In Conversation With The Biggest Weirdos In Rock, The Butthole Surfers
Over three and a half decades since they formed, Texas freaks Butthole Surfers remain one of the most exciting, fucked up and infamous of all guitar bands. As precursors to grunge, their impact was legendary. Kurt Cobain wore their T‑shirts and met his future wife at one of their shows. In their early days, Nirvana even opened for them, and Kurt was quick to return the favour following the overwhelming success of his own band.
Butthole Surfers live shows were an audiovisual assault from which few emerged unscathed. At times backed by a barrage of two drummers, smoke machines, strobe lights and disturbing videos of things like penis reconstruction and dolphin vivisection displayed on a screen behind them, their equally warped music was a sideways take of the wildest punk and heavy rock. Their recordings were similarly off-kilter; deeply psychedelic and nihilistic, to a point that suggested their minds were seriously unhinged. It was easy to assume they might be the most drug-fucked band around, and stories of their infamous (although often actually alcohol-fuelled) behaviour assisted this myth.
In 1987 they released what, for many, would be their greatest album, the recently re-released Locust Abortion Technician. The classic spoken word intro of its opening Black Sabbath cover, Sweat Loaf, was alone enough to assure its place in history, but the mind-bending ride would wind its way into many unexpected directions from there; relentless, pre-Ministry industrial sounds, the same song played twice (at different speeds) and samples of radio public phone ins. All of these were adorned with the effects laden vocals of frontman Gibby Haynes, and the expert guitar mangling of fellow founder Paul Leary.
These days Paul Leary lives a much quieter existence in comparison. He creates music in his home studio, produces for others, looks after his cat and watches Star Trek. He is, however, still a member of Butthole Surfers. Kerrang! caught up with Leary to delve into his hazy memories of the band’s wildest days and to ask him about the release.
Butthole Surfers @ Pandora’s Music Box 1985
HI PAUL! HOW DO YOU THINK LOCUST ABORTION TECHNICIAN STANDS UP TO THE OTHER STUDIO ALBUMS YOU RECORDED?
Well, it’s probably the worst sounding of our records, but it’s also the one that many people choose as their favourite. It was something that we didn’t think out while we were doing it, we just kinda turned on the mic, recorded stuff and released an album. The album before and the album after were both made in recording studios. Locust was recorded in our house in Winterville, Georgia. We bought a one-inch, analogue, Ampex tape machine. It was tube electronics and it had the pre amps built in. We bought two microphones, so we had a tape machine and two microphones. That’s what we had to make an album with. And we did.
PRIOR TO RENTING THAT HOUSE YOU WERE BASICALLY ALL HOMELESS, LIVING ON THE ROAD AND TOURING WITH THE BAND. WHAT WAS THE AVERAGE DAY LIKE IN THAT HOUSE?
Well, we didn’t have transportation for a while. We had a van that we had bought in Queens, New York that had a six cylinder engine that ran on four of the six cylinders. It required massive amounts of oil to be put into it, so we’d have to stop every 20 minutes to put in oil. We were buying oil by the multiple crate load. The smoke that came out the back of it was horrendous. Eventually it spontaneously combusted. We were then out in Winterville, Georgia, which was a town of about 20 people and we were without transportation. It would be a four-hour walk to Athens, Georgia if we wanted to get food and a four-hour walk back. We ended up getting a bicycle. King [Coffey, Drummer] would spend his time in the yard with a pair of scissors, trying to cut the grass enough to keep the landlord happy. It was interesting just having a place of our own, and a kitchen and a bathroom of our own. There were two bedrooms between the five of us. It was strange.
WHAT DID THE NEIGHBOURS MAKE OF YOU?
I don’t know, the houses were kinda spaced out. Our closest neighbour was a retired air force guy who had a garden. We used to try to sneak into his garden and pick up the vegetables that he had left on the ground. Eventually he started bringing us vegetables to eat, so that was really nice. We always had egg plant and peppers to eat. That was the only neighbour we really had any interaction with. Our closest neighbours were cows. There was a pen which had a bunch of cows in it, so we bought a tape recorder so we could record the cows. We’d go out and listen to them at night. We had a bass player living with us for a while who also played tuba. He would go out to the fields in the middle of the night and sometimes the neighbours would call the police on him. The police would go check him out and tell him, well, you’re not really breaking any laws, people were just worried about you so we had to come and check it out. Carry on.
DID THE COWS RESPOND TO THE TUBA?
I don’t know. I was never out there with the tuba player when he did that. He’d just disappear. Then, one night, he just turned up back at the house saying that the police had talked to him about his playing tuba at two in the morning.
WHO DOES THE VOCAL PARTS AT THE START OF SWEAT LOAF?
That’s Gibby. I’m not sure what device he was using, it might have been a Yamaha SPX 90 that had pitch shiftings, so he would just switch back and forth between a regular voice and a pitch-shifted voice.
ONE ELEMENT THAT EXISTS WITHIN YOUR MUSIC THAT DOESN’T GET HIGHLIGHTED A LOT IS COUNTRY AND ROCKABILLY. DO YOU THINK BUTTHOLE SURFERS ARE JUST A BAND EXISTING IN A LONG TRADITION OF WHOLESOME TEXAN MUSIC?
(Laughs) Well, we are from Texas! That’s where we came from. It’s not like we purposefully thought to include that in our music. It’s just part of the snapshot. I’m not a fan of country music so much. I like some of the older stuff, but it’s just kind of where we are. There were elements of country that we really liked, even though we’re not country music fans. But Texas is a different place. New York and California are their own deal. Texas will never be either of those places.
