Butthole Surfers - Biography
Though guitarist Paul Leary has called it “music to drool into a bucket to,” the Texas band Butthole Surfers’ brain-damaged catalog has brought joy and terror to literally hundreds of people. Live and on record, the band takes audiences through a phantasmagoria of American waste that reflects the Buttholes’ scatological and non sequitur sense of humor. The Butthole Surfers’ music is a glorious combination of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, FM radio, acid rock, and plain old gross-out fun.
Paul Leary and Gibby Haynes met as students at Trinity College in San Antonio, Texas in the late 1970s. Perhaps they glimpsed their future with their early cover of Texan hard-rockers Bloodrock’s 1971 hit “D.O.A.,” which is sung from the perspective of an airplane crash survivor bleeding to death as ambulance sirens blare. No-budget theatrics involving fake blood, prop bottles made from sugar, hamburgers, and stuffed animals characterized Butthole Surfers’ early performances. The shows soon grew increasingly more elaborate, eventually including fire, guns, hair, strobe lights, and the projection of films of unspeakable medical procedures. Much of the Butthole Surfers’ reputation comes from the band’s legendary, extreme performances. The band toured relentlessly through the 1980s and early 1990s, and became one of the most popular independent live bands of the time.
Alternative Tentacles, the San Francisco label run by Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, released Butthole Surfers’ first two EPs, Brown Reason to Live (a.k.a. Butthole Surfers) (1983 Alternative Tentacles) and Live PCPPEP (1984 Alternative Tentacles). Teresa Taylor followed King Coffey into the band in 1983, beginning the Buttholes’ beloved two-drummer period. The Butthole Surfers’ 1984 debut album, Psychic. . . Powerless. . . Another Mans Sac (1984 Touch & Go), mixes punk thrash, bubblegum, noise, and Haynes’s entertaining personae. 1986’s Rembrandt Pussyhorse (1986 Touch & Go) is a spacier, spookier album, covered in organ and psychedelic studio effects. The album opens with Haynes singing a piano ballad, “Creep in the Cellar.” Locust Abortion Technician (1987 Touch & Go), the following year’s offer, is a deeply unwholesome, heavy, abrasive album, and perhaps the band’s masterpiece. Haynes’s custom “Gibbytronix” box, which allowed him to manipulate the tone and pitch of his voice with a range of effects, began to appear on record and in concert around this time. A Texas Trip (1987 Latino Buggerveil/Caroline), a compilation featuring the Butthole Surfers, Daniel Johnston, and Stick Men with Rayguns, was the first release on the band’s Latino Buggerveil label.
Hairway to Steven (1988 Touch & Go) was the last Butthole Surfers studio album with two drummers (Taylor left the band in 1989) and it was also the band’s last album on Touch & Go. Double Live (1989 Latino Buggerveil), released on the band’s label in double vinyl, double cassette, and double CD formats, captures the depraved insanity of the Surfers’ live shows. Pioughd (1991 Rough Trade, 1992 Capitol) includes “Revolution Part 2,” with the infectious chorus “Garry Shandling / Garry Shandling / Garry Shandling.” The album also features a fairly straight version of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and a new version of the old Surfers song “Something,” which appropriates the chords, drums, and melody of Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Never Understand.”
In 1991, Butthole Surfers appeared on the first Lollapalooza tour, following openers the Rollins Band. “Jam with the Butthole Surfers” from Rollins Band’s The End of Silence: Hammer of the Rök Gödz EP (1992 Imago) documents a ten-minute improvisation from one of the Dallas Lollapalooza shows. Following Rough Trade’s bankruptcy, Butthole Surfers signed to Capitol Records. Independent Worm Saloon (1993 Capitol), the first album the Butthole Surfers recorded for a major label, was produced by John Paul Jones, Led Zeppelin bassist and the arranger of such 60’s rock classics as Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man.” Haynes sings lead on Ministry’s massive 1991 single “Jesus Built My Hotrod,” bizarrely parodied on Independent Worm Saloon’s “Some Dispute over T-Shirt Sales.” Capitol also issued an elaborately packaged promo 10” EP, which was wrapped in a foil like Madonna’s book Sex. Unlike Madonna’s Sex, the wrapper tore away to reveal a picture of a man with horribly distended testicles. Butthole Surfers toured the US that summer, oddly paired with Stone Temple Pilots. In December of 1993 and January of 1994, Butthole Surfers opened the West Coast dates of Nirvana’s In Utero (1993 DGC) tour. Several months later, Haynes, dealing with grave, much-publicized drug problems, wound up rooming with Kurt Cobain in an LA rehab, days before Cobain’s suicide.
The Hole Truth. . . and Nothing Butt (1995 Trance Syndicate), on Coffey’s Trance Syndicate label, reproduces an interesting Buttholes bootleg comprising mostly live recordings from 1983 to 1993. A riot of illegal explosives can be heard in the audience pandemonium of the Castaic Lake show, which took place just before Independence Day on July 2, 1993, not on July 23rd as the sleeve states. During “Pittsburg to Lebanon,” Haynes can be heard firing a shotgun loaded with blanks at the audience. Bassist Pinkus left the band in 1995. The remaining three members (Leary, Haynes, and Coffey) collaborated in 1996 on Electriclarryland (1996 Capitol), a polished album of restrained performances of concise pop songs. Most of the album’s songs have no room for improvisation. The single “Pepper” combines a chilly trip-hop verse with a sunny psych-pop chorus reminiscent of “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” punched up by drum sequencing. Consequently, “Pepper” was the first Butthole Surfers song to become an omnipresent radio hit. Capitol was supposed to release the Buttholes’ trip-hop album After the Astronaut in February of 1998. Advance cassettes of the album were circulated, but Astronaut never appeared. Nearly all of After the Astronaut is built around the disheartening sound of late-90’s dance beats, though the Surfers do manage to tweak some mind-bending sounds out of their electronics.
Those mind-bending sounds are buried on Weird Revolution (2001 Hollywood), which combines shinier mixes of some After the Astronaut material with a few lifeless new pop numbers. In 1999, the Butthole Surfers won a suit against Touch & Go Records, giving them control of their catalog, which has since been reissued on Latino Buggerveil. Haynes released an album with his new band in 2004, Gibby Haynes and His Problem (2004 Surfdog). The Butthole Surfers continue to tour with a line-up consisting of Gibby, Leary, Pinkus, Coffey, and Taylor.