Frogs frolic in familiar territory

Les Claypool may be the closest thing to a Renaissance man that modern-rock music has seen. He wears the mantles of a producer, video director, cartoonist/animator, screenwriter, record-label owner and interactive design artist with equal aplomb -- oh, and there's that little thing he does with the bass, too. Starting in the late '80s, Les Claypool began his assault on the staid sensibilities of the post-punk/new-wave age with his genre-lacerating outfit Primus and their free-form aggression propelled by an instrument that, up until that point in rock, most fans couldn't even identify. Since then, the Claypool juggernaut has just continued to gain speed. He has changed with protean efficiency his sound and persona numerous times over the years with side projects such as Sausage, Holy Mackerel, Frog Brigade and Oysterhead, all with resounding comparative success; besides the immense talent and, seemingly, endless creative energy, what is his secret?

"It's gotta be sex appeal, man," he tells me by way of faltering cell phone from the stark climes of Toronto, where the Frog Brigade had descended on the most recent leg of their current tour. "It's just perseverance. I'm like a salmon going up the stream; when I get to the top I'm gonna spawn and die."

A typically Claypoolian response of fish analogy -- fishing is his passion -- and humor. Yet it also gives a glimpse beneath the fez of a man whose comical facade belies the understanding that his position has not been achieved merely through the kind hand of fate, but by hard work and an insistence on doing things his way. The latter has been made considerably easier since he became an independent again after years of association with major-label imprint Interscope Records.

"Interscope was a great label for Primus for a good number of years, but now it's gotten to be too big of a machine," Claypool explains. "`Now` I can do what I want with nobody breathing over my shoulder, nobody keeping me from doing the things I want to do."

And that new spirit is quite evident in Frog Brigade and Oysterhead, his two most recent projects. Oysterhead -- a collaboration between Claypool, Stewart Copeland (whom Claypool refers to as "the John Bonham of the '80s") and Trey Anastasio (of Phish) -- is still in its incipient stages with an album due out in October on Elektra Records, and one monumental performance, albeit at the 2000 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, under its collective belt. Boot-leggers have already been passing around some recordings from this much-talked about live show, but Claypool promises that nothing from the gray-market tapes is from the studio recording.

"Bootleggers have not beat us to the punch on the album; they've beaten us to the punch on the live stuff," he says with no little degree of pride.

At the moment, though, it is Les Claypool's Frog Brigade -- an all-star collection of San Francisco's top musicians -- that is getting his full attention, as well as that of music fans around the country. The Frog Brigade is a bit of a departure for Claypool, as it more closely aligns him with the jam-band genre than the alternative-rock scene he has come to be identified with. Yet it is jam-rock's open environment and musical philosophy that he finds both accommodating and appealing.

"The community is continually growing and evolving, and there's a lot of different types of music being played in the community," he said. "It's sort of becoming more of a hub than a scene. It's more about how you approach the music than the type of music itself."

The six-man Frog Brigade approaches the music with a much more blues/funk latency than in other Claypool projects, and its choice of material is certainly unique yet familiar. In many ways, the group comes across as the most ambitious cover band on the planet. It is by far the best thing Claypool has ever done. (Witnesses to the group's local debut at House of Blues a few months back, opening for Galactic, will testify to this fact.)

On Frog Brigade's first release, "Live Frogs Set 1," they borrow heavily from the Claypool catalog, with the songs "Riddles Are Abound Tonight," "Hendershot," "Shattering Song," "Running the Gauntlet" and "Girls for Single Men," as well as one cover song each from King Crimson ("Thela Hun Ginjeet") and Pink Floyd ("Shine on You Crazy Diamond"). The second release, due out in later this month, aptly titled "Live Frogs Set 2," is a cover version of Pink Floyd's classic 'Animals' done in its entirety. Why would the man with the creatively A-plus personality find it necessary to cover an entire album?

"Well, I had always wanted to play 'Pigs,' and, finally, I had the instrumentation with Frog Brigade, so we started learning 'Pigs,' and I thought, 'well, shit, let's go out and do the entire Animals album and play two sets and not have an opening band.' So that's what we did."

That response certainly rings with the independent sound of "because I can" to me. And Claypool's newfound autonomy surely means that his loyal "Bastardos" (his fans) will never have to suffer a dearth of new material from their beloved leader, especially considering the upcoming release by Oysterhead and plans for a Les Claypool album in the near future.

So, after over a decade of making sure the mainstream musical coffers contained at least an inkling of non-procrustean sound, and the first "you suck!" was ever shouted out at a Primus concert, we come to the final and, possibly, most pertinent question: What should the Claypool fans yell out now?

"You know, various things," says the Frog King, with a laugh. "Nothing that's quite as poignant."


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