Primus is a San Francisco-based band formed in the mid-1980s by two ex-members of thrash metal band Blind Illusion: Les Claypool and Larry LaLonde. Les (vocals and bass guitar) has been the only constant member. They have had two guitar players (although Larry has held onto the role for the past 20 years) and many different drummers (although Tim Alexander, Bryan Mantia and Jay Lane were the only ones who recorded with the band) in the past.
Their music has proven difficult to define; while usually considered by critics to be funk metal or alternative metal, Primus has been called everything from "thrash funk" (as the band blends funk-style bass technique with thrash influenced guitar riffs and songs tempos), to "alternative rock" to "the Freak Brothers set to music." Les Claypool himself once described their music as "psychedelic polka." Thanks to the diversity of their sound they have been able to gain fans from nearly all rock subgenres. Primus is the only band to have their own ID3 genre tag in Winamp. They are characterized by their irreverent approach to music — they release their records on Claypool's Prawn Song Records label, a parody of Led Zeppelin's Swan Song, and their catchphrase was, for several years, "Primus Sucks!". In 2003 the band dropped that catchphrase, as well as Tim Alexander's nickname "Herb".
Early Days (1984–1991)
Primus began as Primate in the mid-1980s with Claypool and guitarist Todd Huth. Drummer Peter Libby was added in later, although the band would go through many other drummers throughout their early history. They formed in El Sobrante, California, United States. After rising to local music scene stardom with their brand of funk/metal fusion, Huth and current drummer Jay Lane left in 1989 to pursue other projects. Claypool recruited death metal guitarist and one time Joe Satriani student Larry LaLonde (usually referred to as "Ler" later) and eclectic drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander. Primus gained even greater popularity and soon released their first album, Suck on This, a live recording culled from two of their Berkeley concerts. The album was financed by Les' father.
In their early days, Primus were heavily associated with the Bay Area Thrash scene. Opening for bands such as Testament and Exodus they picked up a following of fans who were involved in the scene as a result. Today, Primus is one of few "alt-metal" bands commonly enjoyed by "true metal" fans, perhaps as a result of this.
It is an infamous fact that after the death of their bassist Cliff Burton in 1986, Metallica strongly considered Les Claypool (a close friend of the band) to be Cliff's replacement. After much deliberation, James Hetfield decided that Claypool was "too funky for Metallica", and Jason Newsted was chosen instead. The rest, for both Metallica and Primus, is history.
Primus played a number of early shows at Barrington Hall, a notoriously free-wheeling Berkeley student housing co-operative. Barrington Hall is often referenced in the band's music: the song "Frizzle Fry" refers to a Barrington party, and the album Tales from the Punchbowl refers to the LSD-spiked punch that was frequently served at Barrington social events.
In 1990 the band released their first studio album, Frizzle Fry also on Prawn Song and released singles for "John the Fisherman" and "Too Many Puppies." With a music video — featuring Kirk Hammett — a studio album, and a tour with Jane's Addiction, Primus's popularity grew to the point where they attracted attention from Interscope Records, who signed them in 1990.
Peak Years (1991–1996)
Primus' major label debut was Sailing the Seas of Cheese supported by singles "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver," and "Tommy the Cat (featuring Tom Waits)," which both appeared on MTV (a third single "Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers" was also released but did not feature a video). The band also appeared in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey and made music for Beavis & Butthead. With a major label behind them, Sailing the Seas of Cheese went gold and the band toured in support of Rush, U2, Anthrax, and Public Enemy. Today, Sailing the Seas of Cheese is considered an alternative rock classic by many critics.
After the release of Sailing the Seas of Cheese, in 1992 Primus released a cover song EP Miscellaneous Debris, with their version of XTC's "Making Plans for Nigel" managing to break airwaves.
