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Paul Leary: “My 1978 Les Paul Custom was so heavy, I was having to go to massage therapy every week just to work the knots out of my back!”

Paul Leary
(Image credit: Susan Walthall)

It’s been almost four decades since Texas's Butthole Surfers first turned alternative rock on its ear with their unrelentingly bizarre brand of confrontational art punk. 

Combining vocalist Gibby Haynes’ distorted yelps, screams and exhortations and Paul Leary’s angular, utterly original guitar work, this was not music created for the faint of heart and it seemed destined to remain on the fringes of popular culture. 

But with the arrival of the early '90s alternative rock revolution spearheaded by bands like Janes Addiction and Nirvana, the Butthole Surfers eventually secured a major-label record deal with Capitol and, even more improbably, scored a full-blown a mainstream hit in 1996 with the hypnotic track, Pepper.

As his band infiltrated the mainstream, Leary was also becoming an in-demand producer, overseeing the recording of gold and, yes, multiplatinum albums by the likes of the Meat Puppets and Sublime. 

The success, it seems, didn’t make the guitarist’s artistic vision any less unconventional. His twisted wit, penchant for gross-out humor and almost preternatural ability to make a listener squirm are all plainly in evidence on his newest solo album, Born Stupid, a collection of strange and twistedly tuneful songs that once again wormed their way into the Billboard charts. 

This is your first solo album in three decades. Why such a big gap between releases? 

“I got some pretty scathing reviews for my last solo record, History of Dogs, which came out years ago, so I kind of laid low on that front for a while. Born Stupid actually started out as a new Butthole Surfers album, and then that just really didn't pan out, so I had all these song ideas and I just decided to finish them myself just to get them out of my head.”

What’s the significance of the album title? Are you talking about yourself or someone else? 

“Well, Born Stupid was just resonating with me because I've always felt that. I'm not really stupid, but in a way, I'm really stupid. 

“Growing up, I came from a middle-class family, and I had great parents, but I went to this rich church where everybody had money, and everybody belonged to a country club… and we didn't. So, I've always had this longing to be part of that rich crew.”

To my ears, this isn’t really a “rock” record. Some of the songs almost sound like the music you’d hear at a carnival or circus.

“I'm an old man. Rock is a young man's game. I tried coming up with all these rock riffs like I used to back in the day and I just felt really silly doing it. It was like, ‘Wait a minute, do we really want to see old me rocking?’ Unless it’s the Rolling Stones or ZZ Top, I know I don't want to see it.”

What were the main guitars you used on the record?

“I have a white Fender Custom Shop Masterbuilt 1964 Stratocaster that was made by John Cruz that was gifted to me by my friend Kaleo Wassman from the band Pepper. It’s the most wonderful Strat I've ever laid hands on. It's got noiseless pickups, so it's really quiet, and it just chimes, but it’s not harsh like some Strats. 

“I've also got a few Danelectro guitars, one of which is a full-scale 4021 double cutaway with the batwing headstock. That thing is so much fun to play! And then I've got one of those old short-scale Sears Silvertone Danelectros, and it's just so cheap and homemade and it just has the sound.”

I was having to go to massage therapy every week just to work the knots out of my back because my 1978 Les Paul Custom was so heavy

How about amps and pedals? 

“On this record, I used two amps. A newer Magnatone Twilighter and a late-'60s 'Drip Edge' Fender Twin with factory-installed JBL speakers. I wish it didn't weigh 5,000 pounds as it's really hard to lug around. But if I leave it sitting in one place, then I'm good! 

“As far as pedals go, I used an old Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer. All the paint’s been knocked off of it and it looks like hell, but none of the modern ones really sound like that. And then I've also got one of those green, Soviet-built Big Muff pedals from the '90s. 

“John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin, who produced the Butthole Surfers album Independent Worm Saloon, gave me that pedal for playing on his solo record Zooma

“And that's one of those pedals where I've probably owned 10 of them and they don't all sound alike. Finally, I have an old orange and blue Super Fuzz pedal from the '60s that I’ve had since the early '80s. 

“Gibby Haynes, the singer of the Butthole Surfers, and I ran across it in a pawn shop or something, and we bought it with band funds and took it to practice and had a blast with it. And then after practice, there was almost a big fight over who got to take it home!”

If you had to pick the guitars that defined your time with Butthole Surfers, what would they be? 

“In the early days of the band, I was playing some horrible black Gibson Sonex resin-body guitar. But it was super-cheap, and it worked. Then one night I had a dream about a white Stratocaster, and I knew where to get it from the dream. 

“So, I woke up in the morning and drove from San Antonio to Austin, to Ray Hennig's Heart of Texas, and I bought this white Stratocaster that was the sound of Butthole Surfers for two or three albums. It's on the early videos and stuff. I never really loved it that much, until I listened to it later, after I lost it in a pawn shop. 

“After that, I picked up a 1978 Les Paul Custom, which was a tobacco burst, and the finish had turned to, like, chewing gum. It was gross to touch, so I had Mark Erlewine [of Erlewine Guitars] refinish it. 

“I picked out a pea-soup green Pantone color that I liked, and he did a terrific job of making it look like it came from the factory like that. So that was my main squeeze for many, many years. For a while, I was having to go to massage therapy every week just to work the knots out of my back because it was so heavy.”

Paul Leary

(Image credit: Susan Walthall)

One of the songs on Born Stupid, Gary Floyd Revisited is a complete reimagining of the rave-up Gary Floyd from the 1984 Butthole Surfers' album, Psychic… Powerless… Another Man’s Sac. Why did you decide to revisit that song?

“I ride my bike every morning and my head plays music like a jukebox the whole time. I just started thinking of those lyrics, going with the stupidest kind of, sort of Muzak-type elevator music. 

“Back in the '60s, they did that kind of music where they'd have a choir doing backing vocals, and so I also tried to incorporate and emulate that as best I could. I almost didn't put it on the album, because I thought maybe it was just too stupid, and nobody would get it!”

You’ve produced some very successful records for bands like the Meat Puppets and Sublime. As a guitarist yourself, do you prefer recording the guitars to the rest of the process? 

“Guitars aren't any more fun than anything else. For a long time, I tried to bring in my guitar amps and guitars, and let guys pick and choose from that, but more often than not they'd go with what they're used to, and what their sound is. 

“I got to record the Edge one time for a remix of the song Elevation that was used in a Tomb Raider soundtrack. And I was working for producer Chris Vrenna, who used to drum for Nine Inch Nails and U2 wanted to play the parts themselves and since they were on tour, the flew into Los Angeles on their on their 707. 

“It was a lot of fun to watch the Edge work, because he had three or four guys that helped him set up his stuff in the middle of this giant cutting room at Trident studios.

“The Edge goes out there and they strap the guitar around his neck, and the four guys stand around him like in a huddle. And then one take and boom, it was done. He actually paid me a big compliment. 

“After two days, Chris Vrenna tells the band, ‘Hey, did you know that this is Paul Leary that's doing this engineering?’ And Edge turns to me and goes, ‘Oh, you're the guitar player for the Jackofficers.’ That really blew me away, because not many people knew that I played guitar in that band, which was a Gibby Haynes side project, for a while. I guess he's a big fan!”

What’s next on the docket for you? 

“I'm already starting to work on another solo album. I've also got another band called the Cocky Bitches. We put out an album a couple years ago, on a tiny label called Slope, out of Arizona. I was proud of it, so we're making another. I'm hoping to have something by the end of the year.”

  • Paul Leary's new solo album Born Stupid is out now via Shimmy-Disc.