By Ken Lieck
AUGUST 30, 1999: It's tough, mighty tough, to imagine a world without the Butthole Surfers. Sure, in the insular Austin music "scene" we're often given to imagining that our favorite acts are known the world over. And in Texas, the Butthole Surfers are known the world over, the local quartet's name and music as synonymous with the Lone Star state as, say, Willie Nelson or Stevie Ray Vaughan. Nevertheless, it's difficult for longtime fans and native Texans alike to face the realization that your average music consumer had probably never heard of this seminal "postpunk" punk rock band until 10 years after the fact, when their 1996 radio hit "Pepper" forced the general public (or those with MTV, at least) to add the word "butthole" to their musical vocabulary.
Before that, it was up to the "Weirdo-American community," as the band's singer Gibby Haynes might call them, to spread the word about the Butthole Surfers around the planet. In this case, the word came via a four-album run: Psychic... Powerless... Another Man's Sac (1984), Rembrandt Pussyhorse ('86), Locust Abortion Technician ('87), and Hairway to Steven ('88). Originally released by Chicago-based indie label Touch & Go, all four titles were recently reissued by the band themselves on their Latino Buggerveil imprint with glorious new Digipak packaging and beefed-up sound.
What's so impressive about the re-release of four nearly 15-year-old oddball albums by a group of grungy, garage-dwelling noisemakers from Texas? To fully understand that, it's necessary to get a firm grasp on the Buttholes (ouch)! Hatched in 1981 by two friends attending San Antonio's Trinity University, the now-notorious combo, according to the band's bio on their old Capitol Records Web site, was begun by Dallas-born Haynes, a "star accounting and economics student," and guitarist Paul Leary, a native of San Antonio, who was studying art and finance and almost earned a master's degree. The two of them, later joined by drummer duo King Coffey and his twin-sister-from-different-parents Theresa Taylor, and a rotating roster of additional members, performed under various names like "Vodka Family Winstons" and "Ashtray Babyheads" before settling on "Butthole Surfers."
From the beginning, the Butthole Surfers were trouble, playing not-quite punk rock on the punk rock stages of San Antonio and elsewhere, and releasing an EP, Brown Reason to Live, on Dead Kennedys leader Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label in 1983. The album featured such screamfests as "BBQ Pope" and "The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey's Grave," and just in case those titles weren't obnoxious enough the first time, their second release was a live EP, PCPPEP, of the same songs.
It was in 1984, however, after signing to Touch & Go, that the band hit their stride with a quartet of releases that clearly defined what the Butthole Surfers were, or perhaps more to the point, what they obviously weren't. What they weren't was a run-of-the-mill punk rock band. Even with titles like "BBQ Pope" on the AT albums, the group had never really shown any particular affection for the seething anger and angst of the American middle-class punk pseudo-rebel. Instead, their songs displayed a non-punkish, LSD-inspired sense of humor, and could be about anything -- or nothing. Of "Concubine," the lead-off track on Psychic... Powerless... Another Man's Sac, the first T&G album, Haynes recalls "it was one of those things where this word 'concubine' fit really well, and I was like, 'What exactly is a concubine?'"
In the end, it doesn't matter. The song careens along like a roller-coaster ride through hell, at times literally sounding like the soundtrack to a funhouse gone evil. Haynes' scary laughter is scattered throughout, and instruments strain to make sounds they were never meant to make. If you can make it through to the end and still give a damn what the title means, you've got thick skin and hardy ears indeed. In fact, there's really no spot anywhere on Sac to catch your breath or pick up a dictionary. Among its many frightening mood swings, "Cherub" is another haunted, distorted monster, while "Butthole Surfer" is a last grab at pseudo-punk, and "Lady Sniff" is the album's undisputed show-stopper, a cascade of piercing guitar licks and amplified bodily noises. Rather than punk rock, this was, if anything, easier to compare to the squeaks and squawks of Captain Beefheart, and critics at the time of the album's release often made that comparison out of convenience if not sheer frustration.
"In the context of when [Sac] came out," explains drummer King Coffey, "the punk rock of the late Nineties has been played out into a [kind of] Sha-Na-Na, with bands like Green Day and Rancid. In that context, it's hard to imagine there were really art bands who came from punk rock backgrounds."
