’93 Retrospective #3: “Pork Soda” by Primus

“Hey ho, Mister Krinkle, have you heard the brand new sound? It’s a cross between Jimi Hendrix, Bocephus, Cher and James Brown. It’s called ‘Heavy Hometown,’ New Wave, cold-filtered, low-calorie dry.” – “Mr. Krinkle” from Pork Soda

Primus is a band that’s been subject to an obsession with categorization ever since they achieved a meaningful level of popularity. The critics who didn’t loathe them were falling over themselves to find a label for this suddenly hot musical property that refused to be easily pigeonholed. At the time of their mainstream break in the early 90s, the same group of adjectives was being thrown around to the point of utter cliché to describe them: weird, wacky, cartoony, etc. There were others, maybe a bit more comprehending of the music, labeling them prog rock, but that obviously didn’t really work either.

The nadir was reached when the band was not only lumped in with the cohort of “funk-metal” groups who were simultaneously exploding in popularity, but were branded the even more idiotic label of “thrash-funk.” “[That] term pretty much makes my lips curl,” bassist Les Claypool bemoaned in a 1991 interview with Guitar Player. “I think the term ‘funk’ is being bastardized; people just hear a slap bass and assume it’s funk. To me, funk is Tower Of Power, P-Funk, the Average White Band.” In the same interview, Claypool summarized Primus as well as anyone ever has: “We’re a mishmash. I mean, look at our CD collection: There’s Jelly Roll Morton, King Crimson, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Laurie Anderson, Frank Zappa, Peter Gabriel, Motorhead, the Afros. It’s pretty varied, and so are we.”

Claypool performing with Primus at the 1991 Pinkpop festival. (Photo: Paul Bergen)

Primus’s beginnings were distant from both the style and image they’d become associated with less than a decade later. Originally known as Primate, Claypool and guitarist Todd Huth started out playing along to a LinnDrum machine in 1984. It was music with roots that could be traced to early Peter Gabriel, Public Image Ltd and XTC. Live video footage from 1986 makes the post-punk influences even clearer. Echoes of Gang of Four and The Pop Group are present. By early 1989, the classic lineup had been solidified with the addition of guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde and drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander. Already an established and popular act in the Bay Area and a college radio favorite, Primus released the live LP Suck on This the same year, followed by Frizzle Fry on Caroline in 1990 and their breakthrough album, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, on Atlantic Records subsidiary Interscope in 1991. The latter gained the band immense visibility, spawning hits “Tommy the Cat” and “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” (its bassline a shameless rip-off of King Crimson’s ‘Elephant Talk’) and peaking at #116 on the Billboard 200.

It’s obvious that the trio was very much in the right place at the right time. The “alternative” music craze was in full swing, with similarly eclectic acts like Faith No More (and member Mike Patton’s far stranger project Mr. Bungle,) Helmet and Porno for Pyros also releasing records on major labels. Whatever the case, Primus had arrived. They were playing festivals, appearing on MTV and late night talk shows, and perhaps the strongest indicator of having infiltrated the popular culture of the time, had a cameo appearance in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. The band could have easily pursued the trappings of rock stardom, heading into an expensive, top of the line studio and recording a more accessible album with a hitmaker producer at the helm. They did the exact opposite.

The group decamped to their warehouse rehearsal space in San Rafael, isolated themselves in three separate bays (communicating through CCTV,) ran all their inputs into their live sound console and ran the output into ADAT decks, relatively inexpensive machines that could record eight tracks of uncompressed digital audio onto consumer-grade SVHS tapes. With engineers Derek Featherstone and Ron Rigler manning the board, this is how Pork Soda was recorded (with the exception of two tracks recorded at Claypool’s home studio and one at Alexander’s.) Claypool’s rationale for this approach was simple:

I wanted to learn the process. It always frustrated me that I’d say, “Okay, I want this,” but because I wasn’t technically knowledgeable enough…I didn’t know how to get those sounds myself. The more we could use gear that I was familiar with, the more I was able to get my fingers in there. So taping this stuff to ADAT, that was the very beginning of that. And then I got a whole bank of ADATs….We started doing all these things by ourselves [and] Pork Soda was the first venture into that–of us really going DIY.

Les Claypool, interviewed by Greg Pato in “Primus, Over the Electric Grapevine: Insight into Primus and the World of Les Claypool”

The success of an album as unconventional as Seas of Cheese was already surprising, but there was still enough accessible material on it to keep less adventurous listeners interested. This is not the case with Pork Soda. There’s no equivalent to “Tommy the Cat.” The songs are mostly moody and dissonant, the lyrical subject matter morbid and bleak, interspersed with strange instrumental breaks. The production is stripped down and minimal, with the resultant audio sounding exactly like what it is: something recorded in a warehouse.

“Provocative Porksters.” Primus on the cover of the May 1993 issue of Alternative Press.

Pork Soda can be placed stylistically in purely experimental territory, in the vein of Public Image Ltd’s The Flowers of Romance or The Residents’ Duck Stab! It draws on the band’s least accessible influences in particular and, logically, should have been an alienating commercial failure. Less than a month after its April 20th release (can’t help but wonder if that was intentional,) it peaked at #7 on the Billboard 200. By September, it had sold over half a million units and would go on to be certified Platinum (a million copies sold) four years later. By comparison, Seas of Cheese didn’t crack the half million mark until shortly before Pork Soda’s release and took a decade to become certified Platinum. The level of mainstream popularity this album enjoyed still baffles me. What was it that endeared so many people to this odd band’s oddest offering and made it a literal best seller? Maybe it’s because, for me and many others, this record was a revelation.

