Les Claypool can rebuild a carburetor, but that’s not what you know him for.
Descended from a long line of auto mechanics, the virtuoso bassist is part craftsman, befitting his heritage, the kind of man’s man who can fix an alternator, gut an albacore and probably even belch "The Star-Spangled Banner" after a couple of cold ones.
But he’s also an eccentric, multitalented free spirit with a flair for the visual arts, a novel under his belt, a mess of gold and platinum discs earned with his band Primus and a stack of adoring press clippings from Bass Player magazine whose word count could rival the collected works of Marcel Proust.
It’s this mix of a blue-collar, working-class pragmatism and far out, boundless, art-school whimsy that’s defined Claypool since he was in grade school.
"I was the kid who would get out of doing classwork because I was one of the best artists in the class, so I would go get to draw all the displays and stuff for what was going on," Claypool reminisces during a recent drive to L.A. from his Northern California ranch. "Of course, this pissed off all the other kids."
Claypool chuckles to himself as he says this — a mischievous little snicker that manifests itself often — and for good reason: He’s always wielded his artistic savvy like a whoopee cushion, intermingling a masterful command of his instrument and an inventive, slap and pop technique with a cartoonish sense of humor, a nasally, caricature of a voice and a fondness for the double entendre (one of Primus’ biggest hits is a tune called "Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver") that makes his highly progressive leanings a bit more approachable.
Still, it’s a lot to take in, and Claypool never makes it all that easy to digest. He prides himself on being an acquired taste, and his latest project, the forthcoming solo album "Of Fungi and Foe," is yet another square peg.
Perhaps Claypool’s most free-form disc, "Fungi" tones down the acrobatic bass lines in favor of ambient pockets of shape-shifting, amorphous sound, Middle Eastern tones, clanging percussion, tendrils of saxophone, a clamorous drunken freakout with Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz and the occasional vaudevillian waltz, all serving as the backdrop for songs about weed dealers, mushroom men and Sarah Palin.
The primal thump of Claypool’s bottom-heavy works is still present, but it sounds like a stranger in a strange land on many of these equally catchy and obtuse tunes, which form a disc that’s deliriously idiosyncratic even by Claypool’s far-out standards.
"This is the most ‘me’ record that I’ve done. There’s not that much in the way of other contributors," Claypool says. "This is probably the most self-indulgent I’ve been on a creative level, but it’s the least self-indulgent in that there’s no bass solos going on. If people want to work on their slap technique, this isn’t the record that they’re going to want to rush to."
True to his words, "Fungi" is an oddball offering for sure, and to promote its release, Claypool has assembled "The Oddity Faire" tour, a rotating cast of musical misfits such as spoken word poet/rapper Saul Williams, avant folksters O’Death, the Yard Dogs Roadshow cabaret (which will be playing the Vegas stop) and others.
"I’ve pretty much played every festival except for Lilith Fair, and for years I’ve talked about doing this," Claypool says. "Since ’93, I’ve talked about putting together a package of the freaks of the industry, the people who have a skewed approach. I’ve finally done it. It’s like a slice of Burning Man and a warped slice of the Ringling Bros. There will be a lot of stimuli beyond just the audio stimuli."
And that’s a crux of Claypool’s entire catalog: His works always have been as visual as they are musical, character studies that come alive in videos, short films and album artwork that creates a whole wide-eyed world to get lost in.
This has been the root of Claypool’s appeal, these off-kilter miasmas of weirdness where it’s up to the listener to try and see around the never-ending series of corners that Claypool continually constructs.
"I think there’s an element of people who just want to see Evel Knievel jump over the fountain, what’s this guy going to do next?" Claypool says. "And I think there’s an element of what I was when I was in high school, where I was just always looking for that thing that made me go, ‘How the hell did they think of that?’ I love that," he says, lauging. "And that’s what this Oddity Faire is all about."
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.PREVIEW
“The Oddity Faire,” with Les Claypool and the Yard Dogs Roadshow
7 p.m. today
House of Blues at Mandalay Bay, 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. South