In their earliest days, Primus was on the edge of the cutting edge. Led by eccentric singer/bassist Les Claypool, the rock trio was too weird to fit in with some of the more lumbering funk-metal and indie-prog acts on the heavier side of alternative rock, but they played with enough muscularity, syncopation, and smirkiness to draw a huge audience from the hard-rock underground.
Primus emerged during a new era of sub-categorization, too. It was common for bands to adjust their playing style, songwriting, and image to fit hybrids of rock, ska, punk, metal, and whatever else. Primus seemed less interested in fitting a mold and more determined to create a cohesive style of their own.
"When we were first coming out, there were a lot of newer bands whose goals were to try to mix up styles and things," says guitarist Larry "Ler" LaLonde. "Some would have a part in a song that was one kind of music, then they'd jump to another one. What we did differently was to take it all and make one big sound. That was the goal."
LaLonde, a native of Oakland, grew up listing to a variety of West Coast rock — from Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead to Metallica and the Minutemen. His first experiences were with metal bands. In 1988, LaLonde encountered Claypool, who invited him to join Primus. With drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander, Primus released their first LP in 1989 — a live disc titled Suck on This.
"People passing by might have thought, 'Oh, what a goofy band,' but people who do really get into it enjoy the complexities, says LaLonde. "We're not just trying to go out there to be goofballs."
College radio went nuts for Suck on This. Musicians from the punk, funk, and rock scenes were inspired by the rawness and technical flair of the album.
"When I think about those early days, I remember having to press it onto vinyl and mail it out to college radio, because there was no other place to go," says LaLonde. "There was no internet or anything."
The tools of the trade may have changed, but the rock-band basics are pretty much the same for LaLonde and his bandmates. For a power trio like Primus, the three bandmates have to congregate in the same room, set up, play simultaneously, and truly interact. The immediacy and intimacy between the three musicians remains at the heart of their music.
"I think we've always had good chemistry by default," says LaLonde. "Some bands might have two guitar players, so then you have two guys sort of doing the same thing. In this band, you have three guys on different instruments with roles that are defined very specifically. There are some power trios where you'll hear the record, and there are several guitar parts going on, played by the same guitarist. We always approach recording like we approach a stage show — as three guys without a lot of extra parts going on."
The bass/guitar interaction between Claypool and LaLonde still comes naturally, as does their sense of experimentation.
"I know a lot of musicians who started out when they were young, formed a band, got popular, and then felt like they had to keep playing what's expected from that band," LaLonde says. "Luckily for me, I've never run into that problem. I've been able to do anything I want."
Throughout the music on the band's first few studio albums — Frizzle Fry, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, Pork Soda, and Tales From the Punchbowl — Claypool's flashy bass technique and weird nasally singing were the first things listeners noticed. Alongside Claypool's arpeggiated finger-picking, percussive slaps, and full-fisted strumming, Alexander's crisp, double-kick-powered drum work pushed the funk and rock rhythms. Unlike most of his guitar-playing contemporaries, LaLonde's role required him to fill in the gaps with sound effects, accents, shrill chordal phrases, and bizarre mini solos.
"Traditionally, the roles were a bit reversed for us," says LaLonde. "I didn't want to be out front. I liked the freedom of not having everyone's eyes on me all the time."
Last month, Primus kicked off a nationwide headlining tour that wraps up at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. The current lineup features their original drummer Jay Lane (recently of Ratdog and Furthur).
"I think it took Jay getting back in to play drums in the band to create a new level of excitement and creativity," says LaLonde.
They leave for a month-long trek of Europe next month. The tour comes in anticipation of their forthcoming, as-yet untitled collection on ATO/Prawn Song (their first full-length since 1999's Antipop).
"One luxury we had was the fact that we weren't just one kind of music, like grunge or whatever came along," LaLonde says. "We never just died out with the style. When things started slowing down, we realized that we wanted to try doing different things with different people.
"We still enjoy things in a simple way," he adds. "The coolest thing is that, no matter what, we go and tour and people show up and really enjoy the music. So what the critics say doesn't really matter, as long as people enjoy the shows and the music."