Guitarist Larry ‘Ler’ LaLonde and bassist Les Claypool talk about the herculean task of performing a classic Rush album in its entirety
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The genius, quark-rock trio Primus will be at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre tomorrow, Saturday, May 7th, performing Rush’s 1977 album “A Farewell to Kings” after a set of their own songs. Special guests Battles will open.
For Primus, this “A Tribute to Kings” tour is about paying homage to their heroes – the legendary Hall-of-Fame-inducted band Rush.
No one in their right mind would try to perform a Rush album in its entirety. Rush songs are impossibly difficult, combining the absolute highest levels of musicianship, proficiency, and acrobatic mathematics. It’s a herculean musical undertaking, and Primus are up to the challenge.
Primus have been roaming the land for thirty years now delivering the sound of their three-piece, psycho-funk frizzle-fry. Vocalist, storyteller, and slap-bass progenitor Les Claypool, guitarist Larry ‘Ler’ LaLonde, and drummer Tim ‘Herb’ Alexander are alchemical emperors.
In 1991, Primus broke through with their major-label album “Sailing the Seas of Cheese.” The song “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” became a worldwide spittoon-anthem. Over the past two decades, Primus have only improved their quark fed sonic amalgamations.
LaLonde and Claypool spoke in separate interviews:
Are you sick of answering Rush questions yet?
LaLonde: You would think so. But it seems to be something I could talk about forever. Famous last words.
Good, because I have one hundred and seventy-eight Rush questions. Number one, how is your Eric Lifeson, Rush style guitar playing?
I’m gonna give myself an eleven. [Laughs] No. Just kidding. I grew up learning from listening to Alex play. So, nothing will ever be as good as him. He’s the best.
How is Les’s Geddy Lee approximation? Doing what Geddy Lee does is an impossible musical feat. It’s gotta be tough to do, even for Les.
It’s pretty dang good. I don’t know how the heck he does it. When we first started mapping it all out I was like, man, that’s a tall order. Just trying to sing like Geddy is hard enough. But to sing and play the bass parts? I don’t know how he does it.
Les being able to dial in premium levels of Geddy-ness does not surprise me. I bet Mozart would not have been able to do that.
Yes. There is much premium Geddy-ness with Les. [Laughs] He pulls it off. I mean, I don’t think anybody could get Geddy one hundred percent right. To do the voice, and hit those high-high notes, playing bass at the same time the way he does. Geddy is one of a kind. No disrespect to Mozart.
Have you guys had any contact with Geddy or Alex about the tour? Are they aware you’re doing it?
Les has spoken to Geddy a little bit. And I’ve emailed back and forth with Alex. As far as playing his parts, some of these chords, they aren’t normal chords. So it’s been great to be able to ask him, “Dude, what is this chord?”
Alex is one of the coolest people ever. We toured with Rush at one point, and got to know them a little then. They were the nicest guys. Stellar gentlemen. They definitely figured out – if you’re gonna be in a touring rock band, you should make it fun.
The Rush song “Closer to the Heart” is one of the greatest, most killer songs of all time. Do you emit mountains of joy when you play it live?
I do. And I agree. I’ve always loved that song. When I’m playing it, it’s sort of an out of body experience. It’s kind of weird and amazing to be playing it, and hearing it at the same time.
The little intro guitar thing is tricky. I had to train my fingers to play it. It’s one of the ones I asked Alex about. I told him, “You’re the only guitar player who could have written something this crazy.” Because it’s not a natural thing for your fingers. You have to hold the chords a certain way. Holding your fingers where the strings ring, then playing the little melody in between. It’s very unique. I didn’t realize it was so intricate.
When he responded, Alex said, “Oh yeah, that part is super hard. I had to train my fingers to do it too, because Geddy wrote that part.”
Speaking of masters and maestros, is your drummer Herb having Neil Peart nightmares? Neil Peart, RIP, one of the best drummers the planet has seen.
Agreed. I don’t know how Tim does it either. [Laughs] I’ve always assumed Tim is just a robot or something.
The song “Xanadu” has so many parts and movements. Playing that one must be like having to recite Homer’s “Odyssey.” It’s like a multi-level, multi-dimensional chess game against Phaunos, the Greek god of the forest.
Many sequences, yes. So much stuff going on. At first it was a little difficult to wrap my brain around all of it. It really takes focus, and can be taxing. But it’s fun. The good thing is that I’ve played in Frank Zappa bands, so I know what multi-dimensional chess is like. [Laughs]
Have there been any moments where you guys are like, “Why did we do this to ourselves?” You might as well be taking a calculus exam while juggling knives while walking on a tightrope every night.
There have been a couple of times I’ve thought, man, maybe we should have done AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
So why “A Farwell to Kings”?
When we hatched this idea of doing a tour where we were playing someone’s album, we were initially thinking of doing Rush’s “Hemispheres.” We had this joke when people would ask us what we were going to do on our next tour – and we would tell them we were going to play all of “Hemispheres.” Because it’s more obscure. And it seemed like the type thing no one would do.
As we dug into it, weighing album choices, we started thinking more about “A Farewell to Kings.” It’s one of Les’s favorite Rush albums. And the song “Cygnus X-1” is his favorite Rush song, and we’d all played versions of that before.
Hope you’re staying hydrated.
I know. That’s important. I’ll try.
Les, how would you say your Primus lyrics compare to Rush lyrics?
Claypool: That I do not know.
Primus lyrics seem to come from a character’s perspective. How do you choose the characters you’re going to write from?
I do tend to impart my social commentary through characters. I’m not the type of guy who gets up there and says, “Rally round the family with a pocket full of shells.” I appreciate that, but it’s not my style. I grew up watching Elia Kazan films and the Coen brothers films. I’m a fan of writers and directors that develop characters in their pieces. I was never really comfortable, especially early on, with being the singer of the band. I always considered myself to be the narrator. It was easier for me to go onstage and do “John the Fisherman” or “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” as a character than it was to get up there and sing, and hit the notes.
Your bass playing is so signature and unique. Like Geddy Lee from Rush. You’ve formulated your own sound. Is there anything in particular you’ve done over the years to arrive at your own sound? Apart from juggling knives, calculus, and tightrope walking.
As a young fellow back in the old days, I watched all the guys that could wiggle their fingers fast and tried to emulate some of them. But once you get the fundamentals down, you kinda move beyond that. It’s like learning to use a pencil or a crayon, you know? You start doodling on a piece of paper with that crayon, and shapes begin to pop out. And that’s the way the bass is for me. My sound just happens to be the crayon I picked out of the box. Once I got to where my fingers would do what my head wanted them to do, it was like having a conversation. I like it to be as casual as possible. I like to have good musical conversations with other fellows and fellowistas [laughs] who have similar inclinations