Sometimes it appears that the universe intercedes on our behalf. A seemingly random event jumps out like a signpost on the horizon, showing you which direction your life needs to go. Krystle Baller knows all about such life-changing events. Growing up impoverished and queer in West Virginia, mired in a culture where she didn’t fit in, she discovered music, the propulsive and liberating sounds of White Zombie, Coal Chamber, Korn, Rage Against the Machine – and in particular, Primus.
The music encouraged Baller to leave West Virginia and set out to become the person she’s meant to be. She’s since found her power and become herself.
Seated on the couch at Pachyderm Music Lab (PML) on a recent afternoon, Baller talked over the phone with Primus’ founder and bassist Les Claypool. They’re discussing their instrument of choice, the bass guitar, and why hearing Primus was such a crucial turning point for Baller.
“You were a huge inspiration for me,” Baller told Claypool. “When I first heard Primus, I [thought] ‘The bass is in front. This is awesome,’ because usually it just blends in. It was the first moment where I thought, ‘There are a lot of possibilities with bass.’”
The conversation was a dream come true for Baller in a life that has seen many dreams realized through hard work, perseverance, talent and vision. In 2016, the 36-year-old musician, mother and educator founded PML, a school that teaches music to students ages 5 and up in order to help them find their voice, confidence and inner power through playing rock ‘n’ roll.
Claypool is the driving force behind post-punk avant-garde pranksters Primus, a freewheeling power trio that couples the wry humor of Tom Waits to the spiky sensibility of Frank Zappa and the intricate progressive rock of Rush.
As it turns out, Claypool has befriended and played with both Waits and members of Rush. In fact, Rush has proved such an inspiration for Primus that Claypool, guitarist Larry LaLonde and drummer Tim Alexander are embarking on their highly anticipated A Tribute To Kings tour, which touches down at Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre on Sept. 5. In addition to a set of its own music, the Bay Area trio will play a second set comprised of Rush’s classic 1977 album A Farewell to Kings in its entirety.
It’s this rescheduled tour, planned for 2020 and curtailed by COVID-19, that has brought Claypool and Baller together.
Usually when a band of Primus’ popularity and caliber hits the road, publicists for the record company reach out to music journalists like myself to set up an interview. However, there was no doubt here that the right person to conduct this particular interview was not myself, but Baller.
For starters, both Claypool and Baller belong to the brethren of bassists, the brother-and-sisterhood of fellow purveyors of grooves and architects of a tune’s rhythmic spine.
More important, a throughline runs like a heartbeat through Baller’s and Claypool’s lives and beyond. While Baller discovered the bass’s potential by listening to Claypool’s corkscrewing, chiaroscuro basslines, Claypool says he was inspired to pick up the bass after hearing the prominent and melodic playing of Rush’s Geddy Lee.
Krystle and the chocolate factory
On a previous visit to Pachyderm Music Lab, currently located in a former home on East 22nd Street in Optimist Park, a music lesson was in session. After entering the brightly painted house, decorated with thunderbolts and rainbows, I passed a young boy and his instructor going over the chords to the Ramones’ “I Wanna be Sedated.”
On the day of the recent Claypool interview, however, the Lab was quiet, though Baller was scheduled to give several lessons in the afternoon.
Baller and I moved to the comfortable lounge area by the house’s kitchen. Through the back door I could see a large wooden stage built at the rear of the property where music students play the songs they’ve learned, on instruments they’ve just begun to master. In addition to PML, the 121-year-old building also hosts Girls Rock Charlotte (GRC), a nonprofit that amplifies the voices of girls and gender-diverse youth and adults with a popular series of summer camps. Baller is also the music director for GRC.
Claypool’s manager called us 10 minutes earlier than expected. After a moment of fumbling with my phone and digital recorder, I handed both over to Baller. She opened the interview by telling Claypool that she’s a Golden Ticket winner. The valuable ticket was issued to coincide with the release of Primus’ 2014 album Primus and the Chocolate Factory With the Fungi Ensemble. To promote the record, the band and its record company pressed a total of five golden vinyl discs, mixed in among the mass of black vinyl copies. Whoever scored one of the golden discs scored an unusual prize: free Primus concert tickets for life.
