Chances are you can name only two Primus drummers, but even before Tim Alexander and Brain kept the beat, Jay Lane was the man holding the sticks in the zany trio. While a member of an eight-piece funk band called The Freaky Executives, Lane met bassist Les Claypool in 1988 at a popular rehearsal studio in San Francisco and ended up joining Primus for an eight-month stint.
“Les rehearsed with Primus right around the corner in the same building, and I met him in the hallway,” says Lane. “He asked me to jam, and I got in the band. I did a few gigs in the Bay Area with them, and then he wanted to take the show on the road. I had prior commitments, and I had to choose otherwise. That’s when he got Herb [Alexander]. A couple years later, they were making history.”
Though he wouldn’t go on to change the world with Primus, Lane remained involved with several projects that kept his calendar relatively full. While holding the fort down with funk/hip-hop band Alphabet Soup, he met Charlie Hunter and formed a relationship that took him through Hunter’s first two albums. “Charlie and Dave Ellis, the sax player, were friends since elementary school. Ellis is a dear old friend of mine, and he used to bring me to Charlie’s house to hang and check him out jamming on his guitar when were kids. When Charlie finally settled into the jazz thing, Dave, Charlie, and I started the Charlie Hunter Trio.”
The Hunter-Ellis-Lane triumvirate appeared on Charlie Hunter Trio and Bing, Bing, Bing!, but Lane ultimately decided to go his own way and jumped at the chance to play with Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir. “I met Bob through [bassist] Rob Wasserman, who was playing with him as an acoustic duo at the time. I met Rob months earlier through Les Claypool when they did a radio ad for Levi’s 501 jeans. We went and recorded it at Hyde Street Studios, and Rob wanted to know if Les knew any other musicians who would want to be on it. Les recommended me and Rob recommended me to Bob. Next thing you know, I was playing with Bob and Rob.”
Regardless of his national anonymity, Bay Area bands constantly requested Lane’s services. By 1995, the popular drummer was handling gigs with Alphabet Soup, Bob Weir, Charlie Hunter, and Claypool’s Sausage project. Eventually, he had to cut back and make a decision. “I was trying to juggle everything, but I was leaning towards the Bob Weir thing. It was something that I wanted to delve into. I didn’t know anything about the music, but I think there was a piece of Americana that I needed to learn about — almost like a history lesson. I knew about jazz and funk, and the stuff we were doing with Charlie was cool, but it was his thing. I wanted to know more about Americana and see more of a big picture.”
A funk drummer by trade, Lane had some difficulty adjusting to the deliberate and methodical grooves made famous by the Dead’s great drummers. “I came into this from a very different musical understanding. I was playing with Les, a lot of up-tempo funk. I had those kinds of grooves down — the up-tempo ’80s funk. When it came to the Grateful Dead stuff, although it seems really loose, those grooves are a certain way. I was really struggling with it until I sat down and listened to some Bill Kreutzmann, whose grooves are very subliminal. It’s hard to pick out what he’s doing because it’s so part of the music. I really had to immerse myself in that music to get it. At first, I don’t think Bob really cared if we learned it, or he wanted us to put our own musical touches on it to see what we could bring to it, but I was struggling to be honest with you. I was struggling with it for a long time before I finally listened to it.”
Lane eventually settled into a comfort zone and now has been laying down his own signature grooves for over a decade. “I like the slowed down tempos. When you get up on stage, your adrenaline goes up. A lot of bands play real fast because they have a lot of energy. The Dead were relaxed enough to play at those slow tempos. What that does is it reaches the people way in the back. It’s hard for someone in the 200th row to go nuts like if they were in the front row at a Blink 182 concert. It’s pretty cool to have that mellow tempo. To me, slower grooves travel further. When the notes are really close together and really fast, it all sounds like mud when it’s rolling up the hill anyway. The Grateful Dead had a way of playing slow enough and everybody played in time, and even though they were all soloing, they were all in the same mode.”
After playing with the likes of Les Claypool, Charlie Hunter, and Bob Weir, the upbeat Lane doesn’t fret about missing fame and fortune with Primus. After all, he turned down the gig twice and has forged his own path. “I look back on it and I also chose to get married and have kids. This has been the best way to have an even income for all these years. It’s had its peaks and valleys, but it’s been pretty steady. If I had gotten the gig with Primus, I would’ve been done by whenever Herb was done or maybe even sooner. If I had taken it when Brain did, I would have only been on it for a couple of years. The way it turns out, Les Claypool calls me first. For me to be his first choice for his solo project is pretty cool.”