Here’s an exclusive excerpt of the current MAGNET cover story. To read the whole thing, order a copy of the issue here.
Les Claypool and Sean Lennon team up for some crazy extraterrestrial rock on the Claypool Lennon Delirium’s Monolith Of Phobos. MAGNET asked Wilco guitarist Nels Cline to take a space walk on the wild side of Planet Claypool/Lennon.
Photo by Gene Smirnov
As evinced by its inhabitants’ freshly completed document, Monolith Of Phobos (ATO), it is a fertile world filled with strange-yet-familiar Earth creatures such as a closeted homosexual dentist who dreams of becoming a sea captain, a girl in New York City dying from an overdose of Oxycontin, a voyeur perv who gets turned on spying on his daughter, Bubbles the chimp and … Buzz Aldrin. Born of pre- and post-set hangs/jams on a tour last year that put together Primus, Dinosaur Jr and Sean Lennon’s band with Charlotte Kemp Muhl, the Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger, the seemingly unplanned and truly unpredictable collaboration is just that: a true collaboration, to hear these denizens describe the processes that became the Claypool Lennon Delirium. Apparently this planet bears fruit at an astonishingly rapid rate. In a few weeks, Les and Sean wrote, recorded and mixed the whole thing.
Les Claypool, an acknowledged master of the electric bass as well as the driving force behind Primus, a writer, director and general instigator of seriously wacky seriousness of a high order, and Sean Lennon, the less-recognized yet insanely talented multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of artful psychedelic songcraft, decided, after sharing songs and ideas and stories on the road, to make their version of an early-’70s-style space/prog-rock record, and it’s good. It’s also no mere retro exercise. While it does generally resonate with some vintage flavors, it’s clearly the result of two potent artists collaborating freely and coherently.
I suppose that the good people at MAGNET asked me to interview Les and Sean because … well, I kind of know Les from having opened for Primus the better part of the summer of 1995 as a member of Mike Watt And The Crew Of The Flying Saucer, led by the Minutemen/fIREHOSE bassist/composer/punk-rock icon. Years before that, I had been taken by a music writer friend in my hometown of Los Angeles to hear Primus open for 24-7 Spyz (does anyone remember this band?) when their first studio record, Frizzle Fry, was new, and he was right when he predicted that I would dig them. On the ’95 tour, Les and his people were super nice to Watt and his band (though I can’t say that for a lot of Primus’ ardent fans at the time!)—we were touring on Watt’s first solo record, a monolith of a different sort called Ball Hog Or Tugboat? But did the MAGNET people know this?
Perhaps they knew that, due to a strange series of circumstances—also related to Mike Watt, incidentally—I ended up meeting and marrying one of Sean’s best friends and sometime collaborator, Yuka Honda (of Cibo Matto, the first band Sean ever played in) while making a Watt-instigated recording in New York City called Floored By Four (with Dougie Bowne on drums and released on Sean and Yuka’s label Chimera Music, history buffs). Yuka was living upstairs in Sean’s house in the West Village, and thus so I have been for the last six years. Sean, Yuka and I have played together on various projects during these years, so I know a thing or 20 about this man’s abilities. As many people may discover by listening to his band and to the spankin’ fresh Monolith Of Phobos, on which he plays guitar, keyboards and drums on all tracks but one, he’s monstrously talented. May he now emerge finally from the shadow of his legendary parents and just be. And play.
Read on and you will feel the deep respect that Les and Sean have for each other. You will learn how creative and focused and fun the writing and recording of their record was. You will also hear, in their songs and as they speak, charmingly dark tales of humans much like you and me, except maybe a little weirder, in harm’s way or causing harm. You will hear about Michael Jackson’s famous chimp, Bubbles! And while I thought that the monolith of Phobos, considered by ufologists (that’s a real word!) to be possible proof of alien life and which I thought may be a clever metaphor for, well, rock (apparently, it’s likely the result of “impact ejecta” and has been described by learned scientists as “just extraterrestrial rock”; how perfect is that?), this title song was inspired by astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s odd on-camera rant about this strangely defined protuberance on Mars’ hollow moon, thus adding Mr. Aldrin to the colorful—if slightly disturbing—cast of characters inhabiting these songs. Les Claypool and Sean Lennon bid you welcome to their planet. Let the Delirium take hold. —Nels Cline
Cline: I guess the readers will be somewhat fascinated by the fact that, Les, I met you in 1995 because I was on tour for the better part of that summer with Mike Watt And The Crew Of The Flying Saucer opening for Primus. And you guys were super nice to us. I have to say your audience didn’t like us very much. We blew their minds by coming out with (Primus guitarist) Larry LaLonde. And covering that Madonna song, “My Secret Garden,” that I would sing, and that really messed with their heads. And Sean, I met you in 2009.