In 1993, Primus released Pork Soda, which managed to debut at #7 on the Billboard Top 10. The album was darker than previous Primus efforts, dealing with murder, suicide, and alienation. The band has commented that prior to recording, they had been touring for nearly two solid years and were thus in a somber mood. "My Name Is Mud", "DMV", and "Mr. Krinkle" were hits, the latter inspiring a video featuring Claypool in a pig suit and tuxedo playing upright bass in an abandoned warehouse as a carnival of oddities parades behind him, including Claypool's wife and her twin sister. The band reportedly put their heart and soul into the video, but it received next to no airtime on MTV.
Pork Soda also carries the distinction of being the first full length album recorded at Claypool's house. The band would subsequently record all of their albums in his home studio.
In 1993, Primus headlined the alternative rock festival Lollapalooza. They also made an appearance at the Woodstock '94 Music Festival where they performed "My Name is Mud" with predictable results (Claypool claims to still have mud in his speakers). It was clear that Primus-mania was growing, and the band was churning out material frequently. In the previous four years they had released three albums, an EP, six music videos, and a home video. To top that all off, they toured with Rush, who they consider to be one of their biggest influences.
During a lull in 1994, the original Primus lineup consisting of Claypool, Huth, and Lane reunited to record Riddles are Abound Tonight under the band name Sausage. Among the pre-Primus songs they recorded were "Temporary Phase", "Prelude to Fear", and "Shattering Song." The video to "Riddles Are Abound Tonight" featured the band in blue leotards performing on stationary bicycles.
In 1995, Primus released their fifth album, Tales from the Punchbowl. It was very well received and contained Primus's most successful single to date, the Grammy-nominated "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver." The ubiquitous song was accompanied by an equally ubiquitous video with the band members dressed up in cartoonish plastic cowboy costume (similar to the suits worn in the then current Duracell battery commercials). So great was their popularity that the band was invited to perform on David Letterman and Conan O'Brien's shows. Two other less successful singles, "Mrs. Blaileen" and "Southbound Pachyderm" (the latter of which featured a claymation video that apparently only got played on MTV a small number of times) were also released.
Many falsely believed "Wynona" was about actress Winona Ryder. Claypool has acknowledged several times that the song is not about Ryder, indicating that the song's name is spelled and pronounced differently. While this placated Ryder, her then boyfriend Soul Asylum vocalist David Pirner took offense and renamed one of his songs "Les Claypool's a Big Fucking Asshole" in concert. Claypool was apparently not even aware of this at the time, although this did cause tension between fans of Primus and Soul Asylum for a brief period.
Mantia Era & Hiatus (1997–2002)
Disturbed by their sudden fame, Primus gradually began to disown "Wynona." It would not be long before Claypool stated that they would stop playing it altogether. Nonetheless, Alexander left the band in 1996 due to creative differences. Rumored replacements for Alexander included Mike Bordin of Faith No More, but in the end he was replaced by Bryan "Brain" Mantia of Limbomaniacs and Praxis. Mantia was one of the many drummers Claypool auditioned for the original line-up of Primus before settling with Alexander — Mantia bowed out beforehand due to a foot injury.
With Mantia aboard, Primus was asked in 1997 to compose the theme song to South Park after the show's creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone professed to be big fans. (Les Claypool was an early supporter of their Spirit of Christmas video postcard/demo.) Primus also contributed to the South Park "Chef Aid" album with the song "Mephisto and Kevin", telling the story of Gopherboy. By this time, bands that were influenced by Primus's bottom-heavy rock — such as Tool, Korn, and Limp Bizkit— were starting to gain a growing audience in the alternative metal genre which Primus had helped to promote.
1997's Brown Album was a departure from previous Primus leaving the majority of fans disappointed. Critically, it was Primus's least successful album, having received, for the most part, adverse reviews. Commercially it did not do as well as previous efforts. Both singles "Shake Hands With Beef" and "Over the Falls" flopped. The band would later distance itself from the album. Claypool would go so far as to comment in concert, "does anyone want to hear anything from the Brown Album? Me neither."
