As seen in the October 2011 issue of DRUM! magazine.
Prince, that golden, glittering sultan of synth-funk, steps onstage to a tremendous roar from the crowd. He’s mere measures into his opening single, “Laydown,” but the audience is absolutely electrified. The six members of The New Power Generation are rocking their heads back and forth, their silhouettes gyrating in front of a massive LED display. The bass drum is pounding, the snare drum is cracking, and the synthesizers are buzzing as Prince plants one sparkling gold shoe in front of him, grabs the gleaming steel strings on his blonde Fender Telecaster, and pulls. Hard.
A wail from just off stage pierces the cacophony. It’s guttural, visceral, and entirely natural, given the thick funk groove permeating the air.
It’s Jay Lane, rocking out.
It was only hours ago that Lane, drummer of avant-garde folk-prog-rock outfit Primus, finished a furious 14-song set with an extended version of the band’s 1989 scat-funk classic “Tommy The Cat.” That was before, when the sky over this small city in Poland was still gray and not dark, when 30’-tall inflatable astronauts flanked Lane on stage, when several kids were crowd surfing with arms held high as frontman Les Claypool spit distorted prose through a Shure Green Bullet Harmonica mike.
It was funky, no doubt about it. Heads were bobbing, guitars were squealing, and the syncopation was in full swing. It’s the kind of tightly wound aural chaos that elicits a jerky, frenetic series of motions that society has in years past dubbed simply “the white boy dance.” It’s the kind of music that’s best suited for accompaniment by time-lapse cartoon animals drinking at a bar named O’Malley’s Alley.
But now, on this enormous festival stage in the small city of Gdynia, Jay Lane is grooving to an entirely different kind of funk. This one cuts deep. It’s loose, and eminently sexy. It’s the molasses to Primus’ Pixy Stix; a two-tone ’71 Cadillac Eldorado to an ’87 Toyota Tercel. And Lane’s brown curls are bouncing in unison as rock royalty shreds before his eyes.
“I was a big Prince fan back in the ’80s,” Lane says. “I heard we would be in a festival with him. I thought we would be on a separate stage, but we were on right before him, same stage. I was really honored to play right before him. We actually got to watch him from side stage. He’s 53 years old, jumping around like he’s 20. I was such a big fan that, standing there that close to him, it didn’t feel like it was real.”
But just as Prince returned to the stage for his first of four encores, Lane was told exactly what he didn’t want to hear: time to go.
“We had to leave to get to the next town. I walked back to get into the car and they came back and started the song ‘Cool’ and I was like, ‘Aw, man, we’re missing more fun.’”
Such is the life of a touring professional. Now that Lane has rejoined the band he played for more than two decades ago — he jokingly called himself “the Pete Best of Primus,” referencing the original Beatles drummer’s untimely early exit — he’s been spending more time on the stage than in front of it.
There’s a silver lining, however. A friend of the band’s Polish monitor technician makes kick drum pedals for a living, and he gave Lane one to take on the road. Lane is simply stoked.
“It’s unbelievable. Like an Axis pedal, but machine-shopped like nothing I’ve ever seen. [Made by a company called] Czarcie Kopyto. These things are sick. They have pentagrams on their design and s__t — the devil’s hoof kick drum pedal. Unbelievably made. I’d like to help them try to promote it in the States. It’s like a tank.”
But it’s not just Lane’s gear-head tendencies that have him excited about the new equipment. For the past year, he’s been working feverishly to catch up on a revered band that spent its most acclaimed years without him, generating somewhat of a cult following for its two mononymous drummers: Tim “Herb” Alexander and Brian “Brain” Mantia. Lane has been poring over the studio recordings, trying to learn every twist and turn. The new pedal, he thinks, might give him a leg up — literally.