Baller is one of those lucky five. She was so inspired by the serendipitous prize that she named her music school after Primus’ 1995 single “Southbound Pachyderm.”
The Golden Ticket was also a revelation to Baller. Upon receiving the prize, she realized that it was just one in a series of serendipitous moments that nudged her in the direction she needed to go.
Growing up queer in West Virginia, Baller spent many of her formative years keeping a low profile, escaping into drugs and alcohol. She feels that her discovery of music saved her sanity, if not her life. When Baller turned 24, she left West Virginia. Moving to Hilton Head, South Carolina, she started a successful bar band.
“It was in that space of performing live that I finally found my voice and my confidence,” Baller told Claypool. “I felt like I was a late-blooming musician.”
“We’re all still blooming,” Claypool responded. “You keep blooming until you’re in the dirt.”
After moving to Charlotte in 2003, Baller fell into what proved to be an ill-fated marriage that ended in divorce. There was one bright spot in the misbegotten union though, Baller’s daughter Cadence.
Even that bright spot, however, had dark undertones. Baller remembers looking at her daughter and thinking Cadence was going to have a much harder time navigating the world than if she was born a boy. At that point, fate — or serendipity — once again intervened. Baller discovered and volunteered for Girls Rock Charlotte.
“I did all this community work; I was giving back, and these kids were asking me to become their bass teacher,” she recalled.
It was then that Baller started her music school. Looking for inspiration to provide the school with a name, the Golden Ticket fell into her lap. Baller asked if Claypool had a similar “series of serendipitous moments” when it seemed the universe was guiding him along the right path.
“That’s a big-ass question,” Claypool says. “I think you come along a path and you have different branches, tributaries in a stream, that are opportunities to take. You take them and you move along.”
Claypool grew up in what he calls the “semi-rural suburbia” of El Sobrante, California. He remembers his grandfather who owned a few dogs, a trailer, an electric fence and some horses. He also recalled that he always wanted to play music. He felt thwarted, however, because music wasn’t considered a career option by his family; it just wasn’t a big part of their lives.
One exception was the music his stepfather played on an old Bakelite radio as he cleaned the garage, much to the annoyance of young Claypool, who was trying to fix his bicycle nearby.
“He had [the radio] tuned to what he called the ‘Oakie’ station,” Claypool said.
While Claypool wanted to listen to what was popular then — The Beatles and Elton John — his stepfather exposed him to Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and The Texas Playboys.
“[It was] all these different things that I didn’t realize at the time were a profound influence on me later in life as I became a guy that created music,” Claypool offered. “You’re exposed to these things and you reflect them in what you do, if you’re honest.”
Fortunately, Claypool said he stumbled across some musicians who were his contemporaries, one of them being his high school friend and future Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett.
“I started hanging out with musicians and became a musician,” Claypool said. “But my first time on stage, I was so scared I couldn’t even look at the audience. I stood sideways the whole time.”
Confidence came with time, and after Metallica’s bass guitarist Cliff Burton was killed in a tour-bus crash en route to a concert in Copenhagen on Sept. 27, 1986, Claypool auditioned for the empty spot. By his own admission, he wasn’t a big heavy metal fan at the time.
The audition went nowhere, perhaps in part because Claypool might have been a bit too strange for his old high school buddy and his band.
After launching Primal, a duo consisting of himself and a drum machine, in 1984, Claypool found acceptance for his brand of strangeness and adventure.
Primus burst on the music scene just as alternative became all the rage. The timing was perfect. Infiltrating unsuspecting ears under the alt-rock banner, Primus’ knotty rhythms, smart-ass vocals and hilarious lyrics found a wide audience. In 1993, their third album, Pork Soda, entered the Billboard Top 10 in America.
