Of onions and frogs
Bassist Les Claypool talks about his new Frog Brigade
Les Claypool is feeling a bit under the weather. His assistant called to say as much. But she also insists that this is important to Les and wonders if he could do the interview later in the day should he be feeling any better. It’s around 3 p.m. when Claypool calls again. He’s still sick, but at least he’s in the comfort of his own home, propped up in bed slurping chicken soup.
Claypool is many things, a stand-up guy being one of them (most folks would have blown off an interview if they were sick, but not Les). As the founder, front man and bassist of Primus, Claypool led his band on an 11-year reign of creative mayhem that saw them crack the MTV popularity code, get nominated for a Grammy, and show the world that a quirky band from Northern California could win the hearts and minds of millions. Thanks to a brilliantly brash mixture of metal, funk, prog rock and cartoon-character-influenced hubris, Primus was able to defy easy categorization and reinvent the concept of modern rock on its own terms. Though the band went on indefinite hiatus in 2000, Claypool has remained anything but static.
In the past two years he’s formed no fewer than two supergroups, Oysterhead with Stewart Copeland (of The Police) and Trey Anastasio (of Phish) and Colonel Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade, featuring Skerik on sax, eenore on guitar, plus a rotating cast of other musicians. Last year the Brigade released not one, but two well-received live recordings. This time around, however, Claypool decided to enter the studio and whip up a proper Frog Brigade album. Dubiously titled Purple Onion, the album is filled with original compositions that ring with the familiar quirky wit and insanely intricate musicianship that have made Claypool a household sonic cult figure.
“The Frog Brigade has always sort of been this rotating cast of characters,” explains Claypool. “There’s a couple of main guys that have stuck it out for the most part, mainly Skerik and eenore, but it seems like every time we go out on tour we have a different drummer. Mike Dillon [percussion] is a new addition to the project. Even the record has four different drummers on it and some sitar and some strings … Some songs don’t have any guitar or saxophone on them. So it wasn’t as defined by the musicians of a band. The parameters for instrumentation were much wider.”
While the parameters of music may have been wider, the loveable quirkiness that has been the benchmark of Claypool’s musical output over the years is still very much intact. “I have, since the beginning, tended to convey my thoughts through other characters,” says Claypool of his penchant for creating sonic alter egos on his albums. “For me it’s easier, when I sing a song, or whatever the hell I’m doing, to step into that [other] character.”
Claypool’s role playing once again comes to the forefront on Purple Onion, especially on tunes like “David Makalaster” and “David Makalaster II.” “It’s my voice, but it’s that character, you know what I mean?” he explains. “Part I is sort of a metaphor for the way we all were in the U.S. for many years prior to September 11th, very apathetic and just cruising through life. That’s what Makalaster represents. In ‘Makalaster II,’ it’s post-September 11th, where the chorus is not ’Empathy’s back in style,’ it’s ‘Vengeance is back in style.'”
Contrasting characters. That’s been an integral part of Claypool’s appeal through his numerous projects, whether it was Primus, Sausage, Holy Mackerel, Oysterhead or now with The Frog Brigade. And it is that contrast, combined with his quirky charm and intense musicianship, that makes him a mesmerizing performer. He is indeed the "colonel" leading a merry brigade of frogs into uncharted realms of "soniference."