Cheese Wizards

Primus scrapes off the mold with a retrospective DVD, new songs, and a new tour.

Primus Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Avenue 7 p.m. Wednesday, November 12, $28.50 advance, $30 day of show, 216-241-5555
Left, bum-bum-bum-bum, right!: Primus resurrects - Sailing the Seas of Cheese.
Left, bum-bum-bum-bum, right!: Primus resurrects Sailing the Seas of Cheese.
Since 1999, the last time the universe heard from Primus, frontman/cartoon character Les Claypool has kept busy with side bands that would make any musician drool. There was Oysterhead -- which paired him with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and former Police trapsman Stewart Copeland -- and Frog Brigade, which reunited the original 1986 Primus lineup. Those projects left fans to wonder whether Primus would ever come off the "indefinite hiatus" list.

"Working that closely with people for any length of time, things become abrasive," admits Claypool. "We really needed time away. But as time passed, I started longing to do those songs again. I really enjoy that stuff."

Fueling the nostalgia was a return to the second Primus lineup of drummer Tim Alexander and guitarist Larry LaLonde, not heard together since 1995's Tales From the Punch Bowl. "We had been talking about doing some sort of retrospective DVD, with the notion that we weren't going to be playing together," Claypool says. "Then, as we put together material, we got nostalgic, and next thing you know, we're playing together. We've sort of been just rolling along since summer."

The resulting DVD and EP, Animals Shouldn't Try to Act Like People, compiles all 13 of the band's arresting videos (including the Claypool/Claymation collaboration on "The Devil Went Down to Georgia") with hours of extra behind-the-scenes and live footage. It also features five new songs, including "Pilcher's Squad," about the notorious police sergeant who busted Beatles John and George for possessing marijuana he just happened to pull out of his own pocket.

Perhaps the most interesting wrinkle in this reunion is the band's decision to play two sets, the first being a selection of highlights from its vast repertoire and the second a performance of 1991's undying oddity Sailing the Seas of Cheese in its entirety, start to finish. For Claypool, whose Frog Brigade played Pink Floyd's Animals in running order for its second set, it seemed inevitable that he'd get around to giving his own band the sequential treatment.

"I'm a big fan of records like The Wall," he says. "Things like that, where it's like watching a film. I don't put Animals on and listen to part of it; I have to sit down and listen from beginning to end.

"There's no real definitive concept, just an ongoing thread behind Sailing the Seas -- just a sort of musical theme that runs through and gives it its continuity," Claypool continues. "The whole notion behind Sailing was that this was our first major-label release. We were always an independent band, kind of a cult band, and all of a sudden, we were going to be marketed alongside the Bon Jovis, the Gerardos of the world. And so to us, we were going to sail the seas of cheese. That's what that means."

Claypool recites the title track's lyric as evidence: "When the cold wind of conformity is nipping at your nose/ When some trendy new atrocity has brought you to your knees/Come with us, we'll sail the Seas of Cheese.'"

Amazingly, "the cold wind of conformity" left the band alone to make what stands today as a very accessible yet incredibly quirky album, populated by offbeat character studies like "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver" and "Tommy the Cat," with its awkward mantra of "Say baby, do you want to lay down by my side" that sounds as if a Mormon is calling a phone sex line for the first time. "Tommy the Cat" was offhandedly based on a former bandmate of Claypool's, who fancied himself as something of a chick magnet. Nabbing boho troubadour Tom Waits to recite why a woman is like a hot biscuit was the first visible benefit of being on a major label.

"I was talking to an A&R guy and said it would be great if we could get someone like Tom Waits to do the voice, and he's like 'Let's get him,'" Claypool says. "And I'm like 'How do we do that?' So I just wrote him a letter and sent a tape, and he responded back, came and did it, and subsequently we've worked together a few times in the last 10 years."

By the time Primus got platinum-popular with the 1993 follow-up Pork Soda and ensuing albums, Claypool says, helpful suggestions from the record company like "Let's get him" began to feel like cattle-prodding.

"Around [1999's] Antipop, we were getting a lot of pressure from our record company at the time, 'cause there was all these bands that were very much inspired by Primus that were becoming hugely popular, so they said, 'You really need to regain the title, do this, that, and the other thing, and work with this producer . . .' and they had never really messed with us before," he says. "So I said, 'Why don't we just get artists we respect to produce us?'"

So they enlisted Waits, James Hetfield, Fred Durst, Stewart Copeland, and even Matt Stone of South Park fame (Primus, you'll recall, penned the twisted series' jarring theme). Although Claypool is never without extracurricular projects with other musicians, he's enjoying being a member of the Primus triumvirate once again.

"We haven't done a Primus tour that's come close to selling out like this one, so that adds a bit of excitement," he says. "And we're enjoying each other's company. Maybe we don't bring out the best in each other as musicians. But we bring out the Primus in each other."

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