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Primus: Willy Wonka’s Wild Ride

Emily Zemler | November 18, 2014

As time shifts from one year to the next, three musicians stand on a dark stage at Oakland, Calif.’s Fox Theater. Massive lacquered candies—red, green and pink in color—hover over them. Chocolate bars are born in a factory projected on the video screen above the stage. The music, scant at first, resonates from a bass guitar, each note whomping and twanging with a certain purpose. The melody, plucked and then played with a bow, creeps into nostalgic familiarity. The crowd has heard this song before but not, as one might expect, on one of Primus’ many albums.

It’s New Year’s Eve 2013-14 and, as usual, Primus has decided to herald the changing of time by headlining a festive spectacle. This year, inspired by singer and bassist Les Claypool’s unyielding obsession, they have selected Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory as the evening’s theme, referencing both Roald Dahl’s series of children’s books and the 1971 film adaptation that starred Gene Wilder as the titular character. Primus is so invested in the evening’s premise that they are recreating the film’s entire soundtrack live, which is why the initial melody holds such a memorable association. This performance also marks the long-awaited return of drummer Tim Alexander, who last played with Primus at Outside Lands in 2008.

In that respect, the performance is also the beginning of something other than a new year. Primus, now back to the so-called classic lineup of Claypool, Alexander and guitarist Larry LaLonde, will release Primus & The Chocolate Factory with The Fungi Ensemble on October 21 via ATO. It’s the first full-length studio album to feature this particular lineup since 1995’s commercial breakthrough Tales from the Punchbowl, and the band’s eighth overall record. It is a strange, electric collection of songs that somehow feels inevitable, given the band’s affinity for colorful, funky, mad-scientist-like mayhem. For Claypool, it connects to something that’s interested him since childhood.

“I was very young and we went to the movie theater,” Claypool says of first seeing Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. It’s now late August and the musician has recently finished a string of dates with his country project Duo de Twang. He claims uncertainty about where he is on any given day during the busy summer season, yet remembers the film with uncanny clarity. “I went and I sat down and I just remember the whole intro, with all the chocolate being made on the conveyor belts, with the little Kisses and the different elements of chocolate, and I was just mesmerized. I was hooked from the opening credits.”

Claypool was initially hesitant to rework the movie’s soundtrack as a Primus album because it would require him to utilize members of both his formative band and his solo group in order to truly bring the compositions to life. The bassist has repeatedly said that he wanted to keep his bands separate, but in the end, art trumped logic.

“This was a project I’d been thinking about for a while,” Claypool says. “I knew I wanted to take on some sort of sacred cow. One of the thoughts was actually to do Magical Mystery Tour, which I’m glad we didn’t do because I’ve now learned that The Flaming Lips have taken on Sgt. Pepper. The other thought was to do Wonka. So I combined the guys, and we started recording and then, we did the New Year’s show.”

Alexander was a key part of that creative process. However, he’d actually played very little music for almost five years when he rejoined the group at the tail end of 2013. After leaving Primus, the drummer worked with Maynard James Keenan’s band Puscifer for a period in 2010, but admits that he was burned out and uncertain about his artistic future.

“I wasn’t really liking playing music or drums,” Alexander says from his home in Northern Washington, where he lives with his wife and child, and has been recovering from a heart attack he suffered in July. “It was a pretty weird time for me.”

The drummer already had a long, complicated relationship with Primus. After playing with the alt-funk heroes since 1989, he stepped away from the band in 1996. The group added drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia in time for 1997’s Brown Album and 1999’s Antipop, before going on hiatus in 2000. Claypool, LaLonde and Alexander regrouped for a handful of sporadic, nostalgic tours between 2003 and 2008, but focused their jamband-oriented live performances on back-catalog songs instead of new material. Following Alexander’s departure, they recruited RatDog drummer and Furthur percussion- ist Jay Lane—who had clocked in time with an incarnation of Primus in the ‘80s—in 2010.

Lane played on 2011’s Green Naugahyde and, around the record’s release, Claypool told Relix, “We didn’t have the feeling of new doors with Tim [Alexander], unfortunately. Tim’s a great guy. He’s probably one of the most un-malicious people on the planet—or is it non- malicious? Anyway, we never really clicked [when he reunited with Primus]. The clicking that we had in the ‘90s—we [had] clicked it all out. That was our well that we had drawn from. I think we would have been going through the motions if we tried to do it with Tim again.”

Last year, after some soul-searching, Alexander decided to call the band and let them know he was available if they ever wanted him back. Coincidently, shortly after, Lane heard that Weir planned to focus on RatDog for most of 2014, and he gave Primus his notice, opening the door for Alexander’s return.

“It had been around five or six years since I had played with those guys,” notes Alexander, who has been doing much better since his open-heart surgery a month before. “I’d hardly talked with them. I got to that period where I was not sure what I was doing. I thought about maybe getting back into playing so I put it out there and allowed it to be whatever happened. I hadn’t heard from anyone for a while. And then, one day, Les called and said that things were changing with them and wanted to know if I was interested in playing again.”

Claypool admits, “He’d spent a lot of years not very excited about playing his instrument. I can relate to him, to an extent, because we’re all looking for the next mountain to climb, the next challenge. And you get to a point with what you’re doing where you feel like you’re chasing your tail and you have to find things that excite you and get you reinvigorated about what you’re doing. I’m always opening new doors because that’s what keeps me wanting to be on the planet. So I think, for all of us, this is another new door.”

If you are a hard-edged rock band interested in interpreting the soundtrack to an iconic children’s movie, then where do you begin? For Claypool, the logical beginning was “Candy Man,” a song with a charming swing in the movie that’s taken on a very different sensibility on Primus’ album. The musician got the song caught in his head and would play what he calls a “creepy riff ” over and over. It caused a domino effect, similar to when Claypool wanted to cover Pink Floyd’s “Pigs” and wound up performing their Animals album in its entirety. Suddenly, the musicians were working through classics like “Golden Ticket” and “Oompa Loompa Song.”

Mike Dillon and Sam Bass, who have played with Claypool in some of his solo projects, joined Primus in Claypool’s studio throughout the process last winter. The focus was split between creating vibrant, eclectic per- cussion and building interesting characters with Claypool’s gritty voice.

“Most of the arrangements, you have to tailor around the vocals,” Claypool says, admitting that he doesn’t have a real sense of when the musicians actually worked on the songs because his “hard drive is pretty fragmented these days.” The timeline of the process, al- though notable, isn’t as significant as the process itself.

“That’s what set the framework for the arrangements—my vocal approach,” he continues. “So I had my idea in my head of how I wanted most of it to go. You know, the film just barely touches on the dark elements of it. Roald Dahl wrote some dark shit. There’s a creepier element to the books. So we paid homage to the film, and especially to Gene Wilder, who I thought was amazing, but also delved more into what the books were about.”