Green Naugahyde, the latest album from Primus — and their first since 1999 — probably wouldn't exist but for a significant improvement in the San Francisco trio's morale. After two rounds of reunion touring in 2003-04 and 2006 — both featuring the classic lineup of bassist/leader Les Claypool, guitarist Larry LaLonde and on-again-off-again drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander — Primus had successfully rekindled its career, but was unable to write new material. Claypool, happily occupied by numerous other creative pursuits, had come to view Primus as a side project sinking further and further down on his priority list.
"From a creative standpoint," explains Claypool, "we'd kind of hit the wall. When we'd do sound checks, which is when we jam and try to come up with interesting ideas, nothing was coming out. It just wasn't happening. At that point, I wasn't really interested in doing Primus. It was just going to be a nostalgia thing that I would do once in a while. And the notion of making a record wasn't flowing naturally."
The future certainly looked promising when the band's reunion activity kicked off with a groundbreaking EP with Alexander, 2003's Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People. The EP consists of five delightfully strange tunes cast in a rich, textured production style that falls somewhere between Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica and Yes' Relayer. Spacey and haunting in a pleasant sort of way, Animals showed that Primus could once again make disorienting music after years of inuring audiences to its angular, bass-dominated sound.
Meanwhile, the band's return to the stage was buoyed by its newfound affinity for improvisation. When Primus broke up in 2000, it went away as an alt-metal hybrid, renowned for arty leanings and transgressive spirit but nonetheless unwavering in its musical execution. Tellingly, Primus was often compared to Rush, a primary (and obvious) influence and paragon of an anal-retentive approach in which each song is played with identical precision from night to night. When Primus came back, it was as if the band had visited another dimension where sprawling Grateful Dead-like detours were the norm. Such detours, however, had been simmering in the group's imagination all along.
"I'd been trying to push for us to do that kind of thing," says LaLonde. "When I first joined, I was really into the Dead and Zappa and listened to a lot of bootleg tapes of both."
LaLonde points to compact set times as the main obstacle to taking chances early on. But when Primus returned playing two sets a night, it was clear that the band had taken on a new identity. With the adventurous new Animals in tow, it was as if Primus had come back twice. But in truth, Primus wasn't really "back" at all. With each round of touring, the official statement ran something along the lines of, "We'd love to work on an album, but we'll have to see what happens."
"I don't like forcing things," says Claypool, "even more so now that I'm older. There are so many opportunities to do so many things that I'm not going to force anything."
Now, thanks to the return of drummer Jay Lane, Claypool says he doesn't have to. In contrast to writing with Alexander, "easy" is the word both Claypool and LaLonde use to describe the making of the new album. Claypool even goes as far as to say he wouldn't have continued with Primus had Lane not been involved.
"As I start playing something," Claypool enthuses, "within two measures, he jumps in with me. And he always has. He doesn't sit there and think about it. He doesn't hem and haw and tap on his cymbals and fiddle with his snare drum. He could have just a snare and a kick drum and a hi-hat set up with everything else splayed all over the floor. He's that intuitive. So there's always stuff coming now."
Though Green Naugahyde marks Lane's first appearance on a proper Primus album, his history with Claypool runs deep. He was a member of Primus' most pivotal lineup during its formative years, departing just one month before the recording of 1989's debut Suck on This. (Alexander replaced Lane; LaLonde joined shortly thereafter. The Lane-era lineup reconvened under the band name Sausage for 1994's Riddles Are Abound Tonight.) Since 2000, Lane has served as Claypool's "go-to guy" on several projects. A fellow Grateful Dead aficionado, Lane is also an alumnus of Bob Weir's RatDog. Where Alexander's adamantine touch suited Primus' darker inclinations, Lane's spry grooves accentuate the band's lighthearted side.
As usual, though, any lightheartedness to be found on Green Naugahyde conceals a host of other concerns. "Tragedy's a'Comin'," a stomping number that sees Claypool channeling Bootsy Collins and Larry Graham at the same time, is bound to trigger fits of bawdy square dancing amid the patchouli-scented faithful who now constitute a sizable portion of Primus' crowd. Fittingly, the video depicts a rollicking dance celebration at a seafood restaurant, interspersed with laugh-out-loud images of an astronaut on horseback and Claypool dressed as a lobster. But as Claypool reveals, the song was inspired by debilitating illnesses suffered by his mother and nephew. On that front, he says he's had a very tough time — which makes Lane's presence all the more crucial.
"He's one of those people that just wakes up with a smile on his face," says Claypool. "He's very positive and happy. That's a huge thing to have in your life."