Primus returns to the Greek in Berkeley tomorrow night, rocking out the Bay with the ultimate performance of an extensive American tour. Charismatic frontman Les Claypool recently took some time out of his hectic schedule to chat it up about his music and his own successful brand of wine: Claypool Cellars. Here’s some of our conversation…
Les, thank you for your continual support of independent Bay Area media. We’ll start off with the most important question first: where can I illegally download your wine off of the internet?
LC: Well, they haven’t figured out a way to digitize wine yet, but I’m sure it’s coming…
On a serious note, what inspired you to create Claypool Cellars?
LC: I’ve been living in the Russian River Valley for about 16 years now and I’ve watched all the apple orchards disappear and the vine take over. As I’ve watched this process I’ve become friends with a lot of vineyard managers and winemakers and started drinking Russian River Pinot. Being that I quit being a pothead many years ago–several years ago now, actually–I moved my vice into the Russian River Pinot World. Then one day myself and a couple of friends said lets make some wine cause it’ll be cheaper than buying all of this fancy wine–which was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever said because it’s costed me a fortune. But we are making some amazing, fancy booze so in that respect it’s been pretty incredible.
How many years have you been in the juice game?
LC: We started in ’07 which was sort of the ‘no-brainer year.’ It was the harvest of the century and we had spectacular fruit and the conditions were perfect. ’08 was a little more of a challenge and we ended up making an even better bottle of juice. We’re about to release our ’09, they’re very nice and crispy, low acid, low alcohol, so it’s moving along.
Your current wines are both pinot varieties is there something that draws you to that particular grape?
LC: Being in the heart of the Pinot Noir mecca sways you, it’s like being a 49ers fan living in San Francisco. That’s where my palate starts, I was never a big wine guy, but being a part of the culture here it’s become a part of me. We started with Pinot but now we are doing a rose style blend that’s Grenache-based and that’s because I started getting into Côtes du Rhône. I’m just kind of learning and moving through this process as we go.
How has that learning curve been?
LC: It’s been spectacular, I know quite a bit more than I did when I started. The only bummer is that we had harvest yesterday and I was in Boston. So unfortunately my touring schedule sometimes interferes with the crush and I missed it last year and I’m missing it again this year which really bums me out because I’m really hands on, I get out there in the field and sort and do the punchdown and the whole bit. It all helps with the learning process.
Primus is on a world tour, when you’re in a place renowned for wine–like Santiago Chile–do you have a chance to explore their vast viticultural landscape?
LC: I didn’t last time, perhaps I will this time, I kinda doubt it cause when you’re doing these things youre kind of in and out. But I did slurp on the wine while at the hotel [Laughs]. You never know, maybe this time somebody will offer to take me around and show me the sites. But usually it’s a pretty tight schedule.
How have you been embraced by the winemaking community?
LC: I’ve met a lot of amazing people. Great winemakers and I have yet to see any hostility [Laughs]. But I’m sure they look at me as the rookie. ‘Here comes Mr. Bassplayer guy thinks he can make some wine.’ So by no means do I pretend like I know more than I know. Thanks to [winemaker] Shad [Chappell]–a third generation cellar rat–his tastes are similar to our tastes, so he’s making some good juice. I don’t come in there pretending to be some vast wine knowledge guy. I’m a bassplayer who’s eager to learn and I’m in there getting my hands as dirty as I can. And trying to have fun with it. It’s all about having a good time. But we do spend the money to get good fruit nice, french oak barrels, we’re doing it right we’re making good juice.
Do you find that your experience with music has helped to inform your exploration into wine at all?
LC: Well I find that winemaking is very subjective and everybody’s taste varies, and everybody’s approach varies. It’s like making a record. Some people like a little more kick drum in their record, some people like their high-hat to be crispier and some people, like me who like to pump that bass [Laughs]. Some people like a little more oak, some people like a little more acid, some people like it to be a little fruitier. Some like big, jammy pinots. I tend to like crispy burgandian style pinots.
Purple Pachyderm is your Pinot, Pink Platypus is your Pinot Noir Rose, Green Nougahyde, released earlier this month, is the 7th studio album from Primus, what varietal would that be, exactly?
LC: I don’t think anybody is going to drink any form of wine that has the word ‘nougahyde’ in it [laughs]. It might be a good bourbon.
Do you find there to be a lot of wine drinkers in the Primus community?
LC: I don’t know for sure. But at this point in general, I do find that younger people are getting more and more into wine and the culture of wine. Besides having free booze to drink we wanted to also create something of quality that you could go into a restaurant and wouldn’t feel intimidated ordering. Sometimes a young person can be intimidated looking at a big wine list and not knowing everything. We wanted to make something that was fun and approachable, yet of a high-caliber. It’s more of a social thing than anything for us at this point because it has yet to be profitable [laughs].
What has kept you in Northern California throughout your entire professional career?
LC: Well I’ve traveled all over and I have yet to find a place on the planet that I enjoy more than Northern California, especially where we live in Western Sonoma County. And it’s the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere as far as Rancho Relaxo, my residence. So it’s a great place to raise kids, great people, great mixture of folks. A lot of my friends are contractors, tradesman and fishermen. So i have a pretty diverse group of friends that have varied social and political viewpoints so it usually makes for interesting conversations. And the weather’s not too shabby. You walk right outside your door and there’s a winemaker.
LC: That’s an old-ass red wine. For me it’s more like an old Chrysler. A ’64 300K Chrysler was kind of an ugly car, but now you know what it’s a pretty damn cool looking car. This album is like a ’75 Bronco, a Green Ranger, to be exact.
Another famous musician that’s into wine is Maynard James Keenan (of Tool), do you guys ever compare production notes?
LC: Well, I haven’t talked to Maynard in a handful of years so I haven’t gotten to talk wine with him. But I would imagine he’s far more knowledgeable than myself.
What do you find to be the most compelling aspect of wine?
LC: It’s an excuse to have an event and its a great way to meet people that have a different perspective than you on various things. For me it was an excuse to buy a 1951 Ford paneled van off of EBay and drive it up from San Diego. And I have a caboose now, too. How many people can say they have a caboose? I think everyone should get a caboose. I used to tell my friends, you gotta get a tractor, its one of the most Zen things you can do in life is go out and just mow the fields. But now I’m gonna start pushing the caboose.
Are there any places in San Francisco that you would recommend going to for some of your wine?
LC: Jardiniere has always been a big supporter of us. It’s one of my favorite places to go. Traci [des Jardins] is spectacular and she’s an amazing chef. So if you’re gonna somewhere and slurp on it, that’s where I would go. I love that place.
Would I be able to find some Claypool Cellars wine at D’s Diner?
LC: You would not, they don’t serve it. But I’m sure you could get a burger.
Les, thanks so much. You’ve been an icon in the Bay Area Music scene for years and now in the wine scene as well. So congratulations on all of your success and enjoy the rest of your tour.
LC: Thank you, and have a fantastic day!