It was the sort of scene one might imagine when pondering the comings and goings of bass legend Les Claypool: He and his son were surrounded by fishing poles, hunting rifles, metal detectors, and the crackle of a warm campfire. The atmosphere was evocative, so they grabbed their instruments and started pluckin' beneath the setting sun. Claypool says he pulled out his dobro bass — it's not a dobro bass, but he calls it a dobro bass — and complemented his son's banjo well into the twilit hours.
"At night we'd sit around the campfire. He was just learning to play banjo, so we'd kinda pluck these different things out," Claypool says, his own voice tinged with nasal twang. "There was some Vernon Dalhart, some Johnny\ Horton and stuff. We'd sit around the campfire pluckin' out these tunes. It was amazing. It was one of the most amazing things I've ever done with my son. It was really incredible."
What might otherwise be a fairly typical trip outdoors with his kin became the seedling for Claypool's next project, a strings-heavy duo hellbent on harkening back to the hillbilly ways of old. Les Claypool's Duo de Twang is on the road these days; the bassist phoned in from the West Coast to talk shop and explain where all this funky twang is coming from.
"Me and Mirv [Haggard] got together and sorta twanged out some songs," Claypool says, describing a heady set at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco a few years back. "Unfortunately Mirv couldn't continue on, because he had to get a real job." That led the bassist back to his old friend Bryan Kehoe — "ol' Kehozer" in affectionate Claypool parlance.
Earlier this year, they dropped a debut album, Four Foot Shack, that's as quirky as anything Claypool's done. Rather than the chugging and thumping of, say, Primus or the experimental Pink Floydness of Colonel Les Claypool's Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, this outing cuts right to the heart of backwoods Americana.
"A buddy of mine turned me on to an interesting collection of old American folk music," he says, adding that the DNA of hillbilly music runs in his blood. Growing up, Claypool's stepfather would work in the garage, kick back a few Buckhorns and cue up the Okie station on the tubes.
"I had all this music wash over me as a kid," he says. "At the time, I didn't realize it was influencing me."
These days, Claypool boasts a collection of vintage records that connects him with the roots of folk music. While the Duo is his current project — he disdains the term "side project" within his canon — those twangy strains of American music history keep Claypool close to his heritage. With the right ear for rhythm, in fact, one can pick up on plenty of these inspirations throughout much of what he's recorded over the years.
As he lays out the plan for this tour's roster of shows, Claypool explains that the Duo's live presence is much like their studio sessions or even their hangouts.
"We actually have a campfire onstage," Claypool says. "We sit there and have some booze drinks and we sit around and bullshit and play some tunes."
There's one new and original song on Four Foot Shack. The opening title track is a warped little ditty that calls to mind Claypool's penchant for the same (think, of course, "Pork Chop's Little Ditty" and "Grandad's Little Ditty," among others, from the early 1990s). The rest of the album is fleshed out by covers of tunes like "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees, "Man in the Box" by Alice in Chains, and a host of throwbacks from Claypool's back catalog, like "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver" and "Winona's Big Brown Beaver."
Claypool's catalog is the natural through-line here, and it's easy to see that the Duo is working off the same spectrum that bleeds Primus-like chaos. Claypool doesn't see the bands as terribly different from each other.
"I've always sorta had that cadence and that approach to my lyrics, which is, you know, this sort of Jerry Reed meets Charlie Daniels meets Willy Wonka thing," Claypool says. "For me, looking at a song like 'Jerry,' the lyrics just flow. It was easy to twangify something like that. You can start playing sort of a Luther Perkins-style piece on the resonator bass and what lyrics flow easily over that are things like 'Jerry Was a Race Car Driver' or 'D's Diner.'"
To illustrate the point even better, "Winona's Big Brown Beaver" was actually originally written much like it appears on Four Foot Shack. The driving bass line is there, accented now by Kehoe's high-end strumming. Back in 1995, though, the tale of Winona took a heavy detour before returning to this twanged-out alternate universe.
"It just happened to become what it was famous for because I had this song that was written around this bass part and I had this lyric and they just happened to fit very well together, so we stuck them together," Claypool says. "Of course, that became the song the record company gravitated toward and it became the monster it became at the time."
On the other end of the Duo's gamut lies ol' Kehozer. A lifelong friend of Claypool's, he's logged an equally diverse and exceptional reputation onstage and in the studio. Kehoe brings plenty of playing time with Claypool (the aforementioned Frog Brigade) to the current partnership. Hell, he's spent time playing with a number of musicians who stretch the boundaries of genre. Jerry Cantrell, of Alice in Chains and other sinister outings, is one of them — hence the "Man in the Box" sendup on Four Foot Shack.
Claypool says that a lot of the offbeat cover tunes like that came about just from riffing on a melody or a lyric, which may morph into a song someone else has already written.
"We'll stumble across a bit or a piece of something. That's how 'Man in the Box' came about," Claypool says. "I just started horsing around, going 'Ai-ai-ai-ai-ai' and we just started laughing. Same thing with "Stayin' Alive.'" For color, he adds that they took a stab at "Holy Diver."
And that's the point. Claypool bears enough clout to be able to perform what and how he wants these days. The music is supposed to be fun and, in Claypool's world, it always has been. Regarding the future of these projects — the Duo, Primus, et. al. — anything can happen, he says, hinting briefly at some more Primus stuff on the horizon.
For now, the focus lies deeply on the tour ahead — campfire and all.
He describes a recent birthday party at his place, where a friend tried to persuade him to hire a DJ for the day. "DJ? I don't want no damn DJ." He goes on, affecting an amalgamated Eastern European accent to relay his friend's reply: "Well, no one wants to sit around and hear your damn hillbilly music, Claypool, Jesus Christ. Girls want to dance."
The hillbilly music won out.