Piss bombs, fire and nudity: the weird and wonderful world of Butthole Surfers

A press shot of butthole surfers

Legends can grow in many ways. In the case of the Butthole Surfers, theirs was forged on the road, where they took auto-destruction to a lurid new level of trippy performance art. “I think we inspired other people to be more debauched,” says bassist Jeff Pinkus. “At a show at the Danceteria in New York there were piss bombs, there was glitter, fire, nudity, fake penetration – possibly real penetration – and screwdrivers mixing with monitor wedges. A lot of aggression came out that night, a lot of emotions. It was a brown rainbow.”

That night at the Danceteria, in early 1986, the band made it through only five songs before the entire gig blew up in a maelstrom of feedback, flames, flashing strobes, film projections and thick dry ice. Plus the spectacle of naked frontman Gibby Haynes and dancer Kathleen Lynch appearing to hump each other in front of the drum riser. This may have been extreme by Butthole Surfers standards (certainly the onstage sex, simulated or otherwise), but not overly so.

“We’d asked ourselves what we wanted to see from a rock band, something that nobody else was doing,” guitarist Paul Leary explains. “We were influenced by psychedelic bands so we wanted strobes. Soon we had shotguns, walls of strobe lights and movies showing penis reconstruction. It just seemed like a kick in the ass to do. It helped that there was no message we were trying to convey. It was all kinda nihilistic.”

This sense of delinquent mayhem also extended to the band’s off-stage conduct. “It was just a party every night,” Leary says. “Gibby was definitely our ringleader. We would go into a new town every day, raise as much hell as we wanted, get to drink beer for free, act like lunatics, make a big mess and then move on to the next town.”

Similarly, there were no half measures when it came to their music. The Surfers took elements of punk, metal, psychedelia and experimental noise to create a misfit rock governed only by chaos and fortuity. Their songs could be terrifying, brutal, brilliant, funny, dark and downright weird. Sometimes all at once. And while the majority of 80s indiedom tended towards either fey guitar-pop or post-hardcore rigour, Butthole Surfers offered a lifeline to the open-ended expressionism of the late 60s. Factor in a love of tape manipulation and sampled effects and they sounded like nothing else around, especially on anything-goes triumphs like Locust Abortion Technician and Rembrandt Pussyhorse.

Given the anarchic nature of their recorded output and the trail of carnage they’ve left behind on tour, it’s difficult to reconcile Butthole Surfers with their straight-laced beginnings. Haynes and Leary first met in 1977, when both were studying at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. “Gibby was the guy with the punk haircut and the leather jacket at university,” recalls Leary. “I got together with him and we discovered we liked the same kind of music: Black Flag, Suicide, Dead Kennedys, that kind of stuff.”

As a pre-echo of the Surfers’ transgressive humour and fondness for dallying at the threshold of acceptable taste, the pair created Strange V.D., a magazine dedicated to curious medical ailments, complete with comic text. Haynes’s accountancy career ended when his bosses found one of the magazine’s pages in the company printer.

By then, though, he and Leary had already formed the first incarnation of what would become Butthole Surfers.

“We’d go over to our drummer’s house in the evening and start rehearsing,” says Leary. “Gibby would usually get off work late at the accountancy firm, stumble into practice in his suit and tie, and immediately start stripping down to his boxer shorts while we were playing. That’s how it got incorporated into our live show. We’d play until the police came and turned the power off.”

Leary insists there was no great plan when it came to the Surfers. Rather, following a gig with The Minutemen in 1982, they simply decided to drive their van to San Francisco and cast their fate to the wind.

“We made it as far as the Bay Bridge, but our van broke down at the top,” he remembers. “So we coasted down the bridge, not knowing where we were going, took the first exit and came to a stop in front of this building. Then we noticed that there were punk rockers loading musical equipment inside, so we started loading our gear in too. We bellyached until they told us we could play three songs that night. It turned out that the Dead Kennedys showed up, and [DK mainman] Jello Biafra offered us a record deal. We literally coasted into it with a broken engine. It was bizarre how things fell into place.”

Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label released the Surfers’ debut EP in the summer of ’83. It was a fitting introduction to the crazed absurdity of Butthole Surfers’ world, from The Shah Sleeps In Lee Harvey’s Grave to the crude scatology of The Revenge Of Anus Presley. Kurt Cobain listed the record in his top ten albums of all time.

The band moved on to Touch And Go Records the following year to record their first full-length album, Psychic… Powerless… Another Man’s Sac, which heralded the arrival of the twin drummer set-up of King Coffey and Teresa Nervosa.

Fuelled by a steady diet of weed, beer and acid, Butthole Surfers were quickly earning a reputation as a spectacular touring unit. On stage, Coffey and Nervosa both stood behind their kits as they hammered out savage rhythms, Leary’s psychotic guitar blare was mirrored by his unnerving gaze, and Haynes was the yowling provocateur out front, goading the audience and venue officials with acts of pyromania – when he wasn’t setting fire to his hand, he was striking an upturned cymbal full of rubbing alcohol and watching mushroom fireballs leap into the air.

“Then he began shooting a shotgun off at shows, and the fire department started turning up at sound-checks,” says Leary. “The weird thing was they’d arrest our dancer for being naked, but they didn’t mind the shotgun or the flames.”

