Sailing the Punchbowl of Pork Soda: Primus 101
We all love metal. We eat, breathe, and sleep metal. We listen to metal while we’re relaxing, working, studying, etc. Metal is the soundtrack to our lives. People ask you how you can listen to screaming all the other time, and you respond with a soul crushing stare that causes lesser men to quiver in their moccasins. You love metal, and that’s why you’re here.
However, I’m fairly certain that you don’t listen only to metal. Tyree loves singer-songwriter artists. Joe and Edward love hip hop. Max likes EDM. I love funk and a number of other genres. Therefore, I thought it might be fun to discuss one of the better metal-adjacent bands. Flushers, let’s talk about Primus.
Primus have had a long and storied career spanning from before the 90s into the modern era. Incorporating elements of funk, jazz, jam music, and metal, Primus have long stood as a pillar of alternative rock just popular enough to get radio play but just weird enough to bring in the metal kids. The most distinguishing feature about Primus is easily Les Claypool’s distinctive bass playing, and as the only permanent fixture of the three piece, Primus has largely always been Claypool’s vision.
They say that plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery, so I’m going to borrow the format Randall Thor used in his Blind Guardian post. There’s a ton of info about each of Primus’s releases on Wikipedia, so I’ll link to the article on each album (and any additional sources) and provide you with some commentary regarding the stylistic background of each album. I’ll also link to my favorite song from each album. Just keep one thing in mind while reading this overview: Primus sucks!
Frizzle Fry – 1990
Primus exploded onto the scene with a rocking mixture of funk and heavy music in the form of their debut album Frizzle Fry. This album featured what many consider the classic Primus line-up of Claypool, LaLonde (who would play on every official Primus release), and Herb, and many of the tracks from this introduction are still played today. Even from the beginning, the supreme ability of each of the members of Primus was on display. Claypool’s patented slap and funky bass techniques provide a solid bedrock for the low end, and LaLonde’s guitar accentuated the bass well with a heavy counterpoint. This is one of Primus’s heavier albums by virtue of Herb’s dynamic drumming and the jammier moments in many of the tracks. Additionally, the trademark dark humor and satirical tone that would loom over every Primus album was definitely evident on this debut. For my favorite cut I’m not going to pick the obvious “John the Fisherman.” Instead, I’m going to go with “Groundhog’s Day” because it’s probably the heaviest track on the album and offers a nice view of the jam influences near the end. Primus definitely set the bar high on their debut.
Sailing the Seas of Cheese – 1991
Just one year after Frizzle Fry, Primus made their major label debut with Sailing the Seas of Cheese. This album would feature a little less of the hard edge of Frizzle Fry, but the beginnings of some of Primus’s more unconventional and unique songwriting approach are definitely evident. In addition to the power trio of guitar/bass/drums that form the core of the Primus song, the band also incorporated sounds from upright bass, clarinet, banjo, and water jug, lending the album an experimental flair that would continue onto the next full length. This album features some of the band’s most beloved songs and even an excellent guest appearance by the inimitable Tom Waits. I’ve selected that song, “Tommy the Cat,” as my representative track for the album. If you’re looking for an entry point into the Primus discography, this is as good a place as any.
Miscellaneous Debris – 1992
There isn’t too much to say about this covers EP except that the unique spin Primus puts on the rock formula is definitely evident. Check out “Have a Cigar” for example. That fat low end bass adds a distinctly darker tone to the song than possessed by the original. Interestingly, this album featured the first appearance of Claypool’s infamous fretless six-string the “Rainbow Bass.”
Pork Soda – 1993
On their third full-length release, Primus simultaneously ramped up the experimentation and diversity while somehow cracking into the Billboard 200. This album features some of the more bizarre and unique songs ever recorded by the band, all wrapped in a satirically humorous and surprisingly dark atmosphere. “My Name Is Mud,” “Bob,” and “Wounded Knee” all feature macabre lyrics that would fit in with the topical themes of a more proper metal outfit, but Primus also inject their trademark humor and wit with “DMV” and “Nature Boy.” The themes and experimentation lend themselves to a feeling of heaviness about the album, despite the fact that it is a less straight-forward rock effort than some of the other albums. As a demonstration of that palpable heaviness, I’ve selected “Mr. Krinkle.” This video is pretty interesting in and of itself, as it was shot entirely in one take and features several guest appearances.
