For a man who's been described as a "whirling dervish" onstage, Les Claypool of Primus sounds mellow and intellectual in conversation. It's an apparant contradiction.
But the onstage Claypool and the offstage one are somehow part of the same puzzle, and from what Claypool says about himself and his stage persona, it's a puzzle indeed.
"I'm not a lot different," said Claypool, whose band appears at 8:30 tonight with Fishbone as part of a Student Union Activites concert at the Kansas Union Ballroom. "I don't do a lot of that stuff on the street, but we try to be ourselves on stage. Of course in my daily routine I have mood shifts when I'm ticked off at the world, and I can't do that onstage. People are sometimes surprised to see me offstage to see how reserved I am, almost bashful.''
Primus is embarking on a 20-city tour with Fishbone that hits most of the college-town bases. They also have a new album out, provocatively called "Sailing the Seas of Cheese'' on the Interscope label. Claypool is joined by Larry LaLonde on guitar and Tim Alexander on drums.
CLAYPOOL AND LaLonde started playing together with a drum machine in 1984 under the name Primate. They changed their name when they added another guitarist and drummer, who were later replaced by Alexander in 1989. According to Claypool, their sound went from an alternative Devo sound to a much more crunching beat.
They're from the San Francisco area, and critics have lumped them together with Bay Area thrash-funk groups such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
"I have no idea what that means," Claypool said. "They gave us the label, and it stuck. . . . There really isn't one kind of music that all three of us is really into. We have varied interests, everything from funk to Tom Waits.''
In reality, "Cheese'' has all the energy of thrash-funk, but the lyrics and mood are much closer to the cosmic musings of Pink Floyd. "Sgt. Baker" features the band counting off in a military marching manner, much like the "Tear down the wall" chant in Floyd's "The Wall.''
BUT PRIMUS doesn't seem to have the same social agenda or angst that infected Pink Floyd. And they're a lot more spontaneous.
"We're sort of the band without aim," Claypool said. "The lyrics I come up with are stuff that fits the mood of the music we're writing. I'll write something down in my notebook, and I'll see it's a good fit to a riff we were working on in the studio. We have no specific aim or running theme.''
The group plans to take some time off after the end of the current tour to write their songs. They also made a video; an earlier one made it into the MTV rotation.
"MTV is a powerful force, and it helps us to fill halls," Claypool said. "I kind of like doing videos, because I'm a big film buff. I enjoy getting to work with a director, because we worked very closely with him. Videomaking is fun.''
AND WHEN the soft-spoken Claypool goes into his dervish act onstage, who does he see out there listening and dancing? Well, for one thing, the audience shouts "Primus sucks!'' at the band on cue much like audiences shout things at the screen in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show.'' But ultimately, the band's music expresses the feelings and talent of Primus and not the audience.
"Essentially, I'm writing for myself," Claypool said. "Whatever we do we're trying always to be close to who we are. We've been writing songs for seven years, and I think by now we're pretty good. But you're always playing more for yourself and your own ideas as an artist. That's where you find satisfaction.''