I once read that frogs will move toward a light source, but for some reason can't differentiate a light from a solid-white wall. Perhaps the same can be said of Les Claypool.
Earmarked by Claypool's distinctive voice, whimsical lyrics and funk-rooted bass, Primus flourished among the Lollapalooza-era bands who redefined "alternative," that infamous shibboleth that soon defied its meaning. Ditties like "Wynonna's Big Brown Beaver" spurred big sales, "Way more records than any of us ever thought we would [sell]," says Claypool, and landed the band a Grammy nomination.
The bassist, however, was discontent to abandon his indie roots. He left Interscope Records about three years ago and re-fired up Prawn Song, a label he had founded years prior that "was sort of languishing dormant," he says.
Which brings us to Claypool's current project: leaping around the tour circuit with a handpicked group of musicians he's dubbed the Frog Brigade.
"It's very liberating to be able to do what you want, but the flip side is it's much lower key. We don't have the resources to put my face on billboards next to Britney Spears," he says. "But that's not really my thing anyway."
The Brigade is "an ever-evolving, semi-rotating cast of characters," he says. "This is much more free-form. We take a lot of solos, and we stretch quite a bit more with this band."
Claypool's side-project dabbling began in the mid-'90s with Sausage, the Holy Mackerel and later, the more high-profile Oysterhead, which featured ex-Police man Stewart Copeland and Phish's Trey Anastasio. As the musical experimentation burrowed him deeper into the "jam band" subculture, he eventually recruited a group of musicians to play at the Calaveras County (Calif.) Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee and named the group Frog Brigade.
Afterward, on a quest for new talent, Claypool posted ads in Bay-area newspapers and discovered the dreadlocked Eenor, whose talents include guitar, slide guitar, jaw harp and a Turkish string instrument called the yali tambur. Joining them are sax player Skerik and percussionist Mike Dillon (both of Critters Buggin' and Garage A Troi), as well as ex-Primus drummer Jay Lane.
Claypool released two live Frog Brigade albums in 2001, one a mixture of original and cover tunes, and the second a recreation of the entire Pink Floyd album "Animals." Last fall he released the Brigade's first studio recording, "Purple Onion," a 12-track CD featuring a host of guest musicians, including Warren Haynes and Norwood Fisher of Fishbone.
One of the most anomalous tunes on "Purple Onion" is "Whamola," named for a contraption a fan left for Claypool after a show in Vermont. "It's basically this big, metal pole somebody strung a string across," he says. "I took it in the back lounge of the bus, plugged it into the little sound system we had and started beating on it with a stick, and it sounded good. I started bringing it onstage, and it eventually became the song 'Whamola.'"
With such musical diversity, the Frog Brigade rides a unique eclectic roller coaster of sound. However, the point of similarity to Primus is Claypool himself: his distinctive, sometimes froggy voice, slappy bass and of course, quirky lyrics Ã a narrative word-Wonderland of colorful characters and countless metaphors.
Someday, he says, he wants to write a book of all his lyrics and the real stories behind them. "I've heard a lot of interpretations, and I never wanted to stifle that by telling what the songs actually meant, because some of the interpretations are so amazing to me," he laughs. "But I really would like to explain where all these different things come from."
That will have to wait, as there are plenty of flies on Claypool's plate. Other projects in the works include a Bucket of Bernie Brains album (yet another collaboration, featuring Buckethead, Brain and P-Funk legend Bernie Worrell) and a Primus DVD for release this fall. (Primus is far from dead.) He's also written two screenplays and is writing a third.
But now his primary focus is on the Frog Brigade tour.
"It's pretty flamboyant. Going to a Frog Brigade show is like Halloween every night."