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
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