Les Claypool on the Frog Brigade, Oysterhead,

Les Claypool is speaking from his ranch in Sonoma County, where he lives with his wife and enjoys such hobbies as fishing, making wine, writing, reading (he loves Steinbeck, Hemingway, David Sedaris, Jean Shepherd and Bukowski) and, most recently, flying planes. He just got his pilot’s license, and he flew the plane he bought with a friend to Burbank last week to play with Primus alongside Tool for a benefit concert.

“I’ve got a good spot out here,” Claypool reflects. “It’s a very comfortable spot. People like to come to West Sonoma County; it’s pretty. So they come out, we do some fishing. We go get some oysters, we go get some clam chowder. We now can fly around in my airplane. And we make music. It’s all fodder for making music.”

And screenplays, too. He’s planning to meet with his son later in the day to work on one. “It’s based on my novel South of the Pump House, which is basically three guys in a boat. One of them’s on mushrooms, and two of them are on crystal meth. Draw your own conclusions,” he deadpans.

All in all, Claypool could be the most interesting musician around. He’s already the world’s most badass bassist.

The idiosyncratic musician founded the genre-defying Primus back in ’84, a band some younger millennials discovered unwittingly through the South Park theme song or Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater in ’99. “I do hear that more and more and more,” Claypool says, chuckling. “I played it many, many years ago, but not diligently. I’m not a big gamer.”

But most fans know Primus from long before “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” set the tone for kick-flipping characters like Bob Burnquist. The band is famous for its wild, engaging concerts and unique sound that lay a solid foundation for the most fun, and weirdest, night out ever. Through that band and his many other projects, Claypool has managed to live life to the fullest, while always finding room for more excitement.

And it all began when Claypool first picked up the bass at age fourteen, when he was living in the East Bay. His favorite bassists include Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, Louis Johnson, Larry Graham, Stanley Clarke and Tony Levin. “I always joked that the reason I played bass is because I couldn’t get a gig easily because everybody wanted to be Eddie Van Halen; nobody wanted to play the bass,” he recalls. “I just always liked the sound of the bass better. I was in various bands and I eventually started Primate in 1984. And then we had to change the name, because there was another band called Primate. And we became Primus. After eight or nine drummers, we ended up with Tim Alexander. And away we went!”

They went far into unfettered creativity, as Claypool leaned into the adventures life has to offer.

“It sounds glib, but it’s life. That’s why I go and learn to fly airplanes and why I drive my own tour bus and why I go out on the ocean and grab my excavator and go move trees around and hang out with really interesting people and make wine and swing gourmet wieners around,” Claypool says. “All these are experiences in life that you bring to your creativity and your output. You know, my favorite people have always had this kind of rich life. Some of them are dark. That’s life sometimes, but I find that the most interesting, creative people I know tend to reflect interesting, or I should say unique, life experiences.”

And as the adage goes, birds of a feather flock together. Always warm, intriguing and curious to explore new musical landscapes, Claypool has made an array of connections across the music industry, which has led to longterm friendships and, of course, his many supergroups.

Claypool is resurrecting one of those supergroups, the jam-centric band Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, to go on tour this spring for the first time in twenty years. The band will play Mission Ballroom on Wednesday, May 24, with opener Fishbone. While Primus will always be Claypool’s main project, sometimes he just needs to mix things up.

The Flying Frog Brigade formed after Primus went on hiatus in the late ’90s, and Claypool started one of his many other supergroups, Oysterhead, with Phish frontman Trey Anastasio and Stewart Copeland, drummer and founder of The Police.

“I’d been asked to put together a project for Jazz Fest by the Superfly guys, and they wanted me to do a super jam, and I didn’t know what that was: What the hell’s a super jam?” Claypool recalls. “I said, ‘I’m gonna call my friend Trey Anastasio. He knows about this jam world, because I didn’t know shit about it.’ I said, ‘Hey, you want to do this gig?’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, I’ve always wanted to do something with you and Stewart Copeland.’

