Les Claypool: Where Fish Congregate

Quite simply, like the sturgeon itself, Claypool is the Maestro of the Bottom.


Blame it on the Fish

Label: Prawn Song
US Release Date: 2006-10-17

Les Claypool

Of Whales and Woe

Label: Prawn Song
US Release Date: 2006-05-30

As a fisherman and bass player, you can imagine how Les Claypool’s lyrics and bass playing hooked me in 1990 when I first heard Primus’ legendary single, “John the Fisherman”.

“What the hell is this?” I asked my buddy, Yo (a.k.a Mike Gardner), a fabulous guitar player himself, who first turned me onto the wacky trio from San Francisco Bay. Yo and I were practicing songs, when he said coolly, “Just check them out. They’re insane,” as in really talented, eccentric musicians, particularly Les.

Claypool’s bass playing combines all that’s unique about the four-stringed axe: thumping, underbelly melodies that, if a cardiac monitor, would indicate the wildest of heart rhythms; hard, earthquake-like chords; and a wildly pumping, slaphappy thumb. He’s a bass player’s utopia; however, his bass playing is only one component of his eccentric aesthetic: that he and his mates harbored the audacity to release, what has become, an anti-radio cult ballad such as “John the Fisherman” made all those infatuated with not only bass but also the finned art giddy.

At this point in his career, Claypool may be as popular a fisherman as he is a bass player. His

Fly Fishing the World

appearances – one in 2004 trout fishing on Henry’s Fork in Idaho and another in 2005 in Quebec, Canada – increased attention about his love of angling and helped explain to his fan base why so much of his art boasts fishing- or water-related themes. A scuba diver and general enthusiast for virtually everything aquatic, Claypool has angled with other fishing personalities including former San Francisco 49ers head coach George Seifert, also an avid angler.

Claypool once said in an interview, “Hemingway wrote a lot about fishing and bullfighting. Bukowski wrote about booze and horse racing,” reminding fans that it’s not uncommon for an artist to have varied motifs. However, he added, “Yeah, there are all kinds of things I enjoy doing. I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with fishing.”

Perhaps, but fast-forward two decades since “John the Fisherman”’s original release, and his “obsession” has gained new momentum. Riding the song’s tsunami of recycled success, which has been instigated by the contagiously popular Guitar Hero video game series (it appears on Guitar Hero II), Claypool and his many fishing themes are back. One need only look at Primus’ 2006 DVD Blame it on the Fish, and particularly its intriguing cover art, to realize that.

“John the Fisherman” is part of a trilogy known as “The Fisherman Chronicles”. The second installment is “Fish On”, which appears on the band’s second recording, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, and concluding the trilogy is “The Ol’ Diamondback Sturgeon” on Pork Soda, their third.

“John” was first released live in 1989 on Suck on This, their first live release, and features an intro that covers the opening 5/4 riff from Rush’s popular instrumental “YYZ”. In 1990, “John the Fisherman” was released on the band’s debut album Frizzle Fry, so technically, it’s the band’s first single.

The song and its bobbing, hypnotic rhythms are alternative rock’s tribute to fishermen across the globe. The song’s lyrics introduce us to John, a young boy who, “alienated from the clique society … finds peace in fishing.” Not listening to his mother’s pleas to find a more traditional lifestyle, John is determined to become a “harvester of the sea”. Years later, he voyages into the ocean as a fisherman one May morning, is caught in a nasty storm, and never returns.

“Fish On”, with its thoughtful, haunting introductory bass solo and bluesy, catchy riffs, includes three verses, each briefly narrating different Les fishing tales. The first occurs off Muir Beach with Les and Primus guitar player, Larry LaLonde. The second occurs with Les and his dad on San Pablo Bay where, amazingly, his dad hooked and landed a 100-pound sturgeon. The third occurs with Les and Todd Huth, who LaLonde replaced on guitar, as the buddies fished Bohuas Lagoon.

“The Ol’ Diamondback Sturgeon” offers an upbeat, springy groove that sounds more like a psychedelic exercise video than an alternative rock tune. Its lyrics pay tribute to the prehistoric fish known as the diamondback sturgeon and narrate a trip when Les caught and fought one of the beasts.

These three songs remind us, once again, of all that’s important about the fishing tale. They pay homage to the enduring value of the fish story, especially its resonance in popular culture. As one of my colleagues, Dr. Richard Swaim (an avid angler himself), recently reminded me, “Think about it. What two books are most commonly used in high school English classes? Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea.” Each song is a fish tale that ponders the solace and adventure angling offers, and when presented within the context of a funky, unique Primus groove and articulated by Claypool’s unusual, nasally voice, one cannot help but imagine themselves on that boat, drifting atop the waves, with Les himself.

Also, Claypool’s playful ruminations recall the childhood amazement that seizes one’s soul when pondering what lurks below the waves. Primus songs are first and foremost fun, and nowhere is this more evident than in these three tunes. Whether visualizing young John insistently rejecting his mother’s pleas to pursue a more traditional lifestyle, or reveling in the irony of Les munchin’ on a tuna salad sandwich while fishing, or imagining the ol’ buck sturgeon’s personified movements, these songs boast a youthful exuberance that only a fishing trip and the fish it celebrates can conjure.

Not coincidentally, these three songs also narrate trips with or about important men in his life. Whether with his dad or former or current band mates, Claypool’s compulsion to write these songs must have at least partially been fueled by the simple fact that he shared them with close friends. Once again, the plexus of men’s relationships, natural wonders, and storytelling emerges brightly while fishing.

Most notably in these chronicles, though, surface his fascination with sturgeon, and understandably so. A sturgeon’s prehistoric scales and body, enormous size (some grow beyond 400 pounds), and eccentric, whiskered snout distinguish it from many species. Sturgeons have no known enemies; are notorious bottom-dwellers, sucking shrimp, crayfish, and other insects from a river’s bottom; can, notwithstanding their intimidating size, leap fully out of water; live for many decades; and produce the delicacy known as caviar. How can you not fall for such a strange character?

Claypool – even his name sounds like a place where fish congregate – is obviously awed by many fish species. Some of his other ichthyologic song titles and musical projects include another Primus song, “The Family and the Fishing Net”; the solo project Holy Mackerel, Of Whales and Woe, and The Frog Brigade; and another band, Oysterhead, with The Police’s Stewart Copeland and, not surprisingly, former Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. Of course, the name of his instrument is a popular heteronym that can also be misinterpreted for bass, as in striped or largemouth bass.

But it’s from the sturgeon that we can best learn who Les Claypool is: an enduring, eccentric behemoth of an artist who has gained the highest praise from his peers and fans while producing some of alternative rock’s most legendary bass riffs. Quite simply, like the sturgeon itself, Claypool is the Maestro of the Bottom.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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