Les Claypool Talks Primus, Pink Floyd and the Return of His Fearless Flying Frog Brigade

Check out an exclusive video of the Fearless Flying Frog Brigade performing "Pigs" from Pink Floyd's Animals below

Music Features Les Claypool
Les Claypool Talks Primus, Pink Floyd and the Return of His Fearless Flying Frog Brigade

Les Claypool is a man of many colors. He also has quite a few irons in the fire. The generational bassist, bandleader and singer/songwriter is, undoubtedly, best known for his work at the helm of Primus. But, he’s also been featured in many other acts over the years—including Oysterhead, Duo de Twang, The Claypool Lennon Delirium, Sausage, Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains and, of course, Les Claypool’s Fancy Band.

He is perhaps one of the most unique and original minds of his time; a carpenter turned four-string supreme who James Hetfield claimed was “too good” to play in Metallica. A godfather of thrash-funk, Claypool might just be the most unusual rock god in the history of modern, mainstream music. Pork Soda and Green Naugahyde alone get him etched into that categorization alone. But, Claypool’s attention—at least for the moment—is centered on his side-project the Fearless Flying Frog Brigade.

Originally formed to play the Mountain Air Festival 23 years ago, the Frog Brigade quickly became one of his most adventurous undertakings—spearheaded by his descent into jam-band territory, which has since been punctuated by the Frog Brigade playing Pink Floyd’s Animals in full every show. Claypool’s new vessel proved to be a place where Deadheads, funk connoisseurs and punks could convene together and go nuts over their shared love of the music being performed before them.

Though the last Frog Brigade album—Purple Onion—came out 21 years ago, Claypool recently resurrected the band for the first time in two decades. With Sean Lennon on guitar, Harry Waters on keys, Paulo Baldi on drums, Mike Dillon on percussion and longtime collaborator (and OG Frog Brigade member) Skerik on the saxophone, the Frog Brigade was welcomed back into a new era. I caught up with Claypool at the conclusion of the band’s most recent tour about Primus, the Frog Brigade, finding musicians with the right thumbprints, paying tribute to Rush and, of course, Pink Floyd.

Paste Magazine: You just finished a big tour with the Fearless Flying Frog Brigade. How was that—getting to play together for the first time in 20 years?

Les Claypool: It was fantastic, we had a great time.

PM: You called it a “therapy project” back when you first formed the group. Was it because Primus had stalled for the moment, or because you were able to tap into a new, exciting world, or both?

LC: It was a little bit of everything. Primus had broken up, but we were too chickenshit to say we broke up. We said we were on a hiatus, we didn’t want to burn any bridges. I had two young kids, I had mortgages. It was a time of fear. Here was this thing I had built all these years and it was gone. So, I just loaded up a bunch of my favorite musicians into an old Airstream motorhome I had, and we drove up and down the coast playing bars—and that became the Frog Brigade.

PM: You ushered in a whole new lineup for this installment, too. How’d you come to get Sean Lennon, Harry Waters, Paulo Baldi, Mike Dillon, and Skerik all together this time around?

LC: We’ve been asked for a while to do Frog Brigade by various festivals and whatnot. And, at this point, it just encompasses all of my solo work. I had been working on the [Claypool Lennon Delirium record South of Reality] with Shiner—Sean—and I said, “Hey, you want to come do this thing and then we can play some Delirium jams?” He’s like, “Sure.” Then, of course, Mike Dillon and Skerik were no brainers—I work with them as often as I possibly can. Paulo has been with me for a long time. Then, it was just a matter of the keyboardist, because Jeff Chimenti was playing with the Dead & Company—so that was not going to happen. And we though, “Let’s talk to Harry, because he’s an old friend. He was delighted to do it, and it’s been a spectacular addition.

PM: The thing that intrigues me the most, that I love, is that you’re playing Animals in full—and that was something you’d done over 20 years ago. The Pink Floyd catalog is vast, but what makes Animals the one worth dedicating parts of a setlist to?

LC: Well, it started off back in the days when we were playing those bars. All of a sudden, I was playing with a keyboard, Jeff Chimenti. And I had always said, “If I ever have a keyboardist, I want to play ‘Pigs.'” So, we learned “Pigs.” And then, the notion came about, “Well, hell, we learned ‘Pigs’—why don’t we learn the rest of the record? And then we do two sets and we don’t have to pay an opening band.”

PM: It’s a wicked record. I was just talking with a friend of mine the other day about how it’s three 10+ minute tracks bookended by two, 1:24 songs. There’s something beautifully impressive about how Roger Waters and David Gilmour sequenced that record. I love it, and I’m glad that other people love it just as dearly.

LC: Back in those days, you had albums that were five, six, seven songs long. There weren’t these 20-song CDs back in the day—because it was all you could really fit on vinyl and still have it sound good without stepping into double-vinyl [territory] and whatnot. Even when Primus did the Farewell to Kings record—the Rush record—as a tribute last year, it was six songs. That was the way albums were back then and that was very exciting times, I felt. It was like watching a film, you know? For me with Animals, you had to listen to it all the way through. You couldn’t just listen to part of Animals.

PM: Everyone’s got a Pink Floyd story, how they first got obsessed with them. Where’d the connection spawn for you?