It's even harder to imagine that as the Eighties reached their punk rock apex, at a time when parents were being horrified by albums such as the Dead Kennedys' Frankenchrist, the Circle Jerks' Golden Shower of Hits, and the proto-grunge of Green River, that the Butthole Surfers were managing to put out albums that not only shocked said parents, but their Black Flag-loving offspring as well! Was this wall of noise merely an attempt to shock jaded listeners who thought they'd heard everything? No, says Haynes, the band was actually trying to make songs that they thought people would like.
"But we were really into the songs as experiences," emphasizes the singer. "You know how there's something about it when you're listening to a favorite song? Some element of a song that you get attached to if you really like it? Like, say, 'Communication Breakdown' by Led Zeppelin. If you really dig the song, then you're waiting for that killer guitar solo. That's the part of the song that really does it for ya in a weird, emotional kind of way. We were just trying to create those moments, but with other than traditional instruments."
Haynes concedes that the band never completely did away with rock song structures or even guitar solos, but asserts that a lot of Paul Leary's solo work is distinctly nontraditional.
"You might even think he's bullshitting," laughs Haynes, "but he can do the same thing four times in a row -- but not five!"
Not every single note on ... Another Man's Sac is worth waiting for ("Sometimes you hit, sometimes you miss, sometimes it's neither hit nor miss, it's just fuckin' weird," says Haynes). It's close, though, especially considering the less than grand circumstances the band dealt with while recording the album -- back in the dark days before bands could take for granted that they had access to a handy digital studio.
"We were in the shittiest studio in the whole entire world," remembers Leary. "I think they had three microphones, and their idea of an expensive microphone was a $100 microphone. Which was like a spaceship to us. Gibby and I were living in the tool shed at the time. Gibby had a cockroach that he'd nailed to the wall of the tool shed and we'd go in there and hold a lighter under it every day and make it dance."
That Sac and its follow-up, Rembrandt Pussyhorse, are as coherent as they are is a miracle, not only due to the band's drug intake at the time or their predilection for dawdling with insects, but also given the circumstances under which the band recorded albums at that time.
"We'd tend to record a few songs here, record a few songs somewhere else," recalls Haynes. "It was just the way we were living at the time -- on tour a lot, no real home. Until we had an album's worth -- an album's 'worth!'"
He chuckles at the loaded meaning of the word.
If anything, Pussyhorse makes Sac look like a concept album, the recording of the former being done over a number of months in studios from San Antonio to New York as the band led a nomadic existence of touring and wandering.
"It was all a mystery," says Leary. "We had no idea what we were doing, but we did it anyway. I remember at one time we were getting studio time by letting the studio owner play on the record. That would be 'Creep in the Cellar,' I believe. That was cool, because we were using someone else's old multi-track tape, from some country band that didn't pay their bill in the studio, and recorded the drums, vocals, piano, and stuff, and on playback there was this mysterious background violin that just showed up, and by the time we figured out how to turn it off, we didn't care anymore."
Less menacing than Sac, Pussyhorse might have once pointed at a new direction for the band, but since the group members' purple-hazed memories provide little insight to the tracks, it's impossible to say for sure. Longtime Butthole bassist Jeff Pinkus, who doesn't play on the album, says he thinks Pussyhorse comprises the first material the band recorded, which doesn't seem likely. Haynes' eyes just glaze over when asked to analyze Pussyhorse, which he admits he hasn't listened to very closely in years.
"This is the one that was done in three or four different situations," he says. "No, wait ... this one we did in a bunch of ... "
He pauses, thinking.
"Um, I really couldn't tell you."
Coffey remembers Pussyhorse being intended as a mini-album at one point, before enough additional tracks were produced to make it a full-lengther. In spite of (or perhaps because of) its scattered origins, the album is certainly as innovative and strange as Sac, if not more so. Leary recalls the sessions clearly enough to explain a typical step in the recording process, wherein an engineer performed a tape edit for a song on the album.
"I sat there and watched him almost cut his fingers off a couple of times," says Leary, still incredulous after all these years. "The fade-out on 'American Woman' was achieved by making a mix, and then at the end doing another mix turned down a little bit, and doing that about 30 times before cutting up the little pieces and pasting them measure by measure until we got a fade-out ending."
