“I USED TO SAY that as soon as we have a gold record, that’s certainly one of the signs of the Apocalypse that David Koresh was looking for.” King Coffey, the drummer for Austin’s Butthole Surfers, is pondering his band’s unlikely success. “Something is definitely wrong with society when the Butthole Surfers become popular.”
Before you take cover from the fire and brimstone, be assured that the Butthole Surfers have not yet snagged a gold record, a certification that requires a band to sell 500,000 copies of an album. But their 1993 release, Independent Worm Saloon, did sell in the neighborhood of 300,000 copies, and they’ve just released the long-awaited follow-up, Electric larryland, which by all rights should improve on that figure. So, yeah, it would seem that something is definitely wrong with society.
Need more evidence? In 1983 the Butthole Surfers were a cult act whose songs were profane, sonically violent, charmingly titled ditties like “The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey’s Grave” and “Bar-B-Q Pope.” Thirteen years later, they’ve actually achieved a sort of elder statesmen status in the underground rock scene, complete with critical approval, respect from bigger-name bands, and the requisite major-label deal. Once, it would have been inconceivable for an obscure, transgressively noisy band like the Butthole Surfers to sign a deal with Capitol Records, best known as the home of the Beatles and Ol’ Blue Eyes. Nowadays, in the post-Nirvana era, it would be inconceivable for a popular, cutting-edge band like the Buttholes not to merit major-label attention.
Then, if you haven’t already noticed, there’s the matter of the name. When the Butthole Surfers started out, club promoters refused to put the words “Butthole Surfers” on their marquees, and newspaper ads plugged concerts by a group called “the BH Surfers.” Now the Butthole Surfers’ name appears everywhere, from MTV to Vanity Fair. In fact, you’ve already encountered the offending word couplet three times in this very paragraph about the Butthole Surfers. (Whoops, make that four.) “I don’t know what we were thinking,” guitarist Paul Leary says of the name. “I don’t think we were thinking—that was the problem.” On the other hand, one thing the Butthole Surfers have always been known for is the impressive collection of would-be tags that were just as off-putting as the one they chose, among them Nine Foot Worm Makes Own Food, Ashtray Babyheads, and Ed Asner’s Gay.
Have we mentioned that something is definitely wrong with society? Of course, that’s what everyone said when Elvis got big. But in the eighties, it took more than R&B influences and a suggestive hip shake to violate pop culture’s shock threshold, and the Butthole Surfers were up to the task. With grating, incomprehensible vocals, slicing guitar screeches, and unforgiving rhythmic bludgeons, the band brought together punk, Texas psychedelia, and just about everything but—well, actually, everything including the kitchen sink. “[The] Buttholes don’t descend into the depths of squalor to make a point about the human condition,” observes The Trouser Press Record Guide, the bible of alternative rock. “They just like it down there.”
Beyond the mind-expanding sound, there were the live shows, which packaged the noise as the soundtrack to an acid-fried sideshow featuring a dancing naked woman, drums set aflame with lighter fluid, and bloody car-wreck movies. For good measure, singer Gibby Haynes would fire off the occasional shotgun blast.
The aural and visual theatrics—as well as, admittedly, the novelty value of its name—won the band a sizable following, but in the bigger picture the Buttholes were still Ulysses in a sea of Jonathan Livingston Seagulls. Then, as the nineties began, the commercial imperatives of the music business changed. With the success of alternative acts like R.E.M. and Jane’s Addiction, the big record companies started paying attention to bands they wouldn’t have before. And the Buttholes changed too. It’s a fact of life that no matter how deliberately bizarre a band might be, funny things happen if its members stay together long enough: They learn to play their instruments, figure out how to use the recording studio more advantageously, and acquire an appreciation for more finely delineated song structures. Just before signing with Capitol in 1991, the Buttholes did a suitably swirly but palatable cover of Donovan’s “The Hurdy Gurdy Man.” On Independent Worm Saloon there are pretty fair impressions of streamlined rock riffing and jaunty acoustic folk. And Electric larryland is surely their most accessible record—loose and wickedly whimsical but with a satisfying surplus of memorable hooks and solid grooves. “That’s what happens when you get old and tired,” says Leary, who is 38 and the only married Butthole.
Although it would be nice to think that the Butthole Surfers began in an alley or sewer somewhere, the seeds of the group were actually planted at Trinity University in San Antonio, where Leary was majoring in finance and Haynes studied accounting and economics. Leary, a San Antonio native whose parents were schoolteachers (to spare them the embarrassment, he doesn’t use their last name), remembers Haynes as the school freak. But at the same time, the tall, manic rock-star-to-be was something of a big man on campus, a fact of life he has grown tired of recalling—especially to interviewers. “Yeah, I was the captain of the basketball team, president of the fraternity, president of the student art committee, and accounting student of the year my senior year,” 38-year-old Haynes says impatiently. “All of that stuff is true.” It’s also true that his father, Jerry, is Mr. Peppermint, the popular Dallas-area children’s TV host; Gibby often appeared on the show as a tyke.
Coffey, for his part, was born in Midland but spent his formative years in Fort Worth. After his parents divorced, he went to live with his dad, who worked as a paint salesman. “It was like The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” he allows. As an acolyte, Coffey had but a single epiphany, which turned out to be more than enough: While flinging the incense at a church service one Sunday, he looked straight into the eyes of Christ and thought, “Wow, I don’t even believe in God!” Graduating early from high school, he fled to Austin, the only town in Texas where heretics and heathens roam freely. He has lived there ever since, though he spends some time at the Zen Center in San Francisco, where he mops floors, chops vegetables, and enjoys the psychic distance from the world of rock and roll.