YOU PLAYED SHOWS WHERE NIRVANA SUPPORTED YOU AND THEN, LATER, YOU OPENED FOR THEM. DID KURT EVER ASK YOU SPECIFICALLY ABOUT ANY OF YOUR GUITAR PARTS OR THE SOUND YOU USED ON ANY PARTICULAR RECORDINGS?
No. We didn’t hang out a whole lot. We hung out a little bit. He never talked to us about music or about any of our stuff or anything like that. I was really surprised to find out that he liked Locust Abortion Technician. It was kind of a shocking revelation.
MAYBE HE WAS SHY?
He was a little shy. And then, later on, when we opened for them as part of their last American tour, by that time he had Courtney with him. And she didn’t like him talking to us at all. As soon as he’d start talking to us, she’d come and grab him by the ear and drag him away. She was not very friendly towards us at all.
SHE WASN’T A FAN, THEN?
Well, she was sort of a fan, because before that she had been a concert promoter in Minneapolis, before she became Kurt Cobain’s wife. She claimed she was a fan and she had us up to Minnesota to play a show that she was promoting and then she stiffed us for the money. After that… it’s not been a good relationship.
YOUR LIVE SHOWS COULD BE WILD AFFAIRS. WHAT’S THE MOST NIHILISTIC, NASTY OR AGGRESSIVE THING MEMBERS OF THE BAND EVER DID TO PROVOKE AN AUDIENCE?
Probably way back in the ‘80s, our first trip to Europe, we played a festival in Rotterdam. We played right after The Cult and we were really excited about that because we loved The Cult back then. We watched them and Gibby got really drunk. He was drinking a bottle of whiskey on the stage and he just started heaving chairs into the audience like he wanted to kill everybody. It was scary. I was scared for people. The show ended up being a huge mess. At the end of the night, Gibby was fighting with five bouncers, naked, and he almost went over this railing to his death. It was up to me to get all the equipment back to the hotel and I couldn’t do it by myself so I was hiding guitars, amps and Gibby’s clothes under the bushes. I went back the next day to round that stuff up and I found Gibby’s coat and he had $10,000 in cash in the pocket. I opened up the newspaper later that day and there was a big picture of Gibby wearing a dress, chugging from the bottle of whiskey and we’d been called the sensation of the festival. That kinda got us going in Europe. People started showing up at our shows after that. It was crazy.
An interview with the Butthole Surfers in bed
WHAT WAS THE MOST OUTRAGEOUS RESPONSE YOU EVER RECEIVED FROM AN AUDIENCE?
I don’t think I’ve ever really paid attention to audiences. When I get up there I cross my eyes and don’t really pay attention to things except what I’m doing. I’ve seen people picketing our shows outside, protesting the Butthole Surfers. Our response to that usually was to pick up some placards and join in the protest. I sympathise with them. I hear it. We’re not trying to preach morals or anything like that, we’re more of a response to the world rather than trying to provoke the world.
YOU ONCE DESCRIBED YOURSELF AS THE WORST GUITARIST IN THE WORLD, BUT ALSO THE BEST GUITARIST IN THE WORLD. YOU ALSO CLAIMED THAT YOUR STYLE CAME FROM TRYING TO PLAY THE GUITAR AS BADLY AS POSSIBLE…
You know, back in 1963 I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, I saw girls going crazy, so I had to get an electric guitar. I was playing a guitar at a young age. My parents took me to lessons for years and I never really got good at it. I could play a few chords and I tried real hard. I could figure out a few AC/DC songs, that kind of stuff, but I never became the kind of guitar player that could do the kind of stuff that good guitar players do. So, I just said fuck it and became amused by becoming the worst guitar player possible. With so much playing and touring I felt like I was honing my craft at being bad to a point where I was actually getting really good at being bad.
THE QUOTES FROM YOUR ONE-TIME BASSIST KRAMER IN THE BOOK OUR BAND COULD BE YOUR LIFE SOUND A LITTLE FAR FETCHED. ESPECIALLY HIS CLAIM THAT YOU SPRINKLED LSD ON YOUR FOOD. THAT WAS AN EXAGGERATION, RIGHT?
It was completely made up. I love Kramer, I talk to him regularly. I think I last spoke with him just yesterday. I worked on an album with him recently, him and Jad Fair. So, I adore Kramer. His stories that were presented in that book, I don’t know where that stuff came from. I think that they picked the wrong person to talk to for that book because I don’t remember things the way he does.
BUT LSD AND PSYCHEDELICS ARE OFTEN MENTIONED IN THE SAME BREATH AS THE BAND.
Yeah and I’m not into psychedelics. I’m not into drugs at all. I stick to champagne now. The LSD stories, I don’t know how that got so intertwined with us. I don’t know where those stories come from, but it’s kind of part of the myth surrounding the band. We drank a lot of beer back in those days. I remember us waiting at 7am in the morning for the beer stores to open back up again, that kind of stuff. The whole point of touring was to get to the next town, find some food and find some more beer. Us playing shows kind of supported that because people at the venues would give us beer.
DID YOU EVER EMBELLISH YOUR ANSWERS TO MUSIC WRITERS OR JOURNALISTS BACK IN THE DAY?
Oh, we probably did much worse than embellish. We probably just made stuff up. Like setting fire to our van outside of [REM vocalist] Michael Stipe’s house, stuff like that? We never did that. There was usually an element of truth that things were based on, but usually the reality that we were living was enough. We didn’t have to exaggerate a lot of that stuff. It was pretty crazy.
BUTTHOLE SURFERS’ LOCUST ABORTION TECHNICIAN EP IS OUT NOW.
WORDS: Marc Rowlands
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