Surf­ing the sound wave

Grunge pi­o­neers the But­t­hole Surfers are back af­ter a long re­treat. Surfer-in-chief Gibby Haynes tells Kevin Court­ney about wak­ing up from a rock’n’roll coma

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

GIBBY Haynes is wan­der­ing around Am­s­ter­dam in a daze. It’s late af­ter­noon, and the leader of the Texan punk-psy­che­delic noise ter­ror­ists But­t­hole Surfers is try­ing to get his head to­gether in time for an evening show. It’s the first date on the band’s first Euro­pean tour in years, and Haynes is start­ing to feel the fear creep­ing up on him.

Gibby’s cell­phone rings. It’s some guy from an Ir­ish pub­li­ca­tion, the Thicket or some­thing, and he’s bab­bling on about how great it is that the But­t­holes are back to­gether and how ex­cited ev­ery­body is about their up­com­ing con­cert in Vicar Street next Thurs­day. Bet­ter hu­mour the guy.

“Awe­some!” barks Gibby in a cigarette­scrap­ing drawl.

And you’ve got the full clas­sic line-up back, ex­claims the jour­nal­ist, in­clud­ing key founder-mem­ber Paul Leary, who is join­ing the band for their Euro­pean dates. Must have been hard work try­ing to get the whole gang back to­gether.

“It wasn’t re­ally that dif­fi­cult,” de­murs Gibby. “It just sorta hap­pened – it wasn’t re­ally planned, y’know, so by virtue of that, it was with great ease.” In fact, it was sur­pris­ing how eas­ily it all came to­gether. When Haynes, bassist Jeff Pinkus and drum­ming duo King Cof­fey and Teresa Tay­lor re­con­vened for some small gigs around the US east coast ear­lier this year, they were amazed to find that, in­stead of boo­ing them off the stage, the fans clam­oured for more. Be­fore they knew it, a Euro­pean tour was booked, and gui­tarist Paul Leary, the last piece in the jig­saw, was slot­ted in for the Euro­pean dates.

Up to re­cently, things had been omi­nously quiet around But­t­hole man­sions. The band haven’t re­leased any new ma­te­rial since 2001’s Weird Revo­lu­tion, apart from a com­pi­la­tion of stu­dio out-takes and a rere­lease of their first two Al­ter­na­tive Ten­ta­cles EPs, but fans haven’t forgotten one of the most in­flu­en­tial and out-there al­ter­na­tive bands of

the past 20 years – al­though many were won­der­ing if the But­t­holes had surfed right off the face of the earth.

But how could you for­get a band that spe­cialised in cre­at­ing huge waves of tripped­out, mu­ti­lated noise on such al­bums as Lo­cust Abor­tion Tech­ni­cian, Elec­triclar­ry­land and Hair­way to Steven, and whose chaotic live shows fea­tured a wild-eyed Haynes hol­ler­ing ma­ni­a­cally through a bull­horn, two drum­mers pound­ing hell out of their kits, a naked dancer named Kath­leen Lynch and rit­ual dis­mem­ber­ment of stuffed toy an­i­mals? When But­t­hole Surfers took to the stage with their crazy hair, spazzed-out gui­tars and vin­tage elec­tronic ef­fects, any­thing could hap­pen. And tonight, in Am­s­ter­dam, it seems the un­pre­dictabil­ity fac­tor is still there.

“Well, this is the first night of th­ese shows in Europe and ev­ery­thing’s a lit­tle bit dis­or­gan­ised right now. But it’ll be cool – we’re rock­ing.” The band may no longer be the same young mis­fits out to shock and out­rage de­cent Amer­i­cans, but they still have the urge to freak out on­stage – al­though age may cur­tail some of Gibby’s more outré on­stage an­tics. Th­ese days, the band are more con­cerned with just get­ting through the set-list, get­ting the old songs right, and try­ing to sound as fresh as a quar­ter-cen­tury old band can sound.

