‘It was my gateway’: Primus’ Les Claypool talks about Rush in advance of NJ tribute shows

primus rush interview

RANDY JOHNSON

From left, Larry LaLonde, Tim Alexander and Les Claypool of Primus.

Primus and Rush tend to get categorized in different rock genres, but the two bands share a great deal of common ground. Primus frontman Les Claypool says he grew up listening to the Canadian power trio, obsessing over their instrumental wizardry, suite-like arrangements and contemplative lyrics.

While Primus made their bones as funk-metal mavericks, they were unabashed in their love of Rush’s old-school progressive sound, weaving bits of classic songs such as “YYZ” into live performances and studio albums. At one point, Claypool and his bandmates joked about playing a Rush album in its entirety. They later decided that might not be such a bad idea.

The cover of the Primus EP, “Conspiranoid.”

With their current A Tribute to Kings Tour, Primus is delivering a straight-faced take on a seminal album by their musical heroes. The shows feature a full performance of Rush’s 1977 A Farewell to Kings, coupled with a set of Primus tunes, including songs from their latest EP, Conspiranoid. The tour hits the Wellmont Theater in Montclair on May 21; The Paramount in Huntington, N.Y., on May 22; and The Borgata in Atlantic City on May 27.

In addition to touring and releasing the EP, Claypool co-wrote a benefit single for Ukraine entitled “Zelensky: The Man with the Iron Balls,” collaborating with Ukrainian rocker Eugene Hütz of Gogol Bordello. They recruited other musicians to take part in the recording, including Stewart Copeland of The Police, Sean Lennon, Billy Strings and Gogol Bordello’s Sergey Ryabtsev. Last month, Claypool also played with the supergroup Oysterhead, featuring Copeland and Trey Anastasio, at the SweetWater 420 festival in Atlanta.

It’s a lot of activity after two years of COVID-quiet (the tribute tour originally had been scheduled to begin in May 2020). Primus was prepping to go on the road when Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart died in January 2020. Claypool says he had hoped to play Farewell for Peart at least once, so the tour is bittersweet.

Claypool developed a Trekkie-like devotion to Rush after seeing them live for the first time in San Francisco on the 1978 Hemispheres Tour. In the Bay Area at the time, Rush didn’t get much airplay, as stripped-down punk and new wave began to eclipse epic rock. That made Claypool appreciate them even more, like he was a member of a secret club. Primus opened for Rush in 1992 and the two bands forged a friendship that has endured for three decades.

A Farewell to Kings features one of Rush’s most commercial songs, “Closer to the Heart,” but it also boasts two of their wildest musical explorations. “Xanadu” is a hat tip to poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, turning his “Kubla Khan” into a mystical 11-minute opus that contrasts chiming ambient passages with heavy stoner riffs. “Cygnus X-1” is an eerie space opera propelled by a monstrous bass line, mind-bending time changes and no small amount of primal screaming. In true prog style, “Cygnus” has a sequel that appears on Hemispheres.

I spoke with Claypool via phone from a recent tour stop. Here are edited highlights from our conversation.

WES ORSHOSKI

Les Claypool, performing at Convention Hall in Asbury Park in 2018.

Q. A Farewell to Kings is one of my all-time favorite albums and to have it interpreted by Primus is an amazing idea. I know you’ve been touring for the past few months but this must be a tough album to perform technically. Does it get easier or is it still a real challenge every night?

A. It’s been a big challenge because it’s a pretty amazing piece of music and we wanted to do it justice. I was one of those teenagers out in the audience who was scrutinizing every little lick and singing the words back in the day when Rush would come to my town. Rush fans are picky bastards so we had to work hard to make sure we represent this as best we could.

Q. I always thought of Primus and Rush as coming from different universes in terms of genres but when you actually listen to the songs, there is quite a lot of musical overlap. I feel like this tour is bringing out the idea that there aren’t these divisions, that the two bands have a lot in common.

A. Our first two Primus records open with the intro to “YYZ” so we’ve been nodding to those guys since the beginning. In fact, that was the common ground for the three of us when we all got together in one room for the first time. I saw this drummer with this big drum kit and we just started playing Rush licks. It was one of the things that we could all agree on. That and old King Crimson, so it’s always been a good touchstone for us.

