PRIMUS – SAILING THE SEAS OF CHEESE May 14th, 1991, Primus released their second studio album Sailing The Seas Of Cheese on Interscope Records. The album spawned three singles “Jerry Was A Racecar Driver”, “Tommy The Cat” and “Those Damned Blue Collar Tweekers”.
It’s hard to fathom what musical dimension Primus hails from. By 1991 their mind bendingly original take on rock had masterfully circumvented any attempts by fans or journalists to categorise them. There are many unusual things to admire about Primus, one being, their ability to appeal to fans of wildly different musical tastes. Beloved by metal heads, prog aficionados, grunge and alternative rock fanatics, classic rock revellers, jam band disciples, you name it. A Primus album or nine will most likely be found in the record collection of most discerning rock music fans who came of age during the 1990’s,
Much like the many fishing analogies they sing about, they cast their net far and wide, and pulled one hell of a diverse group of fans aboard the good ship Primus.
Slapping like a funk player, but strumming power chords and finger-tapping like a metal guitar hero, Les Claypool coaxed sounds from his instrument that had rarely if ever been made by a band that, on the surface, seemed like your standard run of the mill, guitar, bass and drums, rock three piece.
Guitarist Larry LaLonde, formerly of thrash/proto death metal forefathers Possessed and Blind Illusion, had the musical acumen to realise that Claypool’s bass riffs were so full and dominant that they hardly needed to be doubled. Eschewing the rock staple of power chords and guitar centric riffage. LaLonde was freed up on most songs to launch into dissonant, atonal solos that essentially functioned as texture, atmosphere and colour.
Drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander’s monstrous chops propelled Primus through a blistering cacophony of styles. Les Claypool said of him around the time “He’s a very precise player. Even when we’re really stretching on something, you can rarely tell that we’re still a band that doesn’t rehearse much. And a huge part of that is because of Tim”
It was Alexander’s weighty drumming that anchored the chaos of Claypool’s bass and LaLonde’s guitar.
“Seas of Cheese” opens the record with the sounds of a creaking ship alongside low, bowed string bass. Claypool sings a short introduction that finishes with “Come with us / We’ll sail the Seas of Cheese”. It sets the tone for what’s to come, like an Hors D’oeuvre before the main course served up at Willy Wonka’s restaurant, where your waiters are always tripping on acid.
“Here Come the Bastards” begins with a tapped, upper fret bass riff. The song immediately finds its groove as a driving, mid-tempo march. Featuring a chaotic solo from LaLonde and pounding beats by Alexander. Claypool’s vocal refrain of ”Here they come / Here come the Bastards” sounds both ominous and intriguing. His distinctive and reedy voice has a biting tone, great for sarcasm and humour. At times he puts so much into his performances on the album, that it can also lend an unsettling intensity to proceedings. Where does the character in each song end and the “real” Les Claypool begin..?
“Jerry Was A Racecar Driver” is probably the closest thing to a hit single this album produced. Its insane tapping bass riff, atonal guitar solo and frantic drum beat creates a real sense of chaos. The song delves into the plight of the working class by telling the story of a physically fit fireman who is forced into retirement, while also extolling the stupidity of American consumerism. A blast of brilliance that set mosh pits ablaze in the early ’90s and was a staple of MTV’s Headbangers Ball and 120 Minutes.
Pulling from their metal roots, dishing out Captain Beefheart like oddity, dispensing prog rock tricks, as well as a healthy regard for Frank Zappa’s sense of humor and his stunning musical whimsey. The strangeness might alienate some listeners, but it never detracts from the band’s stunning musicianship.
“Tommy The Cat” features a guest appearance by none other than Tom Waits. If ever there was a perfect musical bedfellow for Primus, it would have to be the legendary Mr. Waits. “Tommy The Cat” is a pulsating, infectious number, complete with Claypool’s stinging funk bass, LaLonde’s “batshit” solo’s, Tim Alexander’s eight limbed-like drumming and Tom Wait’s guttural narration. Again, a staple of ’90s MTV, “Tommy The Cat” is an anthem of the weird.
The album is packed full of gems, “Those Damned Blue Collar Tweekers” is catchier than the common cold. “American Life” with its insistent rolling bass riff, is both joyous and infectious, despite the subject matter. Every track is creative and adventurous.
No one sounded like Primus, and because of that they never fit into any one scene. Instead they were wholeheartedly adopted by fans of numerous disparate genres. A rare feat. They were fortunate to have found themselves in the era they formed. By the release of Sailing The Seas of Cheese in 1991, Generation X were already marking themselves out as a group who were content with crossing musical boundaries and happy to entertain a smorgasbord of musical ideas.
Les Claypool said of the album “Sailing the Seas of Cheese was that record like ‘Here we are, about to release something on a major label,’ and we’re right alongside the other bands that were popular at the time, which were these hairball bands, the Poisons, and the Guns N’ Roses, and these different things that we just did not fit in with. That was the impetus of the title, because we just knew all of a sudden we were going to be thrust into this world where we weren’t sure anyone thought we belonged…..”
They needn’t have worried.