Paul Leary Is No Artificial Satellite

Paul Leary is best known as a founding member and guitarist for the Butthole Surfers. He’s also had an impressive career as a producer for bands like Sublime, Meat Puppets, Daniel Johnston, and Bad Livers, to name a few. Recently, he contributed to Melvins’ release “Hold It In” with his band mate Jeff Pinkus.

Although accomplished and a brilliant guitar player, Paul is way too modest. It was a lot of fun talking to him and getting the scoop on his upcoming projects.  

CT: As a guitar player, who’ve been your biggest influences?

Paul: A couple, hmm, probably George Harrison and Greg Ginn.

CT: When did you start playing?

P: My dad bought me a little toy guitar in Mexico for five dollars. I played that enough, so when I turned six, I got a real acoustic guitar. When I was seven, I got an electric guitar. I played in front of my elementary school in ’65.

CT: What was your first fancy guitar?

P: It depends on what you call fancy, but my first electric guitar was a Kalamazoo: baby blue with a white pick guard. It was actually a pretty shitty guitar, but it looked real pretty.

When I was in high school, I didn’t want to march, so I joined stage band. I bought myself a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe. That was probably the first “fancy guitar.”

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CT: Is it true that you gave John Paul Jones a titty twister?

P: A Texas titty twister.

CT: [laughing] What makes it a Texas titty twister?

P: [laughs] I grew up in Texas; that’s what they always called it. You’d go up to someone and say, “What’s worse than a white tornado?” They’d say, “What?” And you’d say, “A Texas titty twister!” Then you’d pinch their titty. I think he’s still really mad at me. He doesn’t talk to me anymore.

John Paul Jones was taking his shirt off backstage, and he was telling me to leave. I see John Paul Jones’s boob sticking out there, and I just had to do it. My fingers were real sticky, and I’m sitting there with all these titty hairs stuck to my fingers—he took a swing at me with a fist and called me a bastard.

CT: What is your normal approach to songwriting?

P: The more I approach it, the more difficult it is. I tend to not approach it at all— and it just kind of comes to me.

There are a couple different ways that it happens. I remember the Butthole Surfers song, “Lady Sniff”: I was on my way somewhere in a car and it came to my head. I ended up turning around to get home real quick, then called Gibby and played it to him over the phone so I wouldn’t forget.

I also like to sit around and jam. With my home studio, I can just record hours and hours of bullshit. If there is five seconds in there worth using, then I pick it out and build from it. Lots of stuff just comes from jamming.

CT: Do you have current people that you jam with?

P: No, not really—just [play] by myself. And I’m not doing that much anymore. My fingers have become terribly soft. I don’t even have a callous right now. Probably the first time in 50 years.

I’ve been doing a lot of producing and mixing for people. I’m trying to clear that off my plate. After that, I’m going to spend a bunch of time in my studio just farting around, hoping to start another Butthole Surfers album or something along that line. 

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CT: Tell me about your band Cocky Bitches?

P: Oh, those are my good friends: Sam McCandless, who’s the drummer for a band called Cold, and Formica Iglesia, who’s the singer. We’ve got an album in the can, and I’ve been too busy to really find a home for it. Hopefully, it will be out before summer.

CT: Right on! So I know you don’t really like to play live anymore, are you planning on doing any shows?

P: Probably not. If I had my way, I’d probably never play live again.

CT: Why?

P: I’m uncomfortable in front of people. The hour and half that you play in front of people is really fun, but the rest of the time it just sucks. Going on the road and being on a bus and eating at Denny’s, or staying in a fucking motel or whatever… I just hate that crap. I’ve got a beautiful home, a beautiful wife, and a wonderful studio, and that’s where I like to be. It’s hard to pry me out of my studio.

CT: Who’ve been some of your favorite people to record with?

P: That’s tough. I really love everybody that I work with in the studio. That’s why I’m working with them. Whoever I’m working with at the time is my favorite. There’ve been a lot of really cool people. There’s Eric from Sublime who I still work with from time to time. His band mates Rome and Josh Freeze are just awesome people.

I got to work with the band The Burning of Rome a couple years ago, and they’re also awesome.

I’m working with a band now named Ballyhoo! Everyone is a lot of fun.

CT: How was it working with Melvins and Jeff [Pinkus]?

P: A blast. It was like playing horseshoes or something.

CT: How did it all come together?

