What Was Selling Out? Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers with Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips
The seminal psychedelic band The Flaming Lips just released their sixteenth album, American Head, so we thought it was high time to revisit the 2015 conversation between frontman Wayne Coyne and Butthole Surfers’ lead man, Gibby Haynes, which appeared in Pioneer Works print magazine, Intercourse. Butthole Surfers emerged in the early 80s Texas punk scene and were known for their raucous shows and anarchistic humor (one of their best-known songs is “Sweat Loaf,” a Black Sabbath-like monstrosity which features the hilarious line “If you happen to see your mother, tell her… Satan! Satan! Satan!”) When they were first emerging from their Oklahoma City base in the mid-80s, The Flaming Lips played with Butthole Surfers in Austin, Coyne listing them as a major influence and inspiration, though as he says here, they didn’t have the same balls-out guts as the Surfers. In this wide-ranging interview, they talk influences, brushes with fame, collaborating with Miley Cyrus (no, seriously, Coyne did that), and figuring out how to be “the king of my own songs.”
Do you remember the first time the Butthole Surfers played with The Flaming Lips?
I think it was in Austin. We really wanted to play with you guys.
It was in Houston, at that Bayou Place. It was incredibly, wonderfully low-fi. Like instead of a $5,000 strobe light, you had the one from Radio Shack—beep beep beep beep beep—and a bubble machine.
You know, Gibby, you were a great inspiration to us. You probably don’t know this—we played a show with you once. We were done playing, you were getting ready to walk on stage, and you were coming though this little corridor with a bright light, and you knew the light was gonna interfere with the fucking film projections. And you said to someone, “Hey man, you gotta turn off this light.” And after you asked twice and no one did anything about it, you just reached up and unscrewed it with your bare hand. You just said, “Fuck it.” And it was hot. We would never have had the guts to do that. We’d be like, “Well, the light’s on,” and just live with it.
I’m trying to figure out how to unscrew my entire life right now. I had a radio show in Austin for a while. I played the shit out of “Vaseline.” I had people calling in—they were like, “Why do you like that Flaming Lips song so much?” I was like, “I don’t know, I’m just playing it.” And… I forgot the rest of the story… oh well.
You guys made Austin.
Yeah, well, the Dicks and the Big Boys. They were the original Austin bands.
But you guys were freakier—more punk rock. You were more like, “We’re just gonna do our thing, man.”
Yeah, and it just happened to be psychedelic.
Which was a little bit more expansive than—
You guys were never really into the hardcore thing.
We were wimps. We weren’t ever confrontational or tough. You guys were. You guys were like...
We were like, “We’re trying to do art over here.”
You’re a big freaky dude.
You guys accomplished this amazing thing… the slow, long build to becoming this huge band.
Well, luckily, yeah.
So many musicians have started down that path and then strayed. Like, Ween was totally on the path, and then they got struck down by the obvious.
Drugs and alcohol.
And I’ve gotta say, I’m proud of you guys. I used to be jealous of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And I told them so. But I got over it...
Like “Goddamn it, what do you guys have that we don’t have? Why can’t we do this?”
But you were the Butthole Surfers! You’re the king.
I finally figured it out. I’m the king of my own songs. That’s all.
You’re the king of more than that. To us, you are like, Gibby.
Well I’m happy now. I get free drinks.
I know, but I like that you’re human. That’s the quote at the end of it, you know, “Gibby Haynes—he’s human, and I loved him even more.” Because before that, you were like this mythological figure with no feelings who could destroy the world.
It was fun, man. Those were the days—the last bit of the 80s. Do you remember where you were when you did the record that “Vaseline” was on?
It came out in ’93, and it didn’t become popular for over a year.
That was the beginning of your rise to superstardom.
We were signed to Warner Brothers, I think that was our second record with them. If that wouldn’t have happened, we’d probably have gone the way of so many bands. You know the story: It seems like something is going to happen. It kind of happens, and they throw a ton of money at it. Then it doesn’t happen and you get this call. I think we were on the way to getting that call. But we never got that far in debt, luckily. And then the album started to sell.
You probably got a half-ass manager.
We had a great manager, actually. Still do. Our manager loves being a manager. He doesn’t want to be in a band. He’s doing the thing that he loves. But, it’s all luck. It just started to sell, and you know, back then you could sell 10 million records. When your songs start selling and you become popular, you’re in another league. Where people are like, “Come in here, you can talk to us now.”
Have you ever met Keith Richards?
Met him? Yes. But we didn’t really get to talk to him.
Did he say a word or two?
The Stones were all nice.
Who’s a big person you’ve met? Have you met Neil Young?
I’ve never met him. Is he quiet?
We’ve all seen so many videos and pictures and everything as he’s gotten older. By the time you meet him, he’s just not a video. He’s an actual person! But he’s sweet—it’s like, you don’t even know Neil’s coming into the room. With some groups, who are nobody, there’s a whole entourage.
What were you listening to back then?
Butthole Surfers and Meat Puppets and Hüsker Dü—the slightly weirder popular stuff of that time. I like punk rock, but it was never enough for me to just bang around.
