Digital Flashback: Primus Enhance Themselves

Quirky rockers released multimedia-packed Tales From the Punchbowl four years ago this week.

Four years ago, it took a guy wearing a giant eyeball on his head to bring attention to the convergence of computers and music.

But that stunt, during an after-show party featuring Primus' Les Claypool and Larry LaLonde, who played an all-banjo set, qualifies the group as visionaries. There, and later at a San Francisco computer show, they were pushing one of the first enhanced-CD releases by a major artist, Tales From the Punchbowl, which hit stores four years ago this week, on Jan. 23, 1996.

Claypool and LaLonde were involved in the creation of the enhanced CD, which they based on the album's cover art and its final track, "Captain Shiner." Once users loaded the LP's animation, they could join the captain at the helm of his boat and navigate a psychedelic ocean, in which icons for the CD's other tunes bobbed in the water.

When the user clicked the floating island for "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" (RealAudio excerpt), the video for the song appeared. Behind-the-scenes footage, in which the bandmembers were decked out as plastic cowboys, also was included. For the track "Professor Nutbutter's House of Treats," the teacher's lecture hall was realized in full animation.

The bandmembers' enthusiastic promotion of the disc found them playing their first and only all-banjo set at an after-show party a few weeks before the project's release. They were joined by a member of the art-rock band the Residents, whose identity, in typical Residents fashion, was shielded by a giant eyeball around his head.

Primus manager David Lefkowitz said the unique pairing came about because the Residents were promoting their own enhanced-CD release of Gingerbread Man, and because Punchbowl includes a hidden track on which Primus covers the Residents' "Hello Skinny."

The same month, Claypool and LaLonde demonstrated their enhanced CD at Interscope Records' booth at the MacWorld '96 computer exposition in San Francisco. The rockers drew curious looks from some of the suit-wearing attendees but pleasantly surprised many who also happened to be fans.

The musicians-turned-programmers later formed a multimedia company, Prawn Song, whose shrimp-with-wings mascot is a spoof of Led Zeppelin's Swan Song label logo. In recent years the company has created custom electronic postcards and Windows desktop themes for Primus, as well as for Beck and Rob Zombie.

Though enhanced CDs have become more common since the release of Tales From the Punchbowl — with artists such as Sonic Youth, Marilyn Manson, Wu-Tang Clan, Blink-182 and Korn releasing albums with multimedia content — the format remains a fringe concept.

The discs are frequently plagued by incompatibilities between users' operating systems and the required multimedia software. Lefkowitz said one reason the enhanced-CD release of Punchbowl came eight months after the original CD's release was that it had to be configured to make it compatible with the then-new Windows 95 operating system.