P: Some of the drums were recorded, and I had some songs put together before they approached me, so it all came together. We spent a couple of days here in town at the studio and then I did my work at home, just recording guitars and mixing a couple of songs—nothing hairy.

CT: Have you ever had a sexual fantasy that has involved Judge Judy?

P: Everyday. Is it four o’clock yet? No, it’s not. If it were, I wouldn’t be talking to you. [laughs]

CT: What do you thing of the analog versus digital debate?

P: I think a lot of it is really played out because it’s so blurred. Everything has to start out as analog; it’s just at what point you are going to go digital? Digital is getting a lot better at mimicking analog. Gosh darn it, I sure don’t miss working with tape machines.

CT: What’s your setup?

P: I’m dedicated to not having a board, so I have a little hybrid that’s in the box with analog stemming. I use Protools with a Burl Mothership interface and a Burl B32 summing device. As far as compressors go, I have a Dramastic Audio Obsidian. It’s like an SSL G compressor, but it doesn’t collapse the stereo image as much, at least to my ears. And I have a Tube Tech Multiband stereo compressor, a Retro Instruments 165, and a Retro Instruments prototype 670-style stereo tube Bompressor, sent to me by Phil Moore at Retro. So I guess I have a lot of tubes in the mix. I also have an ADL 670 on the mix bus, which has 14 tubes alone. Lastly, I use a couple of Pultec EQ’s and, for mastering, a Neve Portico II Master Bus Processor.

CT: What is your current live setup?

P: My amp is usually a Marshall JCM 800 with a Marshall 4-12 for my guitar. I’ve got a Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster made by John Cruz that’s just incredible and never gets old. I also still have my ’78 Les Paul that I have painted pea soup green. And I have a pedal board with some distortions and some delays, but nothing too tricked out. I usually keep my setup compact, so if I’m traveling through Europe I can carry one guitar and one pedal board, and that’s it.

CT: Has there been an old standby pedal that you’ve always had?

P: A few. But one I’ve had for a while is one of those orange and blue Super-Fuzzes. It’s one of those things that always yields magic results. I’ve played it on a bunch of Butthole Surfers stuff, and it ended up on a Sublime record, on a version of “What I Got.”

CT: Have you ever had a close encounter with an alien?

P: I’ve seen a spaceship.

CT: Really?!

P: It was very dramatic. It’s haunted me for years since then.

CT: Where did it happen?

P: It’s when we were living in Driftwood, Texas, which is about 45 minutes southwest of Austin.

I was out in the yard one night, and it was really dark. I knew the sky really well because it was right outside my house. The ship looked like a sparkling star. It was gold and blue and green, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. When I was looking at it, it was just sitting there in the sky; then it moved over a little bit, and then it sat frozen for a little bit—and I was like What the hell? I couldn’t tell if it was over the trees or in space really far [away], so I started walking out in my yard. The thing would just move from time to time. It would just sit there, then move abruptly, and then stop.

Then it flew over my head. It was the size of a stadium, and it was shaped like a barbell. It went silently over my head; just about filling [the sky] from horizon to horizon, and then disappeared.

CT: Wow!

P: It freaked the fuck out of me!

CT: Holy shit.

P: So I called the sheriff, but no one else had seen anything that night—no weather balloons or any of that crap. It got me started on reading about UFOs and abductions and what the moon might possibly be, which I’m really fascinated about these days: that the moon is really a spaceship that was built and brought here.

CT: Where did this theory come from?

P: I think the Russians came up with it first. But if you look at all the stuff gleaned from the Apollo missions, it’s nothing the government wants you to know. The government is content with having you know it’s this lifeless, atmosphere-less, waterless void up there—this desolate thing. But the truth is that no other planet that we know of has a moon like that. It keeps one side facing us always. What a great observation point, right? Just keep one side facing us. It’s hollow and there are things sighted up there all the time. I could go on and on. There are a lot of books about it.

CT: Thanks man, it was a real pleasure to talk to you.

Interesting books on the topic from Paul:

For The Moon Is Hollow And Aliens Rule The Sky, by Rob Shelky

Alien Agenda, by Jim Marrs  

Twelfth Planet, by Zechariah Sitchin

Penetration, by Ingo Swann

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Artwork by Paul Leary


 

Glenn Mercer

I recently had the honor of chatting with Glenn Mercer, probably best known as a member of legendary band The Feelies, about his recent solo record Incidental Hum.

CT: I love your latest solo recording. How did the concept come together? Did you travel to all of the places your new songs are based on? Kodiak? 29 Palms? The Kara Sea?

