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king foffey - alive with pleasure

king coffeyWhen I first saw the film Jaws I was 4 years old. I don’t know what my dad was thinking, but after that movie I thought a 20 foot Great White could fit into my ten-gallon aquarium. After recovering from my first experience of the most visceral fear a boy should handle, I went on to love that white belly, eyes-rolling-back-in-the-head style of the man-eater. Fear had turned to love.

When I first saw the Butthole Surfers I was 15 years old. I don’t what my mom was thinking, but after that show I thought that lighting my rubbing alcohol-soaked hand on fire was a great way to front a band. After recovering from the bombastic/ecstatic experience, I went on to love the teeth-grinding quiver of the Surfers in full chaos.
Like an old friend, the Butthole Surfers have been with me every single step of the way along my musical pursuits. I finally reached a crossroads where opportunity granted me the chance to record with and interview King Coffey, the Surfers’ drummer for the past nineteen years.

I asked King about the Surfer’s teeth-grinding, all-I-could-do-was-smile vibe on stage and he said, “I think it’s always sort of a terrifying sense when the band is on. It’s like seeing a horror film, like Evil Dead. It’s terrifying, yet funny at the same time. Laugh in the face of terror. I used to scream a lot when I played early on. It was like scream therapy for me. We had the primalcy of punk, but instead of being defined with these two-minute songs about Reagan, it went a whole lot darker and into nightmares—things you can’t really talk about, deep instincts.”

His words resonated with me immensely. I had always thought of the band as a musical catharsis blending the most morbid with the swirling sublime.

King described this range of emotion as “a more instinctual kind of thing where we knew what kind of films we wanted and what kind of lights we had, and basically, the whole thing was just about extreme things. The extremes were also not even just bloody stuff but extremely beautiful stuff too, like dolphins into water—extremely visual images whether they’re incredibly pleasing or incredibly disturbing. I think we really just wanted a spectacle to a large degree.”

king coffeyI remember the whole crowd seeming dosed, a sub-cultural communion with each person eating their tabs like the body of the Butthole Surfers.

“I always thought the band would be a horrible band to take acid to, live especially, because it is just so disgusting. We were a touring band forever. We never had any classic groupie experiences ever. It was just too ugly of an experience. Both us physically and also the music and the way it was presented that nobody ever wanted to come backstage.”

When I met with King, there were many things I wanted to know. King shared graciously with me, making me feel at ease for being so quizzical. I asked him to tell me about his drumming roots, and he said, “When I first got into punk rock—at first I wanted to be a bass player. It just seemed too hard. I got some drumsticks and was beating on the wooden floor of our house to the point where I had these missing chunks of the floor where basically I was tapping it down. Just playing along to records. Finally my dad took some pity upon me and said, ‘Would you want to take a lesson?’ I said, ‘Sure.’

I went to this music store in Fort Worth, and this jazz drummer said, ‘Do you play drums?’ And in my head, ‘Yeah, I did.’ I’d been playing the floor for months now.
He said, ‘Show me what you know.’ So, I went behind the drum kit and played just the Ramones, a perfect Ramones beat. And the jazz guy was bummed. He said ‘No, no, no. You’re holding the sticks wrong .You’re playing this wrong.’ Then, he took over and did this pointless, jazzy fills kinda stuff. That’s when I realized I didn’t want anything to do with taking lessons from this guy or any other guy.”

When King mentioned the Ramones beat, I had a wonderful picture of the jazz cat from the music store disapproving what many people these days would argue to be great drumming; maybe words got twisted, and history didn’t know what to say?
I had come for names, too. I wondered who had inspired or provoked King to play the drums. I wanted to put together this puzzle that had been in pieces on a table in my mind since I was fifteen years old.

In regards to his favorite drummers, King provided, “For all time, Mitch Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix Experience), Paul Whaley (Blue Cheer), Ginger Baker (Cream). I love the psychedelic school of heavy tom drumming, but then I also like the purity of the Cramps and the Ramones—but also the post-punk stuff, like Killing Joke’s first two records, Gang of Four’s first two records, and the drums on the first couple of Public Image records. I like real tom heavy stuff.”

