Southbound Trajectory: A History
by Pete Crigler
With the recent news that Primus were seemingly going on hiatus following the completion of their 2018 summer tour with Mastodon, I had to look back and sigh. I had been a huge fan of the band in their ‘90s heyday and waved their flag long after they'd initially disbanded and receded from the spotlight. I was even overjoyed when they finally released a studio album in 2011, Green Naugahyde, but instead of following up with that triumph, they continued to let me down with lackluster live performances and weak studio material.
I became a fan of Primus around 1994. I remember seeing the video for "My Name is Mud" on regular MTV, not any of the late night shows. At that point, I was beginning to become a fan of just about anything that could be classified as ‘alternative rock.' I still remember buying the cassette of their 1993 classic Pork Soda at Wal-Mart with my dad. Wow, buying real music at Wal-Mart! Who would believe it? Anyway, I loved that record and still think it's their musical highpoint. I still like their first major label effort, 1991's Sailing the Seas of Cheese but think it's a bit too goofy to stand the test of time, with the exception of songs like "American Life," "Sgt. Baker" and "Jerry was A Race Car Driver." I initially got into them because they were so different but yet they were rock music all my friends could like too, so I wasn't completely on my own musically yet.
I continued following them through the years; I remember buying my cassette of 1995's Tales from the Punchbowl at K-Mart. Looking back on this record, it's still good but not one of my favorites because the music is all over the place and several songs don't really go anywhere. Then drummer Tim Alexander left, ostensibly to disappear into musical oblivion; here is where I got concerned. How in the world were a band like this going to replace a drummer this dynamic and influential? Answer: they really didn't; they ended up hiring friend Bryan "Brain" Mantia and made the most lo-fi record of their career. 1997's Brown Album actually is one of my favorites because the songwriting is extremely well done. The sound isn't exactly built for the mainstream as the instruments are basically buried in a muddy mix but the songs are still there and they still sound great. Mantia was no Alexander but he was unique in his own way.
But here is where the rot started; trying to find their audience at this point, they toured with the hippie-oriented H.O.R.D.E. tour that summer and became a primer for jam bands. The next year, in support of their second covers EP, Rhinoplasty, a record that only has three good covers (Peter Gabriel, XTC and Metallica), the band joined up with OZZFest to tour with Slayer, Ozzy and others. Quite the difference going from hippies to metalheads but Primus were able to win over both audiences.
By this time, South Park was ruling the airwaves and Primus' memorable theme song helped give them a new lifeline. During this time, the band were going through some tension, notably between bassist/frontman Les Claypool and guitarist extraordinaire Larry ‘Ler' LaLonde. It was also decided that the band would actually work with producers for their next album. Previously, they had always done everything themselves, with occasional assistance from friends like Matt Winegar and Toby Wright. When it came to making 1999's Antipop, they almost went the same way that Carlos Santana had done with the Grammy winning smash Supernatural. Hooking up with friends like Tom Morello, Tom Waits, Fred Durst, Stewart Copeland and others, the band made a very schizophrenic sounding record. Since its release in the fall of '99, only "Lacquer Head," "Electric Uncle Sam" and the Tom Waits/Martina Topley-Bird collaboration "Coattails of a Dead Man" are still in constant rotation. But the album was not received very well and was their lowest charting release. Even Les doesn't have much good to say about this disc.
After embarking on a rather brief tour, it was announced that Bryan Mantia was leaving to join Guns ‘n Roses, of all bands. This, coupled with tension between Les and LaLonde, made the break very welcome choice for the band. But I, as a fan, was crushed that one of my favorite bands was going away for an indeterminable amount of time. During that time, I moved on, went to college, discovered hardcore punk and the members continued in different directions. LaLonde seemingly disappeared and Claypool became a beacon of the jam band scene, hitting the road with Frog Brigade and Colonel Claypool's Bucket of Bernie Brains. He also did some good music with Trey Anastasio and Stewart Copeland under the name Oysterhead.
