Primus are a strange band. Not strange in the way that bands like Muse or Biffy Clyro get called strange – Primus are downright weird. They’re the reason the word ‘quirky’ was invented. There’s really no one else that sounds quite like them. No one else out there employs an often fretless, six-string bass guitar as the lead melodic instrument while guitars rip through pure shred-wankery solos to create a bad-on-paper-not-much-prettier-in-practice fusion of progressive rock, funk, metal, jazz, offbeat humour and ugly, sludgy mounds of ugly, sludgy noise. Oh, and the vocals are naturally delivered in a slippery redneck drawl too.
This messy formula has led many a person to fall to their knees in pedantic despair when searching for an accurate genre tag to label them in their iTunes library – or I’d imagine so anyway. Due to this impossible categorisation some music streaming and playing programs have resorting to listing them as merely ‘Primus’ which speaks volumes of the band’s incomparable uniqueness. So perhaps then, you, like myself, would be righteously flabbergasted to discover that Primus are in fact a platinum-selling band.
That’s right, the bizarrely-brilliant minds of Les Claypool and co. has sold millions of records worldwide. In fact two of the group’s early albums hit the platinum mark – 1991’s Sailing The Seas Of Cheese and 1993’s Pork Soda – but I still can’t quite fathom how or why. Let alone their unappealing artwork, neither record is home to any type of catchy melody that would remain in one’s head five minutes after hearing it and the closest they came to hits were through tracks such as ‘Jerry Was A Race Car Driver’ or ‘My Name Is Mud’. Both songs showed the band’s jaw-dropping technical abilities – that mangled bass riff on ‘Jerry…’ is still a thing of ugly beauty – but they were just so uninviting. One introduced a mediocre racer whereas the other is from the perspective of a blue-collared simpleton preparing to bury the body of an acquaintance after a “common spat”. Not quite your relatable love story.
It’s no doubt that a big part of Primus’ success came from the era that spawned them; the alternative rock explosion of the 90s catered for the disillusioned youth of the day and Primus were inevitably lumped in with that. But each of the big guns of that musical movement – the Nirvanas, the Soundgardens, the Smashing Pumpkins and the Pearl Jams – possessed the kind of massive choruses that justified their superstar status – the biggest Primus could offer was probably something along the lines of “when I grow up I want to be/one of the harvesters of the sea/I think before my days are done/I want to be a fisherman”.
The band’s biggest single came with the chorusless wacky bounce of ‘Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver’, a song that told the tale quite simply of Wynona and her troublesome pet beaver – something everyone could get on board with – but their most well-known contribution to popular culture is undoubtedly their beloved theme for South Park. This remains Primus’ biggest platform into most people’s lives as the show has obviously remained an ever-relevant favourite on Television all while Primus have announced a hiatus, returned and turned into the elder statesmen of the…um Primus music scene. Given the fact that the age of grunge and alternative rock have long since passed, you may wonder how Primus slot in to today’s musical climate and the answer is, well just fine apparently.
Thanks to never really following trends – aside from 1999’s Antipop which was just a red cap away from becoming full on nu-metal – Primus have established a long and fruitful career by doing pretty much whatever they want and that has continued to today. 2011’s Green Naugahyde featured a funk workout about the late western actor Lee Van Cleef, another tale of fishing, an eerie upright-bass-led tragedy of a friend’s descent into addiction and then perhaps the record’s strongest track in ‘Extinction Burst’ in which I still have no idea what that Claypool is singing about.
Next week they are set to release their eighth studio album in which Claypool finally manages to live out his childhood dream as he – along with guitarist Larry ‘Ler’ LaLonde and Tim ‘Herb’ Alexander and the Fungi Ensemble – reinterprets the songs of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. This seems such a natural move for Claypool who has always given off a kind of Willy Wonka/mad genius vibe and the album’s re-workings of the movie’s eccentric jingles come across as perfectly in-touch with that distinctive Primus sound too. It’s a perfect (yet still obviously ugly sounding) marriage. The gorgeous soaring melodies of ‘Pure Imagination’ are twisted and stripped of their sparkle in favour of an eerie murkiness and the joyous ‘Golden Ticket’ is flipped into a dream-gone-wrong mix of dancing xylophones and tense percussion that could have just as easily originated from Halloween Town in The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Like them or not, they’ve made a career – a platinum-selling career at that – out of doing exactly what they want and being exactly as weird as they want. Sure it may not sound too pretty but they’re good at what they do. Some call them a band for musicians due to their incredible instrumental ability which is highlighted by the outrageous things that Claypool does with his bass and this is partly true – I don’t think I’d be anywhere near as big a fan of them if I hadn’t have discovered them when I was first picking up the bass myself. But I hardly think that those millions of album sales can be accounted for simply by enthusiastic bass-slappers like myself, I don’t know what it is but they seem to have some kind of appeal. ‘Is it luck?’ you may ask, maybe it’s just because they ‘Defy The Laws Of Tradition’ or maybe it’s just because there is a market out there for really, really strange music and that is the one thing that the Primus ‘music genre’ will never fail to deliver.