King’s drummer list literally sprung a plethora of the Surfers’ beats into my mind from the “pure” kick-snare of “Human Cannonball” to the tom-laden “E.D.G.A.R” on Independent Worm Saloon.

King also very succinctly assessed how we rate drummers, “It seems like that whenever somebody refers to a good drummer they’re usually talking about somebody who plays lots of toms.”

King admits that nowadays he is at the point where he would take some drum lessons,
“I was watching this documentary on Cream, and Ginger Baker was running through the three or four drum patterns that he uses. And they're all just basically variations of drum patterns that most students learn. I get a sense that a lot of my favorites—the real busy, heavy tom-rolling drummers—probably studied a lot and are doing what they learned in drum school on the drum kit.”

I described to King how as kids we would practice the “King Coffey beat” in our jam space. I was vying for an affirmation that he has forged a great style. He referred me to former member Teresa Nervosa, “A big chunk of that though is really Teresa. We were never the same once Teresa left the band, because Teresa was doing all the really cool drum parts. I had the kick and snare, so I was keeping the skeleton of the beat, but it was really Teresa who was playing strictly toms—and nothing but toms—and really filling out the sound. So when she left the band, it seemed kind of pointless to replace her.
I would do my best trying to double up some stuff, but really, a lot of that is just Teresa going to town.”

king coffeyKing started playing with the Surfers in 1983 when he was eighteen years old. Frontman Gibby Haynes and guitarist Paul Leary had returned to Texas and needed a drummer, and there was King, who had been playing up to then in the Hugh Beaumont Experience. He told me about the seeing the band before he played with them, “I was a fan of the band before I joined the band. When I first saw the band it was like ‘83, ‘82? They had a rep as being a hardcore band, but when I saw them they weren’t playing hardcore at all. It was this guy in his boxer shorts playing a saxophone playing seventies rock covers, but the whole thing was so ludicrous, so over the top. It kinda had a real ‘fuck you’ attitude of punks. It was like a punk band that wasn’t playing punk. Paul kept looking up in the sky. I kept looking up in the crowd what see he was staring at.”

Back then, I’ll take a stab here, there was simply less music going around. And how King describes them makes a lot of sense, “In the ‘80s, you were lucky to have one club, and they might book maybe one show a week that was worth going to.”

The genres certainly weren’t divvied up in to the postmodern fragments they are now. But still, “punk” and “hardcore” blew wide open the doors to what would later be considered underground music and from those doors gushed the creative onslaught which still leaves a trail like a Hansel who’s been chewing George Lucas’ chocolate mushrooms in the black forest. The Surfers, at the time, must have been so out there but welcome. According to King, “Early Texas punk bands had their own style. They would never be confused for a West Coast punk band or an East Coast punk band, because at that time, Texas was so isolated from the rest of the planet. There weren’t that many touring bands. The bands that people saw were those who played locally a lot. You had bands like the Big Boys and the Dicks who were big influences—say like on the Butthole Surfers.”

One of the neatest aspects of speaking with King was his viewpoint on the history and state of music. Before speaking with him, I might have been inclined to try to hyper-explain the impact of this and that type of music, cross-pollinating with this region etc. etc.

King, I think, quite simply describes the state of pop and its growth since the 1950’s in his description of what influenced the Surfers, “Punk and hardcore. Those were the two (styles of music) which most directly affected us, but beyond electronic and techno, there really hasn’t been anything (else). When you look at the way pop music has developed, there was a big explosion in the ‘50s. You have Elvis in like ‘55. By ’65, you had the Beatles. You had an incredible explosion of music within ten years. From ‘65 to ‘75 a lot happened: you had Hendrix come along, and you had the whole psychedelic thing. But really music and pop culture seems to be slowing down in a way. The last great movement was really punk rock. If you look at what’s happened in the last ten years, there’s been no development between ‘93 and ‘03. Nothing. And really even between ‘83 and ’93, there wasn’t really that much, really. You had corporate new wave become a little bit more established. But that’s it.”