For those who have never heard Rembrandt Pussyhorse, yes, the song in question is a cover of the Guess Who's signature tune, and yes, the Buttholes' version is as anarchic and twisted as Lenny Kravitz's recent version is derivative and antiseptic. Furthermore, if the album's pedigree isn't baffling enough, both the Touch & Go version of Pussyhorse, as well as the Latino Buggerveil reissue, also tag on the four-song EP Cream Corn From the Socket of Davis, which the group's guitarist describes as an aborted album in itself.
"That was another deal where we were trying to record an album," says Leary, "and we could either spend the money on making a record or on beer and pot, and I guess we went for the beer and pot and making the record an EP."
Again, Haynes stares at the disc as though he'd been handed a two-headed quarter.
"There was only four songs on Cream Corn? Really? It was more of a single with added songs, that's what our concept was."
He thinks a bit longer and shrugs.
"I don't know, it was a format for showing punk rock bands; it's all they were worth, five songs. It's all you could really last for."
As the hits kept on not coming, the band continued their mission to conquer the world through constant touring, leading critics to try another unwieldy metaphor on the Buttholes.
"I really like the Grateful Dead to Butthole Surfers comparison," bemoans Haynes. "I just wish it worked!"
Considering the similarities a little longer, he begins to change his mind.
"The name of the band really doesn't match the sound of the music, and they don't really get played on the radio, but hundreds of thousands come and see them live."
The Butthole Surfers, adds the singer, like the Dead, have become a highly bootlegged band, and he's proud that fans find their shows worthy of taping and trading.
"I'd like to think that was justified," he beams. "To me, what that says is that there's a varied experience at your live shows.
On the next album to make it into unsuspecting record stores, 1987's Locust Abortion Technician, the "nontraditional" guitar solos are louder and much closer to being in the right places. Several songs from Locust, "Graveyard" and "Pittsburg to Lebanon," for example, could even pass as ugly stepsisters to typical rock songs -- if you played the record at 45rpm! The lead-off track, "Sweat Loaf," is a near-cover of Black Sabbath's metal classic "Sweet Leaf," only taken down to a lower level of Hell (make that several levels), while the peppy "Human Cannonball," though not exactly an early attempt to hit radio, is worthy of bobbing nonetheless.
This trend toward a more accessible sound wasn't that of a maturing band moving up to better studio conditions, however. Far from it! The Buttholes actually went from a 16-track recording on Pussyhorse to 8-track for Locust Abortion Technician, says Leary, slaving away in a studio that had all of one microphone and a tape machine that stood "about seven and a half feet tall and weighed around 800 pounds." Looking back, Leary's happy that the band was forced to deal with such primitive situations. At that point in time, it served the band better to be creative than to be professionally recorded. They could go into some studio and have a traditional way of doing things forced upon them, he figures, or they could be allowed to "be the idiots that we were and do all the dumb stuff that we wanted to do."
Meanwhile, Coffey points out that they were maturing (if that's not too inappropriate a term) -- right there in the studio.
"'Graveyard' is on there twice," he notes. "The first one is us building it up on our 8-track, not really having an idea of what the song would sound like, and the second one is like, 'Now we know how the song should go. Let's go ahead and record it.'"
Of course, like Sac's "Lady Sniff" and Cream Corn's "Moving to Florida," Locust has its head/stomach-turner, the totally unnerving found-music track "Kuntz."
"It was a Thai song on a Thai record, by a Thai guy!" exclaims Haynes. "He had the weirdest 'soul button' [a small beard-like protrusion halfway between the lower lip and chin] -- it radiated like a spider, and we called him 'Spider Chin.' I think it's a traditional hunting song, giving thanks or good luck to hunting."
After receiving the Butthole treatment, run through a number of sound-altering devices, the only thanks given after hearing "Kuntz," which involves endless repetition of the title syllable, would come from parents and neighbors relieved that the song was over.
The last of the band's Touch & Go albums, Hairway to Steven, came along in 1988, and if any one of the four albums could be described as shocking to anyone who thought they knew the band, Hairway is probably it. A nearly 180-degree turn from the path the Butts seemed to be heading down, Steven is dominated by an instrument hardly heard on the group's previous albums: the acoustic guitar. In fact, the album is almost evenly divided between thudding, slowed-down rockers and lighter acoustic oddities, which may lack the in-your-face edge of previous albums, but prominently showcase, for the first time, the Butts' whimsical lyrics, with Haynes' voice distinctly audible and decipherable for nearly all of the album. Bassist Pinkus explains the sudden shift in styles from Locust to Hairway.