LC: For me, it was Animals—because Animals came out when I was pretty young. I did not have older brothers; I always had friends that had older brothers. So, I was hanging out with their brothers and, of course, you sit there, as a young kid, listening very eagerly to the stories they’re telling—because they’re older and they’re wiser. They’re exciting. I remember one of the guys telling the story about how he had eaten some acid and he was in London and, suddenly, saw the pig above the [Battersea] Power Station and it started melting. It scared the shit out of me to hear the story of this but, yet, it was incredibly compelling. We used to just sit there and look at that album cover and look at the pig above the Power Station. For me, Animals was my first big introduction to Floyd, so it makes sense that that’s the one we ended up doing.

PM: Thinking about that tour you did in tribute to Rush, what’s your relationship with celebrating the artists who came before you—paying homage to their work while holding it in the same space as your own?

LC: With Primus, Rush was such a big part of when we first jammed. The three of us, me and Ler [LaLonde] and Herb [Alexander], when we first jammed, that was our common ground—becayse we all had varied backgrounds. Ler’s favorite guitarists in the world are Jerry Garcia, Frank Zappa and Eddie Van Halen. He came from the metal world, he was in Possessed. And Herb, Mr. Big, Giant Drum Kit, he came from the world of [Bill] Bruford and Neil Peart. And here I was, a guy who listened to all of this eclectic, odd music but, yet, had a bit strong R&B and soul background. So, the one thing that we had common ground on is we all knew little bits and pieces of Rush songs. Then, of course, touring with them years later, becoming good friends with them—it just seemed fitting. We actually did the Tribute to Kings notion before Neil passed. We were trying to do it before Neil passed, but it kept getting postponed because of different touring conflicts. But the notion came about prior to him passing, so it was more just a thing for our friends. And it’s a fun departure for us, it breaks things up for us. Playing Primus songs is wonderful and fun, but it’s always good to put on a different mask and attach someone else’s material to you.

PM: 100%, and the thing about Fearless Flying Frog Brigade that I particularly dig is how it acts as such a separate, unique entity from Primus. What is it about this band and these collaborators that especially made you return to it after two decades?

LC: Well, I had been doing Claypool stuff, we just didn’t call it the Frog Brigade. The Frog Brigade was the original group of guys and it, somewhat, represented the Floyd piece—because we won a Grammy Award, or whatever, for that record. I had just done the long Primus thing, you gotta let something breathe every now and again. Otherwise, it gets stale. So we let Primus sit for a year and the notion was, “Hey, let’s do this thing.” Skerik’s the only one who was in the original Frog Brigade. But [we’ve played stuff] from my whole catalog, as well as the Delirium stuff. The band itself, we were a little nervous—because Skerik didn’t do the last tour, he injured his shoulder. He’s going to be on this next tour and he’s my wide receiver. He’s the guy you hand the ball to and he just runs with it. So, I was a little nervous, because that’s really not what Shiner does and I didn’t know if that’s what Harry did—because I’d really only heard Harry play Floyd stuff. But both of them stepped up incredibly on this last tour, and it was very surprising and incredible to see these guys blossom into the virtuosos that they were on that last tour.

PM: I can imagine getting Skerik back into the fold with everyone else is going to just be an incredible next leap, as well.

LC: I certainly hope so.

PM: I’m always interested in how artists divvy up their creative outputs across projects. Is there something about the potential of the Claypool projects—be it Delirium or the Frog Brigade—that lets you do something that Primus, as a creative vessel, isn’t the proper channel for?

LC: To me, it’s all about working with people who have a unique thumbprint in the way they approach their instrument. To be honest with you, I never wanted to have a sax player. I never wanted to play with a marimba player. I wasn’t looking for that. But these people, Skerik and Mike Dillon, as creative arts, have a very, very unique thumbprint. It was like, “All right, I’m going to work with the tambour of this instrument—whether it’s what I hear in my head or not—just because this person has an amazing output.”

I tend to set the parameters, as far as tuneage, and then just let these guys do their thing. I think it’s exciting for them, because they get to run wild—in a platform that they’re not necessarily accustomed to—on daily basis. I think it’s a good thing, to let creative people be creative and not try and pigeonhole them into your idea. Primus is Primus. Primus is me, Ler and Herb and we all express our things in our own way within that framework. With Frog Brigade, it’s my vision but I let these guys loose and go crazy when the time is right.

PM: Back when you formed the Frog Brigade, had you imaged that it and Primus could co-exist—that you could weave in and out of each one and still find reason to return to the work after time away?

LC: I think, if anything, it’s been a wonderful thing for Primus—because I have friends that are in bands who don’t do side stuff, because management says it hurts the brand and you can’t convolute the brand. And, while it’s all about the brand and, from a business standpoint, it’s probably a terrible thing to do for Primus—because all the songs that I’ve written all these years for other things could have potentially been Primus things and we would have kept building the Primus moniker and the Primus brand. But, for me, I would have gone crazy. I have to go out and scratch these itches that I get for other things so that I can come back and let Primus be Primus and not try to inflict things upon it that really shouldn’t be.

PM: It’s been 21 years since Purple Onion. Is there any desire to get back in the studio and make another full record of new stuff for Frog Brigade?

LC: You know, there wasn’t. But, after this last tour, we all had such an incredible time. There’s talk of putting some live material together. In fact, it’s being worked on right now. But Sean and I are in the middle of a Delirium record, we’re three-quarters of the way through it. I’m working on this project with Billy Strings and we’re starting to write some stuff for Primus. So, who the hell knows? I got a lot of pots on the stove.

Check out an exclusive performance of Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade playing “Pigs” live in Denver, Colorado below.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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