During his maiden voyage as a filmmaker, Primus bassist/leader/songwriter Les Claypool experienced something that every director — from Hollywood super-mogul to the most indie auteur — knows intimately: "If anything can go wrong, it will."
"The process of making this film was one kick in the n--s after another," he said. "Two trips to the hospital, a hit-and-run, a crew member had a nervous breakdown and threatened to throw all the footage in the fireplace. We had a gremlin following us around. It's like building a house with apprentice carpenters, and the building materials were on fire."
But by no means does Claypool regret making "Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo," a mockumentary that follows a fictitious jam band by that name, satirizing the sprawling patchouli scene the way "This Is Spinal Tap," "CB4" and "The Rutles" series did for heavy metal, hip-hop and Beatlemania, respectively. Claypool's movie took the Best of Festival - Feature, Audience Award at this year's Malibu Film Festival.
Many people assumed that the thousands of dubiously odored, financially carefree nomads that followed the Grateful Dead for 30 years would have dispersed upon the band's demise 11 years ago. But Phish grabbed the Dead's baton, and the jam-band subculture has mushroomed in the decade since, supporting not only the likes of moe, Leftover Salmon and the String Cheese Incident, but bands that never embraced the Dead's influence, like Ween and Claypool's multiple prog-rock/funk projects.
"It's a fabulous subject," Claypool said, "one that I know quite a bit about and one that hasn't been examined before. I could do the same thing for Ozzfest. Character study is my existence."
He noted that there's an ample potential audience for the film. "Bonnaroo is the highest grossing music festival in the United States, and it does so with only Internet advertising," he continued. "And it's not just hippie bands — Radiohead and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are playing this year."
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Claypool's film will be screened at Bonnaroo in June, where he will also perform solo and play a set with Oysterhead, his supergroup with Phish's Trey Anastasio and former Police drummer Stewart Copeland.
The film tracks the progress of Electric Apricot from a gig at the storied Bay Area club the Sweetwater Saloon to sessions for their first album to "Festeroo," a jam band-heavy festival (these scenes were shot last year at the High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, California).
Along the way, we get to know the bizarrely nicknamed members of the band (who are played by Claypool and three Bay Area musician pals): Herschel, the keyboardist and purest hippie of the bunch; Aiwass, the pseudo-intellectual bassist fond of quoting Wittgenstein and remarking, "I feel like Hitler at Waterloo"; and Lapdog, the archetypal drum nerd (Claypool).
Then there's the guitarist/singer, Gordo. "He drinks beer, wants to party and worships Jerry Garcia," Claypool said. Gordo looks likely to become the film's breakout star thanks to a scene in which he gets gangsta on a character who doesn't show sufficient reverence for Garcia.
Claypool devised the film's general plot, but much of the dialogue was improvised. "Electric Apricot" features cameos from Seth Green ("Robot Chicken," "Austin Powers") and "South Park" co-creator Matt Stone, playing a pair of concert "tapers," as well as brief turns from jam-scene icons including the Dead's Bob Weir, former Phish bassist Mike Gordon and Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes and Matt Abts.
But most characters are portrayed by Claypool's friends, non-actors who nonetheless capture the essence of the rock and roll periphery: a hapless manager, a hanger-on desperate to go on tour, a Yoko Ono-style girlfriend and a band therapist who not only sports blindingly ugly sweaters, but attempts to ingratiate himself into the band (Claypool swears that any resemblance to therapist Phil Towle, from 2004's Metallica documentary "Some Kind of Monster," is coincidental).
When the inevitable comparison to "Spinal Tap" is brought up, Claypool says his approach was inspired more by Ricky Gervais' acclaimed BBC series "The Office." "Are they parodying people who work at a paper supply company?" he asked, "Or are they portraying true characters in a certain setting? ['Electric Apricot'] is an endearing look at the jam scene, poking fun at these people and how they look at their universe so seriously."
The film is just one of several Claypool creative endeavors that will arrive in the coming weeks. He's also releasing his first proper solo album, Of Whales and Woe, on May 30, and will publish his first novel, "South of the Pumphouse," which he describes as "a cross between 'Deliverance' and 'The Old Man and the Sea,' " in July.
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