Q. Knowing the guys in Rush, having that personal relationship, do you think it helps in terms of your approach on this tour or does it maybe also have a downside in a way?

A. There is no downside. When the notion came up, I texted Geddy: I said, “Hey, are you guys cool with us doing this?” This was years ago. This was while Neil was still on the planet. The tour kept getting postponed because we ended up doing a Slayer tour, and then obviously COVID stopped the world for a while. It’s a bummer that we weren’t able to do it while Neil was still around because it would have been wonderful to play it for him.

The late Neil Peart of Rush.

Q. Do you feel like there’s a certain weight knowing that for a percentage of the audience, this is going to be the only time they experience these songs live?

A. It’s very interesting because I didn’t think of it so much because we’ve always joked, “Hey, we should do Hemispheres in its entirety.” The audience is mainly Primus fans but there’s Rush fans coming out and you see the Rush T-shirts and every now and again you’ll see some person just singing all the words and air drumming and sometimes you get people with tears in their eyes. I can appreciate that because I cut my teeth on Rush. When I was a teenager, there was no greater band on the planet.

We had a guy yesterday, we did a VIP Q&A and he got very emotional. It made me feel good. For us, we’re having fun. I look forward every night to playing the Rush portion of the set. It’s like a vacation. To see how some of the people have reacted to it, it’s heartwarming.

Q. Rush was your first live show?

A. It was my gateway. It was my first concert, for one thing, and it was when I first started playing bass, so it was massively influential on me. Every time Primus goes out, we do something. We did our 3D thing. We always try to do something to make it a little special. I had covered Pink Floyd’s Animals years ago with the Frog Brigade and it went really well. We joked about the Hemispheres thing but you can’t do “Cygnus II” before you do “Cygnus I,” so we ended up on A Farewell to Kings.

Q. So is there going to be a follow-up Hemispheres tour where you’re going to do “Cygnus Part II?”

A. We don’t want to overmilk the cow or take advantage, or we don’t want to be a Rush cover band, but it’s been incredibly fun. It’s been a great bonding experience for the three of us. People think because Primus plays all these fancy licks that we’re these rehearsing maniacs and we’re not. We’re like the laziest band in the world. With this Rush thing, we had to really buckle down and rehearse more than we have since we were youngsters.

The cover of Rush’s 1977 album, “A Farewell to Kings.”

Q. How was opening the tour in Boise? You had this tremendous void with no live music for two years. Was it really cathartic to take the stage after all this time?

A. It was amazing on a few different levels. A, my father lives up near there, so I got to see my dad. B, we were playing outside under the stars. And C, they had this thing there called pizza in a cone, which is the greatest invention in the world. It’s like a waffle cone ice cream but it’s pizza.

Q. I have to go to Idaho now. I’ve heard of pizza in a cup but not in a cone.

A. I don’t even eat pizza because it gives me a big old gut but I had a pizza in a cone and it was amazing. But the thing that sucks about that show, it was the first show and I fucked up the intro to “A Farewell to Kings” and of course it’s the show that somebody videotaped and Rolling Stone published it. It was like a big old clam right in the beginning. I thought, “Oh I’m safe. I’m in Boise” But oh shit, someone sent it to Rolling Stone.

Q. A Farewell to Kings and particularly “Cygnus X-1” … I have a really strong attachment. A friend introduced me to A Farewell to Kings back in the 1990s. At the time, I was really into Primus and Ween and the Butthole Surfers, all these weird bands, and I had this perception that Rush was a mainstream band. Hearing “Cygnus” was an eye opener. I think there were just so many misconceptions about Rush. For you, what do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions that people have about this band?

A. Primus has lived with misconceptions where people think of Primus, and if all they’ve heard is “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver,” they think we’re some joke band. For Rush, it depends. I know people that were instantly turned off because they couldn’t handle Geddy’s voice. He has that high shrill voice and some people just can’t handle it. Rush was our little gem. It’s like being a Trekkie. Growing up in the San Francisco area, it was a rare thing to hear Rush on the radio and even rarer to see them in magazines so they were kind of this yeti, sasquatch of a band. It was a dude thing. The line for the ladies room was a lot shorter at their shows.

Rush (from left, Geddy Lee, Neil Peart and Alex Lifeson) in a vintage publicity photo.

