SOUNDGARDEN – DOWN ON THE UPSIDE (1996)

PRIMUS – SAILING THE SEAS OF CHEESE (1991)

May 14th, 1991, Primus released their second studio album, Sailing The Seas Of Cheese, on Interscope Records. It’s hard to fathom what musical dimension Primus hails from. By 1991, their mind-bending 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 fans, grunge and alternative rock lovers, classic rock revellers, jam band disciples, you name it. 

Any discerning rock music fan who came of age during the ’90s will likely have a Primus album in their collection. Like the many fishing analogies scattered throughout the band’s discography, the band casts its net far and wide, drawing in a diverse group of fans. The time was right for Primus. The early ’90s saw a shift to more eclectic forms of rock music; fans had grown tired of the homogenised sounds dominating radio and MTV. 

The grunge movement of the Pacific Northwest was the arrow that pierced the mainstream. What followed was a bevvy of oddities from right across the US. Bands bravely tearing up the rock rule book and creating savagely potent music were suddenly thrust into the limelight. Music fans were now open to an outfit as eclectic and weird as Primus.  

Slapping like a funk player but strumming power chords and finger-tapping like a metal guitar hero, Les Claypool pulls sounds from his bass guitar that, before Primus’ inception, 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 insight to realise that Claypool’s bass riffs were so full and dominant they didn’t need 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 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, “He’s a very precise player. Even when we’re really stretching on something, you can barely tell that we’re still a band that doesn’t rehearse much. And a huge part of that is because of Tim.” Alexander’s weighty drumming anchors 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. “Seas Of Cheese” is the aural equivalent of a starter served before the main course at Willy Wonka’s seafood restaurant, where all your waiters are 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. It features a chaotic solo by LaLonde and pounding beats by Alexander. Claypool’s vocal refrain,” Here they come / Here come the Bastards”, sounds ominous and intriguing. His distinctive and reedy voice has a biting tone, which is excellent for sarcasm and humour. 

“Sgt. Baker” opens with a jazzy, sliding bass riff—a wheezing, seasick accordion bellows beneath. Herb Alexander punctuates the air with oddly timed percussive stabs. Eventually, this intro gives way to a bouncing military stomp. Claypool’s lyrics are a stinging critique of military authority and the eroding of one’s beliefs and personality in such regimes. 

“Sgt. Baker is my name / I’m gonna teach you how to play the game of warfare / Suddenly, it appears to me / You got a bit much dignity / For your own good, boy / Yes sir, yes sir. / I will rape your personality / Pummel you with my own philosophy / Strip you of your self-integrity / To make you all a bit like me / I said right, left, right, left.” 

For “American Life”, Claypool’s bassline is hypnotic. LaLonde’s guitar playing is beautifully restrained, atmospheric and pitch-perfect, laying a bed for Claypool’s musings on immigration and the abandonment of army veterans. The nautical rolling bassline incites images of old immigrant boats sailing across the waves of the Atlantic, “Now a mother and her son are standing in line / It’s a cold day on Ellis Isle / And they look to the Statue of Liberty / For the boy, we have American Life.”

“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 create barely contained 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. It is 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.

Alexander’s drum intro to “Eleven” is powerful, matched by Claypool’s mammoth fuzzed-out bass chords. The song shifts gears, morphing into a chugging bruiser. Claypool sounds maniacal as he shifts through different voices as smoothly as a curious head visiting a millinery. “Is It Luck” is gloriously batshit. Its bassline is manic. LaLonde coughs up shards of spiky guitar weaving in and out of Claypool and Alexander’s frantic pace. 

The thirty-eight-second interlude “Grandad’s Little Ditty”, in which “Grandad” is recorded singing in the shower, introduces “Tommy The Cat”, another Primus classic that 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 twisted solos, Tim Alexander’s eight-limbed drumming and Tom Wait’s guttural narration. Again, the song became a staple of ’90s MTV; “Tommy The Cat” is an anthem of the weird.

“Sathington Waltz” is an instrumental interlude. Seasick and drunken, it’s the sound of vomiting overboard and assuming the fetal position on deck in a vain attempt at recovery as the salty sea mist dampens your sodden form. Which leads us to “Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers.”

In an album packed tight with gems, “Those Damned Blue Collar Tweekers” stands tall. Catchier than the common cold, it’s creative and adventurous. Opening with LaLonde’s wah pedal mimicking the sound of a clarion horn, there’s a cartoonish surrealness to the song, which is unique to Primus. Its odd atmosphere never spills into mawkish parody, while its powerful chorus cuts like a sickle. 

Claypool’s beautifully melodic bass intro to “Fish On (Fisherman Chronicles, Chapter II) gives way to an atmospheric dirge in which Claypool recites various stories of fishing with characters like his Dad, his Dad’s friend Darrell, a guy called Todd Huth, and Primus guitarist Ler LaLonde. “Felt a pang late one afternoon / I was fishin’ off Muir beach with Larry LaLonde / I grabbed a tuna salad sandwich, and I started to chew / Pretty soon, Ler’s yellin’ Fish on, Fish on.” The album closes with “Los Bastardos,” a reprise of the feral bounce of “Here Come The Bastards.” 

No one sounds 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 was already marking itself out as a group 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. Pulling from their metal and rock roots, dishing out Captain Beefheart-like oddity, dispensing prog rock workouts interspersed with a Frank Zappa-like sense of humour and musical whimsey, Primus triumphed despite their out-there approach. The strangeness might alienate some listeners but never detracts from the band’s stunning musicianship.

The world is a far richer place with Primus in it, and Sailing The Seas Of Cheese, is a glorious look behind the curtain into the wild, technicolour world of a genuinely unique band. 

Essential…!