"Locust was done song by song, all over the place, where Hairway was songs we'd been doing for years, so it was recorded mostly live. That changed some of the spontaneity and led to the band doing more rock-oriented stuff."
That doesn't mean the studio situation was any better, of course, Leary recalling that the band had to venture down an icy I-35 to either Farmer's Branch or Richardson, Texas, where they were recording in a remote shack. To top things off, the group ended up spending a miserable New Year's Eve at a fleabag motel thanks to the sessions. In retrospect, Hairway marks a true midpoint in the Surfers' musical career, exhibiting characteristics of both the earlier Touch & Go efforts and more recent major-label fare like Electriclarryland, which was home to "Pepper."
Definitely easier on the ears than its forbears, Hairway nonetheless carries its share of trademark Buttholes pranksterism. For instance, the previously sparse information provided on the group's album sleeves has been whittled down further, to the point that the songs don't even bear titles, just crude drawings on the record label to indicate a differentiation between one and the next.
"I wonder why we did that?" Haynes muses, then sniffs that the band had decided that nobody really cared what the names of the songs were, and that the scribbles should be enough to identify each tune. "Remember, there would be five songs on one side and six songs on the other and you could count the bands [on the vinyl.]"
Needless to say, that wasn't enough for many people, and over the years fans have come to identify the songs either by repeated lyrics in the song ("I Saw an X-ray of a Girl Passing Gas") or by cross-referencing with the now-rare Double Live album, which includes some of the same songs with titles ("John E. Smoke"). Coffey contends that "Person With Baseball Bat Peeing From a Ball Being Pitched While a Guy is With a Boner Shitting" is certainly a better title than the commonly acknowledged name of Hairway's opening track, "Jimi."
In a sense, Hairway toSteven marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. With a reduction of chaos in the creation of their albums, so too did the Butthole Surfers reduce the chances of happy accidents along the lines of those that can be heard throughout their early works. Such accidents haven't been totally banned from the group's agenda, of course. As Haynes points out, simply being in the band means there's "a lot of chance creation." For his part, Pinkus, who left the band in 1994, prefers the earlier of the two Touch & Go albums he contributed his bass playing to. Happy accidents defined the band, according to Pinkus.
"What made us laugh," he says, "and what made others laugh was the surprises."
That is perhaps the elusive key difference between the Butthole Surfers and most every other band out there -- their sense of humor, sick as it could be sometimes.
"We would do songs that made us laugh," agrees Haynes. "What tickled us, that was really what the bottom line was. It was what made us laugh, or I don't know what you'd call it, a certain degree of terror? It's like the car wreck fascination -- coming up with a really good car wreck on tape was really important to us."
Their aim, says the singer, was to make music that would freak out not only a kid's parents, but the kid himself.
"Around that time, everybody had an autopsy book and [the video] Faces of Death, 1-55," explains Haynes. "We really weren't into that just shock element, but there was something about us that tied into that. Because there isn't anything really shocking about the band's music. Now, we did have in our live presentation the famous penis reconstruction film and car wrecks and really grotesque images. And that's fairly easy and predictable, but it gets you what you need every time! That's why we could play 'em, show after show after show for three years, because it's like a basic element. It's like dope, 'How pure is it?' 'Oh, pretty pure!'"
Barring a final, long out-of-print EP, Widowermaker!, over a decade elapsed between the appearance of the band's final Touch & Go album and the recent Latino Buggerveil reissues, and to say the Butthole Surfers have changed in the meantime would be a gross understatement. Between 1988-1998, the group jumped from Touch & Go to Rough Trade, putting out the uninspired Pioughd (1991) just as that label folded. Next signing with major Capitol Records, they put out the John Paul Jones-produced Independent Worm Saloon, which was critically well-received but sold under the label's high expectations, and then the band's bona fide "commercial breakthrough," Electriclarryland.
