Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Fun in Funky: Primus plays The Fillmore Silver Spring

Love it or hate it, “Green Naugahyde,” funk rock band Primus’ first album in more than a decade, is a self-produced effort bearing only the touches of its machine gun-thumbed bassist and singer Les Claypool, guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde and drummer Jay Lane.

The September release and the tour that follows, including a stop at the Fillmore Silver Spring on Saturday, finds the band in a very different mindset from when they recorded their last record, 1999’s “Antipop.”

After constant touring and five studio albums starting with “Frizzle Fry” in 1990, the San Francisco Bay-area band was feeling fried by the end of the decade. Looking for a new approach, LaLonde says Primus broke from their tradition of self-producing albums with “Antipop.”

“From the beginning, we had record companies and people telling us, ‘Oh, you should use a producer,’ and we were always like, ‘Well, that’s not the way we work,’” LaLonde says. “That [‘Antipop’] was the one where we were like, ‘Oh, we’ll finally try this producer idea,’ but we kind of got away with it by saying, ‘What if we work on each song with a different person?’ That way if it doesn’t work out with somebody it’s only one song. So that whole thing, it was really crazy. We had been touring for so long and everything was starting to go in different directions a bit. So it wasn’t the greatest time for the band.”

Following a tour for “Antipop,” the band announced a hiatus and its members went their separate ways. LaLonde and then-drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia continued to work together, making avant-garde music under the name No Forcefield. LaLonde would later tour with System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian.

Claypool went on to explore the jam band scene, cutting albums with his group Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade among others. He also worked in two super groups, one with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio and Stewart Copeland of the Police called Oysterhead and the other with Mantia, guitarist Buckethead and Parliament Funkadelic co-founder and keyboardist Bernie Worrell.

Primus would conduct a few more tours and some festival appearances throughout the decade, but Claypool later went on record saying that the shows were more nostalgic than anything else. With the five-track EP “Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People” in 2003, fans heard the last batch of new material from the band before a long silence. Still, LaLonde believed the band had not fully run its course.

“I had always hoped it was not totally done because when I was sitting around writing songs, nine out of 10 times, the things I write, I’m like, ‘That would be perfect for Primus. I need Les to finish this one off and make it cool,’” LaLonde says. “I’m sure I probably thought it was never totally done.”

Rested and reenergized, things started heating up for Primus once more in 2010. Seeing if the spark was still there, the group tested the waters and jammed in February of that year.

“After our first rehearsal,” LaLonde says. “It was the same day as the Super Bowl, probably the one before last, so that was the day that we jammed and were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’”

Filling in on drums in the latest Primus lineup is Jay Lane. Before working with Grateful Dead offshoot RatDog in the 1990s, Lane was one of Primus’ first drummers when the band got its start in California in the 1980s. He left Primus to pursue another project and was replaced by longtime drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander shortly before the group’s 1989 live album and demo “Suck on This” was released.

But ties were not cut with the Primus camp. Lane later collaborated with Claypool on his 1996 solo album and Sausage’s 1994 album “Riddles Are Abound Tonight,” a band featuring the 1988 lineup of Primus including guitarist Todd Huth.

LaLonde says Lane was a natural fit for Primus’ current incarnation.

“It was something we always wanted to try and see what it would be like to have Jay back in the band,” LaLonde says. “And he’s like the coolest, funnest guy too.”

With the lineup cemented, Primus began touring once again, moving through the country with its mini-festival The Oddity Faire in 2010. By November, the group entered Claypool’s Rancho Relaxo studio in California to begin recording what became “Green Naugahyde.”
LaLonde says they took their time recording the new album and finished in March. With Lane’s drumming anchoring “Green Naugahyde,” LaLonde says it has hints of the group’s first album “Frizzle Fry.” Primus’ quirky rhythms, biting lyrics and oddball atmosphere have not been lost, but there is an evolution in the music as well. Claypool’s solo experiments with jam sensibilities, squishy effects pedals and dead-panned choruses also bleed through on tracks like their single “Tragedy’s a’ Comin’” and “HOINFODAMAN.”

LaLonde says some of the tracks on “Green Naugahyde” — including “Moron TV” and “Eternal Consumption Engine” — had been saved for quite some time.

“I think I’ve been trying to get [‘Eternal Consumption Engine’] on a couple of Primus records before,” LaLonde says. “It was something that me and Les kind of goofed around with before. We just never really got around to finishing it off, but this time around, I kind of threw it in there as one of the first things, so it would maybe get finished.”

Since “Antipop,” the landscape of the industry has changed, and LaLonde says he is unsure if album sales will serve as a barometer for the band’s success as they once did. On their recent tour, he has seen Primus’ fan base continue to thrive and, for now, it’s nice just being back at square one.

“That’s sort of how we started, too,” LaLonde says. “It wasn’t about, ‘Hey, how many of these can we sell?’ or, ‘How much money can we make?’ We just figured make the best stuff and the rest will come.”

Show is sold out.

