It’s been nearly five decades since author Roald Dahl brought us into the magical world of Willy Wonka, and four decades since Gene Wilder perfectly captured the wry genius’ imagination on-screen. And while many children’s tales fade into their respective decades, the tale of Charlie Bucket and his Golden Ticket is still far from forgotten. Most publicly, Tim Burton produced a polarizing version in 2005, which Wilder himself called “an insult.” Fiona Apple covered “Pure Imagination” for a Chipotle commercial last year. We hear Willy Wonka’s turned into quite a staple of the World Wide Web. And now, alt-rock legends Primus have shared their own take on this sacred cow.
The album, a 14-track injection of Wonka sweetness, took Les Claypool on a journey through his own young imagination. With the help of his Primus bandmates Larry LaLonde and Tim Alexander, and Mike Dillon and Sam Bass from Claypool’s Fungi Ensemble, the group interpreted Claypool’s take on the timeless tale of Charlie, chocolate and Oompa Loompas. Here, we get Primus’ unmistakable, twisted takes on “Golden Ticket,” “Pure Imagination” and a skin-crawling version of “Candy Man.” “He’s a pusher. He’s pushing chocolate,” Claypool says.
Claypool took some time to talk about Primus and The Chocolate Factory, Wilder’s legacy and whether anyone’s found one of those golden records, which grant winners lifetime tickets to Primus shows.
: Do you remember the first time you saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? How old were you?
Claypool: I don’t remember how old I was, but I was in grammar school. I remember looking up at the screen and seeing all the bits of chocolate going by. The conveyor belts full of kisses. I was sucked in right from that moment. The gold and the brown. All of the imagery just drew me right in.
: What were some of the musical elements that stuck out to you that first time?
Claypool: I remember it all, obviously [laughs]. I have it ingrained into my forehead. You know how it is when you’re a kid. I’ve seen this with my kids. A piece of media like [Willy Wonka] defines a certain portion of your life. You become so enamored with it. I remember my kids watching certain films over and over again. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that ability because I’m an old fellow and there was no VHS back then.
So I remember seeing it in the theater. When it came on TV once a year I’d watch it. Then as I got older, I got the VHS. I was a stoner in my 20s. We’d watch it and trip out on it. Then when my kids came along, I watched them watch it over and over. Then I hadn’t seen it in a long time. Last year, I watched it with my niece and nephew. It’s one of those things like The Wizard of Oz that’s just timeless.
: What was it like to take on this piece of art that you first discovered as a child?
Claypool: I took it on with the perspective of not necessarily trying to tell the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as much as tell the story or give the perspective of what it was like being a young fellow in the ‘70s being exposed to the film. It opened the gates for me to read the books [by Dahl]. It’s pretty dark and sinister, his stuff can be pretty creepy. When we did talk about doing this project, we had these visuals behind us. I was actually going to film a sequence of an older fellow telling the story of experiencing this stuff for the first time, but it didn’t really come together. It just ended up being the music with all the visuals. That’s why what you have from us is this sort of dark, creepy interpretation of what I saw in my youth.
: Culturally, what else were you absorbing when you first saw Wonka?
Claypool: Culturally, I was probably very unaware of much of anything except for this amazing entity that was the world of Wonka Chocolate. It was my first major exposure to Gene Wilder. After [Wonka], I saw Young Frankenstein. He was one of the big-shot guys in the ‘70s. So, seeing him in The Producers and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex—he does an amazing sequence in there. It opened the Gene Wilder door pretty wide, and I was enamored. I saw the film, read the books, saved all the box tops from Cap’n Crunch, got the Willy Wonka chocolate kit where you melted down chocolate chips into these little molds that looked like Oompa Loompas. It was one of those things. That was my world until Jaws came out and I started drawing sharks all over my notebooks.
: Both you and Fiona Apple have mentioned Gene Wilder’s approval when it comes to covering Wonka songs. What is it about him that commands this kind of universal respect?
Claypool: I could say that this is a response to the latter attempt at the film [Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005] and hearing Gene’s response to it. He was pretty violently opposed to it [laughs]. I think when you take on a sacred cow, you’re going to step on people’s toes. It’s just going to happen. That’s why it’s a sacred cow. There are people who are going to listen to this who are going to say “What the fuck are these guys thinking? How dare they?” And then there will be people who say “Look, this is kinda cool.” To be honest with you, that’s been the history of my career. I’ve always been treading on someone’s corns and stroking someone else’s balls, y’know? [laughs] Some people are thrilled, some are repulsed. That’s just the way it is.
But yeah, it’d be nice to have the approval of the wonderful Mr. Wilder, but if I don’t have it, I don’t have it. It was like when Winona Ryder confronted me about the damn beaver song. It wasn’t about her, it wasn’t even spelled the same way as her. But she still confronted me about that…Y’know, people get these things in their heads. That’s just how it is.
: You mentioned that the band wanted to take on a “sacred cow”-type project. Was there anything else Primus was exploring before picking the Chocolate Factory theme?
Claypool: There’s a biography that just came out about us [Primus, Over the Electric Grapevine: Insight into Primus and the World of Les Claypool]. I hint around about this project in the book without tipping my cards, because it wasn’t really etched in stone yet. But as we were coming to the end of the Primus cycle, all of a sudden [Jay Lane] left and Tim Alexander was back in. We were excited to do more Primus again, because I was going to go off and do my own thing. And chances are I would have gone off and done this with my own band. I had been missing my guys. So I decided to take on this sacred cow thing. One of the notions was to do Magical Mystery Tour, but I’m glad we didn’t because Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips guys did Sgt. Pepper’s, so that would have been a bummer to be dancing in the same minefield. So I said, let’s take on this sacred cow thing and let’s bring in Mike Dillon and Sam Bass and let’s combine these elements. I hint around about that in the book. But it’s coming to fruition here. It’s sticking to people, which is surprising to me.
At what point did you realize you needed to expand beyond the Primus trio for Primus and the Chocolate Factory?
Claypool: I knew from the beginning. I knew I didn’t want to take it on as just the trio. “Candy Man” was the first thing. I had this voice, [mimes his recorded voice] “The Cannndy Man,” y’know, he was kind of like the pusher man. I was hearing these other elements. The vibes and the marimba. So I decided to bring in the guys from my fungi band. I write a lot of string parts, so we brought in a cello. I write a lot of string parts. In fact, I’d say about 50 percent of the stuff on the record is stuff that I wrote or played. So that translates easy for cello. I play it on the record and I bring in a cellist and they can play it. Sam, he does the stuff that sounds pretty on the record. Me, I did the stuff that sounds like the guy is drunk and playing with his left hand.
: Has anyone found a golden record yet? Do you know where any of them are?
Claypool: As far as I know, there are still five out there. They’re out there somewhere. I’m kept in the dark because they don’t want me going out and keeping them.