The Lowlist: Primus' Sailing The Seas Of Cheese – a weird mix of twisted basslines, warped lyrics and general weirdness

Primus album Sailing the seas of chese
(Image credit: Interscope)

Love him or hate him, you have to admit Les Claypool forever changed the face of bass. While he may not exactly have Gary Willis's technical precision or Jaco's fretless intonation, Claypool is one of the greats because of his ability to throw slapping, sliding, tapping, and chording into a big, sloppy, hugely quirky melting pot. 

Sailing the Seas of Cheese is one of a handful of vital albums that ushered in the 1990s’ alternative revolution, answering slick ‘80s productions with a more irreverent – less glammy – approach to rock. 

“Mainstream rock was pretty cheesy,” says Claypool. “We were going to either sink or swim, hence the title Sailing the Seas of Cheese.”

Released in May 1991 by Interscope Records, Sailing the Seas of Cheese was Primus’ second studio album and major label debut. The music videos for Jerry Was A Race Car Driver and Tommy the Cat received heavy play on MTV and the album hit #2 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart, peaking at #116 on the Billboard 200.

Primus toured extensively in 1991 and 1992, including dates with Public Enemy, Anthrax, Fishbone, Rush, and U2 and Sailing the Seas of Cheese was certified Gold within two years, eventually climbing to Platinum in 2001.

Every Primus record has tons of woodshed-ready bass lines, but we chose 1991's Sailing the Seas because of such classic, super-high-energy ditties as Jerry Was a Race Car Driver, Is It Luck? and Tommy The Cat (with Tom Waits voicing Tommy the Cat). 

A fan of Rush and Yes, the teenage Claypool had his head turned by funk. “One day, a friend of mine said, ‘Geddy Lee is good, but he's nothing compared to Stanley Clarke and Larry Graham.’ I told him he was crazy, even though I didn't know who those guys were. Then I saw Stanley's I Want to Play for Ya in a record store. I bought it, and it blew my mind. 

"I also saw Louis Johnson on [the TV show] Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, saw him go bang-bippety-bip-bang, and thought, "Man, that's the coolest thing!" By my junior year, I was getting way into all the funk players. Guys would give me shit and call me Disco Les because I was playing all this funk stuff.”

The sessions for Sailing the Seas of Cheese, found Les jumping from 4-string fretted to 6-string fretless.  “I didn't actually get my 6 until just before we started Sailing the Seas of Cheese,” he told BP. ”We were on tour in New York, and I tracked down Carl Thompson. I told him I was interested in a 6-string.

“I couldn't decide whether I wanted a fretted or a fretless. But I was getting to a point with my 4-string where it was like a stalemate; I was getting bored with it. I needed something that would just blow things wide open, so I decided to go for the fretless 6-string.

“When I got the bass, I thought, 'Ohmigod - what have I done?' It was so much more difficult to play. I was used to my 4-string's 32" scale, and all of a sudden I had this big hunk of wood with a 36" scale and no frets…”

Maybe that added to the mania. In all of these tunes, Les takes a twisted, screwed-up bass line, wraps it with warped lyrics and other general weirdness, and manages to end up with a song that's both memorable and mosh-inducing. Many have tried, but nobody pulls it off quite like Claypool. 

For an even stranger effort, check out Riddles Are Abound Tonight by Claypool's side project, Sausage.

Sailing the Seas of Cheese by Primus is available to buy or stream

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Tom Poak has written for the Hull Daily Mail, Esquire, The Big Issue, Total Guitar, Classic Rock, Metal Hammer and more. In a writing career that has spanned decades, he has interviewed Brian May, Brian Cant, and cadged a light off Brian Molko. He has stood on a glacier with Thunder, in a forest by a fjord with Ozzy and Slash, and on the roof of the Houses of Parliament with Thin Lizzy's Scott Gorham (until some nice men with guns came and told them to get down). He has drank with Shane MacGowan, mortally offended Lightning Seed Ian Broudie and been asked if he was homeless by Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch.

With contributions from