Q. I’ve been to a lot of shows with short ladies room lines. I like Rush but there’s a perception that Rush is for dudes. I decided to type a question into Quora. I just asked why does Rush seem to have a predominantly male audience and one of the answers was that men relate to Rush because they’re nerdy guys singing about social exclusion and another one, basically this person described Rush as “thought rock,” which I had never heard of before. Maybe it’s a good description of Rush?

A. I remember one time I was having dinner with this (other) band. They were this very famous pop band and the singer rattled off a Tom Petty lyric. He was like, “Isn’t that just an amazing lyric?” I was like, “Yeah, but what about, ‘The tobes of Hades lit by flickering torchlight.’ ” He’s like, “What’s that?” I said Rush and he just looked at me.

I told Geddy that story and he thought it was hilarious. It’s like admitting you played Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to a lot of people but it’s a confusing thing to many more people.

I like the notion of thought rock because Neil was an incredibly intelligent man. Painfully intelligent. He was very introspective and it is interesting to look at the lyrics. The early lyrics, they’re like fantasy, science fiction, Dungeons & Dragons-type lyrics. Then as Neil moved through life, he started writing more about his social experience and growing older and all these different things. He was a great intellect and so I like the notion that people call it thought rock.

Q. Definitely. A song like “The Trees” … that’s got a deep message, the maples and the oaks.

A. I did a report in my English class about that song. Racial injustice using the metaphor of trees.

Q. Do you have it? Can you send it to me?

A. That’s long gone but I remember my teacher was all impressed and she was telling me about Bob Dylan but I was 15. I couldn’t relate to Dylan at that point. I wanted to hear Tony Iommi’s guitar. I didn’t want to hear some jangly dude. But obviously years later I found Dylan. Now that I’m singing Rush lyrics every night, a song like “Farewell to Kings,” that’s a very relevant song, and then “Cinderella Man” is based on “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” It’s Frank Capra, who’s one of my all-time favorite directors.

Q. I think another thing is that people might perceive Rush as not having a sense of humor, like a lot of prog bands get stigmatized as being pompous and humorless. I think Rush has a lot of wit to them. They have a song called “I Think I’m Going Bald.”

A. That is a misconception because Alex (Lifeson) is one of the funniest guys you’ll ever meet. He actually did an interview with us years ago for a digital press kit and he interviewed us and he had these big goofy false teeth in. During the Moving Pictures/Signals era, Rush used to come out on stage, their opening music was the theme from “The Three Stooges.” Then they rip into “Spirit of Radio.”

The cover of the “Zelensky: The Man With the Iron Balls” single.

Q. For Primus’ new song, “Conspiranoia,” was there a specific incident or controversy that prompted you to start writing?

A. I’ve just always had that term in my head because I’ve seen over the past few years various friends who have fallen into some of these notions. Some of it’s funny and some of it is just banter between my lunch buddies, but it’s gotten to the point where it’s caused some division between some friends and family members. Obviously, I see the division it’s causing in society in general.

Q. You’ve also got another topical song, “Zelensky: The Man with the Iron Balls.” Do you know if Zelensky has heard it or not.

A. I have no idea. I had no time or energy or desire to do another recording project but I was hanging out with some friends who are from Poland and they have some in-laws in town that live, like, 50 miles from the Ukrainian border. I was with them the night of the invasion. We’re doing vodka shots and commiserating and I started texting Eugene from Gogol Bordello. In my vodka-laced mindset, I was like, “We need to do a song.” The next day, Eugene texted me, “Let’s do this thing,” and I was like, “What did I commit to?” Eugene and I just got this banter back and forth and, at first, we thought we should write an anti-Putin song, but we didn’t want to write something that was a condemnation of anybody as much as just admiration for this guy.

Q. Just one more thing … I know you have the “South Park” 25th anniversary show coming up with Ween at Red Rocks. Are you going fishing with Dean Ween in Colorado?

A. Fishing with the Deaner, I hope so.

Q. I’m still waiting for your fishing show.

A. We filmed a pilot but nobody picked it up.

Q. I hope some network or streamer gives it another look. That could bring people back to Netflix.

A. Part of the problem was everything we filmed, we didn’t catch any fish.

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