Going It Alone

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

If Frank Zappa had ever joined Talking Heads, the resulting band might have sounded a lot like Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade. Claypool, bass guitarist with alt-rock band Primus, has recently released his first solo CD, “Purple Onion,” a collection of quirky intelligent songs that is hard to pigeonhole. To promote it, he is embarking on an extensive tour, making a Santa Cruz stop this weekend.

With Primus currently on hiatus, Claypool has had time to concentrate on his solo work.

“I’m not real good at sitting still,” he said, “I’m constantly getting excited about new projects.”

The genesis of this particular project came two years ago, when Claypool was asked to put together a jam for the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. This got him noticed on the jam scene and led to engagements at several other festivals. One of the first was the Mountain Air Festival in Calaveras County. Mark Twain made this area famous in his story “The Celebrated jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and inspired by this link, Claypool named his band Frog Brigade.

Of producing his album, Claypool said: “This is my first real attempt at a solo record. There’s no record company involved to say “Well, if you did something more like this…” Now I really have the freedom to do whatever I want, whenever I want. It’s an incredibly liberating thing.”

Claypool has used his newfound freedom to great effect in the creation of “Purple Onion.” Its 12 tracks display a wide range of musical styles, blending elements of jazz, rock and other genres.

The arrangements feature such non-traditional instruments as sitar and marimba as well as a custom-made, one-string bass guitar called a Whamola, which Claypool plays using a drumstick.

Lyrically, Claypool tackles such issues as racism (on “Ding Dang”) and the media’s influence on society in a pair of songs about fictional TV newscaster David Makalaster. The occasionally heavy messages are offset by Claypool’s wry wit, and “Purple Onion” maintains a strong sense of fun throughout.

The touring line-up of Frog Brigade is composed of the core musicians from the “Purple Onion” sessions. Claypool will play bass and sing lead vocals. Joining him will be Mike Dillon on a range of percussion instruments, including marimba and vibraphone; Eenor on guitars and yali tambur (a bowed, stringed instrument); Skerik on saxophone; and Jay Lane on drums.

With Claypool’s current commitment to Frog Brigade, many Primus fans are understandably curious as to whether the band will record or perform again. “I’m not sure what the status of Primus is,” he said, “I can’t imagine not doing it again, but at this point [guitarist] Larry LaLonde is not showing any interest in doing it, and I’m not necessarily interested in doing it without him. So I want to focus on my band.”

First published in “411”, The Salinas Californian, October 10, 2002

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