There's an ad for the new Primus album, "Tales from the Punchbowl," that sums up the band's appeal perfectly. "If you didn't like Primus before," it reads, "you probably still won't."
Not the most optimistic of ad campaigns, is it? But as Les Claypool, Primus' bass-playing frontman, puts it, "the general reaction to Primus is usually pretty mixed. We're not an easy pill to swallow by any means. It's been that way since 1984, when we started."
How so? The band, which is playing at the HFS-tival tomorrow (see concert information on page 4), is less interested in catchy tunes than it is in good energy and interesting instrumental interplay. Although there are pop elements within the band's sound, they take a back seat to the relationship between Claypool's thumping, percussive bass, Tim "Herb" Alexander's swirling, insistent drums and Larry Lalonde's angular, edgy guitar.
As Claypool admits, it's not exactly mainstream rock 'n' roll. But that's part of the appeal.
"You can't really nail it on the head as to what a Primus fan is like," he says, over the phone from his California home. "I can really only relate it to my tastes. I've always been attracted to things that other people weren't attracted to, whether it was fashion or films or music or whatever. I think we appeal to people who are looking for something that's different from the mainstream."
That's certainly where Claypool's own musical roots are. "As a kid, I was attracted to rock 'n' roll, like every other kid growing up in rural suburbia, but I got into a lot of fusion and jazz. In my early years as a player, I was always searching for the ultimate bass part and bass players. Then I grew kind of bored with that. This was when a lot of the experimental stuff came along -- you know, like Foetus, and Public Image Ltd., and when Crimson had a resurgence in the early '80s. A lot of that stuff was appealing to me.
"But I generally find that I just sit around and listen to whatever strikes my mood. If I'm sitting around my studio here, I've got old R&B; going, or if I'm in the mood for something aggressive, I'll listen to some Nine Inch Nails or Porch or Melvins, or something like that. And if I want to space out and be mellow, it's old Pink Floyd or Beatles, or some weird stuff like the Residents or Tom Waits, something like that."
That range of taste is reflected in Primus' music, which moves easily from lithe, reggae-inflected grooves to semi-industrial, to funky rock, to a sort of demented bluegrass.
It doesn't stem from a conscious effort to be different, Claypool says. "Primus has always been Primus, and we just kind of do what comes naturally," he says. "Or we try to do what comes naturally. We never try to force things upon each other, or whatever."
That's particularly true of the new album, in which most of the material developed out of jams between Claypool and Alexander.
"When we went to do this record, we didn't really have any material written," Claypool says. "We got together and rehearsed a couple times and let a DAT tape play. I spit out a bunch of ideas that I had, and Herb had a couple ideas, and we just jammed on these things. There'd be these tapes of 20-minute jams on a couple of different ideas, or different moods, or whatever.
"We listened to them for a while and then said, 'OK, we've got enough stuff. Let's go into the studio.' We just refined the ideas in the studio. Which basically meant me and Herb sitting there and jamming on them, me coming up with a sort of vocal structure, and then laying them down."
Some of the resultant tunes, such as "Space Farm," are fairly abstract, but others, such as "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver," are subversively tuneful. "That's the tune that everybody wants to push as the single," Claypool says of "Wynona."
"It's the song that we're doing the video for."
Isn't he worried, though, that some people might take the title the wrong way?
"It's a perfectly innocent song. I'm really surprised at how many people have come to me and said, 'Well, what's Winona Ryder going to think about this?' And I was really surprised, because I really didn't think about Winona Ryder. If anything, I thought people would draw a parallel with Wynonna Judd."
Well, it is Wynonna with a "y."
"But the tune itself is about a girl and her pet beaver, and the video is going to emphasize just that. I'm looking at a cel from some animation I'm working on right now of a beaver lying in a bed with a sleeping cap on, and a guy -- who looks a lot like me -- standing over him with a feather, tickling his nose.
"Once the video comes out, there'll be no question what it's about."