Butthole Surfers Part 3: Tom Bunch on Signing With Capitol, the Media's Problem with the Name, Babysitting the Buttholes, Gibby vs. Paul and the End of the Affair

Butthole Surfers live at Stubb's in Austin, September 2008 Photos by Gary Miller

Texas psych-punk renegades the Butthole Surfers have temporarily put aside their differences for a handful of shows, including at Meridian tonight (doors 8 p.m.). This is the final installment of Rocks Off's interview with the Surfers' former manager Tom Bunch. Part 1 is here; part 2 is here. When we left off, Bunch was shopping the band to major labels...

Rocks Off: Did you hear a lot of “No way”?

Tom Bunch: One of the A&R guys at Arista wanted to sign them, and Clive Davis said “There’s no way I’m going to have a band named Butthole Surfers on my roster. It’ll tarnish the pretty names of my pop stars just having that name next to them.” But somebody in his company wanted to sign them. There was a guy, Peter Lubin, at Elektra – Terry Tolkien, who signed the band to Rough Trade, ended up going to Elektra after Rough Trade tanked.

He wanted to sign them, and Peter Lubin and Howard Thompson were the two heads of A&R at Elektra. The Butthole Surfers were interested in Elektra, because they had cool bands – the Doors, Love, tons of really credible bands. We met with them three or four times. He flew to Austin and bought us a ridiculously expensive dinner, wined and dined us, but he actually said, “Well, what are you guys really trying to pull here?”

Paul Leary said he thought we were going to take $300,000 from them and deliver a record called Sounds of the Texas Highways, and it was just going to be [imitates cars passing on highway] 38 minutes of cars going by. Peter Lubin was sure we were going to take his money and give him some piece of shit just to have a joke on a big corporation, and he actually said that. So that kind of killed that.

RO: What made Capitol bite?

TB: Hale Milgrim, who was president of Capitol Records, came to see the band in New York at a club on the West Side. 17th or 18th [Street] and the West Side Highway – the Marquee Club. The Surfers were booked for two nights, and I got him to come see the show. That was actually a star-studded night. There were probably eight or ten record-label VPs or presidents, the Jane’s Addiction guys were there, Jane’s Addiction’s managers. There were probably 30 or 40 people in the VIP section that were either rock stars, band managers or record-label execs.

Hale saw the show and he just loved it. He came back to see the next night, and then he came back to see the show six months later in Los Angeles. He just completely loved the band. Hale was the head marketing person at Elektra for a long time, and he loves all the hippie bands. He went to all the psychedelic shows and was a big pothead – still is a big pothead. He hung out with the band, and the band personally liked him. He got along with everybody and was just incredibly enthusiastic.

And then they offered a lot of money and a really good deal. Actually they offered a reasonable amount of money and a fair deal, and I got them to offer a whole lot of money and a really good deal for the artist.

Rick Rubin also made an offer. We spent a lot of time with Rick. I like him a lot, he’s a friend of mine. They say he’s artist-friendly, but his deals are not that artist-friendly. He’ll hang out with you, he’ll produce the record, you’ll feel comfortable with him, but for all of that he makes the lion’s share of the money.

It came down to Rick and Capitol. Interscope made an offer, Sony made an offer, Rick Rubin made an offer for Def American, Capitol made an offer. I think those were the firm deals. We probably spent three or four months talking to everybody, going to their offices and meeting everybody at the company, asking them what they would do and how they would do it.

The band and I were really concerned that these companies had not done anything like this at all, so [we asked] what are your ideas, who’s going to be working on the project, why do you think you can take it from where it’s at to selling hundreds of thousands or millions of records, so we had meeting after meeting after meeting with 8 to 15 people at each label, and it took a long time.

The end result was Hale Milgrim was the most excited about it and made the best offer, and promised me as a manager he would do whatever he needed to do to make the band successful, and if I needed to hire outside companies or anything like that, he would be there to write the check and let me do what I needed to do to augment his company. At that point in time, they were coming off Poison and the Smithereens, a bunch of power-pop and hair-band stuff, and they had absolutely nothing like this.

RO: How much resistance did you encounter because of the name? There’s that famous story about how the Austin American-Statesman would never run the word “butthole” in print. How common was that back then?

1993's Independent Worm Saloon
TB: Most of the newspapers and radio stations initially did not want to say “Butthole Surfers.” They said “BH Surfers.” That was like ’91, ’92, 80 percent of the radio stations and newspapers said they wouldn’t write or say the word “butthole.” Then in ’93, when that song “Who Was In My Room Last Night?” was a moderately successful hit on radio, at least 60 or 70 percent of the stations did say “Butthole Surfers.”

