For over 20 years, Les Claypool has entertained music fans with his frenetic bass playing and his eccentric personality. But Claypool's artistic talent refuses to be bound by one medium. Last year, he published his first novel, South of the Pumphouse, and this year brings the theatrical release of his first feature-length film, Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo.
It's a mockumentary following the journey of the fictitious jam band Electric Apricot, best known for their anthem that asks an important hippie question: "Hey, are you going to Burning Man?" It opens Friday for a three-day run at the Bellevue 8, the Thoroughbred 20 in Franklin, and the Wynnsong 16 in Murfreesboro. Claypool not only directed, but acted as well, playing Apricot's drummer Lapland "Lapdog" Miclovich.
I recently spoke with Claypool by phone from the recording studio of his California home.
Brent Rolen: I'm very nervous about this interview, I have to tell you, �cause I've been a fan of yours for a while.
Les Claypool: Well don't be nervous.
BR: Well, to paraphrase Lapdog, you only do your first celebrity interview once.
Claypool: I don't know who would say this, but to paraphrase myself, I'm not much of a celebrity. You're startin' off, you know (laughs) easy.
BR: Well you say you're not a celebrity, but you're an author, filmmaker, fly fisherman. Would you call yourself a Renaissance man?
BR: A father?
BR: God, you're definitely a Renaissance man.
Claypool: I'm more of a peanut sauce man.
BR: Peanut sauce? Like in a Thai-style or a Charles Schulz kind of way?
Claypool: Actually, I'm allergic to peanuts. It just rhymes with Renaissance. So I like throwing that one out there.
BR: OK, you've already thrown me. I knew talking with you I needed to come up with some more absurd questions, but I guess I really don't.
Claypool: No, don't worry, it'll turn into absurdity no matter what you do.
BR: First off, I enjoyed the film. It definitely hit close to home, because I was a follower of the Dead and Phish and considered myself a jam band musician for quite a while. How about some questions, though, �cause it's an interview, right?
BR: OK, so let's focus on the film first. As an auteur, would you say you're more influenced by the French New Wave or Italian neo-realism?
Claypool: Um, I have no idea. (laughs)
BR: I just worked that in because I wanted to feel like I actually got something out of my Film Studies major.
Claypool: Well, the extent of my film studies was getting up every Saturday morning and, after my glut of Saturday morning cartooning, watching Creature Features and Marx Brothers films, and then eventually graduating to Frank Capra and Elia Kazan and folks like that.
BR: So that answers my question of who your film influences were.
Claypool: Well, you know, guys like Capra, Elia Kazan, Sergio Leone. New people, I'd say I love Wes Anderson, and I think Jared Hess is going to be a force to be reckoned with. Obviously Kubrick, but that's like saying you like...good food. (laughs)
BR: As a Kubrick fan, do you think the best Kubrick movie ever would just be three hours of someone cramped in a white box with a white noise soundtrack?
Claypool: I don't know. I'm not good at bests. I think that the body of work is very entertaining and compelling and wonderful every time.
BR: So you had a good time making Electric Apricot?
Claypool: I had a good time making the movie, but I also went through a lot of pain and stress and torture.
BR: It was your first full-length piece as a director, right?
Claypool: Yes. My first film actually as a director was when I was 12 years old. I made The Dog That Ate Detroit on 8 mm film, and it starred my St. Bernard, Barney.
BR: Is it still around?
Claypool: It's in someone's attic somewhere.
BR: That would be perfect for YouTube.
Claypool: That's true.
BR: Les Claypool's first film.
Claypool: Yes, The Dog That Ate Detroit. I'm going to do the sequel someday.
BR: With classics such as Animal House, Vacation, Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj, what made you choose National Lampoon?
Claypool: I think it was more that they chose us. We were in some film festivals. We were winning some awards. We were getting lots of offers for direct-to-DVD releases. And along came Lampoon, and they offered us a theatrical. It's a limited theatrical (laughs), but it is a theatrical as opposed to direct-to-DVD, so that was an exciting thing.
BR: But you screened mostly at festivals?
Claypool: Yeah. We won three awards. We won Best Feature at the Malibu Film Festival. We won Best Comedy at the Tiburon International Film Festival, and we won Most Inebriated Audience at Portland's Longbaugh Film Festival.
BR: What about music festivals? I know you screened it at Bonnaroo.
Claypool: We screened it at Bonnaroo. It's been to SXSW. I think it was at Jam at the �Dam this year in Amsterdam. I'm not as up on it as my producer would be. He could rattle everything off.
BR: In an interview on roxwel.com, you mentioned that when you were putting the band together, you considered some people who couldn't do it.
Claypool: There were actual actors we were going to bring in to play the roles, but—scheduling and whatnot—it just didn't come together, so we decided to go with a lesser known cast and brought in some really good friends.
BR: Do you think that the interplay between you all was better because of that?
Claypool: It was a glorious move and worked incredibly well. I get people at film festivals that believe that it's a real documentary about a real band. Actually, one of the guys from Lampoon didn't even know it wasn't.
