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Metal and South Park: The music of Primus

Benji Chapman talks us through the band Primus.

By Benji Chapman, First Year English and Philosophy

A piece of music can be identified as original when it has so many influences that the new music being written is itself unrecognisable from its influences. California-based funk-metal freak show Primus are renowned for making music so weird that it’s become increasingly difficult to pin down where the hell their sound comes from, or what genre even defines them best.

Primus made a name for themselves in the early 90s amid the grunge explosion in the US, evolving at arms-length from rock legends like Nirvana, Tool and Rage Against the Machine. The current line-up, consisting of eccentric frontman Les Claypool, guitarist Larry LaLonde and drummer Tim Alexander has stayed largely the same since the group's first release in 1989.

Unlike the standard rock lineup, Primus' bass guitar (played by Claypool) functions as a key melodic instrument in the mix, whilst guitar is side-lined in most cases to follow the bass' lead. Claypool is renowned for his technique that fuses rocky, thumping basslines with a funkier slap bass influence which rhythmically stimulates the music. In live videos Les can often be seen pounding the strings of the bass with extreme force, as if a dormant spirit inside the instrument needs to be whacked awake before he exhibits a graceful torrent of flamenco rolls across the frets with sharp-shot accuracy- soothing the violently awoken spectre.

Primus are also known for their current tribute tour for the band Rush, "A Tribute To Kings,” which began in 2022- it’s no surprise Primus possess an affinity towards Rush and other prog legends like King Crimson and Yes given the breakneck and patchwork structure of Primus’ songs. Their music lurches at breakneck speeds from one section to another, introducing several new melodies throughout passages- diving into another- before the harmony arrives in the beginning again to be saved by the same groove. Moving Pictures, one of Rush’s most accomplished records was released under 10 years before Primus’ debut, although the thunderous bass on this album is probably largely responsible for Claypool’s later decision to crank his bass and play with some serious aggression.

Primus take the rock sound and push into the hardcore. Their darker, metal influences are prevalent in the constant use of the famous devil’s interval in their guitar and bass lines (see My Name Is Mud, Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver, Jerry Was A Race Car Driver) and the band don’t shy away from palm muted thrashing; there are guttural and throaty chugging sections in many of the band’s discography but it’s clear that the overall structure of the band’s work is influenced by the cohesive snare rolls and tight breakbeats from Primus’ (several) drummers over the 30+ years of the band’s work. Although instrumentally the band certainly take their influence from metal,  contrastingly, Claypool’s vocal style is far removed from the traditional chanting lyrics or growls from heavy metal - Claypool opts instead for a skittish, almost conversational limerick-based vocal style.

Claypool's lyrics and thematic imagery of Primus are in fact ultimately what differentiates them most from either genre of metal, rock or funk; the band are famous for leaning into the absurd, or perhaps more accurately diving headfirst into it. Whether they’re dressed up in life-size, plastic toy cowboy outfits throughout their music videos, or singing songs about a particularly vicious pet beaver, the group take an innuendo focussed (and heavily drugged-up) approach to their style and lyrics. If the band's lyrical style and instrument choices (which range from double bass to an instrument of Les' own creation called the "Whamola") don't convince you, perhaps their recent work will.

In 2014, the band released a full-length cover of the original Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory soundtrack - the score seems to be a point of obsession for Claypool in particular who diligently recreates the soundtrack in an eerie and incredibly bizarre spin on a childhood classic. Primus also composed the theme to South Park and recently met with creators of the show Matt Stone and Trey Parker to recreate the theme on the show's 25th anniversary.

Wherever the band get their sound from, it's ultimately a sonic spectrum full of love and reverence for each genre that contributes to it. A cluster of bands are obviously present in the band's music, but the beauty of Primus- and new music in general- is that it often leads to even weirder, more complex and exotic music which hones on a mastery of a respective sound to build on its predecessors- and often create a new one in the process. Musicians build on their influences and make something new and in many cases the more influences there are, the better.

Featured image: Frederik Dam Sunne

Have you listened to Primus?