Genre of one
Primus: finding success in the margins for nearly 30 years
Primus might be the weirdest band to ever achieve commercial success in the American music industry. And they are weird. Watch one of their creepily cartoonish music videos or frenzied live shows—in which you’ll find bassist, vocalist and primary songwriter Les Claypool strutting bow-legged around stage, alternatively rambling into the microphone like a drunken hillbilly and shaming every wannabe bassist in attendance—and you’re bound to say something like, “Well, that was odd.”
Excluding a hiatus here and there, Primus has been producing their off-kilter, bass-poppin’ metal-funk since the mid-’80s, all the while maintaining an unlikely international fan base, headlining major festivals and selling out arenas whenever they feel like touring.
And though Primus is, for some, the Les Claypool Show, lurking just outside the spotlight is guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde—a virtuoso musician in his own right, but most notable for being the perfect complement to Claypool on and off the stage.
“We’ve been hanging out for like 20 years,” LaLonde said during a recent phone interview. “Somehow, we don’t get on each other’s nerves. We’ve seen plenty of bands who don’t get along, but I don’t see why you would want to be in a band like that. You’re so lucky to be making music, why turn it into a drag? Plus, we’re lazy and it takes energy to fight.”
LaLonde’s first forays into music were typical for his generation. At 12 years old, he attended a Rush concert.
“I didn’t know what a concert was and a friend of mine said, ‘Hey, we’re going to see Rush,’” LaLonde said. “The next weekend was Van Halen. About two weeks later, I convinced my parents to buy me a guitar.”
About two years later, he walked into a music shop in Berkeley that was advertising guitar lessons. The teacher just happened to be Joe Satriani, who also tutored the likes of Kirk Hammett of Metallica and Steve Vai, among others, and would rise to personal fame as a ridiculously technically proficient instrumental guitarist in the late ’80s.
“Eventually, I tried to teach a couple people and realized how hard it is,” LaLonde said of his appreciation for Satriani. “He’s an amazing teacher. I didn’t realize how lucky I was that day by stumbling across him.”
By the time Claypool recruited him into Primus in ’89 (and after a stint with the seminal death-metal band Possessed), LaLonde had developed world-class chops. And although the musical taste of his band mates—including then-drummer Tim Alexander—varied greatly, they found common ground in their adoration of Rush.
“I’m sure, subconsciously, a lot of times we’ve been influenced by how they’ve managed to make a lot of sound with just three guys,” he said.
As Primus gained popularity following their studio debut, Frizzle Fry, in ’90, they remained a band distanced from the rise and fall of grunge and industrial rock.
“We kind of lucked out,” LaLonde said. “There were a lot of different genres that were big. As stuff like that went away, we stuck around since we weren’t a part of it. When we started doing Primus, I thought it was fun and cool music, but didn’t think it would get very big because it’s so weird.”
The band felt the same way about the pilot for South Park, which creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone sent them in ’96 in hopes the band would record the show’s theme song.
“At the time we were like, there’s no way this is making it on TV, it’s too crazy,” LaLonde said. “They came out to a show in Boulder [Colo.], sent us the pilot and told us they were big fans. It’s one of the songs I’ve focused on most. I wanted it to be the perfect cartoon song.”
Being weird has certainly worked out for Primus. The band currently is touring in support of last summer’s Green Naugahyde, the band’s first album since 1999’s Antipop and the seventh overall. But theirs is the path less traveled, and not one LaLonde would recommend for aspiring musicians.
“There are a handful of bands who told me they were influenced by Primus,” he said. “But if you want to get famous, we’re not a very good band to emulate.”