king coffeyI followed up with a question about grunge and its impact on music. King responded with, “Corporate media, record labels have completely swallowed up whatever threat and creativity punk once had. Well, it was weird when the Nirvana hit number one. It was the first time that a record was number one in the nation and, also at the same time, my favorite record. Plus, they were our peer group. We knew Nirvana; they were friends of ours. So, it was strange to see kids wearing, like at the mall, Nirvana T-shirts. While in the short term it might have improved the music, it’s certainly better to hear Nirvana on the radio as opposed to Bryan Adams or something. It also gave us Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and completely diminishing returns as twelfth rate and fourteenth rate Nirvanas were trying to be found and exposed. Even worse, it took underground rock culture—and that aspect of underground rock music—and made it a mainstream force.”

So getting back to those empty years between ‘93 and ‘03, I’ll weigh in and say that this was the era when popular music developed its marketability to an obnoxious pitch, like a devil in the ear of integrity. Even the Surfers went around the track more than once. There was getting on a major label with Capitol Records, a shed tour with the Stone Pimple Toilets, a spiced, chart-topping Gibby rap, a spot on Letterman, and a few trips on the movie soundtrack go-round. I’m making no judgments here, just pointing out the accoutrements of “succeeding” in this day and age—devoid of worthy mass content, leaving nothing sacred, and touching even the most prized of our muses.

To this King mentioned something both hopeful and daunting,
“The only time the Butthole Surfers actually sold records was when it wasn’t weird, when you had a pretty much straight ahead pop song like ‘Pepper.’ It’s time for something new to happen. I don’t know what it’s going to be. I don’t know what field it’s gonna come from.”

And if what you or I are doing right at this moment isn’t new, what does that make us in the eyes of innovation? Hopefully a bunch of weirdos. It seems to be a place where we can be ourselves.

king coffeyAccording to King, “Being weird doesn’t sell. Being weird is a detriment to moving units. Michael Jackson used to be a pop star but then he became weird. Occasionally, you’ll have exceptions like Alice Cooper, maybe even Little Richard, but by and large, people want music which they understand and that can be presented in a real concise manner, like ‘macho rock band’ or ‘sexy teenage starlet.’ Whatever, it has to be easily presented. Thankfully, weird will never sell, which is probably just as well, so that way we can sort of keep our own music to ourselves, maintain our own little culture.”

Even in the midst of “success” the Surfers’ kept doing it how they chose to do it. Independent Worm Saloon was their first Capitol Records release. It was the last album Jeff Pinkus made with them, and their first in a world class studio with gold records on the wall. IWS was produced by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and took a month to record—a time frame strange to the Surfers’ and their previous “record it at home or when you can” ethic.

Of the old recording technique, King says, “It’s always the band kind of sneaking in to the studio and recording a song when they could. An album was a collection of songs recorded over time in a piecemeal kind of basis. The first EP was done that way, as was the first two LPs. Some of Rembrandt and Locust, we started investing into recording ourselves. So instead of sneaking into someone else’s studio, we were recording at our house basically. Those albums are like the best of the home tapes.

By Hairway, Paul especially, who always acted as the engineer for the band, felt like he was limited by the eight-tracks we could record on at our house. So we went to an all-digital studio in Dallas to record. Hairway to Steven was the first time we actually went to a studio and recorded an album within a couple of days, mixed the next couple of days, and we were done. That’s how most albums get done. A band has their set, they record their set over a span of a week or two, and it gets done.”

And with Capitol Records, King explains that the “newness” this time around was to make a “rock” album, “After being in a band for so long, going to a professional studio, even having a producer, it was all funny—nothing that none of us were used to, especially the whole surrealism of having John Paul Jones be the producer.”

Thanks to a lack of trust, the Surfers hooked John Paul Jones:
“Capitol was spending a lot of money on a record by a band, the Butthole Surfers. They didn’t trust us to record ourselves. Paul sent him (JPJ) Hairway to Steven, not even thinking at the time the whole title of the LP was a parody of Led Zeppelin. Apparently JPJ thought the whole thing was kinda cheeky on our part, thought it was humorous. I think he was intrigued by trying to record some Texan punk surrealists. I blew out my wrist in the process. We were recording all these fast and furious songs first. A week into it I couldn’t even hold a cup of water anymore. We never really made a rock record before, as far as completely up-tempo rocking kind of tunes. It was just fun to play. All of our songs in the past have been such a mixed bag of tricks—either slow, fast, arty. To have a consistently up-tempo rocking feel was fun to do. We never tried it. I think that‘s always been one of the things the band’s always done—trying new stuff. In that case, a rock record was something new.”