During that time, side projects abounded, with Coffey starting (and recently shutting down) local indie label Trance Syndicate, Leary becoming known as a world-class producer, and Haynes being Haynes -- on the radio, or with his friend Johnny Depp in P. Ironically, while all was going well for the band members individually, things really started bogging down for the Buttholes collectively. A follow-up to Larryland,The Last Astronaut, suffered repeated delays at Capitol before the band and label finally parted ways. The Buttholes also had an ugly falling out with their manager, and the various members seemed to be facing an absolute tidal wave of deaths of friends and family members. And to top things off, their Touch & Go titles went out of print as the band sued their former label to get the rights to the albums themselves. The lawsuit resulted in a lot of bad press for the band as newspapers in Chicago (home of Touch & Go) and New York labeled the Buttholes greedy, heartless money-grubbers.
"[Touch & Go] were taking the stance that they had perpetual rights to these records," explains Coffey. "They wouldn't even entertain the notion of changing the royalty splits. We never agreed to this deal."
Touch & Go founder Corey Rusk's stance was that the band understood from their original oral agreement that what kept the company alive was the continued income from its back catalog, and for a time there were kneejerk reactions insisting that a victory for the Butts would usher in the death of the indie record industry. Haynes says the quote that hurt him most was one in the Chicago Reader by Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye claiming that the whole lawsuit was about greed.
"I'd be willing to agree with that," says Haynes, "but whose greed is he talking about? Our greed or Corey Rusk's? What he didn't realize is that we sued Corey because he stopped paying us! He stopped paying us money for our records he'd been selling! We had no choice. It was sort of about greed, but ... intelligence, too, you know?"
The band won the lawsuit in the end and re-released the albums themselves -- Coffey having gotten plenty of relevant experience as founder of Touch & Go-distributed Trance Syndicate -- but found little to rejoice about, particularly after seeing not only the bad press, but also the number of peers that turned on them in print. Add to that the endless cries of "sellout" following the band's mainstream success with "Pepper," and the members, now all entering their 40s, found that life as a Butthole Surfer was no longer the psychedelic whirlwind of casual craziness it once was.
"Remember the scene in Airplane where the nun starts freaking out?" asks a weary Leary. "They kept slapping her, saying, 'Snap out of it.' The next thing you know, there's a long line of people, guys with monkey wrenches waiting in line to beat the shit out of the nun. That's what it's like for us."
Haynes, for one, is ready to face the challenges of the future, and thinks he might even be getting the hang of things as a Major Label Recording Artist after all this time.
"You really have to go, 'Okay, we're gonna do a record!'" he states. "You can't sit around and wait around for inspiration, and I suppose it's just a matter of pressure. A lot of people starting out are just able to master the pressure involved, you know, don't let it get to them. Maybe they have enough power.
"Maybe I'm wrong, but Trent Reznor, it seems like he can do what he wants to do. Then again, doesn't it seem like his records have kind of not been as good as the one before? It seems like that's what everyone does, especially if they start out with an original kind of viewpoint."
Even as he dissects the theory of entropy enveloping the typical recording artist, Haynes has his reasons for being optimistic about the Album Formerly Known as Astronaut, as the band prepares to finally release their next work on the Surfdog/Hollywood imprint.
"We're gonna have time, and it's real important to have label interest in your project, to have the people at the label be enthusiastic about what you're doing," says the singer. "Especially at this point in our career, it's important having younger people at the label saying, 'This is really cool.' That's something that never happened at Capitol."
"I don't really think the Astronaut record is really that different as far as what we do," Coffey says to doubters. "We've never had any constraints as to what we should sound like. It's all a process of working with each other and amusing ourselves."
Haynes agrees, and considers, in hindsight, that the delays with their manager, Capitol, the courts, and everything else under the sun may well have been blessings in disguise, perhaps the best fortune the Butthole Surfers stumbled into since they first began plying their noisy trade in a filthy San Antonio garage.
"I think we've gotten time to present all those elements that have made us a success, in a commercial way. What I mean to say, I think, is [the band is creating] a group of songs that are true to the Butthole Surfers and that's basically all it has to be -- a group of songs that are true to the band and are commercially appealing. And I think now we stand the best chance of doing that."
It's hard to argue with a statement that boils down to something as simple as, "If the Butthole Surfers make a album, then it's a Butthole Surfers album," but the fact is that some of the band's most devout early fans will do just that, no matter what their next album sounds like. Luckily for them, and for all of us, there's nothing keeping anyone from grabbing a copy of Psychic... Powerless... Another Man's Sac, Rembrandt Pussyhorse, Locust Abortion Technician, or Hairway to Steven and remembering them the way they were -- and the way we were, back in those acid-drenched Eighties.
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