“The footboards are totally married to the pedal, as opposed to using a bicycle chain or strap. You can pick up the footboard without moving the beater. Some of these Herb beats, I’m playing on the hi-hat and switching my foot to the left kick drum pedal. Picking your foot up mid-air, if that thing’s swinging [when your foot comes down on it] …
“Herb’s like the double kick drum master. When I heard about this gig and started to practice a lot for it, there was a point when I thought, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this.’ I wanted to be able to do it justice. Primus is a certain level of technical proficiency. I was trying to live up to that, and still am.”
It’s a warm, rain-free day in Manchester, but Jay Lane is inside and feeling a little groggy. He’s been strategically taking naps during the day in anticipation of returning to the U.S., and the fogginess hasn’t yet left him when the maid knocks on the door to warn him that it’s nearly time to check out.
It’s been a whirlwind few weeks. Lane, Claypool, and guitarist Larry LaLonde have seen Finland, Norway, and most of western Europe in a rapid build-up to the group’s first official tour since reforming in March 2010. For six years, Claypool and LaLonde had been resting on their laurels and touring on the merits of the band’s deep catalog. Now, with Lane in place, they are striving to bring new music to the stage, in a preview of their eighth proper studio album, Green Naugahyde.
Tomorrow, London; in three days, Washington, D.C. Lane can’t wait to get started.
“We’ve been out here for a month. It’s going really good out here. The crowds have been great. Really receptive. We’ve been trying out a lot of new material. I’m so happy to be back on this gig. I used to be in this band 22 years ago.”
Primus began in 1984 as a San Francisco Bay Area duo named Primate, sans a drummer. The band, bassist Les Claypool’s grand experiment in combining the rhythm and blues influences of his post–high school group The Tommy Crank Band with the progressive rock of King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew, recorded its first demo on the profits from the sale of Claypool’s Mercury Cougar. In short order, the tape fell into the hands of local radio DJ “Big” Rick Stuart and the band — by this time named Primus — began attracting audiences in Berkeley.
By 1988, Claypool and guitarist Todd Huth had exhausted four different drummers. Despite the instability behind the kit, the band continued to generate buzz.
While Primus got its sea legs across town, Jay Lane was pursuing his own eclectic brand of music as the drummer for The Freaky Executives, an immensely popular Latin-inspired funk outfit whose members couldn’t be caught without a white button-down, black skinny tie, and shiny fedora.
“It was an eight-piece not unlike Prince And The Time. Very Jellybean Johnson–influenced.”
As the Executives struggled with internal turmoil stemming from overtures from a major record label, Lane volunteered to join acquaintance Claypool’s band.
“When I was in Primus back in 1988, we did a demo tape called Sausage, not to be confused by the album in 1994 by the same name. We did it on a Tascam 488 quarter-inch [recorder] and sold the cassette tape — a six-song EP — at gigs. It was some of the classic Primus tunes they rerecorded for Frizzle Fry and Suck On This.”
But soon The Freaky Executives’ record label issues smoothed over. Seeing opportunity elsewhere, Lane gave Claypool his two weeks’ notice.
“Les was going to take the show on the road and I was already in The Freaky Executives for four years. I said ‘Sorry, man, I gotta stay true to this gig.’”
Claypool would replace his departing bandmates with LaLonde and Alexander, eventually signing a deal in 1990 with Interscope Records. The band would go on to headline Lollapalooza in 1993 and share the stage with prog heroes Rush while producing several classic albums of odd, irreverent, experimental rock.
“I never sat down and listened to Sailing The Seas Of Cheese and all the albums they did after I was in the band. In the back of my mind, I [now] think sometimes, well, yeah, I like the way I played this. I like my take, and that’s his take.”
While Primus gained attention, The Freaky Executives experienced further disagreement and called it quits. Lane soldiered on, exploring the wilds of where one musical style starts and another ends with a series of stints in bands of various styles: hip-hop group Alphabet Soup, jazz combo the Charlie Hunter Trio, and a side project-turned-full-time-gig with Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir named RatDog.
Lane would go on to play with Weir for 17 years.