The same thing over and over and over.
And the Germs and all those sorts of groups. They were highly original. But by the mid-80s, it seemed like there were a thousand bands doing that sort of thing.
It evolved into a kind of violent scene. The skinhead thing. There’s a bunch of them now. They go out and beat themselves up.
But we were never making music as a political statement.
Oh absolutely. Weren’t you disgusted by the political bands, the “you-gotta-protect-your-scene” bands? That was laughable.
They’d always try to tell you what to do and how to look. Like, “You can’t wear your hair like that,” or whatever. Who gives a fuck?
Finally some of those guys from D.C. mellowed out.
You mean like Rollins? Do you know Henry Rollins?
I’m friendly with him, but Ian MacKaye...
I don’t know him, but he seems really cool.
To me, he’s the guy in this business who has stayed indie. He’s the guy I’m jealous of. He did it right. He maintained his everything. Never a hint of selling out.
Unlike Ian MacKaye, I didn’t really know what I wanted. And it’s not like you can just wake up and say, “Here’s what I want to do,” and then just do it. I don’t know, we would just do shit.
Well you’re definitely one of those bands where each individual album lives by itself. You guys don’t do the same shit over and over and over again. Take Metallica, for example.
Well, in their defense...
But I can’t take it! Over and over and over.
But it’s like making Nacho Cheese Doritos. People love it. “Metallica, do you want to make 10 million dollars this week?”
It’s funny about Metallica because their drummer’s father was a big hero of mine when I was growing up. He was the only hippy on the Men’s World Tennis Tour. He had hair down to here.
Well, we’ve met them a couple times, they seem like really nice, dorky guys.
Every time I’ve met them, they’re total sweethearts. They pretend to know me. They’re always like, “Hey, dude!” They’ve got that down. It’s like weird. I wish Neil Young would do that, like, “Hey!”
You mean they really know who you are, or are they just being friendly?
Someone would come up to you, Gibby, and be like, “Gibby, I love you.” And you would be like, “I love you, too!” But with say Nick Cave, or someone else from your era—he’d be like, I’m Nick Cave. Who the fuck are you?
Nick Cave was playing once at Stubb’s in Austin, and I went backstage and—
The secret is that they’re Australian, and when they let go, they’ll just start wrestling each other! They’re dudes.
Once I was at Dustin’s mom’s house, and I met Crosby, Stills, and Nash. David Crosby comes up and he goes, “Why the fuck would you want to name your band Butthole Surfers?” And I said, “Oh, I guess we should have called ourselves “Haynes, Walthall, Pinkus, and Coffey.” And he goes, “Oh.”
[laughs] What were they doing there?
It was a New Year’s Eve party. Dustin’s mom also hangs out with Rick Rubin. Rick Rubin comes up and like puts her stereo together for her.
He seems awesome. Do you know him?
Rick? Oh man, I met Rick and Run-D.M.C. in the NYU dorm room—the legendary NYU dorm room. We’re talking ’81, ’82.
Oh wow. What were you doing in there?
We wanted Rick because he had done the Beastie Boys. I was like, “Dude, make our record sound like theirs.” And he was like, “I think you guys can handle it yourselves.” He’s such a diplomat. He’ll totally convince you that you don’t need him.
As opposed to saying…
“I don’t like your name.” I think Rick steered us in the right direction. I think he was right.
You guys worked with John Paul Jones. Is he even a producer?
Well, no. We found that out.
It sounds like you guys didn’t need a producer.
Where we fucked up, was in not getting John Paul Jones to play keyboards. Jesus, we could have even gotten him to write some songs.
But you were already writing your own songs, you were already doing your thing.
But I like input. If anybody shows me something cool, I tend to use it.
And he didn’t offer?
He’s disturbingly nice. It’s very difficult to not like him. But I found out he hated singers.
Oh, like you mean the singer in the band that he’s from. [laughs] I’m imagining the similarities between you and Robert Plant. You guys are so alike.
Well occasionally I bust out a “m’lady” or I speak of castles—“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow.”
What does that mean?
Oh shit, there’s a bustle in my fucking hedgerows. Have you ever gotten hedgerows?
Led Zeppelin is the king of their songs—well, I guess not all of their songs. They ripped some people off.
Well, yeah, sort of. That’s what people did back in those days. That’s what the Rolling Stones did—they stole. Name a band that you don’t respect.
There’s tons of ’em; are you kidding? I mean, I don’t even think about it. To me, music is like food. If you like it, it’s good. If you don’t like it, it’s not good.
Have you guys ever gone through a period where you hated each other?
I don’t know what your situation was like. For me, when things are good it’s all of us together, but when things go bad, it’s like, “Well, Wayne, can you fix this?” When it’s bad, I’m the guy in charge.
I never had a problem with anyone in the band, but there was a time when we didn’t talk so much.
Dudes do that. Dudes get their level of testosterone up and all that shit, and you can’t back down, especially once you’ve gone all the way. That’s why we liked you guys. You guys were like a family. A bunch of weird older brothers. But that bond that makes you so powerful can also be like, “I want to fucking kill you.”