Claypool laughs. “I think he said that thinking I wouldn’t be able to get Stewart Copeland, find a graceful way to not do the gig,” he says. “So I called Stewart because I knew Stewart, and he said, ‘I’ve been waiting for this phone call for 25 years.’ We did Oysterhead.”

It wouldn’t be the last group that Claypool initially formed for a music festival, and then kept rolling. He also created Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains in 2002 with Buckethead, Bernie Worrell and Bryan Mantia to play Bonnaroo, then followed up with a 2004 tour culminating with the album The Big Eyeball in the Sky. In 2012, he founded the bluegrass group Duo de Twang with M.I.R.V. guitarist Bryan Kehoe for a bluegrass festival, and kept it going for a couple of years. He then started The Claypool Lennon Delirium with Sean Ono Lennon in 2015, after Lennon’s band The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger opened for Primus on tour. The Delirium has released two studio albums of psychedelic prog-rock, and Claypool’s stayed in touch with Lennon, who became great friends with his son. “They’re both super science nerds,” Claypool says, adding that he now considers Lennon “family.”

Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade is somewhat of an outlier from these super groups; it went dormant after it was formed for a music festival, then toured and released two live recordings and a studio album, Purple Onion, in 2002.

“After [Oysterhead], all of a sudden I was getting asked by other festivals to do projects, and one of them was the Mountain Aire Festival in Calaveras County. The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County from Mark Twain — that’s how the Frog Brigade was born,” Claypool recalls.

“I just fell into this world and I really embrace the jam world, and the jam world embraced me. It was a really wonderful period of growth for me as an artist, because it was more about people that wanted to come see musicians play their instruments, as opposed to come and see, you know, what kind of hat they were wearing and if they were wearing it backwards, or if their pants were baggy enough,” he continues. “It wasn’t based on style and trend, which I was finding very frustrating more and more in the world where Primus somewhat existed. But Primus always had open-ended songs and we were always kind of noodling around, so it just seemed like a natural transition.”

Mega Claypool fans have probably heard of the band, if not seen it. In Claypool’s hilarious mock-rockumentary, Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo, which pokes fun at the jam scene with wild yet relatable characters, the Flying Frog Brigade appears on the flier for the fictional Festeroo. 

“I think a lot of things with me entering the jam world inspired that movie,” Claypool recalls. “Even stories I’d heard from some of my friends that were big in the jam world, I definitely took some of those stories and threw them in there. Obviously, people compare it to Spinal Tap, but there were a couple of films made in Britain called Bad News. That’s really what I based a lot of my approach on.”

While the Flying Frog Brigade originally formed for Mountain Aire, the band took to the road. “Basically, once Primus went on hiatus, I was in a midlife state of fear,” Claypool says, and laughs. “You know, thinking, ‘What the hell am I gonna do now?’ I just gathered all my favorite musicians together and stuck ’em in an Airstream motorhome that I bought and we drove up and down the coast, playing bars, and didn’t play any Primus music. And I’d always said that if I ever had a keyboardist, I wanted to play ‘Pigs,’ because it’s one of my all-time favorite songs. So we learned ‘Pigs,’ and then I’m like, ‘Shit let’s learn the whole record and then we don’t need to have an opening band.’ And we did, and that’s how it all came about.”

As it did on its first (and until now only) tour, the Frog Brigade will play Pink Floyd’s Animals on its current run, as well as some Primus tunes and music from Claypool’s myriad projects. But why now?

“There’s been a lot of requests for it from people that didn’t get to see it,” Claypool says. “I kept hearing from my manager, ‘Hey, we’re getting a lot of requests from promoters for this Frog Brigade, for you to come back and do Animals,’ and all that whatnot. So, had a big couple years with Primus, and it’s time to let that rest, take a little breath. It just seemed like the right time to do it.”

Given the two-decade gap since the last tour, the Frog Brigade’s lineup has gone through changes. For example, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti was an original member, but “he has a much bigger gig,” Claypool notes, since Chimenti is currently on the road with Dead & Co.