When it comes to the mainstream I think polluted is a nice way to put it. The waters are definitely not to be used for cooking.

King shared with me an image of his mainstream which speaks straight from the head waters of Waller Creek, “Then again, I don’t really care anymore, as far as what the mainstream does. My mainstream is what’s happening on Red River, at 710, or Beerland, or Emo’s, or Flamingo. The clubs on Red River are what’s happening in music for me. It’s really the bands playing in those clubs that I care most about. It’s like our own alternate universe that’s ours. It’s our music. That’s what I care the most about these days. At one point I might have cared what major labels were doing, but now, I don’t. It all sucks. It always has sucked. It probably will suck forever.

Like, right now is a really great time in Austin. Now, we have this incredibly rich scene of music with all these clubs who are presenting all these bands. It’s incredible. Every night you can pick and chose as to what shows you want to go to. My hat, if I wore a hat, would be off to all the clubs on Red River and the bands they book and the people who go out to shows. It’s where I want to be most nights.

I think it’s probably good for regionalism, as well, for even a city to develop its own style and sound and ideas instead of being totally reliant on what’s happening on the West Coast. When you have a happening local music scene, I think bands like Tia Carrera are going to wind up inspiring other future bands, locally.” The Butthole Surfers found inspiration in the many influences that roiled through the band’s collective psyche as a group who was confined to a tour van long enough to name an era after it.

“During our vans days, I acted as a DJ, I like to think. I was the one that kind of maintained the big briefcases of cassette tapes we had. Whenever we had a day off at somebody’s house, I would totally raid the record collection and record a ton of stuff. It would be like new fuel for the van. I would go for anything which I hadn’t heard before—arty punk stuff, also psychedelic music of the ‘60s. Some of our favorite tapes were those we found at Thai restaurants of Thai pop music,” King explains.

As to the band being “art rock,” King responded, “We were art punks. There’s just no denying it. The band could talk as much about their favorite turn of the century artist as they could about 1970s punk rock records. We were primarily music fans, certainly of this happening music of our lifetime, the whole punk and hardcore explosion of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

We also put it in the context of painting and filmmaking and the bigger arts world in general. Plus, other schools of music as well. The band has a big blues foundation that was never really talked about, but we all know the same Howling Wolf records or Muddy Waters. Paul and Gibby especially are really into Freddie King. We all listened to Throbbing Gristle and various industrial bands. More weird theatrical. post-punk stuff,
Savage Republic from California or Chrome. I think we were always inspired by punk but looked down upon how confining it was.

There’s a world of influences and interests from the band, art being one of them. We were influenced by, or inspired by at least, the Dada, the surrealists, the conceptual artists and performance artists as well. I think there’s a big performance art aspect to the band. So we were inspired by people doing something different, even Flipper, people making new sounds that couldn’t immediately be described in a simple, one-word phrase. That’s what it is.”

At the end of King’s quote he brought me back to the idea that to be happening music, you must eat happening music. You must have a relationship to the music that warrants living it: But, King says, “The van years kinda sucked. We had a more pure relationship with music in a way. The only entertainment we had was our collection of cassette tapes. That was the only thing to listen to and I really got to learn that music really well.”

I still can’t shake all the records that I have memorized, all the Surfers’ LPs included, and it’s King’s last comment that I attribute to what would be considered my love of this band. Complete digestion. The body of Butthole.

King and I recorded a song for this story. It can be downloaded at www.butterylicious.com. I approached King and asked to make a recording with him, which he graciously obliged. We made “computer” rock in his living room. I was surprised to find that he was not as into computer music as I thought. However, his skill at creating it was especially nice to bask in while we made our song.

king coffeyHe later told me his feelings on Drain, his solo project, which was put out on his Trance record label. It seems that by the early ‘90s the Surfers had time to branch out.
“I think it really, by that point, was the first time we actually could do anything outside the band. Up to that point, we had always been traveling so much. We were either living in a van, or barely getting by. We actually had a chance to do things that wasn’t directly tied into the band. A window of opportunity opened up, we just wound up doing stuff.”