Yeah, you get over it. What do you wanna do right now?
I’m already doing exactly what I wanna do. We’re doing this record with Miley Cyrus. She’s so badass. So we’re doing her record and our record at the same time.
What kind of instruments? Is she doing a rock record or something?
We’ve started to do this thing where we kind of write songs together, where I come in with a little bit, and I sing it, and she sings what I sang, and she sings some stuff, and I sing what she sang, and it kind of forms into these songs. They’re all sort of similar, but one is made with her direction, and the next is made with my direction.
You have to acknowledge the crazy concept of The Flaming Lips combined with this Disney star...
It’s the greatest thing ever.
It’s kind of fucked up! And not in a good way. Not in a good way, Wayne.
No, in the best way! If you meet her, you’ll forget all about Disney. She’s so badass.
Can Miley play guitar?
Just like you or me.
No, you can actually play guitar.
I just know basic shit, and I don’t practice very much. She can play piano too.
It’s so funny how we can write songs, but not really be accomplished musicians. You can write great songs and maybe not even know how to play a fucking note.
Which is another reason why we like you so much.
I read a quote where you were like, “God bless my voice.”
I’m not a singer! But I gotta do my thing.
There’s Neil Young.
Well, people do compare us, but he’s a great singer. Maybe I sound like him to some people. My voice is cracky, and it’s whiny. But I think you’re the same way. You just woke up one day and said, “You know, I really hope to sing. I hope I get away with it.” And here we both are.
Have you ever met Dylan?
No, I don’t think I want to. He just doesn’t seem like he’d be any fun. You know the way we’re just being dorks here. He just doesn’t seem like he would ever act this way. So where is your and Paul’s relationship? Do you still like each other?
Totally! He lives in Austin. We have a great relationship. Same with everybody in the band—the old bass player, the new bass player, everyone. King. And Scott. We’re family.
You totally are, but families can hold grudges and wind up hating each other.
When Paul got married, I was his best man. And they threw the bouquet, and I caught it.
Why did you catch it? You weren’t supposed to catch it.
It stuck to me, and I was literally the next one to get married. And then I was married to Missy.
And are you guys still active as the Butthole Surfers?
No, Paul won’t play. We’ve gotten huge offers to play just ten minutes away from Paul’s house, and he’s like, “I don’t know man, it seems kind of weird.” And I’m like, “OK, man.” I don’t give a fuck. It doesn’t bother me… I want to get a C-I-G-A-R-E-T-T-E. I’m gonna roll one real quick… Did Cyrus seek you guys out?
Yeah. We knew that we liked each other’s music.
What was it like that first Christmas when every department store you went into was playing your song?
It was cool. Nobody knew who I was, so nobody would come up and bug me.
I hadn’t heard it at the time, and this guy—this total punk rocker—like all he liked was death metal—was like, “Have you heard the new Flaming Lips record, it’s pretty fucking cool.” I really liked that record.
Thank you. It got a lot of radio play. When they’re not playing your songs on the radio, you’re like, “I don’t give a fuck,” but when they start playing you, you’re like, “How cool is this?” I think we were lucky that we were getting some recognition ’cause we were starting to get pretty bitter. We had done a few other weird things. Like we did Beverly Hills 90210. It was the sort of thing a cooler band would be like, “No! We don’t do that shit.”
No, you totally punked it! I forgot about that.
We felt like they called Pavement and Pavement said, “Fuck that!” and then they called the Meat Puppets, and the Meat Puppets were like, “Fuck that,” and they were like, “Who can we call? Call the Lips, they’ll suck anybody’s dick.”
And of course, they wanted to call us, but our name...
Yeah, you have trouble with that. But we started to embrace the kinds of absurd things we would never do if we were slightly popular. We weren’t trying to be like, “I want people to think we’re cool.” We’re not worried about people thinking we’re cool. It’s not like you’re gonna do all these things, and then one day get this big payoff. You have to live in the moment of like, “What’s this gonna be?”
Weren’t you just cracking up thinking, “Oh my god, we’ll never be here again?”
It seemed like it was going so badly, but then it wasn’t and people loved it. And I see it now, and it’s like, “Whoa.”
Is that a good thing?
That’s what I mean. At the time, it didn’t matter what was going to happen. The goal was just to have fun with it instead of everything having to be, “What does this mean? Is this cool?”
When we made our national television appearance on David Letterman, we were trying to be cool. It didn’t work.
You mean nobody cared?
Well, all that shit. It seemed like a national television appearance would be good for the band, but it was just kind of weird.
Why didn’t you do more on TV?
They didn’t want us. There was no reason to have us on. Really, if they ever wanted us, it would have had to have been in the late 80s.
TV wasn’t quite the deal yet. Once the 90s started coming along, everybody started wanting to get in on it. But you have to embrace it. Like, “If we’re gonna do it, let’s fucking do it. If we don’t want to do it, then let’s not do it. But let’s not walk around complaining about it.
I’m the first person to breakdown backstage crying about something that just happened.
There are so many things you think are going to be cool and then they just aren’t. And a billion things you think are gonna suck turn out to be great.