Last time Les Claypool rolled into Wilmington was with Primus in May 2014. I ran into a neighbor at the show who had come with his wife and young son (who was probably 6 at the time). I asked Rich how everyone was enjoying the show and he laughed. “Yeah, Heidi had to take Justin home,” he said. “The space guys scared him.”
Primus had giant spacesuit displays on either side of GLA’s stage, with ongoing projections of live-action faces. It’s an intentional aesthetic Claypool has built as an artist, with avant-garde production and theatrical songwriting and performance across all of his musical collaborations in and out of Primus. The famed bassist has shared his talents in Oysterhead, with Trey Anastasio (Phish) and Stewart Copeland (The Police); and The Frog Brigade, whose 2002 “Purple Onion” features guests like Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule), Mike Dillon and Skerik (both of Critters Buggin).
Claypool’s latest project comes with the help of Sean Lennon as The Claypool Lennon Delirium. It also comprises Mark “Money Mark” Ramos Nishita of the Beastie Boys (keyboards) and Paul Baldi of the Fungi Band (drums). The band’s first record, “Monolith of Phobos,” will be released on June 3, just days before their summer tour brings the Delirium to Greenfield Lake on June 9.
“The difference between [Delirium] and Primus is Primus has a bigger budget,” Claypool quips of the upcoming tour. “Obviously we don’t want to go out and do the same type of stuff as Primus, but [‘Monolith of Phobos’] is very visually motivating, I guess. Musically and lyrically, it conjures up interesting visual in one’s mind. We have some things that will hopefully enhance some of that.”
Claypool admits he doesn’t keep up with new music on the scene—save for deep tracks of obscure older music, which are new in sense—and has never really listened to the radio. Yet, he became a fan of Lennon’s band The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger (The GOASTT) after they opened for him on tour. “A lot of times I get turned onto new bands by playing with them,” Claypool laughs.
Lennon was no exception.
After some impromptu backstage jams and a live sit-in on Primus’ “Southbound Pachyderm” in 2015, Claypool approached Lennon about working together. Claypool says he binged on all of The GOASTT’s work and grew fond of Lennon’s methods in music.
“He has a beauty to the way he approaches things,” he explains. “Because he can sing, he does know how to layer vocals and stuff. I don’t—I’m the Primus guy, I don’t know how to do that shit. So, I thought it would be an interesting contrast—sort of what [David] Gilmour did with Roger Waters. Waters has this nasally approach and Gilmour has this really breathy, beautiful voice.”
Claypool’s favorite metaphor for working with someone new is approaching it like a conversation: People have varying viewpoints—some similar, some not. Yet, people yield different conversations, jokes, punchlines, and dynamics, depending on with whom they speak.
“Working with Sean was very different than anyone I had worked with,” Claypool admits. “So, it makes you approach the conversation a little bit differently [or] get out your general comfort zone—or a different comfort zone.”
As he and Lennon worked on “Monolith of Phobos” over the course of six weeks, each writing and singing their own contributions, Claypool found it was a true cooperative. They each balanced the other’s expertise.
“I’d come in with something generally rhythmical and Sean would make it more chordal,” Claypool explains, “which is generally something I do not do. Or he’d bring in something chordal and I’d make it more rhythmical. We really had a great working relationship. We wrote these songs fairly quickly, and we’re happy with all the stuff we came up with.”
It was during a recent Rolling Stone interview that Claypool says Lennon came to the realization they’re album continuously had themes running through it on substance abuse—an interesting dichotomy to the psychedelic rock tapestry of the album. Two songs, “Oxycontin Girl” and “Cricket and the Genie,” make it clear that Big Pharma is a prevalent societal problem.
“I don’t think we necessarily chose those topics to target as much as they became topics of conversation as we were writing the record, so they became fodder for tunes,” Claypool says. “We sort of came to that realization as we were having that conversation [with Rolling Stone].”
Claypool wrote “Oxycontin Girl” because he has friends who are ex-junkies. The girl in the song pops Oxies rather than shoots up (“She’s an Oxycontin girl/in a heroin world/when she ran out of pills/she scored on the street/and now it’s turning her blue”).
“I developed this character to provide commentary,” he tells. “That being said, I’ve always talked to my kids about the notion of moderation—whether it’s coffee or sugar or dabbling in various things that alter your perspective.”
Lennon questions hypocrisy in “Cricket and the Genie” about pharmaceutical abuse in the U.S. as a less vilified and socially acceptable approach to drug abuse, though they’re not technically illegal drugs. “[Sean’s] point is [they’re] pushed upon us and have been doled out to us [for decades],” Claypool says. “It’s not anything new. Hell, people back in the old days took diet pills and it was basically speed. . . . My aunt used to take ‘nerve pills’ and she was popping a Valium. So what’s the difference between that and when my friends would steal them from their parents and we’d pop ‘em during lunchtime?”
Despite how fast the songs and album came together, there was little need for reworking or tweaking tracks as a whole. It’s no fun to belabor, according to Claypool. Yet, while in the studio Lennon and Claypool did see room for improvement on “Oxycontin Girl” and “Ohmerica.” Lennon thought “Oxycontin Girl” was a little dark and Claypool thought “Ohmerica” started off as a little bit of a rant.
“I ran through a couple of things to help soften those edges,” he tells, “or put the iron fist into more of a fluffy velvet glove. We did that with a lot of songs, but those were the two we massaged a little more than the others.”
Claypool calls Lennon “Encyclopedia Brown,” meaning he’s always good for nuggets of information about something somewhere. It’s how the album’s title came to be, actually.
“One day he started talking about this monolith on Phobos,” Claypool tells. The space-like title track is a dreamy, whimsical result of watching an old C-SPAN video that featured Buzz Aldrin talking about a monolith on Phobos with a tiny moon revolving around Mars.
“We watched it and we laughed, and it just kind of stuck,” Claypool continues. “I wrote more about Buzz than the actual monolith.”
As part of their tour, the Claypool Lennon Delirium have a stopover at Bonnaroo 2016 two days after their Wilmington show. Claypool has been playing the festival on and off since its inception—with a two-volume live album from Bonnaroo 2002.
“I have a kinship with Bonnaroo,” he says. “It’s a great festival and they tend to give folks an all-around experience. It’s been replicated now many times over. . . . It’ll be interesting to go back.” (Read more about Bonnaroo 2016 on pg. 10.)
While Claypool currently has “a lot of pots on the stove,” he’s hesitant to divulge any ideas he’s working on until they come to pass. “It’s one of the only things I’m superstitious about,” he says. “I don’t like to talk about things before they come to fruition because I think it jinxes it—which is an odd thing for me to say because I never thought I would be that person, but I’ve sort of become that person. There’s a lot of things I didn’t think I’d become.”