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Primus plays Britt Festivals

“Primus & the Chocolate Factory” — a re-imagining of the music from the classic film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” — isn’t the first time Primus — or its front man, Les Claypool — decided to remake a classic song or a full album in its own offbeat musical image.

Over the years, either with Primus or in any number of his other projects, Claypool has reworked a variety of familiar songs. And in 2000, Claypool and his side band, Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, recorded a live performance of Pink Floyd's “Animals,” releasing it on the album “Live Frogs Set 2.”

But “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” seems like the most natural musical work yet for Claypool to re-imagine. The personality of the film certainly shares characteristics with how Claypool has always viewed Primus and his own musical interests.

“There’s always been this sort of twisted fairy tale element to Primus and the lyrics because I was exposed to so much," Primus says during a telephone interview. "Not only to a lot of these old musicals, but country music in general. The old stuff tends towards more lore-ish lyrics, telling stories and having different colorful characters within them. Jerry Reed was a early hero of mine with 'Amos Moses.' Even when I would listen to the Beatles, I’d listen to the lyrics to try and figure out what the hell they were talking about, whether it was ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ or ‘Octopus’ Garden’ or ‘I Am The Walrus.’ These songs had colorful characters in them. So that’s the way I’ve always written. That’s what Primus, I think, has always reflected, this sort of colorful fantasy world that’s a little bit twisted.”

Claypool, rock group Primus and The Fungi Ensemble will present "The Chocolate Factory," a re-imagining of the soundtrack of the 1971 film "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 16, at the Britt Pavilion, 350 First St., Jacksonville. Rock band 100 Watt Mind will perform at 6 p.m. in Britt's Performance Garden. Food trucks Peruvian Point and Fired Up Gourmet will be on site. Tickets are $48 for reserved seats or standing room only, $38 for lawn, $28 for ages 12 and younger, and can be purchased at the Britt box office, 216 W. Main St., Medford, online at brittfest.org or by calling 800-882-7488. 

Claypool sees the film as a combination of fanciful whimsy with a dark undercurrent. It’s what drew him to the book by Roald Dahl and the film as a grade-schooler and continues to hold his interest. 

“I discovered the film and then was enamored by it and went out and bought, or saved the box tops on the cereal boxes, so I could get my Willy Wonka Chocolate Bar kit and make candy bars out of chocolate chips for the kids at school and the whole bit, and then read the books, which are quite dark,” he says.

The versions of the songs from "Chocolate Factory" created by Primus — Claypool, guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde and drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander, who were joined by multi-instrumentalist Mike Dillon and string player Sam Bass from one of Claypool's side projects, The Fungi Ensemble, certainly mix playfulness and darkness in liberal doses. As with most Primus material, it's plenty quirky and fun.

“Candy Man,” the cheerful hit single originally sung by Sammy Davis Jr., takes a sinister turn as Claypool adapts a creepy vocal tone, singing along to droning tones as Alexander’s drums jerk the song along. “Cheer Up Charlie” becomes a subdued march with a little “I Am The Walrus” abstraction, while “Golden Ticket” may be the most Primus-sounding song of all with its snakey bass line, thumping drums and evil-fun disposition.

“It is very much like a lot of my solo stuff, more so than the Primus stuff,” Claypool says of the album. “But then again, it has a very, very strong Larry LaLonde signature and it has a very, very strong Tim Alexander signature. So I think it’s kind of a crossover between the two worlds. As I put the thing together, I was getting these images, as I was mixing, I’m going, man, this reminds me of an old Peter Gabriel record, back when drummer Jerry Marotta was with him. It has a little bit of that Floyd-ish psychedelia to it, but from their darker years. And then there’s a bit of the Residents in there, too. It’s kind of a homage to all of these things. But it’s very, very Primus.”

Like many of Claypool’s musical endeavors, "Primus & the Chocolate Factory” began rather casually. For years, he had wanted to do a cover of “Candy Man.” Claypool’s thoughts about that song and “Willy Wonka” as a whole resurfaced as plans were being made for the 2013 edition of the annual Primus New Year’s Eve concert. The event  always has had a theme, and “Wonka” was chosen, although the initial idea wasn’t to do the entire soundtrack.

“I said, ‘Let’s start with ‘Candyman’ because that’s the one that was sticking to me.’ We did ‘Candyman’ and ‘Golden Ticket.’ We were just going to play a couple of songs from the film. Then, it was like, well, let's do the whole thing. It fell together so well that we actually started recording it before the New Year's show."

“Primus & the Chocolate Factory” marks the return of the band to its classic lineup, as longtime drummer Alexander is back after a three-year absence. During that time Claypool and LaLonde reunited with original Primus drummer Jay Lane and recorded the 2011 studio album "Green Naugahyde."

Claypool is pleased with what the original lineup accomplished at that time.

“It was spectacular,” he says. “I love Jay Lane. He’s one of my favorite people on the planet. He’s a big, happy guy. He and I have this intuitive way of playing together that I don’t have with anybody else.”

But when Lane decided to leave Primus to rejoin Ratdog — the band fronted by Grateful Dead guitarist and singer Bob Weir— Claypool was glad to see that Alexander was ready to get back on drums and percussion.

“Tim is one of the most creative drummers of our generation, and I think he lost sight of that,” Claypool says. “I think this record is an extremely strong piece for Tim. It’s not Tim playing 100 miles an hour with his kick drum. It’s an extremely tasteful, creative, musical Alexander ... and powerful.”

Claypool and his cast of musicians will play the “Primus & the Chocolate Factory” in its entirety during one set, and devote another to a cross-section of material from Primus' 25-year history as a recording act.

Les Claypool, rock group Primus and The Fungi Ensemble re-imagine 'Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory' for a new album, 'Primus & the Chocolate Factory.' Photo courtesy of Chapman Baehler