Coffey, who is 31, was a late addition to the group. At first it was just Haynes and Leary, who went from schoolmates to creative partners by manufacturing a line of T-shirts and pillowcases featuring the graven image of Lee Harvey Oswald. They wandered out to California, sold their products in Venice Beach, and soaked up the seminal punk rock of the time, notably the music of Black Flag. It was the early eighties, a time when punk was truly for the disenfranchised, when bands toured in broken-down vans and played for no money in front of small but passionate audiences.
Thus inspired, Haynes and Leary moved to Austin and started gigging around town under a variety of names. One night, on a whim, they were announced as the Butthole Surfers, and for the first time there was $125 waiting for them at the end of the set. They took it as an omen. Unfortunately, Haynes recalls, “it was six years before we got paid $125 again,” but an odyssey had begun. The band made two records (Butthole Surfers and Live PCPPEP) for the Alternative Tentacles label. Along the way they picked up Coffey and co-drummer Teresa Taylor (better known as the purveyor of Madonna’s pap smear in Slacker). They hit the road and didn’t come back. “We lived out of the van for, gosh, a good number of years,” Coffey says. “We’d eat at Taco Bell. We’d go through other people’s cigarette butts to try and make one complete cigarette, and find empty beer bottles to get the deposits back on them so we could get our own beer.”
Eventually, they began to draw crowds. From 1985 to 1990 the Butthole Surfers were a rare breed—an independent, uncommercial band that could actually make a living on tour. Working with the small Chicago label Touch and Go, they got to the point where they could sell 100,000 records, which is better than gold in the indie world. Their musical sensibility continued to expand, incorporating any number of idioms: folk, heavy metal, art rock. And while that was happening, the money got good enough that the band was able to put life-in-the-van behind and get a house in Driftwood, a tiny town half an hour from Austin. “We had a strange existence,” Leary says. “We boarded up the place to where no light would get in, and we slept on pieces of plywood hanging from the ceiling.” And the Driftwood house doubled as a recording studio—particularly the most acoustically desirable spot, the bathroom. “We took what we did very seriously from the beginning, as far as trying to do something creative,” Coffey says. “Even if it’s the most retarded piece of s— in the world, there’s an element of creativity.”
Obviously, Capitol Records agreed, though practical considerations really drove the deal for both sides. When an independent band sells 100,000 copies of a record, it’s difficult to go any further without the muscle of a major label, which can physically put CDs in stores and exercise greater clout with radio stations, the press, and MTV. At the same time, a major label looks at six-figure record sales and sees a band that already has an audience to build on. And regardless of their commercial potential, the Butthole Surfers were a prestige signing. Along with Sonic Youth and Minutemen founder Mike Watt, the Buttholes were granddaddies of the punk scene. They outlived everyone and sounded like no one. They weren’t a band that came along in the wake of Nirvana—they were a band that influenced Nirvana.
At the same time that they struck the deal with Capitol, the Buttholes inaugurated the Lollapalooza Tour, sharing the stage with Jane’s Addiction, punk icon Henry Rollins, and the then relatively unknown Nine Inch Nails. As if all that mainstream success weren’t weird enough, the producer they landed for Independent Worm Saloon was John Paul Jones, formerly of Led Zeppelin. Once again they hit the road, but by this time they had an actual tour bus, and for much of the trip they shared a bill with those college-rock darlings, the Stone Temple Pilots.
Now, finally, comes Electric larryland, a record that brought the Buttholes back to basics. When formal recording sessions in Woodstock, New York, left them unsatisfied, they headed back to Austin and started making things up on the spot again—only this time they camped out in a couple of studios instead of searching for the nearest lavatory. By the time they got it right, they’d struck a balance of focus, imagination, and accident. They even stumbled on a single, “Pepper,” a bit of bluesy hip-hop that is infectious enough to have real hit potential, though the band is too smart and too experienced to care if it does; they know that in today’s world, everything is popular and everything is evanescent. “I turn on my cable box and I do not see one person who does not become, instantly, a fool when shown on MTV,” Haynes says.
If the Buttholes happen to get big, fine, but if they don’t, they could probably go on forever just the way they always have. Or they could pack it in. These days, each member of the band has crafted a life apart from the others. Coffey runs the flourishing independent label Trance Syndicate (home to Austin legend Roky Erickson and up-and-comers Sixteen Deluxe and Starfish), while Leary is a hot producer who helped Arizona’s Meat Puppets score a gold record. And Gibby is always busy being Gibby, whether he’s doing his share of substance-fueled cavorting, painting, playing with pal Johnny Depp in his side band P, or working as a disc jockey, as he did last year at Austin’s 101-X, where he routinely referred to the station’s playlist on the air as “puke chunks.”
Leary, for one, sounds pretty close to the end. Having done enough touring for several lifetimes, he’d be happy if he never saw the inside of a tour bus again. “Don’t get me wrong—I love the Butthole Surfers. I love everything we did. But I’m tired of the band,” he says in an emphatic tone only partly blunted by a guffaw. “I always used to kid that I was in it for the money. But now, I really am only in it for the money.”