BR: It's a completely funny-because-it's-true kind of thing, if you've ever followed jam bands. These archetypes are just straight out of a show.
Claypool: Well, these characters could've theoretically happened within any music scene. I've seen these types of creative individuals and their perspectives in all aspects of different music scenes.
BR: I can definitely see it being enjoyed by almost any musician. I guess they're not really that specific to jam bands except for particular jokes here and there. I loved the drummer taking three or more hours to set up in the recording studio. Again, it's funny �cause it's true.
Claypool: Yes. Unfortunately.
BR: Why did you decide to be the drummer instead of the bassist?
Claypool: It would've been a little too obvious. I like playing drums, and it just seemed like a better role for me. If I'd been out there playing bass, it would've been: Well, there's Les Claypool playing bass (laughs), you know?
BR: When you played at clubs and music festivals, did the audience know it was you with a fictitious band?
Claypool: There was a good portion of folks that knew, but there were quite a few people that didn't.
BR: They probably didn't really care, since the band is good.
Claypool: I'm mixing some live stuff right now for the soundtrack. All the players are great players, and there's some interesting songwriting with a lot of great vocal harmonies and whatnot. It's actually a good band.
BR: Have y'all talked about touring?
Claypool: We've talked about it, but, no, we all have things to do, so it's been more talk than action.
BR: As far as band mockumentaries go, how would you rank the following: All You Need Is Cash, This Is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind and Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo?
Claypool: Well, Christopher Guest is a champ. I'm not going to even slightly deny that he's a champ and that he's influenced a lot of people. For me, the approach that we took was more of a Ricky Gervais approach: very, very dry, a lot of awkward moments and whatnot.
BR: Was there a lot of improv?
Claypool: Lots of improv.
BR: Would you say mostly improv?
Claypool: Well, there was a skeleton of a script and obviously a story line, but I would prompt people with questions, and they'd have to import them into situations where they had to respond. Some of the greatest moments in the film had nothing to do with me except for putting these guys in these situations. Like I was saying, I'm a big Ricky Gervais fan, and that's the kind of the approach we took here, and obviously Christopher Guest has been a big part of what Ricky Gervais does.
BR: Have you ever seen All You Need Is Cash?
Claypool: No, I've never seen that one.
BR: It was also called The Rutles.
Claypool: Oh yeah, The Rutles. "Hey diddle. Piggy in the middle."
Claypool: That's been years ago, though.
BR: Fill in the blank: Primus Sucks!; Electric Apricot blanks.
Claypool: Uh...(laughing) I don't know. My mind is not quick enough today. Um, Electric Apricot...I don't know, masturbates.
BR: When you filmed the Festeroo portion, was that an actual festival that you went to, or did you just create your own.
Claypool: That's actually a composite of a few different festivals that we "attended."
BR: All West Coast stuff?
BR: The Wikipedia article for Electric Apricot mentioned that Adam Gates, who plays Apricot's bassist Aiwass, is currently with Pixar?
Claypool: Adam Gates works for Pixar, yeah.
BR: So he works for Pixar, and you've obviously worked with the guys from South Park and the guys from Robot Chicken doing their theme songs. Do you have any plans for animated works in the future?
Claypool: Uh, there are some projects that are being tossed around...
Claypool: Pitched around, yes.
BR: Were you involved in most of the work for your music videos in the past, too?
Claypool: Yeah, I directed most of our videos.
BR: I saw Primus when you were touring with Lollapalooza in �93, and the only thing I really remember of the show is your performance of "Bob," and there were these swinging...
Claypool: Light bulbs.
BR: Yes, that image is deeply ingrained in my memory. Did you do the visuals for your concerts too?
Claypool: Well, Mark Kohr actually shot all that stuff. We just assembled a bunch of different things that we thought would look interesting projected behind us, and one of them was swinging light bulbs.
BR: It definitely was interesting. Particularly at that show.
Claypool: Well, there you go.
BR: In another interview, this was with Jambase, you mentioned that you initially saw jam bands as Phish and Widespread Panic, but then you were exposed to a wider variety, such as Disco Biscuits and bands like that. Would you say you were influenced by any of those guys to expand your audience, or was that just something you always were open to doing?
Claypool: For me, it wasn't so much as me going to the jam scene. I had the jam scene kind of thrust on me, doing Oysterhead. And after that, I was getting asked to put together projects for festivals, and eventually The Frog Brigade was born, and then Bucket of Bernie Brains, and then Fancy Band, and now I'm going to go out and do this trio thing.
BR: Who's that with?
Claypool: It's with Skerik and Mike Dillon, so it's kind of a Fancy trio. I just did a show in Atlanta, and it went really well, so we're kind of stripping it down.
BR: Where did you play in Atlanta?
Claypool: The Echo Project. As far as the jam scene, if you'd asked me back in �99 or whatever it was, I would've said, oh, isn't that Phish and the Grateful Dead and those bands?
