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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Artwork by Paul Leary