In the nearly three decades since he emerged as the bass-playing madman behind Primus, Les Claypool has proven himself to be something of an alt-rock renaissance man. Besides leading Primus and a variety of side projects and solo bands, the bassist wrote and directed the jam-band mockumentary Electric Apricot: Quest For Festeroo, wrote a novel, produced theme music for popular animated shows (South Park and Robot Chicken), and started his own wine venture, Claypool Cellars.
The bassist's latest band, Duo De Twang, debuted at the 2012 edition of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Teaming with '90s thrash-funk contemporary Marc "Mirv" Haggard (who played in Limbomaniacs as well as his own eponymous outfit M.I.R.V.) on slide guitar and dobro, the pair recast some old Primus classics in a country-blues acoustic mode as well as covering tunes by Canadian folk legend Stompin' Tom Connors and Johnny Cash. While the guitarist eventually bowed out of the duo, his talented M.I.R.V. partner Bryan Kehoe stepped in to record the project's first album, Four Foot Shack, and take the group on the road. Claypool spoke with All Shook Down ahead of the band's show at Great American Music Hall this Saturday, June 7, discussing the genesis of Duo De Twang and the recording of the new Primus album.
I saw the first Duo du Twang performance with Mirv on guitar at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2012. Did Bryan Kehoe step in because Mirv just wasn't available to commit to a full album and tour?
Well, Mirv would have loved to have done it, but unfortunately had to get a real job because he's got a family and a mortgage and all these things. He just couldn't go on the road, so it didn't make any sense to make a record with him if he couldn't do the roadwork. Whereas Kehoe has a day job, but it's in the music industry so they're pretty flexible about him going out on the road. He's able to do his job from the road. In fact, I think it helps some of the stuff he does for his company as well. As soon as Mirv couldn't do it, the first person I thought of was Kehoe. I had a couple of people I was thinking of, but he was definitely right at the top of the list.
Four Foot Shack is an interesting overview of songs from throughout your career. How did you decide on which of your tunes to remake for the album and which cover songs to record?
It was pretty simple. It started off doing that Hardly Strictly Bluegrass thing. Throwing a set together for that was taking the songs that were obvious and easy to do. Something like "Jerry Was a Racecar Driver" just has that cadence. It's almost like a Charlie Daniels song. And "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" was originally written like it appears on the Twang record. When we were making the [Tales From the] Punchbowl record many years ago, it was just going to be a little filler song like "De Anza Jig" and some of the other songs that appear on Primus records. And the lyrics just happened to fit very well with that bass part that became the "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" that most people know.
So some of them were obvious; some of them were easy. Some of them were just me admiring particular songs and wanting to do them, like the Stompin' Tom, the Johnny Cash stuff and the Johnny Horton stuff. And others were just as a joke. We're just playing along and all of a sudden I'm able to sing the words to a Bee Gees tune over this riff, so it was like, "Well, that makes sense. Let's do this one."
It's very casual. There's not a lot of premeditation to it. It's more just stumbling across something that makes us laugh and away we go. Whether it's me and Kehoe or when me and Mirv were doing it or me just hanging out with some friends. Even playing with my son; my son plays a little banjo and we were camping last year and sitting around the campfire playing songs like "Big Rock Candy Mountain" and "Good Old Mountain Dew."
It's very much like we're presenting it. It's campfire music. When you're sitting around with some buddies playing music or like my buddy Eugene from Gogol Bordello, sitting around his gypsy campfire or whatever, you don't necessarily think about it so much as somebody calls out a song and you start playing it.
I was happy you did the new version of the Jerry Reed song "Amos Moses" that you'd done on the Primus covers EP Rhinoplasty. I think Reed was an unsung genius and the epitome of country funk. Do you remember when you first heard his music?
I first heard him through "Amos Moses." I used to get a dollar for every "A" I got on my report card. I didn't get too many dollars, but when I did, I'd take that dollar and go buy a 45. One of the very first 45s I ever bought was "Amos Moses," because I'd heard it on the radio. I would listen really close to the lyrics to hear what the hell he was talking about. I'd hear him go "Knock him in the head with a stump" and "Left arm gone clean up to the elbow." I'd hear these different things about him trapping the gators and I wanted to know the whole story.
That's what kind of sucked me in as a kid into a lot of the country music of the day, whether it was Johnny Cash or Johnny Horton or Merle Haggard. I'd hear it on my stepdad's little Bakelite radio in the garage and -- even though I wanted to hear rock and roll, because I was a kid -- the lyrics on the old country tunes always drew me in. Whether it was Tex Ritter or Hank Williams Sr., these stories within the music were really cool to me. That's why the lyrics I've written over the years have all these colorful characters, because I tend to write from the perspective a character.
On the album, you're mostly playing a resonator bass and I think I remember you playing a little on a sort of custom banjo-bass hybrid at Hardly Strictly...
Yeah, it's a banjo bass. I didn't play that on the record at all. I played just resonator bass on the record.
Did you give any thought to playing standup bass on the album?
No. It's all about just the sitting around the campfire thing. That's probably why I didn't use the banjo either, because it was like "Well, I don't want to bring a banjo. I want one instrument." If I didn't have to bring an amp, I wouldn't bring an amp. Because going direct with one of these things just sounds horrible and you're at the mercy of whoever is doing sound or whoever is doing monitors. With the amp at least you can control the timbre of it to an extent. I wanted it to be sitting around the campfire, and you're not going to have an upright bass sitting around the campfire [laughs].
Did you give any thought to including Blind Illusion tunes on the album or live? I have a friend who insists "Blood Shower" is just waiting to be twangified...
I couldn't even hum you "Blood Shower." I didn't write any of those songs, so I wouldn't do any of those songs. It wasn't really my thing. I was a hired gun in that band.
The PR person who arranged the interview mentioned you were busy in the studio earlier this week. Are you working on the new Primus album?
Yeah, we're working on the Primus record. We're basically recording the music that we played on New Year's, the Willy Wonka soundtrack. I should say our interpretation of the Willy Wonka soundtrack [laughs].
Did you touch on that material during any of the recent Primus shows, or was that just for New Year's?
That was just for New Year's, but we are doing the record and we've brought in some of the guys from the Frog Brigade to help us, so it's a little fuller. And we're going to tour it this fall.
Will it be the same style of presentation in 3-D that the New Year's show was? From everything I've seen on YouTube and heard from friends about the show, it was a major theatrical production ...
It was and it will be, but it wasn't in 3-D though. The 3-D thing, we're kind of done with. It was a good year or so we did that. It's kind of expensive, doing the 3-D thing [laughs]. To do that and do all this Wonka stuff would financially unfeasible. People would have to pay like $150 a ticket or something.
And this will be a full-length album? What's the time table for it coming out?
Yeah, it's a full-length album. We're hoping to get it out late summer or early fall. As a matter of fact, I was supposed to have it mixed this week, but that is not going to happen.