It should only stand to reason that any band who would call themselves Butthole Surfers would be masters of irony. But after 15 years and, with Electriclarryland, now 13 releases, the ultimate irony may be how these twisted purveyors of musical mayhem have become pioneers of the current underground music scene.
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It's not anything they set out to become. "We weren't really thinking about things too much," says guitarist Paul Leary of the band's genesis. "I think it was to avoid working at a restaurant washing dishes or working at the lumber yard. We did manage to do that."
They've also managed on Electriclarryland to once again bring their uncompromising vision to recorded fruition. "The band is here first and foremost to amuse ourselves, and we all have a low threshold for boredom," laughs drummer King Coffey.
To wit, Electriclarryland is an even-more dizzying panorama of power chords, musical pranking, conceptual weirdness and all-out rock 'n' roll hysteria than their major label debut, 1993's Independent Worm Saloon. The 1993 record was produced by Led Zepplin's John Paul Jones and yielded the alternative rock hit "Who Was In My Room Last Night?" As Coffey observes, "What I liked about the last record is that it's a mixed bag of tricks, and this is even more of a mixed bag of tricks."
No kidding. The album's first single, "Pepper," mixes modern rock and hip-hop grooves into something only Butthole Surfers could come up with. Amidst echoes of hard rock ("Cough Syrup," "Thermador"), country ("TV Star"), arty Euro-pop ("Let's Talk About Cars") and moments of downright musical damage ("Jingle of a Dog's Collar," "My Brother's Wife"), Electriclarryland also finds these punk scene veterans playing for the first time, of all things, straight-ahead punk rock (on "Birds," "Ulcer Breakout" and "Ah Ha").
"We never played punk rock," explains Coffey. "We were a punk rock band, and played to punk rock audiences, but we never played punk rock music. So it's been a blast. I don't know why we didn't think of doing it earlier."
Butthole Surfers were founded in 1981 by Leary and singer Gibby Haynes, who, at the time, were both students at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Haynes had grown up in Dallas (where his father hosted a popular children's TV show), and was a star accounting and economics student. Leary, a native of San Antonio, had been playing guitar since the age of five, and was studying art and finance (in which he almost earned a masters degree). Despite such seemingly straight-laced academic interests, the two were definite square pegs in a round-hole world.
"Gibby was the weirdest guy at school, so we fell in real well," recalls Leary. "We both liked horrible music. Gibby went out to California one summer and I joined him in Venice for a few weeks, and we made some Lee Harvey Oswald t-shirts and pillowcases and bedspreads and sold them on the beach. Then we just decided that was too much work, and thought maybe music would be easier. His accounting career wasn't blossoming and it didn't look like I was gonna be a very good stockbroker, so we started a band, sold all our possessions, and bought a van and went out to California."
They scammed their way onto a Dead Kennedys bill in San Francisco, impressing singer Jello Biafra enough to get offered a record deal with his Alternative Tentacles label. But by the time they headed back to San Antonio to make the album in early 1983, the band's first rhythm section had bailed. Enter drummer King Coffey, a Ft. Worth native whose band the Hugh Beaumont Experience had opened for Buttholes.
Releasing a succession of albums and EPs on Alternative Tentacles and Touch and Go, "We lived on the road for years," notes Leary. "We didn't have a home." Traveling in a succession of used vehicles and vans (with band mascot Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad, a female pit bull, along to guard the equipment), Buttholes became known for their utterly original recordings, and a live show that might include a painted nude female dancer, film clips of a penis reconstruction and Haynes' penchant for onstage pyromania.
With a name that couldn't be advertised in many newspapers and an unerring knack for skewering most any listener's preconceptions, Buttholes persevered while countless other bands fell by the wayside. "It's hard to find musicians you can identify with, and I really identify with King and Gibby, even though we like completely different kinds of music in our spare time," notes Leary. "We still identify, and 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."
Instead, their raucous experimentalism and Texan rebelliousness made Buttholes critical favorites. Eventually settling into a series of band homes in and around Austin, by the late-1980s, the group had released Pioughd on Rough Trade Records before getting signed to Capitol. Though some observers wondered how these iconoclasts would interface with a major label, the union has only allowed Butthole Surfers greater freedom to pursue their singular vision.
As such, Electriclarryland reflects the band's penchant for bucking the system as part and parcel of their art. The album started with sessions at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, NY with Steve Thompson (whose credits include Metallica, Soundgarden, Anthrax and others) co-producing with the band. "He wanted to take us to the next level up. We always wanna take it to the next level down," laughs Leary, who took over the helm as the band finished the record at Arlyn Studio in Austin.
During the break between albums, all three band members kept themselves busy with other ventures of note. Haynes did a number of months as a nighttime DJ on the Austin alternative rock station 101X, where his outrageousness, verbosity and musical tastes made him the toast of the town. At the same time, Leary has blossomed into a red-hot record producer, working with acts like the Meat Puppets, Supersuckers, Toadies and Bad Livers. And Coffey has helmed his Trance Syndicate into one of the hippest independents labels in the business, working with acts like the Roky Erickson, Bedhead, Starfish, Sixteen Deluxe and Cherubs while also releasing records by his own side project, Drain.
Yet for all their varied interests, there's something about Butthole Surfers that keeps these three players united after all these years. "I don't think any of us really view ourselves as particularly skilled musicians, but we're musicians who fuck around and try stuff," notes Coffey. "Sometimes the things we try are successful, sometimes they're utter failures, but at least we're musicians who try stuff...that we probably shouldn't be doing."
And they intend to keep right on doing that. "What else are we gonna do?" says Leary. "We're tainted--we wear the scarlet letter."
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