Paul Leary, 39-year-old guitarist for Butthole Surfers, isn't exactly an artiste dedicated to pulling eternal verities from his soul. In fact, the Austin, Texas, musician and studio engineer (Meat Puppets, Supersuckers) sounds like he'd be just as happy slopping hogs as hawking songs.
"I wish somebody would pay me not to do my own music," he says. "It would be like farming subsidies, the government paying farmers not to grow. If someone could do that for me, I'll fucking stop right now."
There are probably a few parents out there willing to take up a collection, but Capitol Records may have effectively beaten them to the punch. Capitol, the same folks who brought us the subversive stylings of Duran Duran and Billy Squier, recently issued Electriclarryland, the Surfers' second major-label release. The album is selling well, but represents a sharp departure from the Surfers of yesteryear, when the band virtually defined the extreme edge of America's rock underground.
Behind the name that was taboo for most club marquees when the Buttholes were smalltime lie the personalities who breathed life into this mutant juggernaut of a rock band. Lead singer Gibby Haynes, the son of a popular Dallas children's show host known as Mr. Peppermint, abandoned his former life as an economics major, fraternity president and basketball standout at San Antonio's Trinity University to accompany Leary on a move to California in 1980. Once there, the two sold Lee Harvey Oswald tee shirts, pillowcases and bedspreads on Venice Beach. Deciding that street vending wasn't for them, the friends hooked up with drummers King Coffey and Teresa Taylor (better known for playing the woman who tries to sell Madonna's Pap smear in the Richard Linklater flick Slacker than for her stint with the Surfers), as well as a series of bass players.
After burning through several incarnations as "Abe Lincoln's Bush," "Ashtray Babyheads," and "the Right to Eat Fred Astaire's Asshole," the band landed on the Surfers handle and set about producing the most demented, funny, psychedelic-punk noise of the last decade. Starting in 1983 with a self-titled EP, Butthole Surfers released 13 indie records, most notably Cream Corn From the Socket of Davis (1985), Locust Abortion Technician (1987), and Hairway to Steven (1988), the latter a surreal batch of songs with no titles to identify them, only icons such as a syringe, a cigarette and a pissing horse.
The band was no more subdued live. Gibby routinely burned his equipment, fired a shotgun over his head and screamed into a bullhorn (a stage act he performed long before the practice became an industrial rock cliche). Naked women cavorted across a stage backlit by a giant screen showing footage of penile-reconstruction surgeries, car crashes and scorpions devouring one another.
That stage show and the fierce experimentalism of the band's sound earned the Surfers a sizable cult following, and most of their releases on Touch and Go in the Eighties went gold. The band swam a few laps toward the mainstream with its appearance in the 1991 Lollapalooza bill. Those daytime, outdoor performances failed to capture the full-bore nocturnal club mayhem of the Surfers, but Capitol took notice and invited the band into the studio to work with former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. The result was 1993's bracing Independent Worm Saloon, an album that sold 300,000 copies and set the stage for Electriclarryland to cross over with even larger strides.
Don't ask the band members to explain their success. They seem genuinely suspicious of whatever talents others ascribe to them. Leary is especially strident in his self-deprecation. "People talk about writing music," snaps the guitarist. "There's no writing. It's one goddamn note with a bunch of crappy shit all over it. That's not just us, that's everybody. It's fucking crap, it's all a load of shit." Such sentiments may seem disingenuous coming from a guy who makes his living playing music, but the paunchy six-string misanthrope sounds genuinely flustered. "I don't listen to rock music. I think rock music stinks. You couldn't pay me to listen to this shit."
The majority of Electriclarryland argues against Leary's harsh assessment. The album is the band's most focused to date, with a tuneful and, even occasionally, pretty polish that has sent diehard Butthole fans running for cover.
Blending styles from unadulterated old-school punk to country to hard rock, Electriclarryland never settles into a single rut. Leary's trademark screeching guitar and ecstatic feedback are still evident, as are Gibby's redneck-in-a-wringer vocals. But alongside freaky messes like "My Brother's Wife" are other, more carefully crafted songs like "Pepper," inspired by the Nails' hit "88 Lines About 44 Women." For better or worse, the Surfers have moved beyond sheer cacophony. While it's disappointing to discover Gibby no longer spews non sequiturs like "There's a time to shit/And a time for God/The last shit I took was really fucking odd!", in a way, it's even more bizarre to hear the gangly, manic front man warble about being in love with a television personality on "TV Star."
No one's more surprised at the band's recent rise on the pop charts than drummer King Coffey, who says the group never set out to be rock stars. "When the band decided to call itself the Butthole Surfers, we knew we were going to have zero commercial success. That was the beauty of it. We were intentionally isolating ourselves."
Now, Coffey says, the level of fame is getting a little annoying. "We've had a few stalkers who send us weird stuff in the mail," he says. "People follow us around and come up to us and give us body parts. Granted, they're animal body parts. But we're supposed to be like 'Oh, wow. This is so incredibly cool.' They mean well, though. It's a nice gesture."
Another aspect of major-label life that annoys Coffey is the video industry. The drummer reports that the new video for "Pepper" (featuring former CHiPs heartthrob Erik Estrada) wouldn't get any play on MTV if Capitol wasn't using all its clout to force-feed the Surfers to the cable outlet.
"MTV really hates the video," he says. "According to them, it's summer, so they want happy, fun videos. When they do play it, they bleep out the words 'gun,' 'bullet' and 'rapist.' Then I turn on MTV and see Ozzy Osbourne. He's in a graveyard and it's like nonstop death. Now there's a happy video."
Evidently, the "Pepper" clip didn't make it onto MTV Scandinavia. On the band's recent swing through Norway, Coffey recalls, some ignoramus promoter billed them as a rockabilly band. When the Surfers started playing, the audience became, according to Coffey, "incredibly disappointed."
"After about four songs of this, we figured 'What's the point?'" Coffey says. "Paul went into this screech and we all just followed him, making a total racket. Then Gibby started shouting at everybody, telling them to leave the building and, either verbally or physically, chasing everybody out of the room. Once we got everybody out, we sat down on stage and had cigarettes. They didn't want to be there, so we were like 'Fine, get out.'"
Butthole Surfers are scheduled to perform on Monday, July 1, at Mesa Amphitheatre, with the Toadies, Reverend Horton Heat, and the Supersuckers. Showtime is 5:30 p.m.
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