The story of legendary Texas alt-rock band Butthole Surfers is almost too amazing to believe. Growing up in the late ’80s, I viewed the band as a rock ’n’ roll biker band—like Altamont minus the Rolling Stones and with Hell’s Angels instead onstage, banging instruments into powder. Formed by an San Antonio accountant (Gibby Haynes) and an MBA student (Paul Leary) who together enjoyed publishing magazines devoted to esoteric venereal diseases, the Surfers would go on to create a stunning, if deeply twisted, discography that would deeply influence many musicians—including Kurt Cobain and the Flaming Lips, both of whom borrowed copiously.
From stalking R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe in Athens, Ga., to nearly causing a full-scale riot in Tampa, Fla., during a particularly insane 1986 tour, to having their song “They Came In” included in the Mission: Impossible II soundtrack, the Surfers remain committed to exploring the intersection where black comedy, pharmaceutical madness and experimental art converge. While days (and nights) of drug-fueled extremes are behind them, drummer King Coffey and bassist Jeff Pinkus—each has been in the band since the ’80s—have a perverse interest in playing a Vegas casino. Especially one that served as Britney Spears’ home base during her “dark period.”
“That’s definitely the appeal of this upcoming show,” Coffey admits. “That’s kind of the whole point of the Surfers, which is that we love going into places like the Palms, places where we don’t necessarily seem like an obvious fit. It makes what we do just a bit more fun when we enter unfamiliar terrain. It makes us wonder, for instance: Can the Surfers handle the psychic afflictions of a Vegas casino?”
It has been more than a decade since the Surfers played Vegas—a tiny club Coffey can’t recall the name of—and he doesn’t have much of anything to say about the experience except that “it was just Vegas” and that Haynes—too busy shopping for a lobster to cook to handle a phoner—has many Sin City tales of debauchery.
“Gibby’s stories are like the movie The Hangover,” Pinkus says. “Minus the face tattoos and lions. But human animals are always part of Gibby’s misadventures.”
On the day I’m chatting with Coffey and Pinkus, the death of Amy Winehouse hangs heavy over the conversation. Despite their outlaw status, the Surfers are pop-music fans and consummate collaborators. (Leary produces Sublime with Rome albums; Haynes produced a 2009 Lemonheads record.) So the news isn’t something they can easily brush off. Eventually I ask them to share their thoughts on pop stardom and drugs.
“Look, we’ve been clean since almost the very beginning and we’ve never done any serious drugs,” Coffey says. “Our reputation is way, way overblown. We don’t need drugs to do what we do. Come to the show and see for yourself.”
While the Surfers, who haven’t released an album since 2001’s Weird Revolution, pioneered the psyche-industrial-grind-noise many bands practice today, the Texas quartet wields a sense of good humor their imitators lack. The titles of many Surfers albums—Rembrandt Pussyhorse, Locust Abortion Technician—are like jokes themselves. And the live show? Let’s just say no one has left disappointed.
“Sure, we’re funny, but we take our live shows very, very seriously,” Pinkus says. “Our approach to music is serious, the visual component, too. We have a lot of fun doing it, but the end result is important to us. We always give our best.”
According to Coffey, the plan is to have a cage of female dancers, while tons of visuals are going off. The set list draws heavily from the first four Surfer albums, stopping at Hairway to Steven. (“Those are my favorite records,” Coffey says.) Sadly for the band (and their fans), there’s no time for Hangover-style depravity as there’s a long drive to San Francisco the next day.
“Our booking agent is a complete idiot,” grumbles Coffey, humorously. “We want to enjoy Vegas strippers on our own time. Next tour we’ll make it happen, though.”