The psychedelic torchbearers lock themselves in the studio, play all the instruments, and open a treasure chest of effects to form a band and make an album.
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.
While Sean Lennon’s band the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger opened a 2015 tour for Primus, he and Les Claypool bonded and the foundation for the Claypool Lennon Delirium was laid.
How did you approach the arrangements? Adding extra layers, colors, and instrumentation? Lennon: Les really was adamant that he wanted it to be minimal. He was thinking about how we were going to play it live, which I never think about in the studio. I’m always following a fantasy musically that may not be recreate-able with a few people onstage. It’s always a puzzle for me to figure out how to represent what I’ve done in the studio. I tend to use the studio as a wizard’s chemistry lab where anything can happen. I worry later about how it would work live. But Les is really smart in that he is like, “No, it’s all about the tour. Let’s limit it.” It was a new thing for me to not do 10 guitar tracks and 10 keyboard tracks. The parameters were fixed in a way that was helpful actually.
Claypool: I wouldn’t consider it an arrangement thing. It’s more of a production thing. I didn’t feel it necessary to layer in a bunch of guitars or a bunch of different instrumentation or what have you. It was a matter of where we found a balance and a compromise to get what we ended up getting, which is the Phobos record.
You cover “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The studio was a big part of that song. How are you approaching that live? Lennon: It’s funny, because I never really do Beatles’ songs, obviously, because it’s too embarrassing or something [laughs]. But Les was like, “This is a supergroup. We’re going to do covers of your songs and my songs. We’re going to blend our two worlds and we want to put on a good show. I think it’s time that you do a Beatles’ song in your set, just to embrace it as opposed to trying to avoid it.” And I thought, “You know, I wouldn’t do this for anybody but you, man.” That’s what I said. I was like, “If you really want to do it, I trust you.” Because you know, there is something like, “What the fuck does Sean think he’s doing? Why is he doing a Beatles song?”
The reactions I’ve seen so far have been super positive. Lennon: Yeah. I was surprised, because I thought a lot of people would be like, “Fuck him.” But you know, I love the music and we went through a couple options, like which one might work. “Tomorrow Never Knows” was the one that I was comfortable with. I mean, sure, it is hard to recreate—we’re not trying to recreate it exactly. But it’s certainly easier than playing “A Day in the Life” or something, because it’s just one chord, pretty much.
Claypool: I’ve come to a few realizations from becoming good friends with Sean. Like most of the planet, I used to sit back and go, “Oh the children of famous people or legendary people must have it made. All the doors open for them when they do this thing or the next thing.” And really it is almost the opposite. I’ve learned that he has so much scrutiny—he is under such a magnifying glass—whenever he does anything musical. I know my own son, he was a bass player 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. I sympathize with him on many of these things. But I also know from playing with him that he has a very strong voice of his own and a very strong signature. I think some of that is because he has elements of his father—and he also has elements of his abstract mother that shine through—but, also, he’s Sean. He’s an interesting fellow with an interesting perspective. He’s very intelligent. He’s extremely humble. I think more than anything I’m hoping that the planet gets to see that he does have his own voice beyond the expectations of his DNA.
What basses did you use on the album? Claypool: I used my dobro bass quite a bit. I have an old Eko bass that I used quite a bit, too, and then my Pachyderm bass. It’s all 4-string stuff except for the upright—a lot more pizzicato stuff, less thumping, but there is also some thumping and strumming on there.
Were you going direct or using an amp? Claypool: I take a signal from an amp. I don’t mike it, but it’s a direct signal from an amp. I haven’t miked a cabinet in many years.
Was any of it tracked live? Claypool: Quite a bit. Sometimes Sean’s on the drums and I’m on the bass—sometimes it’s bass and guitar.
What guitars did you use? Lennon: I’ve been playing BilT guitars. One of them is called the Relevator. It has these knobs that are a built-in delay, a built-in fuzz, a mute knob, and a delay solo knob. On the song “Oxycontin Girl,” you can hear me using that guitar for the first time. You can play a note and then use the knob where you can change the delay time—because it is built in—and it changes the pitch for a second. It’s been hard to get used to. Using those knobs and buttons in the studio is one thing, but then when you’re onstage it can get confusing. I’m getting better at that now. I really think the BilT guys make amazing guitars. I don’t really like most new guitars, but their guitars feel really good. I feel very comfortable playing them and the tone is great.
I brought my pedalboard and two guitars. I brought one amp, which I didn’t use very much. I used Les’ little Mesa/Boogie—whatever was there—it was his Mesa/Boogie Mark II, those little ones that have the switch and the two channels.
Do you get your distortion from the amp or from pedals? Lennon: It depends. I feel I have amp distortion just as my basic setting. I like the sound where it’s up to my dynamics as to how distorted it sounds. Hopefully, it is clean enough that if I play light, I can do a ballad-y moment, but if I dig in it will give you a little bit of that drive. That’s the ideal state for me. But I do like the boost, too. The amp is driven anyway, so when I turn on the fuzz pedal it is driving the amp from the pedalboard really hard, which I like.
What amp are you touring with? Lennon: I’m touring with a Fender [Hot Rod] DeVille. I know it’s not supposed to be the greatest amp, but that’s what I’ve been touring with since I was in my 20s. I always try to move to something more whatever—bigger or better—but I don’t feel comfortable.
That’s not what I use in my studio, though. I have a ton of amps in the studio: these weird old things—just collectable weird—Hawaiian amps from the ’50s and a really good Fender Deluxe with the distortion I use for most solos. But on tour, in terms of an amp I can rent, that I can replace right away, that’s always going to be in every city in the world if I need it—the DeVille is the one I’m most comfortable with. I can get the sound that I like from it. I don’t know, I’m not an amp expert, maybe, but a lot of guitarists are like, “That’s not a great amp.” But I like it.
There’s no shame in using a DeVille. Lennon: There is huge shame. I hang my head… No, I’m kidding [laughs]. I just mean in terms of a guitar magazine worthy comment, I know it’s not that interesting.
Will there be any more exciting or interesting covers to look forward to as the tour rolls on? Claypool: Oh yeah. We are pulling out covers every now and again. You just have to wait and see what happens.
Check out the Claypool Lennon Delirium’s entire June 11, 2016, set from Manchester, Tennessee’s Bonnaroo festival.