Butthole Surfers in 2011: (l-r) Jeff Pinkus, Gibby Haynes, Paul Leary, King Coffey

Butthole Surfers in 2011: (l-r) Jeff Pinkus, Gibby Haynes, Paul Leary, King Coffey

The Surfers’ notoriety spread quickly to Europe. At Holland’s Pandora Festival in October 1985, Leary recalls: “Gibby had drunk a bottle of whisky and ended up heaving chairs into the audience. Next thing I knew, Gibby was naked and fighting with all the bouncers. He almost fell to his death. I picked up a newspaper the next day and there was a picture of him with that bottle of whisky. It created a sensation, so I guess that reputation followed us to London. When we played the Mean Fiddler, the crowd rushed the barricades and all of a sudden it was a riot. They brought in police and dogs and stuff.”

Jeff Pinkus joined the madhouse that was Butthole Surfers in late ’85, prior to the recording of Locust Abortion Technician.

“I was only eighteen when I did my first show,” he says. “For three years there were five of us and a dog, sleeping on people’s floors, being sick all the time. People think it’s weird to take acid every day, but when we lived like we did, that was the only thing that made it normal. Some of the best days I’ve ever had were the result of waking up and taking sleeping pills.”

Even a major-label deal didn’t alter their lifestyle or creative process, despite Capitol’s insistence that John Paul Jones be brought in as producer to shape 1993’s Independent Worm Saloon into something more palatable for a rock audience.

“I’d been messing around in the back room of my house and recorded a lot of guitar that ended up on that album,” says Leary. “So our working methods didn’t really change a whole lot, other than the fact we had a budget and the bass player from Led Zeppelin.

“He was a lot of fun. We showed up at the studio and John Paul Jones and I discovered we liked the same brand of whisky, so we ordered a bottle of sixteen-year-old Lagavulin Scotch and drank it. The next day they brought two bottles and we drank those. They kept doubling the number of bottles. We ended up drinking until six o’clock every morning. I believe he quit drinking altogether after that.”

The only thing that could undo Butthole Surfers, it transpired, was their own success. In 1996 they scored a Top 40 album with the more streamlined Electriclarryland, helped by a hit single, Pepper. The band found themselves on heavy rotation on MTV and, along with the likes of Radiohead and Garbage, on the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s film Romeo + Juliet.

“When we signed to Capitol, they didn’t have a clue what to suggest or demand,” Leary says. “That was until we had a gold record and a hit. All of sudden people were lining up around the block, telling us what to do. Having a hit single was not a whole lot of fun.”

A dispute with the label left a proposed new album, After The Astronaut, in limbo. Then came the Surfers’ acrimonious split from their manager. Finally, in 2001, the Astronaut recordings were salvaged for Weird Revolution, a belated sequel to Electriclarryland.

It was an experience that left deep scars. The band split up soon after, each member going their separate way. Gibby Haynes And His Problem were formed in 2004, while Leary combined a new band, Carny, with production work.

The first of several sporadic reunions took place in 2008, but Butthole Surfers seemed over, as a creative entity at least. An unexpected return at Houston’s Day For Night festival last December was their first show for five years. Then came the announcement that the Surfers were due to play the Safe As Milk bash in Prestatyn, Wales in April this year, but the event was cancelled. Hwowever, it’s not the end of the Surfers’ tale…

“We’ve got a couple of interested labels, and the goal is to record a new album this summer,” Leary reveals. “I realise that we’re middle-aged men now, but we’re gonna do it, because that’s what we do. Making Weird Revolution was a gut‑wrenching process, and it put us out of commission for a long time. It was such a painful thing to go through that it’s taken sixteen years to get over it. Now I figure we have a shot at going back and doing things the way we want. It’s time to try it again.”

Weird Revolutions

A Butthole Surfers playlist

Lady Sniff - Psychic… Powerless… Another Man’s Sac, 1984

Post-Beefheart blues with a twisted grin, complete with heavy guitar, snapping bass and Haynes indulging his fondness for tape manipulation. Cue a coarse volley of bizarro sounds (phlegm, farts, burps, vomit) and absurd lyrical utterances. Altogether now: “Bernie, bring me my bacon!”

Creep In The Cellar - Rembrandt Pussyhorse, 1986

Taken from perhaps their most experimental record, this disquieting exercise in crawling dread features sombre piano and backwards violin (the result of the Surfers recording over an old country & western tape and accidentally leaving it in). They reprised the song, in heavily distorted form, on album closer In The Cellar.

Sweat Loaf - Locust Abortion Technician, 1987

Leary borrows the riff from Black Sabbath’s Sweet Leaf and makes it squeal with malevolent intent, while Haynes grabs a megaphone and unleashes a stream of effects-laden Gibbytronix over the top. Its churning physicality proved to be a foreshadow of grunge.

Human Cannonball - Locust Abortion Technician, 1987

This schizoid rant showcases not only the Surfers’ undervalued gift for melody, but also Haynes’s debt to the post-punk vocalese of John Lydon or Jello Biafra. The protagonist’s tale (cut to the bone by a reproachful lover) spurts forth over the tribal thump of drummers Coffey and Nervosa.

Jimi - Hairway To Steven, 1988

Extreme noise terror on a disturbing scale, as Haynes veers between frightened child and demonic presence over an avant-rock jam that takes up the majority of the song’s 12-plus minutes. It finally subsides into an acoustic ambient piece featuring birdsong and sheep. “God almighty, what were we thinking?” Leary says today.

Who Was In My Room Last Night? - Independent Worm Saloon, 1993

Produced by Led Zep’s John Paul Jones, this deeply paranoid vision (‘The pounding on my window’s just the pounding in my head,’ Haynes bemoans) is roughed up by Leary’s great metal riff. The track made it onto both Guitar Hero II and an episode of Beavis And Butt-head.

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