“The Grateful Dead stuff is really interesting because it’s a completely different style of playing. I really had to relax. I didn’t listen to The Dead when I was a kid and it took a long time to get used to that slower pace. There wasn’t so much parts, but grooving and improvising. It could be different day-to-day. This [Primus] stuff is very parts-oriented.”
Over the years, Lane kept in touch with Claypool and occasionally joined him in the studio and on the road under several monikers: Sausage, which toured with The Rollins Band; Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, which ventured into jam band territory; and Claypool’s Fancy Band, for a tour in 2005.
“After 17 years, I’m going back to the way I played before that. I’ve been trying to just get back to more on top of the beat. Getting the chops back, man. I’ve been getting new calluses on my hands. Some of the double bass drum stuff that Herb did, I didn’t really play that stuff before. Herb is a tremendous drummer. The big help has been that Les Claypool himself is a drummer and he’s an excellent coach. He knows how to point me in the right direction. How to get the drums sounding and the feel and getting on top of the beat.”
Now, with almost a year of gigging with Primus under his belt, Lane says he’s rekindling his desire for the band’s more idiosyncratic elements.
“I’m still developing it, man. We recorded this album; we were done in January. I’m already listening to it and going, ‘Aw, man, I wouldn’t do that again.’ It is what it is. It’s a work in progress. I’m continuously developing my style. I’m checking out a lot of badass drummers. Also listening to a lot of music I was listening to when I was back in Primus.”
He glances back at the door. The hotel maid is knocking again.
“I’m so happy to be on this gig,” he adds. “I hope it continues. It’s really helping me develop as a player and see myself as more of a drummer’s drummer.”
Jay Lane is surrounded.
He’s sitting in a tiny rehearsal room, barely big enough for three musicians to set up shop, in San Rafael, California, not far from the business loop downtown, and down the stairs on the bottom floor of a building thought to be a former Industrial Light & Magic model shop.
On all four walls: carpet. The sound: a dull silence.
It’s not unlike the Emeryville, California rehearsal room Claypool used when Lane was in the band in ’88, the one just around the corner from the room in which Lane used to run through songs with The Freaky Executives.
Deep within the building complex, next to offices for a digital arts company, Lane is preparing for a year’s worth of gigs comprised of songs he never learned. In front of him sits a massive glittery gold Ludwig kit the company had on display during the 2010 NAMM show in Anaheim, California. It’s so large it wraps around him like a military field fortification.
“The first thing I did was look online for a picture of Herb’s kit. He’s got the Octobans. He’s got a fixed closed hi-hat. A China cymbal. I had to get these things.”
In this room, Lane will spend close to three months wailing along to vintage Primus tracks on the shiny kit before him. Around his ears: massive headphones. Down his face: streams of sweat droplets. His mission: Replicate those drummers before him, down to every flourish.
“I was amazed at how amazing Herb and Brain are as drummers. I thought, ‘I don’t even know if I could do this.’ I had my head up my ass a little bit about how good I was compared to them. Honestly, I was dumbfounded. I can’t believe I didn’t listen to the stuff all these years and thought it was stuff I could have done.
“I’m trying to get the muscle memory going. Learn the tunes. Learn the fills. I couldn’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m going to do my take on this song.’ I had to become a fan of it, because the fans expect the songs to be played a certain way.”
“Of course, I could add something to it. But I had to get it down first. I wasn’t worried about not having my own style — whatever I did, it would come through — but I needed to know how it exactly goes. And I’m thinking about all the drummers who practice to Primus and probably know it better than I do.”
It’s still a work in progress. Lane says he’s still fine-tuning parts with every passing gig.
“I’m not sure there was ever a moment where I thought I had it down. Maybe I did, but I didn’t want to be cocky. You could tell by the audience reaction when you get the song right.”
The stakes are much higher now. With RatDog, Lane would play gigs to upwards of 3,500 people. At the Heineken Open’er Festival in July, Primus played to a crowd of 50,000. And the men in Primus aren’t in their twenties like they were when they first played together in the ’80s.
