“My own son was a bass player,” says Claypool, “and he switched from bass to banjo because he got tired of people saying, ‘Oh you’re Les Claypool’s son, hmmm …’ And that’s on a very small scale compared to what Sean has to deal with.” Photo by Douglas Mason
At first thought, pairing Les Claypool with Sean Lennon doesn’t make sense. Claypool is the mad genius behind Primus, a thumb-thumping bass god, and an idiosyncratic stylist. His aesthetic sensibilities were formed in a galaxy light years away from Lennon’s song-centric, multi-layered, colorful universe. You wouldn’t think to put them together. But when you do … wow. Like chocolate and peanut butter, coffee and cigarettes, or Bob Dylan and electricity, their disparate worlds merge in a Vulcan mind meld. It’s an obvious why-didn’t-I-think-of-that collaboration—organic and natural.
And their music—retro, ’60s-era psychedelia with a twist—flows with obvious synergy. It’s a fresh concoction and a unique blend, but doesn’t obscure the personalities of its coleaders. In part, that’s because Claypool and Lennon have a lot in common. “Sean keeps talking about how we’re bonded by fashion … or lack of,” Claypool says. “We’ve become very good friends. I think a fundamental element of becoming good friends with somebody is the notion that you appreciate similar things.”
The pair spent a few weeks last fall at Claypool’s home studio in Sonoma, California, to sample homemade wine and create Monolith of Phobos, their sprawling tripped-out new album. They collaborated on songwriting and production, played all the instruments, and handled all vocals. The album features many of their favorite tricks as well, like mind-numbing bass riffage, layered walls of feedback, and richly hued arrangements. But those aren’t gimmicks. They serve the songs, create a moody yet addictive atmosphere, and emphasize the duo’s shared sense of humor.
Claypool and Lennon rely on a boatload of gear to produce their psychedelic sounds, though their fans won’t find too many new devices. “I just remade my pedalboard,” Lennon says. “But it was more about the wiring than it was about the pedals I use. It’s pretty much the same stuff I’ve been using for a while.”
“I’ve got a plethora of things on the floor,” Claypool adds. “For me it’s more about convenience than anything, in which convenience means that I know it.” They’re using mostly the same guitars, basses, and amps they’ve been using for years as well, although Lennon recently started using BilT guitars. “I used to only play Fender Jazzmasters—old ones—but I really think the BilT guys make amazing guitars,” he says.
We spoke with Lennon and Claypool and discussed their collaboration, songwriting, arranging, live shows, gear, and why—for the first time ever—Lennon is okay covering the Beatles.
What was the genesis of this project? Lennon: My other band, the GOASTT [the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger], had been touring for about two years. We wanted to finish touring because we needed a break, but then we got this call that Primus wanted us to come out. We were like, “Man, we’ve got to go out for this.” Even though it felt like we were done, we were such big Primus fans. We wound up hanging out with Les and his band and becoming friends. It was one of those tours where we became friends really quickly. I jammed on “Southbound Pachyderm” at one of their shows, and I think Les liked what I played, because we wound up writing songs together. The genesis was really on tour.
How did your songwriting collaboration work? Lennon: We discussed topics before. We’d been texting each other links to articles and cool stuff that might be cool topical ideas, but we didn’t have a lot of pre-written stuff. I went out to Sonoma and every day we would see if we could come up with something. We’d have something fleshed out from the night before—one of us would come in with some chord changes or some lyrics—then we would work it. We did a song every day or two for about two weeks and we were done. It happened really fast.
Claypool: He showed up and we started throwing ideas around. I think the first thing we worked on was a song called “Captain Lariat,” which I had roughed. I had the lyrics and together we fleshed the thing out. That was basically how we got up and running. He came in with something and I massaged it a bit and then I would come in with something. Usually, he would show up a little later in the day, so I would already be working in the studio.
What instruments did you play on the album? Claypool: I played drums on one track, which is odd, because usually when I do one of these projects of mine I’m playing most of the percussion and the drums. But Sean had a certain feel that I thought lent itself to what we were going for, which was the more sort of throwback retro-psychedelic thing. I played some keys and he played some keys, but basically he played guitar and I did bass. We both did vocals and he played most of the drums.
What did Sean bring to the table? What are his strengths as a guitarist and collaborator? Claypool: I think any strength in a musician in general—whether they are a guitar player or a … flautist—is the notion that they have a signature. I do feel like Sean has a pretty strong signature. I noticed that as soon as we started having our little jams in the back of the bus. He would come up with things that were unique. They weren’t just these general responses to what I was doing. I found that very intriguing.
How does that affect the way you play? Claypool: Any time you are making music with anybody it should be like a conversation. When you are having a conversation with an individual, whether you know them well or don’t know them well, whether they’re a fisherman or a brain surgeon, those conversations are going to vary accordingly. Musically it’s the same thing. Our musical conversations were unique unto themselves because of our fresh interaction.
Les is a very idiosyncratic and established player, did you find that liberating or limiting? Lennon: Definitely liberating. It wasn’t necessarily because of his virtuosity, because that could’ve been hard to just keep up with. It wound up being really inspiring and fun and easy because we got along well and play together well. I can’t really explain why that is the case, but it just is. What I offer to the chemistry of the equation is more about my songwriting ability and maybe my sense for production or arrangement. So maybe he likes that enough to make it worthwhile. It’s a good combination. I definitely can’t go toe-to-toe with him in terms of technique or athletic ability, so I don’t try to do that. It’s more like a yin and yang as opposed to a yang and yang.
One thing I found interesting is the bass does a lot of what a rhythm guitar would normally do. The guitar parts are often more linear or sonic. Lennon: I haven’t really thought much about that, but now that you mention it, I think it depends on the song. Some of the songs are super-chordal, like “Bubbles Burst” or “Boomerang Baby.” I wrote those on the guitar and then we fleshed them out like a regular band. I even wrote a chord chart for “Bubbles Burst.” “Captain Lariat,” “Mr. Wright,” “Oxycontin Girl,” and “Breath of a Salesman” he pretty much wrote on bass. His bass playing is so unique and so melodic and rhythmical at the same time. He plays a melody while also holding down a kind of thumpy rhythm. I think that covers a lot of the area that maybe traditional rhythm guitar would cover. So when you have a song like that, the guitar parts, if there are any, are going to wind up being more ornamental, decorative, or textural. You don’t always need to fill in that space because it’s already been done and done quite well. I try to syncopate with him a little bit or sculpt something that is custom-tailored to the shape of what he’s doing.
Claypool: I’m going to go back to the conversation thing. When I’m playing with someone like Sean, I try to complement what he’s doing. When something is coming from me, I assume he’s trying to complement what I’m doing. Within that arrangement there are various bits and pieces that we’re bringing to the table, and so there are parts where we’re more supportive or more dominant than others.
As far as general songwriting and arrangement, the bass just happens to be the crayon I picked out of the box. I say that quite a lot. If I had played guitar or trombone or keyboards, I would be playing very similar things. I would just have a much different timbre. For me, the bass is the most direct conduit from what is going on in my brain to what happens on paper or, in this case, on tape. I don’t necessarily think so much in terms of, “Is this a bass part or a rhythm guitar part?” It’s just, “What does the song need?” For this record, I used a little different instrumentation as far as the basses I used, supporting some of Sean’s parts and thinking back to the approach of some of these older psychedelic players. It’s a little different feeling than, say, a Primus record. But there are also very strong elements of what I’m known for.