Lennon: We met through Mike Watt as well.
Cline: Yeah, I was going to say when I was making a record with Watt and Yuka and Dougie Bowne that was called Floored By Four.
Claypool: Mike Watt is the conduit for all.
Lennon: Yes, he’s the unified field factor.
Cline: It’s kind of bizarre because my still friend and former girlfriend Carla Bozulich I met through Mike as well. He’s punk Cupid. But anyway, because of this strange confluence of energy and falling in love with one of Sean’s best friends and musical collaborator, Yuka, I ended up living in your house, Sean, for the past six years, which I managed to keep under wraps, but the cat’s fully out of the bag now. But let’s talk about the record. The record sounds completely amazing, and I wanted to know …
Claypool: Are you afraid your landlord is going to kick you out of your place?
Cline: Nope, I’m not. [Laughs]
Lennon: As long as they call me “lord,” that’s my only requirement. [Laughs]
Cline: I know from press releases that you guys were both on tour with Dinosaur Jr, which I think is funny because I thought it was supposed to be this ’90s thing, and the Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger was on it, and you guys are not exactly a ’90s band, but I guess there’s a sensibility that merged there. In a way it’s kind of like the Ghost has this late-’60s/early-’70s psychedelic, crafty rock ‘n’ roll thing going on. And you guys jammed on the tour and became friends. I was amazed and chuffed, as they say in the U.K., to find out that you guys were collaborating, and I was wondering if there was something beyond music that drew you two together. I have a theory that there may be a bond via a shared love of dark humor, not just aesthetics, but also a similar taste for vintage band and military jackets, but I don’t know. What’s the deal?
Lennon: The outfit thing kind of surprised me, because I was checking out some of Les’ live shows and was thinking, “Oh, I kind of dress like that sometimes.” And then I’d check out another one and think, “Oh, I have that outfit, too,” so that came as a revelation that Les and I share similar wardrobe exclusivity. But for me, I’ll speak on my behalf: I was definitely a bona-fide fan of Primus, so for me I was already going into it with a shared feeling about their music and loving it and also just the aesthetics of Les’ videos and the whole thing, so I already knew there was a connection. I think that came from being influenced by Les when I was young. Those videos and stuff made me want to commit to the weirder side of life and the weirder side of the tracks. I didn’t know that Les and I would get along personally, you never know, and that was a nice thing.
Claypool: We just started clawing each other’s eyeballs.
Lennon: [Laughs] Yeah, well, you never know what someone’s going to be like in real life, so I didn’t have expectations going in, but Les and I got along because we share similar aesthetics and love for dark humor, as you said, but also because we’re both pretty mellow people. I think that kind of made it easy for us to hang out. Like, most tours you go on, people are just wild and drowning in beer and backstage antics, but we’re both kinda chilled out, so that made the tour really pleasant and led to us jamming more and so forth. What do you think?
Claypool: I never explored the notion of bonding by fashion.
Lennon: Yeah, I never thought of that, either, but then I thought of it after: “Oh yeah, we both do have those clothes.”
Claypool: Yeah, well for me, we were putting together this tour, and the notion of a ’90s throwback tour makes me somewhat vomit in my own mouth, but we were getting suggestions for opening acts, as we’re going through right now with the Delirium thing, and then (Primus manager) Brad (Sands) said, “Oh, Sean’s band wants to open up, check out Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger,” so I went online, I watched the “Animals” video, and it just blew my mind. So I liked where it was going, I loved the vibe, I loved the song. It’s my favorite song of theirs, so I said, “Yeah, let’s bring them on,” and it really added some interesting continuity to the lineup.
Lennon: And it’s cool because Les started playing music and records backstage that he wanted me to check out, and we were kind of trading off on stuff, and he showed me this band Dukes Of Stratosphear, which is a side project of XTC. And I’m sure you know it, Nels, because you know all records.
Cline: I do. [Laughs]
Lennon: I didn’t know about it, and he played this song called “The Mole From The Ministry,” and I was just, like, “Man, I totally connect with this,” and especially with the aesthetic of what me and Charlotte were trying to do with the Ghost, which was this neo-gothic, retro, psychedelic thing. That really blew my mind because I had listened to all of Les’ records, but I didn’t know he was off listening to things like Dukes Of Stratosphear from what he played. When Les was like, “Hey, jam with us,” we just had an easy time playing music.
Claypool: Well, we were up at your place, the country place, and we were backstage at that place on the side of the mountain, and I had my dobro bass and I was plinkity plunkin’ away, and Sean had his acoustic. We started playing, and I thought, “Wow, he’s not playing things that I would think would be played by somebody just playing an acoustic guitar with me.” So it immediately piqued my interest, and we started jamming in the back of the bus. And for me what was exciting is he would play these bits and pieces that I felt were very original, and I could see his thumbprint, which I thought was pretty cool. The original plan was to do another Oysterhead record this year because we’re taking a year off from Primus, and schedules just weren’t lining up, so I was talking to Sean: “Hey, I got a year off coming up if you wanna do something and get together and fiddle around in the studio.” And before we knew it, we had 10 songs.
Lennon: Yeah, it happened really fast, and we had a couple phone calls like, “We need our side project,” and I remember thinking Dukes Of Stratosphear was XTC’s side project that I didn’t even know was them, and I was kinda like, “Les and I should do our indulgent concept record or whatever.” And we were just chatting about it and coming up with songs, and then literally two weeks later we had 10 songs and were looking at mixing, so it was really fast and easy and fun.
Cline: That’s so unusual in music in general, I find, but I feel very lucky to have these very close and beloved collaborators to be able to do that. But I feel in terms of songwriting, that’s very unusual and very special. And I can hear, listening to the record, that I have myself in this western dichotomous mind feeling that, “Oh, that bridge, that’s a Sean part,” but none of this matters because it really sounds like one thing. I saw the press release that it’s this space-prog-rock, but it’s kind of not exactly that. It doesn’t sound like something that’s this singular retro genre project.
Cline: It sounds like all of these stories that are obviously about space, which I feel like you guys have a bond with that you could call outer space.
Claypool: Well, you know Sean. He’s like Encyclopedia Brown throwing out these little bits of information and getting the wheels turning. And next thing you know, it gets lyric wheels turning.
Cline: You’re just lucky he didn’t get into string theory. I don’t know what that record would have sounded like.
Lennon: Well, Les is amazing at writing songs really fast, and I have to admit, a lot of the songs that I write are so belabored lyrically. I can write music really fast, but the lyrics I’m going to spend a week on. I think it’s this thing in my head. And working with Les … I don’t think I’ve told you this, but it really helped me write lyrics faster. I don’t know if it was seeing how fast you were, but it was also like you were very accepting and you’re a great producer in terms of songwriting. I would show you an idea and you wouldn’t shut it down, and even if you thought it should be a different direction, you would go about telling me while still keeping the momentum moving. I really enjoyed the lyrics side of things, because it’s one of the things that’s an artifact from being my dad’s son. He was so well known for his lyrics that I still have a hangup about it sometimes. And somehow writing around Les made me not think about that, and the lyrics came out as fast as the music usually does, which is really rare for me. The sound of the record to me is the sound of songwriting happening very naturally, which was very pleasant for me.
Cline: Well, Les, you often write from the point of view of a character, and it’s usually a very colorful or intense character. You inhabit these roles or this character to tell a story. A lot of the songs on the record are story songs, and most are cautionary tales. Was this something that was liberating for you, Sean? You don’t have to write about yourself ?
Lennon: Yes, exactly. Not only do I like that Les is a storyteller, he’s written a novel and most of the treatments for his music videos, obviously. And he’s got the author’s character, and it’s not just singing about his feelings. I felt that was liberating. And it’s kind of weird talking about you like this while you’re listening, Les.
Claypool: It is very weird!
Lennon: [Laughs] Les has a very good mood in the studio. He’s a good producer, and I’ve been around a lot of producers who might get the job done, but there’s a kind of stress going on. But we were having fun, and I felt it was a very creative environment in that way. And I remember talking to him and showing him videos of Buzz Aldrin talking about monolith phobia and laughing about it and saying, “How weird is this?” And then I fell asleep and woke up, and he had all the lyrics for “Phobos” written, and the melody. He’s really good at taking a piece of a concept and fleshing it out entirely. And Les, you chose to write it from Buzz’s perspective instead of writing about the monolith itself, and I learned a lot from that. It made the lyrics happen naturally. If you tried to write a song about a rock on a rock on a rock floating in space, it would be like, “All right, what do I talk about now? The sun floating behind it or stupid shit like that?” What the monolith meant to Buzz made the whole thing sound like a story.
Claypool: For me, when you were telling me about this and we watched the video, it wasn’t this monolith that was on this rock falling into the planet Mars. That wasn’t what was making us laugh. It was this old guy looking at the camera and having this freakout, spewing his very detailed perspective of what’s going on, and alternative and divine forces at play, or not. I have these friends who are just tortured when they go on tour or onstage, and they don’t hang out with anybody after and it’s the same attitude in the studio. But it’s a game, it’s fun! We all started out playing our instruments in the garage with our buddies from high school because it was fun. And I think when you start thinking, that’s when the material starts to suffer, but also, “What’s the point then?” If Sean and I were having any issues stumbling, then it’s time to go catch a fish! We were hunting for mushrooms and drinking pinot. We were having fun! We’re only on the planet for so long.
Lennon: It was also just me and Les in a room, too, which made it feel more like we were hanging out like two kids in a candy store playing around. There wasn’t any record-industry type pressuring us. There also weren’t other band members expecting anything. It was really fun, and we did get to go out on Les’ boat, and we did get to go mushroom hunting, which was awesome. I had never done that before.
Cline: I call it getting in the sandbox.
Lennon: It was very sandbox-like.
Claypool: We did not stumble upon any cat turds in the sandbox.
Lennon: I think Brian Wilson had some trouble. He and Van Dyke Parks actually wrote “Surf ’s Up” in a sandbox in his house, but the cat thought it was kitty litter.
Cline: And no clumping action.
Lennon: Yeah, they did end up writing great songs in that sandbox. I don’t know if there’s anything to this, but it’s interesting that Les is such a foodie and has his own pinot noir called Pachyderm, which has ruined other wine for me. I can’t drink any other wine but that now. But the fact that we’re both such foodies and musicians, it says something about our personalities. There’s something to that.
Cline: I know a lot of musicians, and I know when they aren’t talking about music, food is usually the next topic. It’s something to do with the sensory world. Maybe not just pure enjoyment of sensation, but having some kind of heightened awareness.
Claypool: I think it depends on the stage of your life. Like when I was in my 20s doing Primus records, I wasn’t talking about food.
Cline: You were just singing about it.
Claypool: Yes, that and trying to get laid. There was that camaraderie with all your comrades.
Cline: Half your song titles were food references.
Claypool: True. There’s my contradiction.
Lennon: I was in a band with Yuka that was called Crazy Food. That’s kinda funny. You were saying how you thought the record sounded good. I gotta say, the sound of the record is really about Les and his engineering and producing skills. He really has a specific and scientific way of mic-ing and recording the drums. And I gotta be honest, but he really has his sound tuned in in his little laboratory. I’ve never really recorded drums the way he does. It’s not just about mic placements but also about compressors, and also about his pace and what he’s looking for. And there’s this very huge, naturally punchy sound on the drums that I feel was sort of key to the backbone of the album. That’s all Les’ engineering and production wizardry. And that’s influenced me because I feel like Les’ method of recording was so different than what I’ve been used to. So I’ve been trying to stay out of my own box since we made that record, too.