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The Butthole Surfers Were Drug Fuelled, Insane, Sell-Outs and They Were Brilliant

Read an extract from a new book about the Texas punk reprobates.

by Tim Scott
22 July 2017, 3:47am

The most entertaining chapter of Michael Azerrad's cult book Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981–1991, chronicles Texan punk reprobates the Butthole Surfers. From stories about how the band, led by Gibby Haynes and Paul Leary, moved to Athens, Georgia to stalk R.E.M., to how former President Jimmy Carter picked up his daughter's suitcase that the band had touched with their dicks, it's as much about the band's demented antics and copious drug use as it is their twisted punk.

In the introduction to Life Makes Me Nervous; I Like the Butthole Surfers, a new publication by MoodWar, Sydney writer Max Easton explains that whereas Azzerand's discussion stops when the Surfers signed with a major label and only briefly looks at how their actions were considered "antiethical to the DIY ethos", his zine spends time looking at the band's total willingness to subvert to the point where "even cashing-in was, to them a rebellious act."

The result is an over-arching take on the Surfers' recording career as they developed alongside their contemporaries in the DIY punk movement of the 1980s, and into the shifting ideals of the 90s, where the movement that raised them was co-opted and marketed, surprisingly to their benefit. Easton outlines the band's bent philosophy that eventually placed them so opposed to their peers that suing their indie label was their most defiant statement of all.

Read an extract from Life Makes Me Nervous; I Like the Butthole Surfers and read a short interview with Easton.


Many of the Butthole Surfers punk and hardcore contemporaries were cast as drop-outs, outcasts or low lives, but no band was less desirable than the Butthole Surfers. They lied, cheated, stole, drank and drugged themselves to near death, and don't even have that good a discography to make it worthwhile. But despite being the ultimate fuck-ups (few would go to the dangerous lengths they would to hold onto their vision), they somehow succeeded. In part, this was due to the extraneous factors that people were excited to buy into – the toilet humour, the antics, the complete bizzarity of it all – but a fierce work ethic and a shameless approach to getting what they need got them through.

Their early years came with a mythology of sorts. It had five members living in commune-like environs in the back of a tour van (alongside their pit bull named Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad), collecting bottles for the 5 cent refund, lathering on LSD to deal with the poverty-stricken hunger of constant touring, and weaseling their way onto whatever line-ups they could. They recorded one of the most revolting sequential four records in American history through the mid-80s, with fart noises and induced vomiting a sonic touchstone. For much of their career, they were concerned only with entertaining themselves, and with that came a careening sense of exploration that was informed almost entirely by their own ill-advised and nihilistic outlook on the world. They were acid casualties in the making who at any one time: were beaten to shit by bouncers, fingered or fucked each other on-stage, set their gear on fire, touched their penis to a brief case later held by former US President Jimmy Carter, and idly double-crossed their peers. Their whole being was as exciting as it was mystifying.

Despite this, a cursory look at their career progression will have you ascertain that they were drug-addled, ladder-climbing profiteers, who shut up shop after receiving a hit single ("Pepper" from 1996's Electriclarryland), appeared on the soundtracks to Romeo & Juliet, Escape from L.A., Son in Law, Mission Impossible 2, Phone Booth and Spawn, and at the peak of their powers, sued the indie label that helped make them. They used those proceeds to add to the quality of their drug addlement. They got fat. And before they settled down to live lives as normal human beings, they committed the ultimate punk crime of selling out (imagine making money from your music!) Of course, when the Butthole Surfers finally did sell out, they didn't laugh all the way to the bank so much as they cackled maniacally back and forth at the teller.


Noisey: To be honest I never really 'got' the Butthole Surfers and I feel that I'm not the only one. They seemed too weird/trippy for the punks and too loud/obnoxious for the stoner/acid heads. But perhaps that's part of their charm?

Max Easton: That's definitely the charm for me - I love the idea of them setting out to be too much for that guy in a studded leather vest to handle: it disarms the whole idea. I think they really wanted to be confronting even to those who based their identity around confrontation. They wanted to ramp up the things that had been done to death in the 60s/70s (it's like a horrid version of the Grateful Dead) without falling into just being their generation's version of that. They wanted to be truly unique - for better or worse.

What record do I need to go and listen to properly that will change my mind?

Rembrandt Pussyhorse is my favourite, definitely the weirdest in my mind. Their best is probably Locust Abortion Technician since it represents them at the top of their craft, but if you're of the punk persuasion, maybe starting at the PCPPEP is more welcoming (also, one of the best record titles ever).

They tapped into that freak/weird Texan punk thing that goes back to Big Boys, Stick Men with Rayguns and even Roky Erickson. How much do you think Texas and reacting to Texas played a part in their sound?

Texas would have had to have played a huge part in their becoming so bizarre. I get the feeling that if they started in San Francisco, they'd just be accepted into the fold of the 'wild punk' community, but doesn't being welcomed go completely against the idea of being a weirdo? I feel like that subversive tendency came from feeling so unwelcome in Texas, and maybe it continued to highlight the fact that they didn't fit in. It was about going against everyone for them.

Their mantra is "rock music has gotta be something you hate." Do you think music would be more interesting if more bands took this up?

To some extent. Whenever rock/punk/etc was at its best or most revolutionary, it was sitting right at the edge of what was likeable and what wasn't. Times have changed, so I wouldn't really advocate the Butthole Surfers model for a band now, but I hope that the idea of making something provocative and subversive sits more at the forefront of bands of the underground. Music should be socially responsible, but it shouldn't be driven by social acceptance - the danger of forming a community around something is that people tend to become little versions of a central idea. The Butthole Surfers were so interesting because they refused to be accepted by the 80s punk community, they drove in a direction that was completely against it - music that I find interesting almost always comes from an outlier.

Do you have a fave Gibby or Buttholes story?

It'd be easy to lean towards things like filling a foam tube with urine called 'the piss wand' and spraying it over a crowd, or moving their home base to Athens, Georgia to stalk R.E.M - but those are pretty juvenile. I think the fact that they sued Touch and Go for taking too high a cut of their back catalogue is the most illuminating, and shows where their head was at in the 90s, where they were coming to realise that the whole independent/DIY philosophy only worked if you weren't making money. They weren't purists in that sense, which I think is a huge reason they haven't had that same traction in the re-telling of punk history as your Black Flag's or Minor Threat's.

Is there a reason you followed up a zine about Randy Newman (Barely Human; I Like Randy Newman) with one about the Butthole Surfers? Is there any connection there?

Without really realising it, Barely Human was kind of about following someone's actions as the times changed around them, with Newman going from serious songwriting in the 70s, into being this quirky satirist in the 80s, and then just taking the big bucks to score films. With Life Makes Me Nervous, I started looking at other bands I was obsessed with that no one seemed to really like, and saw that Butthole Surfers also had a trajectory that mirrored the times - from independent whack jobs in the 80s to being co-opted alongside the alt-rock/grunge craze in the 90s. The connection between the two lies in that underdog mentality of self-sabotage, of subverting the world around you until you've kinda lost the plot for your art. Even though they were both 'successful', they're not really known for the best of their music - Randy Newman to most is the Toy Story guy, Butthole Surfers were the band that wrote "Pepper" - there's something interesting in that loss of a legacy too.

'Life Makes Me Nervous; I Like The Butthole Surfers' is available now through MoodWar.

Correction. An earlier version of the interview stated that the Butthole Surfers sued Alternative Tentacles. The label was Touch and Go.