Primus frontman Les Claypool and M.I.R.V. guitarist Bryan Kehoe were jamming around the campfire one night. Claypool was suddenly inspired by the country music forced on him as a child -- Johnny Horton, Jerry Reed, and Vernon Dalhart -- and started playing his bass in a "Luther Perkins dig digga dang, dig digga dang" while Kehoe accompanied on guitar. They tested various songs, from obvious choices like Johnny Horton's "Battle of New Orleans" and Primus' own "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver" to less likely candidates such as Alice in Chains' "Man in the Box" and the Bee Gees' "Staying Alive." The ones that worked appear on Duo De Twang's debut album, "Four Foot Shack," released in February. Duo De Twang plays at SXSW this week, March 12-14.
You cover an eclectic array of songs on "Four Foot Shack." How did you choose which songs to cover?
They almost chose us. Basically, what's happened with this Twang thing is that it started off as me and an old buddy playing some tunes and sitting around the campfire. People were kind of digging it, so I started doing a little Luther Perkins dig digga dang, dig digga dang. If the lyrics fit, then there you go. With the covers we'd play around during sound check, and sometimes that would evolve into a full song. With "Man in the Box," Jerry Cantrell is an old friend of ours. Our big joke onstage is we ask "Who's into Jerry?", and everyone expects Grateful Dead, but we play Jerry Cantrell.
There has to be a story behind your "Staying Alive" cover.
Well, you've got to twangify some Bee Gees every now and again. I think that's a prerequisite of being a musician. That song, I started going dig digga dang, and those words just popped out of my mouth, and it was the most brilliant moment of my career. It was amazing, and we had to play this song.
You're so known for your wry sense of humor. Were you trying to be funny there?
Yeah. Working with someone like Bryan Kehoe, who's an insane human being, and yeah, my family has always coped with life and tragedy through humor. My grandfather was a very funny man, and my current grandfather, who's still alive, is a hilarious guy. It's my family, and couple that with Kehoe and his insanity, and it's hilarity. There's a lot of tongue-in-cheek there.
Where did your appreciation for classic country music come from?
I grew up working on my bicycle in my garage, listening to music like this. My step dad played what he called the Okie station, and I absorbed this music, even though at the time I didn't appreciate it. So to play this Luther Perkins-style bass, it's a challenge and a challenge that's expanded me.
What will the Duo De Twang shows at SXSW look like?
Expect to be sitting around the campfire with a couple of dudes. We actually have a campfire onstage, and we sit down and drink and tell stories and crack jokes and play a song every now and then. And there's talk of us getting a tent to expand our campfire experience.
Going back to Primus, your music has been featured in video games, as the theme songs for "South Park" and "Robot Chicken," and in movies.
Yes, like "South Park" is the biggest one, a huge element of pop culture all over the world. But when we made that thing, we didn't even think they'd get it on TV, much less that it would become a huge, international sensation. For me, that's a huge, glorious thing that gives me faith in humanity -- that something so brilliant that Trey Parker and Matt Stone do, whether it's "South Park" or "The Book of Mormon," that it can be such a huge element in pop culture. It reinforces my faith in the notion that people have taste. We've been fortunate to be a part of these things.
If you could have a song associated with a new project or product, what would that be?
We turn all the commercial stuff down, but on New Year's we did the "Willy Wonka" soundtrack, and it went incredibly well. Now we're recording the whole thing. That was a huge part of my childhood.
How do you decide when to work with Primus and when to focus on side projects?
Well, it's like anything else. No matter how much you love eating sushi, after a while you say, "I'm going to go have some Mexican food." So you go and eat something different, and the sushi's amazing. I like going and doing different things. It keeps me interested in my instrument and my craft.
I also like looking forward and not backward, so sometimes it's even difficult for me to do Primus. But we try to find new things to do with Primus, hence why for New Year's Eve we combined elements of Primus and the Les Claypool Frog Brigade to do this "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" thing. It's the next thing on the horizon, and we're all so excited about it, like little kids talking about this. I think that's what keeps things moving forward.