People called in and asked for the Butthole Surfers, so a couple people said it and nothing happened. It was on Beavis and Butt-head over and over and over and over – one of the few songs that was played on Beavis and Butt-head start to finish – and I’d say about 60 or 70 percent of the newspapers started printing “Butthole Surfers.” By 1996, when Electriclarryland came out, 95 percent of the newspapers and radio stations said and printed it without a problem.

There was resistance to it, but radio stations got phone calls for the songs, writers at newspapers wanted to do interviews. There was a large amount of resistance, but we allowed people to use “BH Surfers” and people got over it fairly quick. [“Pepper”] was the No. 1- or No. 2-played modern rock track of 1996, and it was in the Top 10 MTV videos of that whole year. It wasn’t as much of a problem as people feared it would be.

RO: How much of managing the band was babysitting?

TB: When I first started managing the band in 1989, one of the two principals said, “I will never get in a car, a plane, a train or any kind of transportation with that guy.” One of the first things I was told was one of the band members would not travel in any form or fashion with another band member, and it was the two band members who had to be there for it to be the band.

Not only that, but without asking me or anybody else, he called the president of Capitol Records and said, “I hope you don’t expect us to tour, because I’m not gonna travel with that motherfucker.” The president of Capitol Records calls me at 10 o’clock at night and says, “Uh, Tom, I just got off the phone with the guitar player, and he says he refuses to tour and hopes that doesn’t kill my offer.”

So a large, large, large, large, large part of my job was to keep the two principals of the band apart until they had to make a record or do a tour; bring them together just for rehearsals.

RO: Was it a traveling thing or they just didn’t like each other?

TB: By the time I started managing them, they didn’t like each other. There was long-term history and situations that I had no information or idea about. I always said it makes for great music – the sparks and the clash and the difficulty between the two people I think came out in the music as intensity and passion and weirdness and danger and excitement. But dealing with it on a daily basis, as in dollars and cents and facts and figures and times and dates, made it very, very, very difficult.

RO: How did you resolve that? Two buses?

TB: No. There’s no two buses. Two buses is for pussies. Are you kidding? You’ve gotta be making hundreds of thousands of dollars a show to afford two buses. As a matter of fact, the Butthole Surfers were scrambling to afford one bus. I just kept them apart until they had to do rehearsals and tour. They just did not spend that much time together until the tour or the recording or the rehearsals for the tour. So yeah, I guess that was babysitting and, you know, late-night and early-morning drawn-out phone calls about everything under the sun?

RO: How did Jeff and King take all this?

TB: For the most part, King and Jeff were easy to deal with. They just wanted to do their gig and play their instruments. It was the other two that made the decisions and caused all the problems. But it was their band to make the decisions, and their band to cause all the problems. Those are the only two guys who have always been in the band. It was their band, and everybody knew it was their band.

RO: When did you stop managing them?

TB: I stopped managing them in early 1999, I don’t remember the exact month.

RO: What happened? Did you quit or were you asked to quit?

TB: I couldn’t take it no more. I enjoyed every bit of what I did when I was managing them, but the last three or four years I managed them, they didn’t do that much work. They didn’t want to play together, they didn’t want to record together, they didn’t even want to see each other – meaning Gibby and Paul.

RO: That would have been after their most successful album, so they probably didn’t have to, right?

TB: Right. Electriclarryland came out in ’96, and they toured through all of ’96 and most of ’97. Then from I guess mid-’97 to early ’99, the band didn’t do very much. They didn’t play any shows; they did get together and record for about five weeks. During that time period when they weren’t together, they probably made more money than when they were. I licensed lots of songs to soundtracks [and] compilations. I handled their publishing for the nine or ten years I managed them.

During that time, we licensed five, six, seven songs to movie soundtracks, and some of them were huge movie soundtracks. Most of the time the songs were already completed – it was something they had left off an album from some recording session. We made lots and lots of money, and they weren’t having to get together.

RO: How well did they wind up doing financially?

TB: For 1996 standards, very well. They made more money than bands that sold five or six times the records, partially because of the deals that I had structured, because I had structured very lucrative deals all the way around for them. And we didn’t sell off our publishing; we didn’t pay a business manager five percent of the gross for everything.

There were all kinds of deals that I did that kept artistic and financial control in their hands, and limited the number of people that were sharing in the profits. They did really well. Compared to today’s standards, not so well, but the standards at that point in time, they did really well. They made a lot of money – more money than they fathomed they could make when they started. – Chris Gray