While the musical complexity isn’t as immediately obvious as on Seas of Cheese (the closest thing to an odd time signature is the 6/4 ‘Hamburger Train,’) the playing on Pork Soda is still spectacular. Claypool’s fingers are as quick and nimble as ever, Alexander’s drumming is precise and powerful, garnished with plenty of his usual syncopations, cymbal splashes and octoban fills, and LaLonde wrenches textures from his instrument as well as anyone. What they’re playing is also spectacular. The album’s sound is uncompromisingly dissonant and bombastic while still retaining its subtleties. The dark humor and flat out absurdity of the lyrics (delivered in Claypool’s nasal vocal stylings) are, to a certain kind of person, at least, very endearing.

“My Name Is Mud’s” musical simplicity is subsumed by its outrageousness in every other sense. Alexander takes one of the most straightforward 4/4 parts imaginable and imbues it with life, adding all the right ornamentations and fills in all the right places. It melds perfectly with Claypool’s downtuned, percussive slapping and LaLonde’s screeching distortions. “Welcome to This World” and “The Pressman,” songs reaching back into the group’s 80s repertoire, fit the record’s atmosphere perfectly. The former is as demented as the version heard on early demo tapes, but with the addition of Alexander and LaLonde’s finesse. The funkiness that earned the band its cringeworthy genre categorizations in the past is almost entirely absent on Pork Soda, but what’s still present is what the band has always had (and most of what the aforementioned ‘funk’ was all along): their tremendous groove. It’s the driving force of tracks like “DMV” and “Nature Boy” (the latter’s tempo shift in particular is exhilarating.)

“Mr. Krinkle,” the lyrics derived from conversations Claypool had with Faith No More drummer Mike Bordin, is momentous. Alexander’s tom patterns, Claypool sawing away on his upright, and LaLonde’s diminished chords come together to make something absolutely sublime in its mixture of musical ingenuity and aesthetic rawness. The song’s music video, really more of a short film, was a fixed camera single take of Claypool playing upright bass in a pig outfit as LaLonde and Alexander, also in costume, circus performers and friends of the group (Brian ‘Brain’ Mantia can be seen pushing a hot dog cart) parade past in the background. Out of the entirety of Pork Soda, however, the cut I’ve come to appreciate the most over the years is the title track. It’s the sound of the band going all out, cooking up a complete sensory overload and giving it their all. The upright groans away, backed by LaLonde’s klaxon guitar, and Alexander pounds out hypnotic rhythms while Claypool jabbers on about, amongst other things, painting a couch with a “Goddamn sprinkler.” Sometimes I wonder if there’s a conscious or unconscious influence from King Crimson’s “Neurotica” here. The ranting over wild musical tumult, combined with the entire group’s acknowledged appreciation for Crimson, begs the question.

Amidst it all, there’s “Wounded Knee,” Alexander’s ethereal solo recording, completely stylistically removed from the album, but still somehow fitting in with the rest of the tracklist. In an interview, Alexander described its creation:

I played two drum kits, one of them in 3/4 and the other in 4/4, each playing separate parts. “The Rhythmatist” by Stewart Copeland was a big influence on me for creating this piece. I played everything on this one–two tracks of marimba, African thumb piano, and various percussion instruments. The basic drum beat came first, then I set a delay on my drums to get the effect of them bouncing back and forth. The second kit served the role of a percussion unit. The piece is like a lot of stuff that I’ve put together in my spare time. I was nervous playing it for the other guys because it’s very much in the “Herb” realm, very percussion-y.

Tim Alexander, interviewed in the September 1993 issue of Modern Drummer

Pork Soda comes to a suitably ridiculous end: Claypool and LaLonde plucking away tunelessly while Alexander rings a bicycle bell over the sound of a Mattel See ‘n Say.

Lollapalooza attendee at the World Music Theatre, Tinley Park, Illinois, July 2, 1993. (Photo: Chicago History Museum)

I first heard Pork Soda when I was fifteen, a decade on from its release. The prior year, I’d given The Brown Album a listen, which was a terrible choice for my initial exposure to Primus, and subsequently written them off. I gave them a second chance, finding a copy of Pork Soda at a library. I still remember putting the disc into my portable CD player, slipping on my headphones, and being mesmerized for the entirety of its running time. The center of my musical world back then was Metallica, and Pork Soda, thank God, put an end to that. I’d been playing the drums for two years, and Alexander’s virtuosity changed my conception of the instrument. I had never really taken any particular notice of the bass before, but now it was front and center. I wasn’t a stranger to the bizarre, already being a fan of Zappa and They Might Be Giants, but this was a specific type of bizarre I’d never encountered before. It was wonderful, inspirational, and it was, importantly, a musical point of departure on many fronts. By way of Primus, I discovered The Residents (the band covering ‘Hello Skinny’ at Woodstock ’94, in front of hundreds of thousands of people and live on MTV, was an ingenious move,) King Crimson, Mike Patton’s oeuvre, etc.

As I said before, this was, indeed, a revelation. For many, Pork Soda, if not the entire Primus catalog, is a novelty at best and unlistenable at worst. For scores of others, though, this record and band were life altering in a wholly positive manner. It was for me, and I wouldn’t be the musician or just the person I am today otherwise. It’s an album that’s absolutely not for everyone, or even most, but it still manages to keep catching the ears of a hell of a lot more people than I’d ever expect.

Listen to Pork Soda on YouTube: