Les Claypool may be one of the most accomplished rock bassists on the planet, but he was once just another progressive-rock fanboy in the crowd. He recalls "urinating in my drawers" as his 14-year-old self witnessed the legendary Canadian progessive rock band Rush performing "Cygnus X-1," a 10-minute track off its 1977 album A Farewell to Kings.
It was his first-ever concert experience and an introduction to the sort of technical music he'd make as the frontman and bassist for Primus. Rush remains a source of personal inspiration for Claypool decades later.
"My hero was Geddy Lee," he says of Rush's singer and bassist. "In terms of tonality, one of the greatest [bass] tones ever is Geddy Lee on those old records. We're always searching, trying to find that tonality."
Excluding a hiatus here and there, Primus has been producing off-kilter, bass-poppin' prog-rock since the mid-1980s, maintaining an unlikely international fan base, playing major festivals and whipping mosh pits into a frenzy with 1990s cult classics such as "My Name is Mud," "Too Many Puppies" and "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver." In the early years, the musical tastes of Claypool and his longtime bandmates — drummer Tim Alexander and fast-shredding guitarist Larry "Ler" LaLonde — varied greatly, but they shared an adoration of seminal progressive rock bands Rush and King Crimson.
"When we first got together years and years ago, that's what we did; our common ground was jamming on Rush tunes, but more of bits and pieces rather than full arrangements," Claypool told the Inlander from his home in Northern California. And more recently, revisiting that material has been cathartic: "It's been good for us, especially after all the shit that's been going on the past few years, to get in a room and hammer things out with the guys."
Primus will break in the brand-new Spokane Pavilion in Riverfront Park on Friday, Aug. 13, by playing Rush's 1977 album A Farewell to Kings from end to end. For years, Claypool and his bandmates joked about playing a full Rush record during a Primus set, but they got more serious about the idea after Rush's longtime drummer and lyricist Neal Peart died of brain cancer in early 2020.
Claypool says the band recently wrapped up rehearsing for its upcoming 46-date A Tribute to Kings Tour, and that tackling such an ambitious album after a long, pandemic-related layoff has represented a challenge for the trio. With Covid-19 forcing Claypool to take last summer off touring for the first time in 30 years, he totally lost his motivation to make music.
"You would think with all the craziness in the world — whether it's the pandemic or political elements — that there would have been a lot of fodder for creativity, but it killed me," he says. "I didn't go into the studio and barely picked up my bass. I ended up buying an old excavator and clearing fire trails on my property, because of course on top of everything I'm living on the match tip of the world on the California coast."
Besides moving dirt, Claypool found a creative release by picking up painting for the first time, taking several months to regain an interest in music. Now, he's stepping into the shoes of Lee — a world-class multitasker known for simultaneously singing, playing complex bass patterns and triggering keyboard sequences with a foot controller. It's a daunting task even for Claypool, who is generally recognized as one of the most innovative and technically proficient bass players alive.
"It's Rush, after all," he says. "I have to play these incredible bass parts and try to sing in a register that most human beings can't sing in, and then play keyboard. There's a lot of fancy footwork going on. ... It's been a lot of work, but I think we're ready for prime time here."
The similarities between Primus and the now-retired Rush are easy to spot. Both outfits are virtuosic prog-rock trios that make more noise than should be physically possible, feature drummers rocking comically enormous kits, and found lasting commercial success despite generally being weirdos with obscure influences. And Claypool's connection with Rush's music has only become more personal over the years as the two bands toured together on several occasions.
In fact, he performed a decidedly strange cover of "The Spirit of Radio" when Rush was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010 — and made another reference to the band's tendency to make him lose control over his bodily functions.
"If you'd told me when I was 16 years old that I would be friends with the guys in Rush and would be involved in an event such as this, I probably would have soiled myself," he told the audience.
While the Rush tribute will be central to Primus' upcoming gig in Spokane, A Farewell to Kings is only 36 minutes long, so Claypool promises that fans who want to hear Primus originals will not go home disappointed. Additionally, the show will feature 3D elements designed by his son. "We've got some surprises up our sleeves in terms of the visuals," he says.
Claypool doesn't know what's next for Primus following the completion of the A Tribute to Kings Tour, though he hinted that a collection of live Primus records could drop sometime soon, and that he'll likely revisit his massively underrated psych-rock side project with Sean Lennon, The Claypool Lennon Delirium.
For now, he's focused on getting back on the road, playing world-beating bass for throngs of drunk and sweaty people, and paying homage to the band that inspired him to pick up the instrument many years ago.
"We've got some catching up to do on many levels." ♦
Primus: A Tribute to Kings, with Battles • Friday, Aug. 13 at 6 pm • $40 • All ages • Spokane Pavilion in Riverfront Park • 574 N Howard St. • spokanepavilion.com • 888-929-7849