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The Last Astronauts

A potbellied pig lies panting in the shade with the words “Get” and “Down” painted on its flanks, waiting for its cameo. A gang of hot jailbait in skimpy black lingerie prance nervously under an adjacent tent, looking like party favors among the mansions of this posh Pasadena neighborhood. Butthole Surfers vocalist Gibby Haynes comes bounding out of the bathroom of the house and ducks into the shade with the rest of the band.

“None of the girls will go in the tub with the pig, man,” he snarls in his low-down Texas drawl. The storyboards for the new Butthole Surfers video, “The Shame of Life,” show a topless girl in a bathtub holding a pig. Haynes grabs a Coke and stands next to two enormous men wearing sweat-soaked business suits and giant squirrel heads. “They‘re all getting hung up on the word willing. The director’s asking if they‘re ’willing‘ to go in the tub, then they’re all going, ‘Uh . . .’ and asking for more money.”

On the playback, a beautiful -- and clothed -- woman suddenly steps into the tub. Someone hands her a live squirrel.

“That‘s the director’s wife,” says new Butthole bassist Nathan Calhoun. The squirrel cavorts in her cleavage.

“She‘s good with that squirrel!” says Butthole guitarist Paul Leary, who co-produced the new album, Weird Revolution, with Hollywood Records label head Rob Cavallo.

Eventually, piggy gets his bath. Meanwhile, the first new Butthole Surfers single in over five years, “The Shame of Life,” which Haynes co-wrote with Kid Rock, gets all over modern-rock radio nationwide like some kind of bad fungus. Which raises the question: What is more dangerous -- the weird with nothing to lose, or the weird with a tiny smidgen of power?

It figured that the Butthole Surfers would get punished for their first taste of success. After championing the funniest, most unholy and most decidedly noncommercial brand of psychedelic Texas hardcore alt-rock for more than 15 years and 12 albums, the band cut the unlikely rap-rock tune “Pepper,” which turned their second major-label release, the 1996 Capitol album Electric Larryland, into a near-platinum hit. While “Pepper” put the Surfers on the map for a generation who may have missed their genre-defying spectacles in the 1980s, it also clashed with the band’s libertarian ethos. “It was the easiest song I ever did,” drummer King Coffey said back then. “I came in, pushed ‘play,’ and out came a hit. That‘s how they do it.”

The Buttholes went back into the studio and turned in their next album, tentatively titled After the Astronaut, in 1998, and immediately fell into a dispute with Capitol. At root were the same issues that left them freaked about “Pepper,” and it took the band three years to wrestle the album away from Capitol and onto HollywoodSurfdog.

While the courts worked their magic, the band kept rewriting and re-recording what was once the Capitol album. The resulting Weird Revolution also includes five new songs, including “The Shame of Life,” which reflects the part of the Butthole Surfers that takes a perverse pleasure in having a song climbing the charts on modern-rock radio. Just having a song on the air is a kind of commentary, considering that you couldn’t even say the name “Butthole Surfers” on the radio five years ago, and still can‘t on some TV programs.

The collaboration with Kid Rock came about when Rock called up to clear a Butthole Surfers sample he wanted to use on an upcoming song. Out in Austin, Haynes played him a few unfinished pieces in his home studio. Rock wrote the guitar line and the chorus, “I like the money and the girls and the shame of life.” Gibby wrote the more cynical retort: “Get down to the level of the restwhere the people on the street put the metal to the test.” By his own estimate, Haynes figures he wrote five-eighths of the song. He was once, after all, Accounting Student of the Year at San Antonio’s Trinity College.

“I‘m always down with collaborating,” says Haynes. “I was dubious when I went to a Kid Rock show, and then I was ashamed afterwards.”

Why?

“Because his shows are so well-timed and well-delivered. I found myself dancing to a cover version of ’We‘re an American Band.’ Like, when the American flags came out, I got all pink and fuzzy and wanted to kill British people.”

The best songs on the album are less pop and more about the band‘s origins in the art-punk scene that nurtured such bands as Sonic Youth or Big Black or Live Skull. “The Last Astronaut,” a holdover from the unreleased Capitol album, is a strangely haunting piece featuring a crackling, lilting piano score broken up by the radio transmissions of an astronaut witnessing the destruction of Earth from outer space. If the lyrics to the excellent title track come off like some kind of manifesto, it’s because they were mostly cribbed from speeches by Malcolm X.

“Originally, it was three different Malcolm X speeches where I substituted ‘normal’ for ‘white’ and ‘weirdo’ for ‘black,’” says Haynes. “It came out decidedly pro-weirdo and anti-normal.”

After contacting the people who market the image of Malcolm X in the afterlife, Haynes was forced to rewrite the lyrics in order to avoid copyright infringement. Still, the piece comes off beautifully strident.

“Malcolm did say that ‘The white man can’t join us, but he can help us,‘” says Haynes. “That’s one thing that he did say.”

Now the strange, morbid fascinations that obsess Gibby Haynes and the Butthole Surfers will once again slip into the mainstream. But do they have more impact there, diluted by the corny crotch grabbing of guys like Rock? Or were they most effective as the painfully intense moments of alienation and terror the band produced in the 1980s?

Take yourself back: The Isis, Pontiac, Michigan, mid-‘80s. After two hours of strobe lights in otherwise total darkness, you’re starting to feel yourself slip in and out of epileptic-like panic. The Butthole Surfers‘ two standup drummers, King Coffee and Theresa Taylor, are pounding out the staccato breaks in “Moving to Florida,” from the 1985 EP Cream Corn From the Socket of Davis. Leary, ripped to the tits on acid, stares at the ceiling while doing choreographed leg kicks with former bassist Jeff Pinkus. Haynes, looking like a redneck thug, with no shirt, the beginnings of a belly hanging over the waist of his jeans and long hair plastered to his head, smacks at a cymbal mounted to hold burning lighter fluid while barking out the lyrics through a bullhorn. Meanwhile, a dancer gyrates on a wooden box at the front of the stage, clad only in silver body paint and a mouthful of phosphorescence. The noise is deafening. Behind the band are theater-size film projections, the most famous of which features a completely unedited penis-reconstruction surgery.

The spectacle sends this packed house over the top. A mob of punks rushes the stage and heaves the massive PA into the middle of the floor, where it lies facedown, rumbling. The Butthole Surfers break from the song only long enough to declare how much they love punks, then go right on playing as a huge “king of the mountain” fight ensues in the middle of the ballroom floor.

Back then, the room was packed because you could not hear the Butthole Surfers on the radio. You were an outsider in a room full of other outsiders. The Butthole Surfers’ creation myth goes that Haynes and Leary started the band after being busted at their accounting-firm jobs for Xeroxing copies of their underground zine, Weird VD, on the company copier. Whether that‘s true or not, the point is the implicit question: What is more obscene -- a magazine about venereal disease, or working in an accounting office?

A lot of that spirit remains on Weird Revolution. It’s just that the Surfers have become professional about their grotesque obsessions. Leary has produced albums by Sublime and the Long Beach Dub Allstars. King Coffee has been playing tape loops in Drain and drumming in a Texas psychedelic band. Gibby has been “drinking a lot of coffee.”

“The difference is that, then, we didn‘t want to be on the radio, and now we do,” Haynes chuckles. “Then, we couldn’t be on the radio, and now we can.”


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