Buttholes Open Up! A Quickie Interview With The Surfers

In the entire history of Rock Pageantry, I’m not sure there has ever been a complete audio-visual mindfuck that compares to the Butthole Surfers when they’re firing on all cylinders. I had my first hit in 1987, right at the point where they introduced a nude dancer, rubbing-alcohol pyrotechnics and a movie projector – loaded with films of car accidents and genital surgery – to to the smoke machine and strobe lights they’d bought a year earlier. The sensory experience they extracted from these dime-store props, in combination with the grotesque psychedelic assault of the music, melted down any existing notions I had about the full potential of Punk Rock.

But even then, they stood apart. While they mostly played punk venues and had a punk audience, they offered a range of possibilities that went far beyond the monotone likes of Wasted Youth. They had an equal and opposing element of Acid Rock that demanded a variety of sounds, because every good Acid album has to have quiet parts and loud parts, a variety of speeds and textures, because you’re not stuck in a spot, you’re on a Trip. They were one of the few bands to embrace studio techniques and build a home studio to allow endless experimentation, twisting elements beyond recognition. Songs like “Negro Observer”, “Roky” and “X-Ray Of A Girl” revealed a pastoral side, a skill with musical qualities besides ugliness.

But when they wanted to make it ugly, boy, there was None More Ugly. I saw them five times between 1987 and 1989, and saw people run screaming for their lives at every one of those shows. The only exception was the very first one, in Cincinnati, where I had to run screaming for my life, giving up the front-row position I’d spent two hours defending, because Gibby Haynes had set the carpet on fire and the fumes were making me lose consciousness. I can still see it in my head, the band moving out of view as my legs buckled and I slipped lower and lower, hanging onto the railing, with this whirlwind of lysergic noise taking over everything, and just as I got too low to see their heads anymore, Gibby sent another fireball shooting toward the ceiling. I thought I might be dying. Six or seven of us were hanging onto that railing for dear life until we got close enough to the floor to find some oxygen and recover.

It’s a sign of the times that this kind of extremity is now considered harmless enough to put on the streets at Sunset Junction, or maybe just a sign that some peoples’ memory of the Butthole Surfers is a lot different from mine. If you only knew them as the band with the video about an avalanche coming down the mountain – a number one hit at Texas strip clubs in the summer of ’96 according to drummer King Coffee – it might seem perfectly natural. They really did have potential outside of punk rock, and their brief embrace by the mainstream in the Lollapalooza era was fascinating to observe. If they lost some of the ferocity of their earlier work, they gained the chance to infect the culture on a wide scale, and they weren’t necessarily bad as an alt-pop act.

Though the band haven’t made any new music in years, they have periodically gotten together for live shows which primarily draw from their eighties records. The destructive visuals have been toned down a notch, though the film projectors are still in use, and they’re still playing well and given the unassailable repertoire, we can’t recommend it enough. I’m thinking of riding the Hammer if I can get into it right at the moment they start “100 Million People Were Dead.”

We’re not sure which band member answered the following questions via email, but thank the group for their kind indulgence to our inquiries, the results of which are posted below.

You’ll be playing amidst a great deal of street food. What items would be featured in the Butthole Surfers’ dream food court?

fish tacos

Which of the carnival rides are you most looking forward to riding?

there are rides?

The idea of the Butthole Surfers playing on a public street in the presence of impressionable senior citizens – or even putting the band’s full name on the advertising – would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Is the fact that you can get away with it now a sign of social progress?

Are you sure there will be any senior citizens wondering around this street fair in SIlverlake? Are there even any people living above 60? Would you call me a senior citizen?

What still surprises you when you play shows these days?

that people still come to see us.

Have you ever approached Roky Erickson to sing the song you named in his honor on Hairway to Steven?

hmmm.

 

The Butthole Surfers perform at Sunset Junction Street Fair on Saturday, August 27. Tickets, $25 at the gate, $20 in advance from Flavorus. 

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