Tales from the Punchbowl – 1995
Tales from the Punchbowl was another huge commercial success for Primus, cracking the #8 spot on the Billboard 200 and producing the band’s most well-known song, “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver.” This album saw the band continue with some of the more progressive strains they touched on in Pork Soda, including a few unique instruments and longer song structures. However, it seems at this point that the cracks were starting to show in the creative unit as Primus seemed to be reaching a sort of commercial critical mass. Sadly, this would be the last album with Herb for many years. There are a number of foreboding and depressive tracks on this album that provide an interesting dichotomy to the poppy sensibilities of “Wynona.” I’m sure most of you have heard “Wynona,” so I’ve instead selected “Professor Nutbutter’s House of Treats” because it showcases both Claypool’s tongue-in-cheek humor and the brooding darkness lurking under the surface.
Brown Album – 1997
Primus’s next album would be the first with Brian “Brain” Mantia, and would be met with polarizing opinions. Although Primus retained some of the jazz elements, Claypool and company seemed to be going for a more straight-forward rock album that went back to the earlier aggression from their first few releases. There’s a significant lack of diversity compared to the previous releases, but the more stripped-down approach definitely produced some winners. “Camelback Cinema” features one of my favorite interchanges between drum and bass in all of rock music.
Rhinoplasty – 1998
This is the second covers EP released by Primus. Interestingly, some of the songs on this album are a bit heavier, perhaps portending where Primus would soon move stylistically. I’ve selected the band’s cover of “The Thing That Should Not Be” as the featured track because it’s fun to think of how Metallica might sound if they had accepted Les Claypool’s audition.
Antipop – 1999
Antipop was the band’s last release before their brief hiatus, and the interesting nature of this album is a definite indication of the music scene of the late ‘90s. With less focus on the jam elements and with the metal components cranked way up, this album could easily be considered the band’s heaviest and darkest release. However, it too was a polarizing release that seemingly led to the band’s hiatus. What I find most interesting about this album is the role other rock, and metal musicians played. Tom Morello, James Hetfield, Jim Martin, and Tom Waits all made guest appearances, and one track featured production by Fred Durst. This album feature some of Primus’s heaviest, most technical playing, but fans of the jammier side of the group’s discography will likely be disappointed. As a standout track, I’ve selected “Eclectic Electric,” a proggy, melancholy epic featuring guest guitar work by Hetfield and Martin.
Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People – 2003
This EP broke the radio silence engulfing Primus’s career and reintroduced Tim Alexander to the ranks. It was an interesting return to form for the group, harkening back to the more unexpected and diverse sound of the earlier releases coupled with that ethereal darkness that seems to have attached itself to Primus’s unique flavor of rock. All of the tracks on this short release are quality, but I’ve chosen “My Friend Fats” as the standout track. Interestingly, this song seems to hint at the more reserved vocal approach Claypool would seem to take with later releases.
Green Naugahyde – 2011
I’m skipping over a studio rehearsal EP of previously released tracks to discuss Primus’s most recent release. Green Naugahyde, named after a fictional leathery monster used in advertising, saw a supposed return-to-form for the band, with the rock elements toned down in favor of the jam and experimental approaches. This album still retains much of the pessimistic social commentary and tongue-in-cheek dark humor of previous releases, but many of the songs sound fun or bouncy, almost as though the band was finally enjoying itself again. This album is the first official release to feature Jay Lane, Primus’s original drummer from the demo days, and his addition added a welcome swing to the band’s sound. As a standout track, I’ve chosen “Eyes of a Squirrel” to show Claypool’s more diverse vocal presence and the band’s reinvigorated sense of the weird.
Primus & the chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble – 2014
This album hasn’t actually been released yet, so I can’t give you a proper commentary on it, but I expect it to be more aligned with Claypool’s side jam projects than the main Primus discography. The album will feature a more fleshed out rhythm section and interesting orchestration as a reimagining of the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory soundtrack. You can read my commentary on the first single, “Pure Imagination,” here. I’m intrigued to see how Herb’s renewed presence in the band plays out.
Well, there you have it. I hope you’ve enjoyed this voyage through the weird and wonderful discography of Primus. If your zest for les Claypool’s music is unsated, might I suggest you check out his side projects? Many of them lean more towards jam and experimental music, but I’m sure you’ll find something interesting on each. I’ve linked a video to each of the bands below. Of special note is Claypool’s Bay Area Thrash band Blind Illusion. I’d also like to note that Primus has a deep connection to the creators of South Park, even going so far as to write the show’s main theme.
- Blind Illusion
- Les Claypool and the Holy Mackerel
- Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade
- The Les Claypool Frog Brigade
- Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains
- Les Claypool’s Of Whales and Woe
- Electric Apricot
- Les Claypool’s Of Fungi and Foe
- Les Claypool’s Duo de Twang