After over 20 years, Les Claypool will once again hit the road with his Fearless Flying Frog Brigade for the Summer of Green Tour. Long considered to be one of the animated bassist’s most beloved bands, this incarnation of the ever-morphing act boasts longtime Frog Brigade members Skerik (saxophone) and Mike Dillon (percussion, vibraphone), as well as Sean Lennon (guitar), Harry Waters (keyboards) and Paulo Baldi (drums). However, when Claypool initially dreamed up the Frog Brigade at the dawn of the new Millennium, he actually considered it to be more of his “therapy project.”
At the time, Primus—his long-running, festival-approved alt-funk trio—had hit a rough patch and Claypool was looking for a new creative outlet. “We called it a hiatus but, at the time, we were broken up,” Claypool says, referencing Primus’ trajectory in 2000.. “Me and one of my best friends in the entire world, Larry LaLonde, weren’t talking.”
Just as Primus’ future was starting to feel uncertain, Claypool was beginning to discover a new, exciting audience thanks to a high-profile set with Oysterhead—his supergroup with Phish’s Trey Anastasio and The Police’s Stewart Copeland. After receiving an offer to perform at Angels Camp, Calif.’s Mountain Aire Festival, Claypool put together a new group of musicians drawn from both his inner circle and the extended improv scene. He briefly toyed with calling the project the Thunder Brigade, before shifting to the slightly gentler moniker the Frog Brigade. Riffing to the Mountain Aire Festival’s scenic location, he chose the name as a nod to the jumping frog of Calaveras County popularized by Mark Twain. Then, he hopped on the road.
“I said, ‘I’m gonna gather some of my favorite musicians together and hit the road.’ I bought this little airstream and packed these guys into this motorhome and started driving up and down the coast playing bars,” Claypool says. “That was the original Frog Brigade—Skerik, Jeff Chimenti, Jay Lane, Todd Huth from Sausage and then Eenor, who I found on Craigslist. We just had a blast.”
The ensuing run of shows not only exposed Claypool to an entirely new, open-eared audience but also kickstarted his second act as a solo artist. Not wanting to play songs from the Primus catalog, Claypool loaded his Frog Brigade sets with new, juicy originals and covers by prog-rock godfathers like King Crimson.
“When I did the Holy Mackerel record, Highball with the Devil, in 1996, I always said that those were the songs I wouldn’t inflict upon the guys of Primus—I just knew that it wasn’t gonna thrill them to play those songs,” Claypool says. “Some of them were written on guitar and some of them were written on drums. With Frog Brigade, I was free to do that again. I was free to go in there and be a mad scientist.”
He also made the daring decision to perform Pink Floyd’s 1977 psychedelic masterpiece Animals in its entirety each night.
“I’ve always wanted to play ‘Pigs’ if I had a keyboardist in my band because it’s one of my all-time favorite Pink Floyd songs,” Claypool says. “And then we said, ‘Why don't we learn the whole record. That way we can play two sets.’”
Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, as the ensemble soon became known, immediately gelled both on and off the stage—connecting the dots between the jam, punk, prog and metal communities along the way. They played a marquee set at the inaugural Bonnaroo in 2002, participated in the SnoCore Tour and welcomed the likes of Bob Weir and Warren Haynes to the stage. In 2001, Claypool released Live Frogs Set 1 and 2, the latter of which featured the Frog Brigade’s award-winning take on Animals. The following year, the Frog Brigade dropped a full-length studio album, Purple Onion, which introduced a slew of new original material and won over fans and musicians alike.
“Making the Purple Onion record was an incredible experience,” Claypool says. “Tom Waits listed it as one of his top 20 albums of all time, and I can’t even believe that just came out of my mouth. It was a great time for creativity and experimentation. There was a lot of pasta being thrown at the walls at that time. And it was a good period of growth for me. I became way more confident and, with the Animals set in particular, I became way more confident in my vocals. I never really considered myself to be a singer—I always felt like I was the narrator of the band but I actually had to sing some of this material and work on my singing.”
In 2003, Primus reunited, and Claypool’s muse slowly started to lead him elsewhere. “To me, the Frog Brigade represented a certain era of what I was doing and then there was a period when I no longer had a guitar in the band. The Frog Brigade had lots of guitar and keyboard so when it became me and the cello and Mike Dillon’s melodic sense and whatnot, it was just so different that we stopped using the name. It slowly got whittled down—it was no longer Mothers of Invention, it just became Zappa.”
Yet, the adventurous spirit Claypool rediscovered with the Frog Brigade has continued to guide his every move, sending Primus in new directions and helping spawn solo vehicles like the Fancy Band and The Claypool Lennon Delirium, his group with Lennon and Baldi
And now, over 20 years since the Frog Brigade’s last full-scale tour, Claypool has regrouped his highly improvisational outfit for an extended run. The revamped Flying Frog Brigade plans to mix in material from all eras of Claypool’s illustrious solo career, as well as a selection of choice covers. They will also once again perform Animals every night.
“There is a pretty rich catalog of material there so there will definitely be stuff from my entire career,” Claypool says. “It won’t just be the Frog Brigade era, but the big element of the Frog Brigade is gonna be playing Animals. But this time we’re doing it with just one guitar and with five marimbas and saxophones so this will be a new interpretation, obviously—a different interpretation with Sean in there. There might be a Delirium song. There are a lot of popsicle sticks on the table to build some things with.”