become an MTV regular and a headline favorite on the '90s festival circuit, Claypool has collaborated with the likes of Tom Waits, former Police drummer Stewart Copeland, and Phish frontman Trey Anastasio; recorded theme songs for video games and cartoons (most notably, the theme for South Park); and become a staple at Bonnaroo, where he has appeared both under his own name and with side projects like Oysterhead, a trio featuring the aforementioned Copeland and Anastasio.
Claypool, however, refuses to acknowledge his own iconic status. Or maybe he just doesn't care. "You had me until you said the word ‘pop culture,'" he says with one of his characteristically affable chuckles. He's speaking by phone in advance of his upcoming show in Knoxville, part of a tour in support of his recent solo studio album Of Fungi and Foe.
"I think my status in what I would call ‘pop culture' is practically non-existent," he says. "They don't talk about me in Rolling Stone or Spin or on MTV now. I just don't exist in that realm. I'm very fortunate to have this cultish following. I'm like herpes. Once you think I've gone away I come back. I understand that element just from the perseverance and tenacity of just going out there and playing. But I don't think I've ever had much of a profile in the pop world."
But he admits the Claypool name carries far more cachet than he would ever have suspected back in the days when Primus was blurting out weird little indie-metal platters like Frizzle Fry and Suck on This.
"I remember when I first met Skerik, who's this amazing saxophone player, the Adrian Belew of saxophone," Claypool remembers. "He told me that when he first saw Primus on MTV, he was like, ‘Oh my god. I can't believe it. One of us got in there. One of the patients got in the operating room.' We just kind of slipped through the cracks, and we got this little flash in a world that we never expected to get into. That was the extra cherry on the cupcake for us."
Claypool's latest project, Of Fungi and Foe, is an assemblage of soundtrack music he has recorded, some of it for the Wii video game Mushroom Men—an interactive game involving a meteor that hits Earth and brings intelligence to mushrooms growing near the crash site. The rest is for the 2008 indie film Pig Hunt, about a 3,000-lb. wild boar run amok in the marijuana fields of Northern California, and in which Claypool has a small role.
The tour will focus on material from Foe, the bulk of which is oriented more toward showcasing Claypool's trademark vocal goofing and bent storytelling, with less of the almost prog-ish instrumental virtuosity that characterizes so much of his work. But the setlist will also include songs from across the spectrum of his sprawling oeuvre, including his previous solo record, Colonel Claypool's Bucket of Bernie Brains (his collaboration with guitarist Buckethead and P-Funk keyboard alum Bernie Worrell), and even a Primus song or two.
"The setlist is different every night," Claypool says. "I have a pretty huge list of tunes to draw from, and it runs the gamut. It all depends on how the evening is going."
For Claypool, the true measure of his accomplishment is the fact that he has worked with so many stellar, stylistically peerless musicians, personal heroes who became collaborators and friends.
"That's one thing I've always prided myself on and somewhat how I gauged my success," he says. "Being in a band with Stewart Copeland and have him become one of my best friends, that's a pretty amazing thing. Playing on Tom Waits records, that's a phenomenal thing. Being in a band with Bernie Worrell, who is probably the most amazing musician I've ever played with, a guy like that who has so much of his life experience coming out through his hands, it's a phenomenal thing. You just do no get that from a person who hasn't experienced that much life, no matter how technically proficient."
Claypool's newest love is filmmaking. In 2006 he directed Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo, a Spinal Tap-esque send-up of the jam-band scene. Now he has ambitions to produce a film version of his '06 debut novel South of the Pumphouse, a gonzo tale of drugs, murder, and fishing.
"I love film, but making a film is such an undertaking, because it involves so many other people and so much of other people's money," he says, laughing again. "I love the medium. My heroes are guys like Frank Capra and Elia Kazan, and Terry Gilliam and guys like that, but it's a very difficult medium to work in. It's so much easier to go in my back yard, walk in my room full of gear, and just make another record."