Photos by Tod Brilliant

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Politics of Art: VisArts shows controversial murals

Judy Taylor in her studio.
When Maine-based artist Judy Taylor created an 11-mural panel depicting the state’s labor history for the lobby of the Department of Labor headquarters, communist propaganda was the last thing on her mind.

But an anonymous letter making that accusation was the firing salvo Governor Paul LePage used when ordering the mural’s removal in March.

Taylor, a figurative artist who has lived in the state for nine years after moving from New York City, learned the news shortly afterwards via a phone call from a reporter.

“I was really startled. I was kind of shocked,” she recalls. “I didn’t believe it would actually happen.”

Through Sept. 20, VisArts in Rockville will feature a reproduction of the controversial mural, including additional works of Taylor’s, in an exhibit called “Celebrate Labor: Where Art and Politics Meet.”

Although it had been hanging in the building since 2008, LePage ordered the removal of the mural after citing anonymous fax he recieved in February from an individual who likened the murals to North Korean propaganda and claimed it only served to further the Union movement. His office claimed to have recieved additional complaints.

For Taylor, who spent a year collaborating with one of Maine’s labor historians after earning the mural commission in 2007, the intent was to capture important moments in labor during the past 150 years.

“It’s history so it never had the agenda to take one side or the other,” she says.

The first panel depicts the apprenticeship stages, before moving into social issues such as women and children working in mills. Other pivotal moments depict the first Labor Day, when workers were allowed to vote anonymously and a panel showing women working in the shipyards during World War II.

“There are two episodes that deal with strikes and labor issues, but those were big turning points in labor history in Maine. They had to be included,” Taylor says.

One panel features Francis Perkins, Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A Department of Labor conference room bears her name, but Governor LePage hopes to change that, too.

“They wanted to eliminate her name and name it after something else like a mountain or a tree,” Taylor says.

The final panel speculates on the future of Maine’s commerce.

“We have different kinds of businesses that Maine is attracting,” Taylor says. “Like medical research, laboratories like the Jackson Lab [research facility], tourism. Where in the future is Maine going to go? It is kind of a business panel.”

In April, some Maine citizens demanded the mural’s return by filing a lawsuit at the U.S. District Court in Portland. The suit claims that LePage never saw the mural and that his Senior Economic Advisor John Butera found it “overwhelming and pro-labor and anti-business.”

Taylor is not associated with the lawsuit and privately wrote a letter in June to the attorney general’s office asking if she could check on the mural’s condition and take some photographs for her portfolio. Her request was denied. She is currently unaware of its location.

For Taylor, the controversy touches on several issues.

“How labor unions are treated, how artists are treated, censorship. Everyday people have expressed their desire to see their history and those people have nothing to do with politics, labor or art,” Taylor says. “It spans so many generations of people and types of people, really despite the their political leanings.”

Taylor will be present at a reception on Thursday, as will AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, and the folk duo Magpie will perform. On Friday, Taylor will give a talk on the mural and answer questions.
VisArts Gallery Director Brett John Johnson says the exhibit is relevant given its proximity to the nation’s capital, but he has a hard time seeing what about the work could be objectionable.

“They are not terribly shocking murals,” he says. “If you were to see them, you wouldn’t hide your child’s eyes.”

The exhibit was guest-curated by Nancy Nesvet, a local painter who earned a master’s degree at the Maine College of Art. Nesvet agreed to help orchestrate the exhibit after hearing about a petition to restore the murals.

Also featured in the exhibit is “Twelve Labors of Hercules,” a mural depicting the Greek myth by University of Washington State Art Professor Michael Spafford. Nesvet says Spafford’s work was included to show another example of politics affecting art. The mural of the Greek myth was hung in the Washington State House of Representatives during the 1980s.

“His idea was that the labors of Hercules are akin to the very hard struggles of legislators to make laws for the people of Washington State,” Nesvet says. “And whereas the labors of Hercules were in a sense violent, sometimes the birthing of a state stems from violence.”

The black and white silhouettes of the mural were controversial, even being covered up during their stay.
Upset that his work was to be removed, Spafford claimed that he would rather have the works destroyed than displayed anywhere else and proceeded to sue the state in the late 1980s.

Henry P. Kirk, former president of Centralia College, offered to take the murals. When Spafford refused, Kirk came up with a new tactic.

“For $2 million, which at the time was a lot for money, he built a theater building to accommodate the murals,” Nesvet says. “The federal judge went out there to see the building and he saw that there was absolutely no difference and he said to Michael Spafford ‘I cannot condone the art being kept out of that building.’”

For Nesvet, Spafford’s trials had a happy ending as the work now can be seen publicly. In contrast, Taylor’s remains hidden during litigation.

Nesvet hopes “Celebrate Labor” opens a dialogue on where the right to control public art lies.
“I want to come out of this show with a discussion of what should happen in this nation when public art is displayed, when public art is contracted and when it’s displayed,” she says. “I think this nation needs to have that discussion.”

Photos courtesy Judy Taylor