Butthole Surfers remain on the precipice

At the Butthole Surfers' triumphant Austin homecoming in September, Gibby Haynes stripped out of his custom-designed T-shirts, one layer at a time. The iconoclastic vocalist's white Ts revealed different hand-written slogans, each more absurd than the last. "Urine." "Hockey cunt." "Legalize murder." By the time the band polished off a searing rendition of "Creep in the Cellar" from 1986's Rembrandt Pussyhorse, Haynes was down to his final shirt, which simply stated "Fuck the Man," with an arrow pointed directly to his crotch.

From day one, the Butthole Surfers captured adolescence as reflected through a house of mirrors, their music a shameless celebration of impulsive tomfoolery and hormonal urges. The reunion of the band's classic line-up — rounded out by bassist Jeff Pinkus, guitarist Paul Leary, and drummers King Coffey and Teresa Nervosa (born Teresa Taylor) — for the first time in nearly two decades has proven that the Buttholes' lowbrow theatrics have, if anything, only improved with time. Over the course of 90 minutes, they spurred a vivid acid flashback of glorious noise and plangent psychedelia with vintage cuts like "I Saw an X-Ray of a Girl Passing Gas" and "The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey's Grave."

For Leary, who founded the group with Haynes in San Antonio in 1983, old habits die hard. "I've never thought of it as a reunion, mainly because we never really parted ways," he says with a smile of the new shows over coffee at his Austin home. "I think we made it over that hump, so that we are too washed-up and too old to be cool now."

Butthole Surfers: Pure Texas psychedelia.
Hunter Barnes
Butthole Surfers: Pure Texas psychedelia.

At their peak in the mid-to-late '80s, the Butthole Surfers were a traveling freak show of reactionary avant-garde expressionism, a hemorrhaging mutation of Texas-psych, crude experimentation, and depraved heavy metal. More invasive than a cavity search, the band's live performances often blurred the distinction between performance art and spirit-possession ceremonies, propelled by seismic beats from Coffey and Nervosa.

After scoring an unexpected hit with the warped whodunit "Pepper" from 1996's Electriclarryland, the Buttholes' intended follow-up, After the Astronaut, was scrapped and subsequently shrouded in legal entanglements with their label, Capitol. Adding to their frustration was a split from longtime manager Tom Bunch and a heated lawsuit with Touch and Go Records over the ownership of their seminal first four LPs. Following several line-up changes, the band's pulse appeared to finally stop beating in 2001, when its eighth studio LP, Weird Revolution, failed to live up to its name.

"It was a really brutal, painful experience, like the band was an albatross around our necks," recalls Leary, who has enjoyed a successful career as a producer and engineer since honing Sublime's eponymous 1996 commercial breakthrough. "I've never listened to the last record. I hated it before it even came out. Then when we went on tour to support it in the wake of 9/11, people weren't in the mood for mayhem and belching explosions and neither was I."

The recent reunion was spurred by the Paul Green School of Rock Music, a program that teaches kids how to become real-life guitar heroes. School staff approached Haynes late last year about leading the institution's Butthole Surfers showcase. A small East Coast jaunt went so surprisingly well that he recruited the rest of the band for a month-long tour on both sides of the Atlantic.

Leary was the last member to climb back on board, and remains overly cautious regarding the longevity of the Butthole Surfers' future. No dates have yet been scheduled for 2009. "We're not shooting a shotgun onstage or setting the stage on fire anymore," he says of the current tour with calm resolve. "It's going to mainly be us playing music again, which is what I always liked. I'm too old. I just don't like the explosions and flames anymore. I'm not angry the way I used to be."

 
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