- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 23, 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. Alas, they discovered, there already was a group called the Oyster Band. So much for plan A. They toyed with variations on the theme.

"We had Bionic Oyster and Internal Combustion Oyster," Mr. 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?'"

It was an apt beginning for the quirky Oysterhead.

The new group whose first tour started Sunday in Seattle features three highly respected rock musicians: on drums, Mr. 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 Mr. Claypool, the bass-thumping Primus frontman who really got Oysterhead rolling.

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

"The first person I thought of was Trey," says Mr. 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,'"

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

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

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

"We all were pretty excited by the chemistry," Mr. Anastasio says. 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 Mr. 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, Oysterhead seems an unlikely blend.

Mr. 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 a definite punk influence.

By contrast, despite a wide musical range, Police is fading into generational memory as a lite-rock radio staple.

Overriding all that is one crucial fact: The three band members are expert musicians. 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.

On the single "Mr. Oysterhead," Mr. Claypool's rough, fast vocals and heavy bass dominate, while the lyrics have a heavy dose of patented Claypool-Anastasio weirdness. (The chorus: "When all else has been done and said, along comes Mr. Oysterhead/ He's an inspiration, he's an inspiration, he's an inspiration to us all.")

"It's no 'Mambo No. 5,' " Mr. Anastasio says with a laugh.

"I doubt we're going to have a radio hit," Mr. Claypool says. "My whole career has been based on making music that's hard to swallow, sort of an acquired-taste-type thing."

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