“We’re gonna be playing stuff from throughout my career, and so there’s different guys from different periods of my career,” Claypool explains. “The only person that’s really new for me is Harry Waters, he’s playing keyboards. And Sean Lennon’s on guitar, so we will probably dip into some Delirium because of that. Paulo Baldi’s on drums, who has played with me for many years, and Skerik’s on sax; he’s the only original Frog Brigade guy, and then [percussionist] Mike Dillon, who I’ve been playing with for many, many years.”

Between tour stops, it’s back to the ranch, where Claypool makes music with friends he invites to stay. That’s how Delirium started, and Lennon and Claypool are currently “halfway through” the third Delirium album. But that’s not Claypool’s only project, of course.

His latest guest at the ranch is break-out bluegrass star Billy Strings (born William Apostol). The two are collaborating on an album, Claypool says, and all it took were some blatant hints from Apostol. While Claypool was playing with Delirium, his wife noticed that there was something odd about the Billy Strings setlist from that night. Taken together, the first letters of each song spelled out Claypool’s name.

“I was like, ‘What the hell is this?’ and my wife says, ‘It’s Billy Strings,'” Claypool recalls. “And it was a little, uh, it was kinda creepy!”

After Claypool’s daughter wrangled him into making an Instagram, Apostol would comment on the fishing photos he’d post. “And then he sent me fishing pictures,” Claypool says. He invited Apostol out to Sonoma to go fishing, “and then we decided to get together and jam, and we did. And we’re like, ‘Well, this is cool, let’s write an album about fishing.’ So we started doing that,” Claypool says. “We got a bunch of songs, so we’ll see what happens.”

For Strings, it’s probably a thrill to play with someone he admires so much. Claypool knows that feeling: He’s gotten to play with many of his heroes.

“He’s one of my best friends now, but I mean, playing in a band with Stewart Copeland was pretty fuckin’ amazing,” he says. “Playing with Geddy is always amazing. Whenever we play with him, it’s incredible. Stanley Clarke sat in with me one time and kicked the shit out of me, and I was super thrilled to have that happen. Whenever I play with Tom Waits, that’s a wonderful thing, an amazing thing. I’ve gotten to play with a lot of my heroes; Bernie Worrell, one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever played with. Unbelievable. Adrian Belew. Even doing that thing last week with the Tool guys was spectacular. We had so much fun.

“It’s amazing when your heroes still shine as bright as they do in your mind when you’re fourteen years old, you know what I mean?”

It’s easy to see why such heroes become friends with the ever-affable Claypool, who’s excited to hit the road with the Frog Brigade and come to Denver. But even though Claypool used to play with Primus while on psychedelics, he doesn’t plan to try any newly legal shrooms while he’s here. “I could try a different way, but they just upset my stomach,” he admits.

Back in the day, though, playing to a giant crowd while tripping was “amazing,” Claypool says. “Many years ago, early ’90s, Primus got talked into doing a Daytona Beach thing for MTV, and I didn’t want to do it. I thought it was so cheesy. ‘I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to do this.’ And my manager said, ‘Hey, look. You got to do this because you keep saying no to all these things. You got to at least do this one, or they’re going to just quit promoting your records.’ So we agreed to do it, and I was so annoyed that we had to do it that on the way down there, I ate some acid.

“So there we are on MTV, and there’s Pauly Shore and the Cypress Hill guys. And I was flying out of my mind,” he laughs. “We’re playing ‘Tommy the Cat,’ and I remember everything looked orange to me. Everything.”

Fortunately, the Mission Ballroom is a bit too dark to turn orange, acid or no. And Claypool doesn’t need anything to heighten his shows with close friends.

“What I’m looking forward to the most, to be quite honest with you, is getting to hang out with all these guys. … On this tour, we’re all going to be on the same bus and it’s by choice, because I want to hang with these dudes,” Claypool says. “So I’m looking forward to the hang, and the best shows come from when the band is having fun. I’m looking forward to the camaraderie of the frog.”

Fearless Flying Frog Brigade plays Mission Ballroom, 4242 Wynkoop Street, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 24. Tickets are sold out; resale options are available.

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