Mutant circus funk? Salvador Dali hosts Sesame Street? There’s no straightforward description for the Bay Area-born alternative rock trio Primus. Picture a reality TV show in which Danny Elfman, Frank Zappa, Dr. Seuss, Hunter S. Thompson, Lewis Carroll, William S. Burroughs and the members of Rush live together and test out the latest experimental pharmaceuticals, and you’re getting close. At a loss for a succinct genre tag such as R&B, rock, country, etc., the folks who put together the WinAmp media player finally threw up their hands in defeat and simply filed Primus under “Primus.”
With all the emphasis on the big-top stunts of bassist/vocalist Les Claypool, listeners often overlook the crucial role that guitarist Larry LaLonde plays in the band’s distinctive sound. Various drummers have come and gone since LaLonde joined the group in 1989, but without this guy’s angular interval skips and gleefully jarring “outside” notes, there would be no Primus.
Talking with GT over the phone from the 7,000-foot elevation of Flagstaff, Ariz. (“I’m lightheaded, so I can’t think too quick,” he warns), LaLonde explains that his unique style originated from his desire to join the ranks of such experimental guitarists as Zappa, The Dead Kennedys’ East Bay Ray and The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. “When I got in Primus, I was like, ‘Oh, here’s my chance to come up with my own crazy sound,’” he recalls, adding that he was unhampered by any concerns about getting famous. “I figured there was no way Primus was going anywhere with the crazy music we were doing,” he offers.
Surprise, surprise—the band ended up not only selling records, but also becoming one of the more bizarre acts ever to hop into the brain cells of MTV viewers. “We thought we were doing the world some good, sandwiched between Whitney Houston and who-knows-what,” LaLonde chuckles, noting that the band’s success “just egged us on more: ‘Really? We got away with this? It’s working?’”
Rather than toning things down to lure a larger fan base, Primus has only gotten stranger over the years—daring, as one of its earliest songs went, “to defy the laws of tradition.” The group’s newest album, Green Naugahyde, which marks the return of drummer Jay Lane, once again proves these adventurous musicians to be master weird-smiths. The darkness that has always underlain the band’s quirkiness is very much in evidence on cuts like “Jilly’s on Smack” and “Tragedy’s a’ Comin’.” In reference to such songs’ “tragic characters and stories, sometimes delivered in a way that might be a little more palatable than if it was a Slayer song or some kind of death metal song,” LaLonde says he views Primus in the same way that many people viewed Frank Zappa. “They never really scratched the surface or paid too much attention to it, so it just sounded goofy to them, like a Dr. Demento type of thing,” he observes. “You always want to be taken somewhat seriously, but not too seriously. That’s the line we try to walk, I think.”
Having sailed the seas of strange with Primus for more than two decades, LaLonde now finds it hard to remove his freak hat when he’s called upon as a session player. “Usually they’ll go, ‘We should have just gotten a normal guy to play,’” he states. “It’s actually kind of a challenge sometimes to go back and play just regular, traditional stuff. I have to really rein myself to play any sort of normal blues lick or whatever.”
In other words, Primus has warped Mr. LaLonde for life. “There’s gonna be a lawsuit: ‘You guys screwed with my brain!’” he laughs.
INFO: Primus and Fishbone play at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 23 at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $48/adv, $50.50/day of show. For more information, call 420-5260 or visit goldenvoice.com.