BUTTHOLE SURFERS

Butthole Surfers

We… come from the same place of just hating what we heard, and wanting to make something that was even worse that people would hate even more and somehow get paid for it. That’s what we were trying to do; make the worst records possible.

Paul Leary, Our Band Could Be Your Life, 2001

Formed: 1981, Texas, USA

Featured album: Locust Abortion Technician (1987)

IF IT’S TRUE what French symbolist Arthur Rimbaud said about a systematic derangement of the senses being the source of true creative inspiration, then the Butthole Surfers might just be America’s greatest artistic visionaries. There are few audio-visual experiences as mind-shatteringly disorientating – to band and audience alike – as a Butthole Surfers show.

This strangest of strange trips began when vocalist Gibby Haynes, the son of a local children’s TV host named Mr Peppermint, met guitarist Paul Leary at San Antonio’s Trinity University. Haynes was studying to be an accountant, while Paul was studying art and business. The duo began performing under various names including Nine Inch Worm Makes Home Food and the Inalienable Right to Eat Fred Astaire’s Asshole, eventually settling on the slightly more palatable Butthole Surfers. King Coffey joined in time to contribute his unusual stand-up drumming technique to the band’s first, self-titled EP – also known as Brown Reason to Live and Pee Pee the Sailor – released in 1983. Beginning with a keening howl of feedback and Leary screaming, ‘There’s a time to shit, and a time for God; the last shit I took, was pretty fucking odd,’ the EP lampooned hardcore punk (“The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey’s Grave”, “Suicide”), mutated rockabilly via Captain Beefheart (“Wichita Cathedral”) and continued the Texan psychedelic tradition of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators and Red Krayola (“Hey”, “Bar-B-Q Pope”). At this stage, Leary was sharing vocal duties with Haynes, while Theresa Nervosa soon joined Coffey as second drummer, adding a shambolic, Fall-like rhythmic clatter on their next release, the Live PCPPEP EP.

Originally signed to San Francisco punk label Alternative Tentacles, the band switched to Chicago indie stronghold Touch & Go for their debut long-player: Psychic Powerless… Another Man’s Sac. Here the Butthole Surfers’ sonic ooze congealed: the hard rock of Black Sabbath and Grand Funk Railroad warped by The Birthday Party’s burlesque primitivism, the sinister drone of Public Image Ltd, the DIY production of The Residents, and the toilet humour of Frank Zappa. Haynes had emerged as lead vocalist, screaming, jabbering, and laughing like a maniac through a megaphone while Leary strangled gloriously wrong notes out of his guitar like a Bizarro World Hendrix. Next came a four-song EP, Cream Corn from the Socket of Davis (1985), followed by the arty Rembrandt Pussyhorse (1986): a full-length tour through haunted-house psychedelia with phantom violin, monstrous growling, and deconstructions of The Guess Who’s “American Woman” and the Perry Mason theme among its dubious lysergic delights. After a procession of bassists, including Kramer (Shockabilly, Bongwater), Jeff Pinkus took over low-end duties for Locust Abortion Technician, the band’s 1987 avant-scuzz masterpiece, and would remain with the band for most of its career. By now, the Butthole Surfers’ live performances had become the stuff of legend: travelling freakshows of epilepsy-inducing strobe lights, home-made pyrotechnics, and gratuitous nudity, with unsettling films including footage of a penis-reconstruction operation projected behind the band.

With crude drawings in place of song titles, their next album was no less sordid. Recorded in a proper studio, Hairway to Steven (1988) began with 12 minutes of pitch-shifted, distorted mania, yet revealed a gentler, almost pastoral side to the group, with catchier songs, acoustic guitars, and Haynes singing in a pleasant Texan drawl that hadn’t been heard much since “Hey” from the first EP. Once touring for the album was done, Nervosa, who had originally quit the band in ‘86, left for good due to the strobe-induced seizures she’d begun experiencing. The band released the official bootleg Double Live and the Widowermaker! EP in 1989, before signing a deal with UK indie Rough Trade, for whom they recorded a delightfully irritating cover of Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, which featured on an EP of the same name as well as on the unpronounceable piouhgd in 1991. Lazy and uneven, that album might’ve been an artistic misstep for the Buttholes, but their fortunes were nevertheless on the rise. That year they joined the inaugural line-up of the Lollapalooza festival, while Haynes dingading danged his dangalong linglong on Ministry’s “Jesus Built My Hotrod”, giving the band some much-needed exposure.

Adopting a more polished, streamlined sound, the Butthole Surfers began their most commercially successful era. Capitol Records signed the band and reissued piouhgd in 1992 after Rough Trade folded. Next came their major-label debut proper, Independent Worm Saloon (1993), produced by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and with a guest appearance by Chrome guitarist Helios Creed. A video for the album’s riff-heavy single “Who Was in My Room Last Night?” scored them some MTV play. But its success was eclipsed by their next album, 1996’s Electriclarryland, which yielded a number-one hit in “Pepper”: a dopey but memorable faux hip-hop tune sounding not unlike Beck. The band recorded After the Astronaut in 1998, a noble attempt to recapture their innate oddness and filter it through updated electronica, but Capitol refused to release it. Some of the aborted album’s tracks were remixed and added to a bunch of limp “Pepper” rewrites for what would be their final album, The Weird Revolution (2001), released on Disney subsidiary Surfdog/Hollywood. The band put out the odds-and-sods collection Humpty Dumpty LSD on their own Latino Buggerveil label in 2003, which joined reissues of their first four albums. Toward the end of the decade, the band reunited for some shows, appearing on the bill for the All Tomorrow’s Parties’ Nightmare Before Christmas event curated by the Melvins*  and Mike Patton of Mr. Bungle in 2008. But sadly, the ‘noisy’ new Butthole Surfers material hinted at by Haynes in a 2004 interview for playlouder.com has yet to materialise.

Distilling the ugliest and weirdest strands of psychedelia and post-punk and mixing it with the lumpen heft of seventies rock, the Butthole Surfers influened everyone from alt-rock darlings Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to more idiosyncratic bands like Alice Donut, Ween, Boredoms, and The Flaming Lips. Terrifying and hilarious in equal measure, the Butthole Surfers’ music was the sonic equivalent of the brownest of brown acid. Psychedelic music presents the drug experience as a worthy aeasthetic experience in and of itself. But few bands have made the horror and wonder of a bad trip look and sound like so much fun.


* Paul Leary and Jeff Pinkus would join the Melvins for the 2015 album Hold It In.

VIDEOS

Blind Eye Sees All live concert video (1986) – NSFW

Bar-B-Que Movie short film (1988) – NSFW

A parody of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre starring the Butthole Surfers and directed by Alex Winter, a.k.a. Bill of Bill & Ted fame.

“Hurdy Gurdy Man” video from piouhgd (1991)

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5 thoughts on “BUTTHOLE SURFERS

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