H: No, actually it’s the opposite. I don’t think I’ve been to any of the places the songs were named after. It didn’t start with the idea of doing an instrumental record with locations in mind. I just found myself thinking back to the pre-Feelies days. Listening to Kraftwerk, David Bowie’s Low, Eno & Fripp and Philip Glass. That sort of stuff. So less performance-based and more recording-based. I was also thinking back on how Bill (Million) and I scored the movie Smithereens. In scoring, we didn’t really have any ideas upfront; we just watched the film and came up with music based on what we saw. Doing that score led us into starting the Willies, which was just the two of us and occasionally a neighbor would come over and join in. We experimented with slowing down tape speeds and just having fun with no plans.

I was also getting the urge to perform again. I just love to record and keep my skills up. In the past, I did cover songs, but this time I just sat down with a keyboard. I wanted to see what would happen. After I had worked out a few songs and listened to them, I thought they evoked a certain kind of landscape, or location. So I went with it and wrote to these imagined locations, which were revealed to me as I went along. I then came across a cassette that I had recorded five years before – with some instrumentals that included Warm Jets (Eno) and Third Stone From the Sun (Hendrix) – and I transferred those songs and developed them.

CT: Did you look at any visuals when you were writing?

G: No, I would think of what images were triggered by the music and find places to look up, like the Kara Sea. I thought the song reminded me of the ocean so I started looking at oceans on the map and came across the Kara Sea. I actually didn’t have any plans of releasing it but I shared it with my manager and he really got behind it and shopped it around. I initially gave it away and sold it a shows but it wasn’t initially meant to be a solo record.

CT: What was your approach to writing for the Feelies?

G: Those songs pretty much always start the same way: with chord progressions and rhythms.

CT: I know you co-wrote with Bill (Million) quite a bit.

G: It varied, I wrote on my own as well. These days, we’ve been sending demos back and forth and the band works from the demos. Unless we have shows, we don’t have too many opportunities to get together.

CT: Sounds like new Feelies stuff is in the works?

G: Yeah, the good part of this project is that it sparked a lot of creativity in me and I started writing and Bill had also been writing. We ended up with an album’s worth of stuff and we’ve started recording that in my home studio as well.

CT: When writing songs, do you have any little tricks to help you get out of a rut or block?

G: Not really. I like to take long walks, which is good for my mood. Momentum is a big part, sort of like waves. There are times where there aren’t any waves but you need to feel comfortable with that and not fight it. You can’t force songs at all so when you do get something going, you just need to follow through and use the momentum as much as you can.

CT: Is your home recording set-up digital or analog?

G: It’s really basic. It’s digital but it’s designed to replicate analog. I don’t have to go to a menu. For years, I recorded a Tascam cassette 4-track. I got a Roland digital machine and didn’t like that at all. It wasn’t intuitive enough. I then got an 8-track Tascam digital recorder because I like the way it looked and the layout was similar to the older 4-track. The only drawback is that you can’t record more than two tracks at a time. But that’s fine for me, as I think it can be hard to focus on the big picture when you have too much going on.

CT: Are you recording the new Feelies record on the Tascam?

G: No, we’ve brought in different equipment. But I did record my first solo record Wheels in Motion on the Tascam.

CT: Has there ever been another musician who you were really excited to meet?

G: Lou Reed is pretty high on the list, or Patti Smith, or the guys in REM.

CT: Wow, tell me about meeting Lou Reed.

G: The Feelies were asked to play a Christmas party for a radio station in Long Island. It’s not the normal kind of thing we would do so to entice us they were throwing out names of people who’d be there, like Joey Ramone, Joan Jett and Lou Reed. Bill kind of jokingly said, “Well, if Lou comes up and plays with us we’ll do it.” The station ended up running with it and contacted him. (That was around the time our Only Life record had come out with a cover of What Goes On.) He knew about us and said, “Sure.” We met five minutes before we played with him, so “surreal” is the best word to describe it. It was “Here’s Lou Reed and here’s the stage”. (laughs) We played a few songs and he came out as the special guest. The crowd was into it, so we ended up huddling backstage to come up with more songs. Later, Lou had us open up for him on his tour for the New York record.

CT: So you kept in touch?

G: He had a place up in Blairstown and asked us if we wanted to come up and fish sometime, but that never happened.

CT: What is the most memorable show you ever played?

G: There’ve been so many but I do remember having fun at the last night the Feelies played Maxwell’s, shortly before it was closed.

