Two decades after abandoning his primo post as Primus’ original drummer, Jay Lane returns to reclaim his throne on Green Naugahyde. But how well he tackles his predecessors’ parts will prove the real test for diehard fans.
Prince, that golden, glittering sultan of synth-funk, steps onstage to a tremendous roar from the crowd. He’s mere measures into his opening single, “Laydown,” but the audience is absolutely electrified. The six members of The New Power Generation are rocking their heads back and forth, their silhouettes gyrating in front of a massive LED display. The bass drum is pounding, the snare drum is cracking, and the synthesizers are buzzing as Prince plants one sparkling gold shoe in front of him, grabs the gleaming steel strings on his blonde Fender Telecaster, and pulls. Hard.
A wail from just off stage pierces the cacophony. It’s guttural, visceral, and entirely natural, given the thick funk groove permeating the air.
It’s Jay Lane, rocking out.
It was only hours ago that Lane, drummer of avant-garde folk-prog-rock outfit Primus, finished a furious 14-song set with an extended version of the band’s 1989 scat-funk classic “Tommy The Cat.” That was before, when the sky over this small city in Poland was still gray and not dark, when 30’-tall inflatable astronauts flanked Lane on stage, when several kids were crowd surfing with arms held high as frontman Les Claypool spit distorted prose through a Shure Green Bullet Harmonica mike.
It was funky, no doubt about it. Heads were bobbing, guitars were squealing, and the syncopation was in full swing. It’s the kind of tightly wound aural chaos that elicits a jerky, frenetic series of motions that society has in years past dubbed simply “the white boy dance.” It’s the kind of music that’s best suited for accompaniment by time-lapse cartoon animals drinking at a bar named O’Malley’s Alley.
But now, on this enormous festival stage in the small city of Gdynia, Jay Lane is grooving to an entirely different kind of funk. This one cuts deep. It’s loose, and eminently sexy. It’s the molasses to Primus’ Pixy Stix; a two-tone ’71 Cadillac Eldorado to an ’87 Toyota Tercel. And Lane’s brown curls are bouncing in unison as rock royalty shreds before his eyes.
“I was a big Prince fan back in the ’80s,” Lane says. “I heard we would be in a festival with him. I thought we would be on a separate stage, but we were on right before him, same stage. I was really honored to play right before him. We actually got to watch him from side stage. He’s 53 years old, jumping around like he’s 20. I was such a big fan that, standing there that close to him, it didn’t feel like it was real.”
But just as Prince returned to the stage for his first of four encores, Lane was told exactly what he didn’t want to hear: time to go.
“We had to leave to get to the next town. I walked back to get into the car and they came back and started the song ‘Cool’ and I was like, ‘Aw, man, we’re missing more fun.’”
Such is the life of a touring professional. Now that Lane has rejoined the band he played for more than two decades ago — he jokingly called himself “the Pete Best of Primus,” referencing the original Beatles drummer’s untimely early exit — he’s been spending more time on the stage than in front of it.
There’s a silver lining, however. A friend of the band’s Polish monitor technician makes kick drum pedals for a living, and he gave Lane one to take on the road. Lane is simply stoked.
“It’s unbelievable. Like an Axis pedal, but machine-shopped like nothing I’ve ever seen. [Made by a company called] Czarcie Kopyto. These things are sick. They have pentagrams on their design and s__t — the devil’s hoof kick drum pedal. Unbelievably made. I’d like to help them try to promote it in the States. It’s like a tank.”
But it’s not just Lane’s gear-head tendencies that have him excited about the new equipment. For the past year, he’s been working feverishly to catch up on a revered band that spent its most acclaimed years without him, generating somewhat of a cult following for its two mononymous drummers: Tim “Herb” Alexander and Brian “Brain” Mantia. Lane has been poring over the studio recordings, trying to learn every twist and turn. The new pedal, he thinks, might give him a leg up — literally.
“The footboards are totally married to the pedal, as opposed to using a bicycle chain or strap. You can pick up the footboard without moving the beater. Some of these Herb beats, I’m playing on the hi-hat and switching my foot to the left kick drum pedal. Picking your foot up mid-air, if that thing’s swinging [when your foot comes down on it] …
“Herb’s like the double kick drum master. When I heard about this gig and started to practice a lot for it, there was a point when I thought, ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this.’ I wanted to be able to do it justice. Primus is a certain level of technical proficiency. I was trying to live up to that, and still am.”