Bass legend on five essential LPs…

A living legend in American underground rock, Les Claypool has helped lead Primus astray for three decades.

Venturing from funk-rock to avant climes, serious songwriting to outright whimsy, the group was last spotted reimagining the soundtrack to – of all things – 1971’s Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (hear ‘Pure Imagination’ below). Currently plotting a no doubt hugely imaginative live show to expand on this, the genial musician – and seriously, check out these bass skills – welcomes the challenge of Foundations with open arms.

“I’m scanning my brain,” he says, “because usually I totally choke when people ask me these questions, but we’ll see how the synapses are firing today!”

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The Beatles – ‘Abbey Road’ (1969)

When I was a kid my parents weren’t very musical – I come from a long line of auto-mechanics and one of the very few albums that my parents had was ‘Abbey Road’. So I would sit there and listen to it over and over and over, until it became quite the staple for me. It’s a pretty amazing hunk of music, especially the arrangements of all the tunes on the second half, and the way they all come together for one big climax.

I mean, I’ve read so much about them. The Beatles were heroes of mine – and George Martin, and Geoff Emerick, they were just huge, huge heroes for me, so I’ve absorbed a lot of the lore, the written word about them. It’s interesting, because as an album that I was introduced to at an early age, it’s one of their darker records – it’s obviously written during a time when they were going through a lot of turmoil, and it’s their last real record together. From what I understood, a lot of the medley stuff at the end was because of the discord between them all. Sometimes that tension, to me, brings about some pretty amazing art.

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Tom Waits – ‘Rain Dogs’ (1985)

Well, let’s think about it here for a second. I mean, I would say Tom Waits’ ‘Rain Dogs’ was a huge eye opener for me. I had experienced Tom years prior with some of his early stuff – ‘Step Right Up’ was a great tune, that stuck to me. A buddy of mine – Joe Gore, actually – I used to roadie for him, and he was playing ‘Rain Dogs’ in his car one day. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is unbelievable!’

I mean, ‘Rain Dogs’ is sort of the beginning of that new, the second phase of Tom Waits, so to speak. Where it does become more of a performance, it’s more textural, there are so many different timbres, squeaks and squonks, warts and blisters and stuff on this music. It’s very theatrical. So to me, it was very compelling.

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Yes – ‘Fragile’ (1971)

Two down! Holy mackerel. Well, I’m going to go with a record that I’ve purchased many times. It is a record from my youth, which would be Yes’ ‘Fragile’. That’s just one of those records which got me fired up as a bass player because Chris Squire always had the most amazing tone. Then these arrangements were very orchestral, almost like classical. Like, little droplets of elements of classics. His bass tones just blew my mind. It still blows my mind. I still don’t know how in the hell he does it.

I saw them in the 1980s. I would have loved to have seen them in the ’70s but I was a poor son of an auto-mechanic and didn’t get to go to too many concerts. I would have loved to have seen ‘em when Bill Bruford was playing with them. In their art rock glory days! That would have been pretty sweet.

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Jimi Hendrix – ‘Band Of Gypsys’ (1970)

So, as a kid I didn’t have any money to buy records, so my record collection was puny compared to all my friends’. But I joined the RCA Record Club where you get 10 records for a penny – or whatever it was – and then you spend the next five years of your life trying to pay bills when they send you records that you didn’t ask for and all that shit. So one of the records I got, I wanted some Hendrix because actually Kirk Hammett – from Metallica, we went to high school together – he had played me some Jimi Hendrix and I was like, ‘Woah who’s this?’ I’m hearing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and thinking it was the greatest thing in the world.

I joined the RCA Record Club and that was the only record that was available – even though I wanted to hear ‘Purple Haze’ that was the only record that was available so I got ‘Band Of Gypsies’. I adore it! Still, to this day, I adore that record. People talk about the Mitch Mitchell era of Jimi but for me, I felt like he was really about to go down some cool roads with Buddy Miles and Billy Cox. I think that record was just a glimpse of what could have been the future of Hendrix.

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Pink Floyd – ‘Animals’ (1977)

‘Animals’ was a huge thing for me. A similar thing, when I was a kid I didn’t have any records, but I remember when ‘Animals’ came out I was pretty young, and a buddy of mine, he and his older brother had this record and we were sitting there looking at it, looking at the album cover with the power plant and the pig floating over it. Just the imagery of it was amazing, and then this older brother’s friend was telling me about how he was in London and he took acid and he could visualise the pigs melting across the sky, and it just scared the shit out of me! Just the whole lore of this thing.

I turned my son onto all that stuff, too – he’s a huge Floyd fan. He’s 18 now, but a handful of years ago he got to meet Roger – well, we all got to meet Roger Waters, and to me, he’s the Beethoven of our generation. He’s that guy. It was a pretty amazing thing. My heroes are guys like Kafka, Kubrick, and these visualists. We’re not a singles band. I’m not a singles guy, so I always approach the albums as a film – it’s all scenes from a film. So, for me, I taught my son: I said, ‘OK when you listen to ‘The Wall’ you don’t just listen to one or two songs, you’ve got to set some time aside and listen to it from start to finish.’ It’s like watching Dr. Strangelove – you don’t just watch one or two scenes, you watch the whole thing.

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As told to Robin Murray

Les Claypool’s ‘Foor Foot Shack’, with Duo de Twang, and Primus’ ‘…And The Chocolate Factory’ are out now. Find Les online here

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