Formed in 1984 by bassist Les Claypool, Bay Area prog/metal/alternative band Primus have long since established their bonafides as an original outfit, with nine albums of music no one else could have made to the group’s credit.
However, on the group’s current tour, Primus is adding an entire suite of music by Rush to its setlist. For dates including a June 19 performance at San Jose Civic, the group will perform the Canadian progressive trio’s 1977 album A Farewell to Kings in its entirety.
Claypool emphasizes that this isn’t the first time he has performed other artists’ albums start to finish.
“I did Pink Floyd’s Animals years ago with Frog Brigade,” he notes.
He says that he and his Primus bandmates Larry LaLonde (guitar) and drummer Tim Alexander have long wanted to pay tribute to the influential group that folded in 2018. “Kings seemed like the right one,” he says.
In fact, A Farewell to Kings was the first Rush music Claypool ever heard. He has recounted the story countless times: at age 14, he attended a Rush concert at the Cow Palace, with Pat Travers opening.
“I drank three warm Löwenbräus and threw up in the parking lot,” he says with a chuckle. “That was fun. I could probably do four Löwenbräus now.”
More memorable than the beer, however, was the music.
“It was a mind-blowing thing,” Claypool says. “It set me on a path of Geddy [Lee] worship.” It was right around that time that Claypool first picked up the bass guitar; today he’s widely acknowledged as one of rock’s premier bassists.
Despite the intervening years, Claypool’s admiration for Rush endures.
“I don’t think Neil [Peart] gets the due that he deserves,” he says. “His lyrics were very kind of Dungeons and Dragons-y, but there were a lot of interesting metaphors, and they were pretty prophetic and philosophic.”
Claypool laughs and acknowledges that when he was growing up, Rush fandom was “like being a Trekkie: not a lot of people understood, but those who did were very passionate about it.”
Primus is renowned both for its musical playfulness and its technical precision. That latter quality is required to play the demanding music of Rush, as well. Claypool observes that when covering the music of some artists, there’s plenty of room for interpretation, “but with the Rush stuff,” he says, “you have to nail it. You have to play it as close [to the original] as you can.”
When it comes to vocals, it’s a different story. In 1979, Rolling Stone memorably characterized Geddy Lee’s voice as “a cross between Donald Duck and Robert Plant.” While Claypool doesn’t endorse that particular description, he admits that singing like Lee is “extraordinarily difficult.” So he does it his own way.
Even with a bit of instrumental stretching-out, A Farewell to Kings runs less than 40 minutes. That leaves plenty of time in a Primus setlist for some of the band’s beloved catalog material. The hard work preparing for this tour also inspired the band to create new music.
“We rehearsed this Rush album more than anything I think we’ve ever done,” Claypool says. “And it kind of got the creative juices flowing.”
Perhaps inspired by the album’s two extended set pieces, “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage,” Claypool wrote a new epic-length tune of his own. Released in April, “Conspiranoia” clocks in at a lengthy 11:39, charting a twisting, progressive path all along the way.
“The notion of a long format tune was something I’d wanted to do for a long time,” Claypool says, noting that he felt that “subjecting people to a bunch of new material when we’re already doing the Rush material” might be a bridge too far. So one new long tune—instead of an album —is Primus’s chosen path.
“We’re at that point in our career where no matter how many new things we put out, people say, ‘We want some new stuff,’” Claypool says. “But when all is said and done, when they come to the show, they want to hear a lot of those old tunes.”
He understands that; he says he felt the same way when he went to a Rush concert: “I want to hear ‘Cygnus.’ You know?”
On the current Primus tour, fans get that and more.
Sun, 8pm, $45+
San Jose Civic, San Jose