BR: Which seemed to be Electric Apricot's kind of genre, that kind of jam band. You know, the old-school, sage-smelling hippies.
Claypool: Well, kind of, but then you've got Aiwass writing these songs like "Yog-Sothoth" about the Necromonicon, and quoting Morrissey and people like that. And then you've got Lapdog, who used to play in a heavy metal band, and then plays some jazz. It's what a lot of these guys are. But the jam scene has incorporated guys like me, and how the hell can you categorize me? Then there's Galactic, and you're looking at Bonnaroo, and obviously you see the Widespread Panics and the Trey Anastasios, but then you see Ween and The Flaming Lips and Radiohead, and now Tool and Mars Volta. So it's not so much about the music you play as the approach to the music you play.
BR: Having been part of the jam-band scene, I know a big portion is about constantly finding new stuff, exploring your own musical boundaries.
Claypool: The thing is, I've known these guys for years that go out and play the same set every night and say the same things in between songs and do the same stage moves. Everything. Every night.
BR: Which, if you see several shows, can be completely annoying.
Claypool: I'd say the majority of bands are like that. Jam bands are the opposite of that. And that's probably why I was accepted in that world, because in Primus, we changed our sets every night. I didn't say the same shit between songs every night, and we opened up bits and pieces of our songs.
BR: Now that you're writing novels and making films, do you still find music is your core passion, or are you more interested in doing the other stuff?
Claypool: I like doing the other stuff. It's new, so it's more of a challenge. Making records is easy. Whether or not they're good, that's another question. But making records is not a big challenge for me, as far as the actual process. But playing with different musicians all the time and making new music, that's very exciting. I enjoy that a lot. To me, it all comes together. It's like the Electric Apricot film. A huge portion of that is going to be the soundtrack. I'm in the studio right now mixing some of the live stuff for the soundtrack, so a lot of it goes hand-in-hand. I'm in this film Pig Hunt about a 3,000-pound animatronic pig that terrorizes the pot fields of Northern California, and they cast me as this redneck preacher, a preacher guy who's bound for vengeance. I have, like, three lines, and then I get killed (laughs). But I'm working on the music for it.
BR: What type of music are you doing for that?
Claypool: Just creepy music fitting a pig that eats people.
BR: I guess what you'd expect for that, right?
Claypool: Yeah, I have a pretty good background in the ol' swine world.
BR: What are you working on now besides the trio? Do you have any film work that you're doing?
Claypool: Well, we've got a couple of projects we're pitching, obviously on the heels of this release. We have a theatrical release for this. It's going to be limited theatrical through Lampoon, and then we're doing an art house release after that. And then it's going to be on DVD in the early part of next year, so I'm trying to line up some more projects, some more film stuff.
BR: What's your production company?
Claypool: That's B.A.I.T. Bay Area Independent Theatrics.
BR: Are you excited about Halloween? Do you do any big stuff for Halloween with your kids?
Claypool: Well, you gotta get their costumes together, and it's a challenge. Last year, we made this costume for my son where he was a headless guy carrying his own head, and it looked amazing. Every year you gotta try and match what you did before, so it gets more and more challenging. This year he's gonna be a box of Milk-Bone Dog Biscuits, and his face is going to be sticking out where the dog's face would be. And my daughter's going to be Banana Montana. She's going to be this big banana with a blonde wig.
BR: Nice. Do you dress up with them?
Claypool: I'm sure I'll throw on some monkey mask or something and get out there.
BR: Just something out of the wardrobe?
Claypool: Yeah. I got in trouble. I went to their school function the other night, and I wore my monkey mask, and they made me take it off.
BR: Because it was scary?
Claypool: Yes. I was stepping out of line.
BR: I love Halloween. It's always one of my favorite times of year. I like to dress up as really scary people, so I'm going as L. Ron Hubbard.
Claypool: Yep, that's pretty frightening.
BR: I just have to watch over my shoulder to make sure the Scientologists aren't after me.
Claypool: They'll come get you.
BR: Anything you want to get out there about the film that I haven't asked?
Claypool: Go see the film, �cause it probably won't be in theaters for very long. Like I said, it's a limited release. It's a good film to see with a lot of people.
BR: Are there any particular, uh, items you suggest taking before the show?
Claypool: Take a nap.
BR: So one final question: Are you going to Burning Man?
Claypool: I'm afraid of Burning Man. But at some point, I will be there, and I will be completely nude and suspended by some sort of floating helium device, �cause that's the only way to do it.
BR: Yeah. [Long, awkward pause.] I'm just pausing now because I want at least one good awkward pause in here.
BR: So what's the most annoying question you've been asked?
Claypool: Oh, I don't know. I have no idea.
BR: You don't even remember what they are after you hang up, right?
Claypool: Every now and again you get one that's awkward. A good interview is all about having a conversation, you know?
BR: So do you feel that we've had a conversation, or that I've just checked questions off my list?
Claypool: No, it's been good. You did a good job.
BR: Well, Les, thank you.
Claypool: You have a future in this world, my friend. (laughs)