Primus‘ Sailing the Seas of Cheese was an oddity of an album when it came out in May of 1991, and it remains so to this day. The band had previously released two independent records—1989’s live Suck on This and their studio debut, 1990’s Frizzle Fry—after which the fledgling major label imprint Interscope picked them up. Because Primus was the second act they’d signed, they put some real marketing muscle behind Seas of Cheese. While Primus wasn’t the instant success that Interscope’s first signee, Gerardo (of “Rico Suave” one-hit-wonder fame) was, the album did eventually go Gold and sell over 500,000 copies in North America.
Still, the band was an offbeat choice with which to start a major label. At the dawn of the 1990s, their mix of Frank Zappa/Captain Beefheart-inspired art-rock (combined with hints of heavy metal, funk, and progressive rock) was decidedly not the type of music generally expected to appeal to wide audiences. Yet, Primus’ fellow Bay Area alternative metal weirdoes, Faith No More, had just scored a huge hit with “Epic”, so maybe Interscope founders Jimmy Iovine and Ted Field thought the time was right. Regardless, the label was founded on a philosophy of non-interference and letting their artists do what they wanted, and Sailing the Seas of Cheese definitely reflects that attitude.
The album was boosted through video airplay on MTV’s underground rock show, 120 Minutes, and their heavy metal showcase, Headbanger’s Ball. They also had a cameo appearance in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, showing up and getting name-checked as the band that appears in the movie’s climactic “Battle of the Bands” just before Bill and Ted go on. Granted, the singles “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” and “Tommy the Cat” didn’t sound like much else in rock music in 1991-92, but they were each catchy enough to attract attention from folks on their wavelength. Each video also featured plenty of performance footage of Les Claypool’s impressively complicated bass playing, which quickly became the band’s main draw.
All of these factors played into me eventually picking up the album (on cassette) as a 15-year-old in 1992. As I was coming out of my youthful obsession with hair metal and guitar virtuosos like Steve Vai, Primus was a revelation. At the time, Seas of Cheese definitely seemed like a strange collection, but I vibed on its strangeness. Revisiting it 30 years later, it struck me how unusual many of these songs are in their construction, not to mention how the trio’s musicianship makes up for deficiencies in songwriting.
Each side of the album begins with a short track that resembles nothing else on the record. “Seas of Cheese” opens the record with the sounds of a creaking ship alongside low, bowed string bass. Claypool sings a short introduction that finishes with “Come with us / We’ll sail the Seas of Cheese”. On Side Two, “Granddad’s Little Ditty” has the sound of a shower and a low, pitch-shifted Claypool singing nonsense involving opera, masturbation, and flatulence.
From there, each side of Sailing the Seas of Cheese is kind of a freewheeling collection of tracks, each with its own distinct musical flavor. “Here Come the Bastards” begins with a simple, high bass riff that quickly drops a couple of octaves once guitarist Larry LaLonde and drummer Tim Alexander join a few seconds later. “Bastards” immediately finds its groove as a driving, mid-tempo march, and it features a chaotic solo from LaLonde that easily slides back into the main groove. Claypool’s vocal refrain—”Here they come / Here they come”—anchors the song and makes up probably 75% of its lyrics. Then, the song just stops (no fadeout, no coda, nothing).
Luckily, this break makes sense at the end of the album, when “Los Bastardos” fades in as a reprise/continuation of “Here Come the Bastards”. At this point, the “bastardos” have arrived, and the trio is joined by a group of guest players jamming on the song’s main riff. The band’s first guitarist, Todd Huth, is here, as are Faith No More drummer Mike Bordin and Brian “Brain” Mantia (who would later join the band as its full-time drummer in the late ’90s).
“Sgt. Baker” is a song that doesn’t hold up particularly well today, as its lyrical themes—regarding abuse of authority and the futility of the military—were explored more successfully on other Primus albums. It doesn’t really have a hook beyond the “Left . . . Right . . . Left” marching orders that appear throughout the song, either. The track does work, though, as a showcase of Tim Alexander’s drumming skills, with its military bend allowing for plenty of crisp snare drum rolls and active kick drum work. That kick drum is small and tuned tightly, which helps to make much of his playing sound like a marching band drumline rather than a single rock drummer.