CT: What about any really big shows?

G: Celebrate Brooklyn was fun, but generally I don’t really like big shows or festivals. The sound is typically bad and playing during the day can have a weird vibe. We’re just not that kind of band.

CT: Worst show?

G: Wake Ooloo played with Speed The Plow at a place in NY called the Rodeo Bar. We started playing the second song and the owner said we were too loud so we turned it down, again and again. It didn’t work for him, or us, so we gave up and stormed out without getting paid. To top it off, when we got to the parking garage to grab our van, there was fire and we ended up getting blocked in for a couple of hours.

CT: What do you remember from the experience of performing in the movie “Something Wild?” 

G: Everyone was really nice to us. We had some reservations because we had some Yung Wu shows coming up that we had to rehearse for but they said, you can rehearse on the set. So on the Sunday they weren’t shooting they let us go in and rehearse on the set, which was pretty wild. They gave us a motor home as a dressing room. I remember when we looked through the front curtain Jeff Daniels was out there practicing the moonwalk. I also remember that I kept messing up when they were filming us playing. (I think it was just the pressure of the production with all the lights and the people and I kept reverting back to the live version we were used to playing.) We had to do a bunch of takes that I felt a little guilty about. Overall though it was a lot of fun.

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CT: Let’s talk about some of your guitars.

G: I have a lot of Fenders. I have a lot of Squiers that I’ve modified. The two that I use live with The Feelies are Squiers, where I replaced the tuners, the bridge and the pickups. On one of them I think I’m on my second neck. I went through about three fret jobs with one neck and now another three fret jobs on the new one. I like my action really high and I’m pretty tough on the neck.

CT: What kind of pickups did you use?

G: Seymour Duncan Hot Rails.

CT: Pedals?

G: I’ve stripped down. Live, I’ve been using a Boss Turbo Overdrive, Super Over Drive and a Chorus. Right now, I’m using a Vox Valvestate amp, which is programmed to the Vox top-boost sound. On a second channel, I have the same sound but set to be slightly louder, with more gain. So between the Vox settings and the Boss Over Drives, I have just about any amount of distortion or overdrive you’d ever want. Between the overdrive pedals and the channel options, I switch back and forth. Maybe once a night I’ll hit everything and take it over the top. A total assault (laughs). I usually back off a little bit on my volume with the hot rails. With many pickups I find that when you back off they can get muddy, but these pickups get a little more “trebley” and less muddy.

CT: Do you have favorite amp?

G: I’ll use anything, I’m not really tied to one amp. I ended up recording through a Digitech RP50 amp modeler on some of my recordings. On our latest recording, the amp modeler was too loud so we recorded using the headphone, out from a Fender Champ. I’ve also been doing overdubs on an old 60’s ampeg at our engineer’s house, which sounds pretty good: Marc Francia of Speed The Plow and The Trypes.

CT: Let’s talk about your influences. You started as a bass player?

G: Yeah, Bill as well. On bass, it was Jack Cassidy and Dennis Dunaway from the Alice Cooper group. On guitar, Glen Buxton of Alice Cooper, and Ron Asheton. Keith Richards, Pete Townsend, The Beatles, Buddy Holiday, Chuck Berry, Bo Didley, Sterling Morrison and the guys in MC5 were really big influences. I was really excited by the two guitar teams.

CT: What was your first guitar?

G: A Silvertone acoustic. The body was separated from the neck and I glued it back together. Then I had a Guild SG briefly, which sounded crappy, so I went back to bass and traded it for one of those acrylic Dan Armstrongs. I remember it was pretty heavy. My first good guitar was a 72 Stratocaster that I bought new in the shop. I used that for the early Feelies and played it on Crazy Rhythms. It never intonated right and I fell out of favor with the whammy. When I was in The Trypes I used Marc’s telecaster and got into those, so I switched over. I missed the Strat, so bought a few of those, but I switch back and forth.

CT: You seem to be pretty busy these days.

Yeah, Only Life, Time for Witness and Wheels of Motion are being re-released on vinyl, an EP of covers released for Record Store Day and this new Feelies stuff. East of Venus is putting out a record in honor of our friend and bandmate Michael Carlucci, who recently passed away. There’s also talk doing something around Incidental Hum.

CT: When was the last time you were in a fistfight?

G: I’ve usually avoided those. I think Legs McNeil once tried to pick a fight with me at Maxwell’s. (Laughs)