San Francisco's stately opera house may seem like an unlikely venue for a performer whose past New Year's Eve gigs have seen him donning a furry G-string, included outlandish costume contests, and, by his own admission, typically involve "mental enhancement" for all participants. Yet this year, Les Claypool will indeed grace the stage of the War Memorial Opera House, and, not surprisingly, the event will likely be far more ambitious and trippier than anything the bass-playing phenom has ever done before.
"It's going to be pandemonium," Claypool said with a mischievous grin, sitting behind an enormous desk at his San Rafael office on a recent Friday evening. And that may be an understatement. Since the audience will be seated, Claypool said he wanted to make the show even more interesting than years past. There'll be a lot of "random stuff," he promised, including a contest for most original formalwear, stage props borrowed from the opera, and a 3-D show that will require spectators to wear special glasses. "They're not going to be able to do anything," Claypool said of the audience. "They'll be lucky if they can move. ... It's gonna be a lot of people going like this," he said, grabbing at the air in front of him.
Luckily, Claypool didn't have to look far to get inspiration for his show. His San Rafael office building shares space with what used to be George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic, and is now home to the spinoff production company Kerner Optical, which supplied the state-of-the-art 3-D technology. The unlikely venue arrangement was simply the result of the Fillmore — Claypool's usual setting — and the Warfield already being booked. It was Claypool's former manager David Lefkowitz who suggested the opera house. "It definitely looks like a place where they wouldn't let someone like me on stage," Claypool quipped. Indeed. It'll be the first-ever rock show at the opera.
The fact that Claypool continues to pull off such feats after nearly twenty consecutive New Year's Eve shows is pretty amazing. (It started at the long-defunct Nightbreak club back in 1989.) But it seems to just be par for the course for the 45-year-old East Bay native, who shows zero signs of slowing down.
Since his band Primus disbanded in 2000, Claypool has formed several other groups with prominent musicians, including Oysterhead with Phish's Trey Anastasio and the Police's Stewart Copeland; Les Claypool's Fearless Flying Frog Brigade; and Colonel Claypool's Bucket of Bernie Brains, which featured virtuoso guitarist Buckethead, Parliament-Funkadelic's Bernie Worrell, and former Primus drummer Bryan "Brain" Mantia. In 2006, Claypool released his first solo record, Of Whales and Woe.
Perhaps most notably, Claypool made the fairly seamless transition (apart from upsetting some disgruntled Primus fans) from the leader of an unlikely alt-rock MTV hit in the '90s to an embraced member of the jam-band circuit. He insists the transition wasn't all that dramatic. "I think it was because of the musicianship and the somewhat open parameters that Primus had all those years," he explained. "It was a little bit of cross-pollinization. We were always the band that never fit in with anybody but yet we fit in with everyone. I think the only festival we didn't do was the Lilith Fair." Really, Claypool's trademark, funk-influenced slap-style playing post-Primus didn't change as much as the feel of the music, which is far more upbeat and groovy and lacking the alterna guitar edge on, for example, Of Whales and Woe.
Whatever the reason, one thing's clear: Claypool's ability to reinvent himself has helped buoy his career into new creative directions. In the last couple of years, Claypool has published a novel (South of the Pumphouse), produced a feature-length mockumentary (Electric Apricot), contributed music (and acting) to a film (Pig Hunt) as well as for a Wii video game (Mushroom Men).
When asked whether these new ventures were necessary to sustain his career or just a natural outgrowth of his creativity, Claypool chuckled. "I don't think sustaining yourself has anything to do with it because most of them are not sustainable ventures," he said. "I've always been drawn toward different things. And as I've gotten older and more established ... there are actually people that will put these things out now," he said, letting out a cackle. "Whereas before they were just languishing."
Taking full advantage of these opportunities, Claypool plans to release another record in March, make a movie based on his novel, and launch a mini festival called the Oddity Fair, also in March. Claypool says the tour will be part-Maker's Faire, part-eclectic-music festival, featuring himself, Saul Williams, DeVotchKa, and the Yard Dogs Road Show (on part of it). He also promises "lots of eye candy," in the vein of Burning Man. Regarding the status of Primus, which recently regrouped for a performance at this year's Outside Lands Festival, Claypool says there's a good chance 2010 will be a "Primus year."
Certainly, Claypool's position in the music scene has shifted. But he seems to have embraced this change rather than resisted it. He has a wife, two kids, and recently acquired a puppy, and spends his days at his "Rancho Relaxo" home in Sonoma County. He seems equally concerned with his creative output as with earning the respect of his twelve-year-old son.
While Claypool acknowledges that his fan base has aged, the bassist says he's comforted by the fact that he continues to attract young fans, too. "I won't strictly be playing casinos anytime soon," he assured. He credits the success of video games like Guitar Hero (the second version of which features the Primus song "John the Fisherman") and movies like 2003's The School of Rock (which depicted tweens playing AC/DC) for helping to inspire kids to value musicianship again. And that'll certainly benefit Claypool. "Whether I can make a film or write a book that's worth a shit, the one thing I can do is play my bass," he said emphatically.
These days, Claypool measures his success not by how many records he's selling or whether or not he's on MTV but by the opportunities that have opened up to him. "What excites me the most and makes me go, 'Hey, maybe I have actually done something here,' is working with and befriending a lot of my heroes," he said, citing Copeland; Worrell; as well as King Crimson's Adrian Belew, who wants to do a project together; Tom Waits, with whom he's collaborated in the past; and Bootsy Collins, who recently called him wanting Claypool paraphernalia for his new restaurant.
In the meantime, Claypool has to wrestle another New Year's to the ground. This year, he has called in the help of guitarist Mirv, Sam Bass of Loop!Station and Deadweight, and Claypool's longtime drummer Paulo Baldi, also of Deadweight and Cake fame.
He admits that the whole New Year's Eve tradition continues to be a debacle — and one that gets increasingly challenging as the years go on. "Every year I go, 'Why am I doing this?' you know," he said, somewhat joking. "Because it's right in the middle of the holidays when you're supposed to be dealing with all this other crap, in-laws are flying in, I got to pick up in-laws from the airport, we got this puppy running around crapping on the floor, learning songs with these guys over here, and doing interviews. Why do I do this to myself every year? But after the show is usually the most amazing time because it's done and it's that sense of, 'Well we've climbed Everest. Where's the next mountain?'"
Most likely, just around the corner.
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