From ‘Festeroo’ to ‘Cygnus X-1’
During their chat, Baller let Claypool know she’s seen his Primus setlists, covered with Claypool’s intricate and accomplished drawings. It turns out the drawings are just one aspect of Claypool’s career as a visual artist. He said he’s airbrushed most of the sculptures that grace Primus’ album covers, and that a few of those sculptures are his handiwork.
He’s produced and directed videos, including the video he animated with Primus guitarist LaLonde for the song “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver.” In 2003, he directed the film Electric Apricot: Quest For Festeroo, a mockumentary that lampoons the outdoor festival scene.
After the band canceled their A Tribute To Kings tour in 2020 to hunker down while COVID-19 swept the nation, Claypool discovered he had no desire to go into his studio and record new music.
“For some reason, musically, I just felt dead,” he said. Fortunately, he was inspired to pick up painting. “I got some canvas, some brushes, paints and just started.”
The impetus for picking up his new passion came from an unlikely source: Claypool hates working out.
“I feel great afterwards, but I’m not a working out guy,” he said. He pointed to Primus guitarist LaLonde, who runs so hard he gets the endorphin release related to “runner’s high”. Claypool countered that he gets his endorphin rush from creating something.
“If I’m feeling down, if I go write a lyric, or I paint a picture or I do something creative, it makes me feel good,” he said.
Despite his newfound love for painting, Claypool said he’s dying to get back out on tour. The pandemic and accompanying shutdown necessitated his first summer off in 30 years, and he hated every minute of it.
The genesis of Primus’ Rush tribute stems from Claypool’s teenage years. Back then, he, along with his future bandmates, worshiped Rush.
“Farewell to Kings was the first Rush album I ever heard,” Claypool said.
“Cygnus X-1” was his favorite song. The tune, which bears the full title “Cygnus X1: Book I: The Voyage,” follows the adventures of a space explorer steering his starship toward the heart of a black hole.
“I remember as a kid watching the [starship] Rocinante on the big screen flying behind those guys into the black hole and I was shitting myself with joy the entire time,” he said.
Years later, Primus had the opportunity to open for Rush. They jumped at the chance and became good friends with bassist Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and the late, lamented drummer and primary lyricist Neil Peart. Primus subsequently did three tours with Rush and kept in touch with the band over the years. The relationship grew naturally, and the friendship just flowed, Claypool said.
“We always joked that we were someday going to do [Rush’s 1978 album] Hemispheres in its entirety,” Claypool says. When it came down to it, however, the band felt Hemispheres had too many keyboards to tackle. That said, Farewell to Kings also has a surfeit of keyboards, prompting Baller to ask Claypool if he’s planning to play keys with his feet. It wasn’t a silly question. Claypool has played synth pedals for years, both in Primus and in The Claypool Lennon Delirium, the psychedelic rock band he formed with Sean Lennon.
“I have two Moog synthesizers onstage with me now that I’m playing, and that’s a new challenge,” Claypool said.
Working on all the intricate Rush material is particularly daunting, but it has also opened up new experiences for Claypool. In Rush, bassist Lee also handled the vocals, so in addition to playing keyboards while playing bass, Claypool will also sing in Geddy Lee’s quavering high-octave range while playing the same kind of Rickenbacker bass Lee plays. (Claypool normally plays an array of custom basses crafted by luthier Carl Thompson.)
“All these different things continue to open these doors that keep you interested,” Claypool said. “It’s really been great, but it’s so fucking hard.”
Another thing piquing Claypool’s interest is that Primus is doing something to prepare the Rush material that they almost never do otherwise: rehearse.
“People go, ‘Oh you guys must rehearse a lot.’ No, we don’t. We’re lazy,” Claypool said.
Primus’ intensive rehearsing has provided an unexpected benefit. In the process of nailing the songs on Farewell to Kings, Claypool, LaLonde and Alexander have become much closer than they’ve been in years.
It’s another string of unforeseen consequences and benefits that can steer the course of a person’s life, what Baller calls “a series of serendipitous moments”.