Around 2003, the band reunited with Tim Alexander and put out an excellent DVD of all their music videos, Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People. It also came packaged with a nifty 5 song EP that included one of their classic tracks, "Mary the Ice Cube." The reconstituted band went back on the road, playing jam/hippie festivals and the like as well as their own shows. Years went by and the band kept touring, playing the hits and generally just going through the motions. Then around 2009, Tim Alexander left the band a second time. To cover for his absence, Claypool reached back to the band's past. They brought in O.G. drummer Jay Lane, who since he left Primus in 1987 or so and had become most known for becoming Bob Weir's go to drummer in bands like Ratdog and other Dead-related projects. Soon the reactivated band had more motivation to keep going, signing a deal with Dave Matthews' ATO label and returning to the studio for their first full-length since 1999.
When the album, Green Naugahyde, was released in the fall of 2011, it was back to basics Primus. Songs like "Tragedy's-a-Comin'," "Lee Van Cleef" and "Salmon Men" told their fans that the Primus they had loved so much were back and were as good as they'd ever been. A triumphant tour emerged as well as their first TV appearances since the ‘90s on Kimmel and Fallon told people they were back and seemingly to stay.
Then in late 2012, it was announced that Lane was leaving and returning to the safe confines of Bob Weir and Co. All of a sudden, Tim Alexander made his third arrival into the band and everything seemed amazing again, just like the old times. I saw them live for the first time ever in Portsmouth, VA in the summer of 2014. It was exciting and a bummer at the same time. Exciting because I was seeing one of my favorites and while we could hear them just great where we were on the grass, we couldn't see shit. The bummer was all these hippies dancing around to songs like "Jerry was a Racecar Driver," a dichotomy I didn't get. Hippies don't dance to metal- one is supposed to mosh to this stuff and that bothered me that the hippie scene they'd become so involved with since the reunion began was now infiltrating their regular shows. Unfortunately, not long after the show, Tim Alexander suffered a massive heart attack and the band was on hold. Amazingly, he recovered in seemingly no time and the band was back on the road that fall.
By that time, the band had prepped their new record, their first full-length with Alexander since 1995. Unfortunately, what we got was a complete re-recording of the soundtrack of the classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. When I got my hands on the record, it was OK, there were a few tracks that stood out including Larry LaLonde's first ever vocal on a Primus record, the Veruca Salt (the Wonka character, not the band) gem "I Want it Now." But overall, it just felt unnecessary, like a vanity project they embarked on and decided everyone should hear it. It ended up not doing as well as Naugahyde but the band kept on touring.
About a year and a half later, Alexander suffered another heart attack and the worry among fans was whether he'd be able to play as well. By late 2016, the band were back on the road and Alexander proved us all wrong by being as great as always. Claypool had by this time started a few other projects, including Four Foot Shack, a duo with a guitarist buddy that did twisted takes on Primus classics and songs about Sarah Palin. Then he hooked up with Sean Lennon to form The Claypool-Lennon Delirium, a strange psychedelic experience.
By 2017, the band were back in the studio announcing their latest record. This time, what we got was a seven song, thirty-two minute ‘album' based around a children's book Claypool used to read to his children when they were young. When the record, The Desaturating Seven was released in the fall, it was greeted with a yawn. No one is interested in that short of a record, unless you're still a fan of Kanye West. The album was decent, not amazing by any stretch of the imagination but could've been better if the band had built some more songs around the six and a half on the record, as one is a spoken intro.
It was around this time that I finally fell out of complete love with Primus. I'd been supportive throughout all the jam band years and all the different lineups but I can't be a diehard fan anymore. I've just been so disappointed in their later releases that I no longer perk up when I hear about new news surrounding them. I was trying to see them when they came back through Virginia in the summer of 2018 but ticket prices were around $80, which was too rich for my blood.
All I can wrap this up with dear reader is this- if Primus disappear for a long while after these last shows, then I won't cry, I won't even miss ‘em. It's about time that a band that disappoints their hardcore fans so effortlessly go away for some time. I've never said that before but this time, it's for real. Sad to say but maybe that's what best for them, to go away for a while and realize what it was that made Primus so great in the first place.
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