From Police, Phish, Primus, a supergroup of sorts is born

Sunday, October 21, 2001

NEW YORK -- The story of rock's newest power trio begins with former Police drummer Stewart Copeland and Primus bass player Les Claypool on the phone, chatting about their mutual affection for the word "oyster."

It's easy on the ear, they agreed, and it belonged somewhere in their new band's name. But alas, there's already a group called The Oyster Band, they discovered -- so much for plan A. So they toyed with variations on the theme.

"We had Bionic Oyster and Internal Combustion Oyster," Claypool says. "And then one day Stewart called me up with his list of oyster-related items and he said, 'What about Oysterfoot?' I said, 'Oysterfoot?' And he said, 'Yeah, you know, kind of like Oysterhead.' So I said, 'Well, why not Oysterhead?"'

An apt beginning for the always quirky Oysterhead.

The new group -- whose first tour is set to start today -- features three highly respected rock musicians: On drums, Copeland, a member of one of the most successful pop groups of the '80s. On guitar, Trey Anastasio, the driving force behind Phish, the biggest jam band of the '90s.

And then there's Claypool, the bass-thumping Primus frontman who really got Oysterhead rolling.

In New Orleans each spring, a production company contacts one musician and asks him to organize a jam to coincide with the city's Jazz and Heritage Festival. Last year, they picked Claypool.

"The first person I thought of was Trey," says Claypool, who had played with Phish several times over the years. "I talked to Trey, and Trey was all excited, and he said, 'I've always wanted to do a project with you and Stewart Copeland.'"

Had lost interest

So they called Copeland -- and to both Claypool's and Anastasio's surprise, he agreed. The Police legend had barely touched his drums in a decade.

"I'd pretty much lost interest," Copeland says. "It wasn't until other things, like mainly playing with Les and Trey, that really reminded me of how much fun it is to play."

At Anastasio's home studio in Vermont, the three spent a few days whipping together material for the New Orleans gig.

"We all were pretty excited by the chemistry," Anastasio says. But the preparation time was so limited, he says, that when the trio played for a sold-out house at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, "we felt like it was a bit of a train wreck compared to what the potential was."

That could have been the end of the story. But Copeland later took a tape of the show and boiled it down to 50 minutes of material. After hearing the result, the three decided to reunite for an album.

At first glance the Oysterhead crew seems an unlikely blend.

Anastasio's longtime band, Phish, was a touring phenomenon that leaned toward experimental, half-hour jams and often found itself unfairly pigeonholed as a neo-hippie successor to the Grateful Dead. Primus favored a fast, stuttering style that defied genre typing but had definite punk influence. By contrast, there's the Police, who despite a wide musical range are fading into generational memory as a lite-rock radio staple.

Overriding all that, though, is one crucial fact: The three band members are marvelous musicians. And that's what makes the group's debut album "The Grand Pecking Order" worth hearing, despite the sonic head-butting that clutters several of the tracks.

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