Paul released his LP A History of Dogs, Gibby and Jeff did the Jackofficer’s Digital Dump, their “hick house” album. And King released Pick Up Heaven and Regional Action. All these albums are uniquely “Butthole,” while maintaining very individual musical perspectives.

“The Drain records was basically me and my love of computers and samplers, but by the time the last two Butthole records, I got so burnt out on working with computers. I think it sorta like takes the spontaneity out of music; it takes a lot of the soul out of music. It’s a useful tool. It’s real easy when the computer works to be the end all, be all of the song. When you do that it’s not nearly as fun as holding a drumstick and laying into a drum kit.

These days I’d rather be doing that. I‘d like to be in a rock band, a heavy rock band. That’s easier said than done. So in the meantime, yeah, I’ve been playing with loops and stuff, even though I can’t stand computer music anymore. I can still make it, and that’s better than watching TV.”

King and I actually watched TV while we recording the song. The Yanks were trying to beat the Sox to the pennant. We spent about two and a half hours listening and playing to loops that King had recorded on a trip to India.

He told me about acquiring the loop stock abroad, “Instead of photographing everything I was recording everything. I was recording all kind of TV sounds and radio sounds. So, I was walking around with a microphone in all these busy streets. I was recording street sounds. Here I was this tall, pale ghost walking around with a microphone recording the most banal sounds of street life. I would always get a crowd wherever I went.

Generally speaking, in India people are respectful. They would let me record, and as soon as I would put away the microphone then everybody would begin selling me their beads or postcards.”

We also synched King’s electronic drums to the loops, and then I tried my damnedest to find a melodic, power chord accompaniment to the structure. I was satisfied just listening to the loops. I remarked to King that I could listen to just the loops for a whole record.

“Loops are great. They can be really hypnotic. When I’m working with loops the time flies. I could be in my little bedroom for five hours listening to loops, and it feels like thirty minutes. It almost carries you into a drug-like state, especially when you make loops of the mundane things. Complete nonsense can take on unintentional spiritual overtones at some point.”

King has a great line about technology being a great democratizer. If the computer was bringing the music to a more democratic state with home recording programs, affordable hardware and a pro-sound at the domestic level, the question that remained was this, “King, do we want democratic music?”

My answer from King was, “Somebody has a quote about, you know, ‘punk rock showed that anyone could be in a band, but that doesn’t mean that everyone should be in a band.’ It’s true. With tools that people have these days to be able to record music via computer, it’s gotten so cheap. In the ‘70s punk rock ideal was that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to go into a studio. You do things cheaply and not worry about it. Well, now you can do things cheaply and make it sound good.

I’m also getting cynical over things like Pro Tools. Taking a song and making it absolutely perfect. Putting all the drums parts exactly where things have to go. Copying and pasting your music parts. I’ve been in this real reactionary mood the past five years or so by just listening to soul music. Like ‘60s soul music, where it’s all about passion and feel, and there’s all these mistakes left and right but it doesn’t matter.

I’m really sick of computers being used—especially for rock music. I don’t think there’s really any place any more for computers and rock music.”

Regarding the “computer” rock we made for you, I will say this, we did have a song in a matter of hours. However, I know this can be done in the “live” format too. I was really impressed with King’s work and his sense of blending different loops to create a soundscape that is coherent and accessible, not to mention the stellar drum work that I witnessed in the privacy of his living room.

Late in the interview King brought up his view on creating music live versus the studio. I think they’re great words of experience and great parting words too, considering the impact and breadth of both the Surfer’s “alive with pleasure” rock shows and their avant garde LPs.

“There are things live that you can’t do on record. You have to treat each medium—whether you’re making a record or making a live show—as its own entity. Go about it that way. Don’t limit yourself to any kind of rules as to what you can and cannot do.”

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