“It wasn’t as easy as before. I have two daughters. Les and Larry have kids, too. Thankfully, they don’t like to go out for longer [stints on tour]. With RatDog, we played on average 60 shows a year. We never really left for longer than two or three weeks. Sometimes a month, but that was rare. This time’s the same, but I’ve brought my family to Europe. We’re all coming up on [age] 50.
“It’s nothing like what you’d hear about bands going out for six months of the year — bands that break up because of the personal stuff. Some of these bands are home for five days, and then they’re gone again. It’s really rough.”
Lane shakes his head in disbelief as he thinks about his younger days on the road.
“A big part of it, and the big part of the reason I’m here, is that I’m easy to get along with. Vibe — that’s 60 or 70 percent of it. We only play for an hour-and-a-half a night. It’s the other 22 hours a day — the ‘constant hang.’ In RatDog, we had a few people who just couldn’t handle it. I’ve seen more than two guys just flip out.
“Touring isn’t for everybody. Being a musician and playing music is one thing, but touring is a whole different animal. You have to be able to put a lot aside for the greater good of the group. You don’t get a lot of time to yourself. You can’t do stuff when you want to do it. You’ve got to show up with a good attitude.”
Claypool and Lane are in Claypool’s home recording studio, Rancho Relaxo, and the two are preparing to lay down basic tracks for what will eventually become Green Naugahyde.
Lane is sitting behind a drum kit and Claypool is perched behind the mixing board. For the next five minutes, Lane will play anything that comes to mind, hoping that within the dense pastiche of half-formed ideas he will uncover a “signature beat” — a “We Will Rock You”–strength drum riff — that will serve as a strong foundation for the band to drape its funk-influenced complications over.
Once a few baseline grooves emerge, Claypool lays vocals on top of the tracks, giving them more structure. It’s a drastic shift in process from Lane’s first go-around with Primus, when the young band played together first, recorded second.
“Those were the days when high-quality home recording didn’t exist. Primus existed in a rehearsal studio. When we did a demo tape, it was tunes we had played a bunch of times. Now, Les has a studio and we get in there and lay down something and we turn it into a song. There’s a complete song before we even play it [together]. That’s the way it is now, although I wouldn’t mind doing it the other way again. Secretly, I want to rerecord everything.”
This time, however, Lane brings a wealth of musical experience to the table. After a quarter-century of creative musical experiments — from the aforementioned RatDog to a short-lived rap collective called Band Of Brotherz — Lane’s myriad musical endeavors promise that Primus in its current form will be anything but stale.
“I have many friends who are musicians and I’m always talking about jamming and doing gigs. My childhood friend Dave Shul, from Spearhead, we share a rehearsal space and hope to get something going. It’s really important [to play with other people and keep creative] because it gives you a little perspective. If I didn’t have something else to bring to the table, it would be boring.”
Lane says he’s continually looking to peers — especially in other musical genres — for inspiration.
“I could sit here and say, ‘This isn’t my kind of music,’ or I could say, ‘Let’s check it out.’ I like all different kinds of music. There’s country music I like. The hip-hop thing — I actually like it a lot. I can see the influence everywhere.”
“I’ve gone through phases. Touring with RatDog, there was a time I bought a Conway Twitty cassette. I thought, ‘These vocals are clean.’ Bob Weir said I needed to listen to George Jones. So I did that for a month or two.”
Lane’s latest kick? Gospel music.
“I like chords and melodies as much as badass chops. Some of the singing and the ballads — I don’t care that they’re singing about the Lord and Jesus; it’s the spirituality of it, that good feeling.”
It’s also, Lane will admit, a way to keep stoking the creative fire as the band prepares to play 20 straight solo shows across the U.S.
“Let me taste it. Let me check it out. As I got older, got married, and had kids, it became, ‘I need this gig to feed my family.’ I can’t go out there and fake the funk. I gotta like it.”
[Read it on DRUM's website here.]