I've always wanted to ask you this: how did you feel when you heard Primus mentioned in Eminem's breakout single, "My Name Is" in the line "Hi kids/Do you like Primus?"
It's funny because when that song came about, our radio person said Eminem is doing this song. I remember that I kept thinking, "Who is Eminem? The candies?" That was really his first thing. We didn't know if he was f**king with us or paying homage. I still don't know. But I'll tell you that years later, now that I have a teenage daughter, it got me huge brownie points. No matter who you are, your daughter does not think you're cool. So when I'm mentioned in an Eminem song, it gives me some brownie points to work with.
Speaking of family, I know you had a nephew die very young not that long ago. From that experience, do you have any advice for people dealing with grief?
It's interesting you brought that up, because we're coming up on the first anniversary of Matthew passing, and my brother has since had another boy, which is amazing. And to even try to put myself in his shoes, I see the caring and love for him. When you see him, he's like a soldier; he has been through the most horrific thing you could probably go through, and that's an insane thing. I supported him the best way that I possibly could and still do, and it really drives home the notion of family.
I've been with my wife for over 20 years, and it's amazing to have that kind of partnership with someone, as well as my children. When you're young, you get out there and explore the world. But when all is said and done, the element of family and companionship is a huge, necessary element to deal with what you need to deal with to be on this planet.
Your music, early on, dealt with pretty dark themes. Did you face a lot of tragedy, growing up?
Yes, of course. I talk about humor being an element for coping. My uncle, my mom's brother, died at the age of 50, because he did speed every day for 30 years. My cousin, who I spent every day with till I was 13, has been in and out of prison for 30 years -- and he's currently in prison for things related to substance abuse.
Substance abuse and alcohol, it's all throughout my family, but it's dealt with with humor, and couple that with my love for [director] Frank Capra and those people who can take these tragic characters and show the human element to them. My cousin in prison, he's a great guy. If you met him, you'd think he's hilarious. But then he's in prison for a reason. Tragic figures, they're not just wretched people. There are colorful elements to a lot of these individuals. That's why I have these situations in my songs and in my book "South of the Pumphouse." Yeah, I know those three guys on the boat, and parts of them are me.
Speaking of alcohol, how did you decide to create your own wine?
I was a big stoner for years, but as I got older I realized that I want to remember what my kids were like when they were younger. So I quit smoking weed and had to have a vice. All these amazing bottles of wine were showing up at our barbecues, because up in west Sonoma County, where I live, you know vineyard managers and wine makers. So a couple of friends and me said, "You know, we've been drinking all this Pinot now. It'll be cheaper to make this stuff ourselves," which is the stupidest thing I've said in my entire life, because it's costing me a fortune to make this stuff. But like my approach to art, I want this to be the best it can be, so the Pinot we make is extremely good. It's incredible, but it's become a business, which is a pain in the ass.
So you can produce wine. But how software savvy are you?
At times I'm very, and at times I'm not. In the mid-'90s I was very. We had our own graphics company, and then I fell out, and then whenever I needed to learn a program, I did. When I was making my film, I learned Final Cut Pro. Things like Pro Tools I'm very savvy about. But I tend to avoid technology until I need it. I have a love and fear of it all at the same time.
Are you an apps person?
It's funny. Colin Hanks, he's a buddy of mine. He came to one of our shows and said he has all these apps. And when I said I didn't have any, he made me feel so badly that I decided I had to get all these apps. So I got some.
Which ones are your favorites?
I use my Buoy and Tide Data app so I can check what the marine weather conditions are like. I like to go fishing as often as I can and keep a boat out in Bodega Bay, so I'm always watching the water conditions and all that stuff. I use Yelp quite a bit. I use my eBay and Craigslist apps all the time, because I'm a pawnshop weasel. Now that I have eBay and Craigslist, I don't have to hit as many pawnshops, because I can do it all over apps. I'm using Skype as I speak to you. I have a guitar-tuning app, called Guitar Tuna. I picked it because it had a lot of stars. I was using my Duolingo app quite a bit because my son turned me on to it when he was learning Spanish. But I am now falling off of it.