Exit Interview: So Long, Jeff Pinkus

BH Surfers/Honky/Melvins bassist off to Asheville, banjo on his knee

Jeff Pinkus with Honky at Grizzly Hall (Photo by David Brenden Hall)

On Tuesday night, a procession of cars and pedestrians cruised by the curb of a corner house in north Austin – beeping horns, waving, and yelling farewells. A honk parade for a Honky: Jeff Pinkus and his wife, tattoo artist Camille Muskrat, made off in a U-Haul the following day.

After landing here from Atlanta in 1985 to join the Butthole Surfers, the bassist colored the cultural fabric of Austin for 35 years in bands including Daddy Longhead, Areola 51, Moistboyz, Pure Luck, the Jackofficers, and Honky. At the same time, he played an enduring role in West Coast sludge lords the Melvins and a solo freak-banjo project. Honky in particular, which he led, emphasized his heavy Southern rock aesthetic.

While not having fallen out of love with Austin – though he likes to crack jokes about the mixed-use condos advertising a live-work-play lifestyle – Carolina calls his name. On the phone at T-minus 48 hours to departure, the vocalist and multi-instrumentalist sucked down Jello shots while reflecting on keepsakes, the natural healing ceremonies of South America’s indigenous tribes, and the good old days.

“Make the easy stuff look hard, make the hard stuff look easy, and don’t give a shit about what anybody thinks of you if it’s what you want to do.”

Austin Chronicle: What is the most interesting item you’ve come across while packing?

Jeff Pinkus: John Paul Jones’ broken bass string from 1992.

He produced [the Butthole Surfers album] Independent Worm Saloon. Our label wanted us to work with [the Led Zeppelin bassist], because he expressed interest and our A&R guy was British, so he was all about it. They put us on this group phone call and we start talking about dogs.

He said his dogs were Pekingese and we all knew what that was, but he had to clarify by going, “You know, that was the dog they had in Hart to Hart.” Back then, me and Paul [Leary] especially, we’d wake up, do bong hits, and put on TV and watch whatever came on and Hart to Hart was one of our regulars. So when he mentioned Pekingese dogs and Hart to Hart, we were like, “Oh my god, this is our dude!”

We spent two weeks with him in Austin. He was super cool and we drove him to quit drinkin’.

He liked my Guild hollow body bass. We were doing a song where I was playing banjo and he was playing bass. Then he snapped a string. He told me that was the first string he ever broke.

I called bullshit on that and he said, “No, for real” and offered to buy me a pack of strings. I said, “Just write me a note saying this is the first string I ever broke.” So then, in the morning, he did this cool calligraphy thing with the string all wound up saying, “I, John Paul Jones, do hereby declare that this is the first string I ever broke.”

I found it in a flat box with “most important” written on it.

AC: Where are you moving to and why?

JP: Asheville, North Carolina. I’m from the Southeast – Georgia – and I’ve always wanted to live in that area, which we call the highlands. Long story short, we have a sublease from a really good friend right in between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Smokey Mountains. Also, I like to play this instrument called the banjo and it’s a real cool place for that.

AC: With the J.D. Pinkus solo shows of late, we’ve gotten to see you develop this highly original, effects-driven approach to the banjo.

JP: Banjo comes natural to me in the way it’s tuned, the way I hit it, and the way I hear things. I’ve been bringing out songs from my past and new songs on it. With the effects, it’s just what I’m missing from the actual instrument that I want to add into it without bringing anyone else into it.

It had me living like a gypsy, like when I was a 17 and first joined the Butts. I played 58 shows in my 1991 Ford F-150, doing my own merch, doing my own projections. It was very freeing.

Jeff Pinkus performing with the Butthole Surfers at Houston’s Day for Night festival in 2016 (Photo by David Brenden Hall)

AC: You’ve made a few trips to South America with ayahuasca healers. What can you tell us about those experiences?

JP: My buddy asked me to go [to Peru]. He couldn’t explain it, but thought there was something I could appreciate that’s down there. It was definitely a life-changer for me.

Part of that is wanting to change things in your life, wanting to go away for 14 days, not having distractions, being able to concentrate on your own shit, and also hallucinating your ass off on DMT, which there’s a specific regiment for.

What I came out with was realizing the person I wanted to be, who I wanted to be surrounded by, and what was really important. It’s not like I want to do ayahuasca with some shaman from California. To me, it’s not about ayahuasca.

It’s the act of putting yourself into the care of the Shipibo tribe, the most selfless, humble, talented people you’ll ever meet.

Their music, Icaros, blew my mind. In fact, one of the songs I wrote for the Melvins on the album that used my name for the title [Pinkus Abortion Technician] was “Don’t Forget to Breathe,” and it was based on what I got from them musically.

“So then, in the morning, he did this cool calligraphy thing with the string all wound up saying, ‘I, John Paul Jones, do hereby declare that this is the first string I ever broke.’”

AC: What’s it like to move across the country during a pandemic?

JP: I was supposed to do a recording this month and it breaks my heart that it didn’t happen. I was going to get to record some of my songs with Danny Barnes and Mark Rubin [of the Bad Livers]. Danny wanted to do it Stanley Brothers style, with me on banjo and Danny on guitar and Mark on bass. That was supposed to happen mid-April and obviously it couldn’t.

With my bands, I’ve probably lost out on $5,000 worth of shows that canceled and I haven’t got my stimulus check.

As far as moving, I think it’ll be good, because there will be less traffic than usual and with this U-Haul, we can only go about 50mph down the road.

AC: You moved to Austin 35 years ago. What was your impression of the town when you first got here?

JP: Man, it was fuckin’ cool! You gotta remember, I was so young. I was about 18 years old when I first came out here and everybody around me was 10 years older than me. I was jumped in really quick.

You know how in a poker game they’ll say, “If you don’t know who the loser is in the room, it’s you”? That was me. Probably still is.

I was in heaven. I was just hanging out with these cool-ass people, who gave me respect – except for David Yow. He was always bustin’ my balls.

The Butthole Surfers all lived together, ate together, we had one vehicle, and kept the money in one pile. It was a very different world than what people do now. It’s a strange thing to look back on, but that’s what it took to make it back then. We always bought shit to improve our show – strobe lights and projectors – instead of trying to improve our individual lives. It was a very communal vibe.

AC: What advice does Pinkus have for the youth, especially in their creative lives?

JP: Make the easy stuff look hard, make the hard stuff look easy, and don’t give a shit about what anybody thinks of you if it’s what you want to do. If it sounds good, it is good.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Jeff Pinkus, Honky, Butthole Surfers, Led Zeppelin, John Paul Jones, Melvins, Jackofficers, Pure Luck, Areola 51, David Yow, Scratch Acid, Icaros, Shipibo tribe, ayahuasca, Camille Muskrat, Paul Leary, Danny Barnes, Mark Rubin, Bad Livers, Hart to Hart

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