The tune also is a good example of Claypool’s sometimes-goofy vocal stylings. His lack of a traditional singing voice often leads to spoken word-style passages or vocalizing that sounds particularly pinched. “I will rope your personality / Pummel you with my own philosophy” goes the refrain, but with the way Claypool slurs, it could just as easily be “I don’t like your personality / Pummel you with my own dead lava bees”.
“American Life” and “Those Damn Blue-Collar Tweekers” are both slow and spacious songs, with dark themes about struggling Americans. The former tells three short stories of men in bad situations and offers no real hope of improvement. A catchy main bass riff allows LaLonde to squall ominously in between verses, and the whole song ends up feeling dank and oppressive. Similarly, “Tweekers” opens with LaLonde playing two dissonant chords that resemble an annoying alarm. The song then coalesces into something more energetic than “American Life”, and Claypool narrates it without taking a strong positive or negative position on the titular blue-collar tweekers. However, the song’s slow build and quiet passages feature multiple guitar solos from LaLonde, showing off his skills while refusing to adhere to traditional riffing or leads.
The middle of the album has “Eleven”, named after its unusual 11/8 time signature and featuring lyrics about non-conformity. It has Claypool in full crooner mode, and the whole trio seems energized by the odd groove they’ve created. Meanwhile, “Is It Luck?” (which may be the most traditional rocker on the record) has a fast, super complicated bassline while LaLonde squeals along in the background. Other than the bass pyrotechnics, though, there’s not a lot here.
Seas of Cheese climaxes with the nearly eight-minute-long “Fish On”, which meanders through several different styles and tempos. Here, Claypool sings enthusiastically, with about as little affectation as he can muster about one of his true passions: fishing. It begins with a relaxed and pleasant bass solo before pushing into a slow, crunchy groove. The band sits on this groove for all three vocal verses of the song. Once the lyrics finish, though, the song picks up speed, musically dramatizing the fight of landing a fish and trying to reel it in. Claypool’s bass solo dominates, with ample assistance from Alexander’s fast, active drumming. LaLonde mostly sits on chords and sound effects and lets the other two have the spotlight. Then, the song pulls back to its main groove to finish out the final 90 seconds.
In the end, “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” and “Tommy the Cat” were the only real choices for singles from this album. Both songs are relatively compact and balance the band’s penchant for weirdness with a healthy amount of catchiness. “Jerry” has a bassline that features Claypool essentially playing both a bass and a rhythm guitar part simultaneously while LaLonde’s Sonic Youth-like lead guitar squalls over the top. It also rocks out in such a way as to grab the attention of both metalheads and alternative rock fans. “Tommy” is just as noisy on the guitar side and active in the bass, but it also features a drum performance from Alexander that hits deep, deep grooves, occasionally dipping into sections that hit that marching band sound again. Recruiting Tom Waits to do the Tommy the Cat speech probably didn’t mean much to the band’s target audience, but it lent Primus an air of instant legitimacy in the field of oddball, iconoclastic rock music.
It’s hard to pin down the lasting influence of Sailing the Seas of Cheese. It certainly set Primus on the road to success, significantly growing their audience to the point where their next two albums landed in the Billboard Top 10 chart in sales in their opening week. Let me assure our younger readers that this was legitimately a big deal in the 1990s. But, it’s not like the album directly inspired a wave of new oddball funk-metal bands that tore up the charts in the late ’90s and early ’00s.
It did, however, establish a template for how a band could simultaneously achieve both a large, passionate fanbase and a modicum of mainstream success, something many of Primus’ contemporaries struggled with throughout the ’90s. Plus, the album helped show, intentionally or not, that Interscope was a label that was serious about letting their artists follow their muse. With a roster that has included everyone from Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch to 2Pac to Nine Inch Nails—and then up through Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar, and Billie Eilish—it’s fascinating to think about how Gerardo and Primus got it all started.