To this end, the band have re­cruited the Paul Green School of Rock All-Stars, a crack squadron of teenage mu­sic stu­dents, to keep them on their toes. At this stage in his ca­reer, Haynes must feel like an elder states­man of al­ter­na­tive rock, a bat­tle-scarred band vet­eran im­part­ing his wis­dom to a new gen­er­a­tion of snotty young


“We cer­tainly feel older, I don’t know about the wiser part,” he cack­les. Still, it must be heart­en­ing to know there’s still some love out there for the But­t­holes – per­haps the pos­i­tive re­ac­tion may spur the band to re­lease a brand new album, and per­haps fi­nally get the recog­ni­tion for their in­flu­ence on a gen­er­a­tion of grunge­heads and postrock­ers.

“We re­ally haven’t con­sid­ered that,” says Gibby. “Y’know, I ques­tion the wis­dom of mak­ing any new record­ings, but it’s still a pos­si­bil­ity. We said we wouldn’t sub­ject an au­di­ence to a bunch of new ma­te­rial, though. We’re not gonna be play­ing all our songs, of course, but we will be play­ing a whole bunch of them, and since we’ve got this par­tic­u­lar group, it’s gonna be a lot of the ear­lier tunes.”

Ask­ing Gibby to name his favourite But­t­holes album, how­ever, is like ask­ing an old hippy to re­call his favourite act at Wood­stock. “Dude, I can’t even re­mem­ber any of the album ti­tles. I don’t even know what you’re talk­ing about.” At the height of their no­to­ri­ety, the But­t­hole Surfers were out to win the Grammy for most f***ed-up band around. They were formed in San An­to­nio, Texas by col­lege bud­dies Haynes and Paul Leary, both of whom shared a taste for all things weird, bizarre and down­right taste­less.

Haynes was on the fast-track to a ca­reer in ac­count­ing, but de­cided, sen­si­bly enough, to pub­lish a fanzine fea­tur­ing pho­tos of nasty med­i­cal con­di­tions in­stead. The band signed to Al­ter­na­tive Ten­ta­cles, the la­bel owned by Jello Bi­afra of The Dead Kennedys, and be­gan their long, glo­ri­ous de­scent into the sonic cesspit. The name alone got them banned from clubs, venues and ra­dio and TV sta­tions, but their fan base grew as word spread about their wild live shows and in­no­va­tive, drone-punk sound.

Play­ing a slowed-down, grind­ing style of punk with dirty great swirls of psy­che­delic ef­fects, the But­t­holes have been cred­ited with spawn­ing grunge. Kurt Cobain was a huge fan; also big into the But­t­holes was Led Zep­pelin bassist John Paul Jones, who pro­duced their In­de­pen­dent Worm Sa­loon album.

As the band’s fan base grew, their rep­u­ta­tion for par­ty­ing harder than any­one else in the galaxy grew too. They bought a ranch in Drift­wood, near Austin, Texas, and this be­came the band’s cult-like com­pound, where they wrote, recorded, par­tied, made gonzo hor­ror movies and gen­er­ally fright­ened the lo­cals.

They tasted main­stream suc­cess in the 1990s when they signed to Capi­tol Records, hit­ting the Bill­board charts with Elec­triclar­ry­land, and get­ting their songs played on the sound­track to Romeo + Juliet and Es­cape from LA. It all pe­tered out even­tu­ally, but the But­t­holes never re­ally broke up – they just slipped into a rock’n’roll coma.

“I think that would be a fair de­scrip­tion,” agrees Gibby. “If the en­tity of But­t­hole Surfers were a per­son, then I’d say yeah, But­t­hole Surfers has been in a coma for sev­eral years.” What brought them back to life, how­ever, Gibby can’t say. But whether it’s the devil mak­ing him do it, or whether his move to Brook­lyn, with its lively band scene, has reawak­ened the rock beast inside, Gibby knows one thing for sure – it’s now gone be­yond his con­trol.

“This was re­ally a get-to­gether by ac­ci­dent. It’s pretty fun, it’s cool. Tonight, though, it’s gonna be hellish. It’s gonna be hellish.

“Y’know, we’re a lot older – I don’t know if we’re gonna be as dan­ger­ous as we used to be, but we’ll try our best. Th­ese days, the only thing we can man­age is play­ing our mu­sic. That’s all we can do right now.”

Re­united and noisy as ever: The But­t­hole Surfers play in Philadel­phia last month. Be­low: Haynes in ac­tion

Pho­to­graph: Arnold Brower

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