Antipop was released in 1999, and was the first album to feature heavy input from outside musicians and producers. The album was seen as a 'return to form' by most long term Primus fans, featuring harder edge song-writing fans had been craving as well as greatly improved production over the previous album. The band toured with Ozzfest and released a video for "Lacquerhead" that was banned from MTV because of its drug content, even though it was an anti-drug song.
In 2000, Primus performed a cover of the Black Sabbath classic "N.I.B." with Ozzy Osbourne on vocals. This track appeared originally on the album "Nativity in Black, Vol. 2: A Tribute to Black Sabbath". The single hit number 2 on the Billboard Modern Rock tracks, the band's highest charting single in nearly a decade. The track would later be released on Ozzy's Prince of Darkness box-set in 2005.
After touring to promote Antipop throughout 2000, citing studio mismanagement and general dissatisfaction, Primus went on indefinite hiatus in 2001.
During the hiatus, Alexander released two albums with the band Laundry and performed with Blue Man Group, A Perfect Circle, and Born Naked, among others. Claypool explored the jam band scene with Oysterhead (featuring his friend Trey Anastasio of Phish as well as Stewart Copeland) and his own Colonel Les Claypool's Fearless Flying Frog Brigade. He also collaborated with Mantia in Colonel Claypool's Bucket of Bernie Brains. LaLonde joined Mantia to produce two experimental No Forcefield records, and tried unsuccessfully to start a recording studio.
Reformation with Tim Alexander (2003–2009)
In late 2003, Claypool reunited with LaLonde and, in a surprise move, Tim Alexander to record a DVD/EP called Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People, which Claypool described as the first DVD with supplementary music, as opposed to the contrary. The band staged a two month tour in which they performed two sets per show, the second consisting of their 1991 release Sailing the Seas of Cheese in its entirety. 2004 saw them continue touring, and even performing their 1990 release Frizzle Fry in its entirety. For these two tours, the band sold recordings directly recorded from the sound-board online, following an example of other bands such as Phish. The performance in Chicago was video taped as well, and was released on the 'Hallucino-Genetics' Live DVD. The band's style as of their last EP was based on the jam band style with extended soloing from band members and less focus on lyrics. This follows the musical evolution of Les Claypool's work during the Primus hiatus, it is unknown whether this style was simply temporary or if the band has permanently switched over to it.
On July 19, 2005, it was announced that Primus was going to release a new full-length album by the spring of 2006 with an international tour following shortly thereafter. The release would have been the first full-length Primus album since 1999's Antipop and the first full-length album with Alexander on drums since 1995's Tales From the Punchbowl. Later that year, the band performed at Lollapalooza in July and Vegoose in October while still spending time recording new songs.
As spring of 2006 came and went, Primus' reported new album did not materialize. Primus performed at the 1st Annual Hedgpeth Festival in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin that year in July. October 17th saw the release of the band's first ever greatest hits compilation album They Can't All Be Zingers on Interscope Records as well as a DVD released on Prawn Song Records called Blame It on the Fish: An Abstract Look at the 2003 Primus Tour De Fromage. The DVD contained live footage from the band's 2003 reunion tour, interview segments, behind the scenes footage, and other assorted material including a 30 minute mockumentary about the band in the year 2065. Blame It on the Fish was directed by Matthew J. Powers.
In November 2006, the band commenced the month-long Primus: The Beat a Dead Horse Tour 2006. During the tour, Primus began performing "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" for the first time in 7 years. The music video game Guitar Hero 2 for the Playstation 2 was also released in November and featured the Primus song "John the Fisherman."
In 2008, Primus continued their post-hiatus trend of performing at large outdoor festivals when they played the Rothbury Music Festival over the July 4th weekend in Rothbury, Michigan and the Outside Lands Festival during late-August in San Fransisco, California. The band's first studio album Frizzle Fry (along with some of Claypool's solo albums) was re-released on vinyl on November 24, 2009.
Green Naugahyde (2010–2013)
On March 18, 2010, it was announced by Phil Lesh on his official message board that former Primus drummer Jay Lane would be leaving his previous band Furthur to rejoin Primus. This new incarnation of the band features Jay Lane, Larry LaLonde and Les Claypool. On May 3, 2010, Primus announced a new tour with opening acts Gogol Bordello and Wolfmother. On August 5, 2010, the band released a free EP on their website simply entitled "June 2010 Rehearsal" which contains a rehearsal of four songs: "Pudding Time", "American Life", "Duchess and the Proverbial Mind Spread" and "Harold of the Rocks".
Primus released their seventh studio album on September 13, 2011, titled Green Naugahyde, on ATO Records and Claypool's Prawn Song record label. Green Naugahyde is notable for being the only Primus album to feature Jay Lane on drums, as Lane left the band before the recording of Primus' first studio album, Frizzle Fry. Three music videos were released to promote Green Naugahyde: "Tragedy's A' Comin'", ""Lee Van Cleef", and "Jilly's on Smack".
In the fall of 2012, the band went on tour with the "first ever" 3D-enhanced live musical performance. Each show featured Quad Surround Sound and 3D visuals.
Return of Tim Alexander, Over the Electric Grapevine book, and Primus & The Chocolate Factory (2013–present)
In September 2013, Les revealed that Jay Lane had departed Primus to focus on RatDog with Bob Weir, and that previous drummer Tim Alexander had rejoined Primus in his place.
The first official Primus show with Tim Alexander back on drums was New Year's Eve 2013 at The Fox Theater in Oakland. The band performed their first set in front of the iconic Suck On This backdrop, the very same one seen in the "Too Many Puppies" music video. For their second set, Primus (joined by saxophonist Skerik and percussionist Mike Dillon) performed the soundtrack from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory in its entirety. Primus later announced that a studio recording of the soundtrack, titled Primus & The Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble, would be released on October 21, 2014.
The same year, a book written by author Greg Prato in affiliation with Primus, Primus, Over the Electric Grapevine: Insight into Primus and the World of Les Claypool, was released via Akashic Books on September 16, 2014. The book chronicled the band's entire career (as well as all Les Claypool-related projects) and featured all-new interviews with band members past and present, as well as Geddy Lee, Tom Waits, Tom Morello, Kirk Hammett, Stewart Copeland, Trey Anastasio, and Matt Stone, among many others.
Since reuniting in 2003, the band members have balanced their Primus duties with a number of various other projects. Les Claypool has toured and recorded with his "Fancy" band. They have released two full-length albums, Of Whales and Woes (2006) and Of Fungi and Foe (2009), as well as a live DVD, Fancy (2007). Claypool's latest musical project is Les Claypool's Duo De Twang, a country/bluegrass-inspired project consisting of Les and M.I.R.V. guitarist Bryan Kehoe, who is also Claypool's friend since high school. Claypool has described the duo as "my fuck-off vacation band."
Claypool has also tried his hand at cinema, writing and directing the jam band spoof Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo (2006), and playing the role of a preacher in James Isaac's indie horror film Pig Hunt (2008). He also published his first novel, South of the Pumphouse (2006), and even started his own wine company, Claypool Cellars.
Tim Alexander released This Is a Dream, the debut album from his project Fata Morgana which was written, produced, and almost entirely performed by Alexander. He also released the debut album for Into the Presence which feature songs by Luis Carlos Maldonado. As of 2010, Alexander is actively involved as a member of Maynard James Keenan's Puscifer project. He has toured with them and can be heard on their most recent recordings.
Larry LaLonde joined the touring band for System of a Down vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Serj Tankian in 2007 in support of Serj's debut solo album, Elect the Dead, which also subsequently features several appearances by former Primus drummer Bryan "Brain" Mantia.
Jay Lane has been a member of the jazz band Charlie Hunter Trio, appearing on the trio's self-titled album, which was released on Les Claypool's Prawn Song record label, and on Bing, Bing, Bing!, which was released on Blue Note. In 2009 and 2010, he toured with the post-Dead supergroup, Furthur, playing alongside of Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Joe Russo, John Kadlecik and Jeff Chimenti.