Lysergic Eyeballing

Paul Leary

by Tim Stegall

It's weird," says Paul Leary between sips of beer and drags on his cigarette. "I had an article in Mix Magazine under "Producer's Desk," and I just thought, `That's weird! I'm not really a producer! I'm still a punk rock guitar player!'"

Leary delivers the last byte with a laugh. He laughs easily and often, an evil glint crossing the eyes, which Meat Puppet Cris Kirkwood describes in a recent issue of Guitar World as "naturally psychedelicized... the eyeball and iris are all black, like he's one big stalk of lysergia." Then again, in a phase of the Butthole Surfers' 15-year history that has seen all three band members get real jobs (drummer King Coffey oversees his Trance Syndicate label empire while singer Gibby Haynes has become a late-night deejay), guitarist Leary's real job might give him license to laugh loudest, since he's almost accidentally (by his account) become an in-demand record producer. In the past several years, Leary has helmed records by the Bad Livers ("By default," jokes Leary, "I could afford to front some studio money, so I got the job"), Daniel Johnston, the Meat Puppets, the Supersuckers, and the forthcoming Euripides Pants debut LP. Somehow, though, it seems doubtful it's those Sandozed eyeballs that have spawned his success. It probably has more to do with Leary's attention to sonic detail, his ability to extract a good performance from his clients, a willingness to go for the unorthodox in order to arrive at an exciting sound.

"Sometimes," muses Leary, "the coolest-sounding thing in the world isn't necessarily the technically best-sounding thing in the world. Sometimes, you have to fuck it up to get it right." Pressed for a for instance, he offers; "Most engineers tend to record everything. If there's little talkback mikes stuck in the drum room for people to talk back to the control room, then you put that to tape, and sometimes that'll make the difference for your drumkit, to have that in your mix."

Leary says he learned all his insights into the producer's art the hard way, through having to record 10-12 years' worth of Butthole Surfers records either on the sly or something close to it, simply out of necessity. Translation: Recording budget? What's that?!

"Gibby and I had the Butthole Surfers," he recites practically by rote. "We added a drummer and a bass player. We went out to California, did some recording with Spot, and our drummer and bass player couldn't take it and they quit. When we came back to Texas, Gibby and I started making our first record by ourselves. King came along about the last third of the record... We kinda stayed in the tool shed behind this 16-track demo studio in San Antonio that doesn't even exist anymore. When everybody would leave, we would go in there and try to figure that shit out. We kinda learned some off of that.

"After some touring, we went to live in Winterville, Georgia, just outside of Athens. We managed to get our hands on an ancient tube Ampex 8-track. You'd just plug a microphone straight into the back of it. That was really fun. We ended up leaving it in the house, and the house got bulldozed," he laughs. "Easy come, easy go.

"[You're] always learning how to do it. The only producer I'd ever worked with was John Paul Jones [who produced the Butthole Surfers' major label debut, Independent Worm Saloon], and he's really an old rock star. Other than that, it would have been nice to have worked with producers, to know what the job's really supposed to be. I went in to do the Meat Puppets a couple of years, and all of a sudden there's a record label wanting this, that, and the other, and I didn't know how to react to that shit at all, y'know! They'd come into the studio and wanna hear something, so I'd put on Marty Robbins and fire up a big fat reefer and make 'em listen to that for 45 minutes. And they're like, `No! No! We meant the band!' `Fuck you! Get outta here!' `Turn the high hat down, Paul.' `Okay, Stuart, turn the high hat Up!'" he laughs. "I didn't know how to deal with it at all.

"It's not always easy," continues Leary. "Some bands have managers that want things, labels that want things, the band wants something, and it's not always easy getting something out of it for everyone, much less yourself, which is the only person I really give a damn about. Why make a record if I'm not gonna enjoy it? Sometimes, you're lucky and it works out, and everyone is smiling."

Among those smiling? Call Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets, whose Leary-produced Too High to Die LP went gold -- a first for the Texas-born/Arizona-dwelling band (Leary also did their brand-new No Joke!). "He's got a good ear, definitely," says Kirkwood. "He has his ideals, what he thinks is cool and so on. But he doesn't try to mess with the artist's intent so much. He helps out a lot on the vocals. That's what we wind up pretty much trying to get the coolest stuff on. The other stuff comes pretty easy.

"He just likes being in the recording studio, I know that for a fact. He told me it's the only place where he has control over his life. It's not that he's that wild or anything. I guess he just feels like he's at the mercy of the fates, most of the time."

Rick Sims, the ex-Didjit drafted into Supersuckers to replace guitarist Ron Heathman two weeks prior to recording their new Sacrilicious LP with Leary at Arlyn Studios, calls the Butthole's guitarist "very enthusiastic" -- a quality which often comes in handy in the studio. "When you get all these fuckin' people in there for 12 hours a day, every day for three-and-a-half weeks, it's a bitch!," says Sims. "The fun wears off, and it becomes work, especially when you're trying to nail something that you just can't seem to get. I'm getting frustrated just trying to nail a part, and it's just due to the fact that I've been there for so fucking long. We had our good days, we had our bad days, and that's just the way it goes. Then you realize all the hard work and all the frustration paid off in the long run to make a really good record. As Paul would say, `It covered all the spectrums of emotions.'"

"Oh, that was a fun one!" says Leary of Sacrilicious. "Rock & roll with a lotta Marshalls, plenty of guitars. You gotta love that! Shit, I just love that band! I wish I could've done a better job for them. They deserve the best."

In talking to Leary about his productions, you come to find that he recites those last two sentences like a mantra, especially when it comes to the Bad Livers: "That was such an early job that I wish I could go back and do it all over again." The one production he concedes to liking is his most recent, Euripides Pants, which he deems "probably the best-sounding recording I've worked on."

"Those guys are remarkably good," says Leary of Austin's swinging lounge band. "They really surprised me in the studio, how good they were and how painless most of the stuff was. Especially when you've got a perfectionist like Rey Washam in the band, and he can shit a diamond and get bummed out about it," he laughs. "He keeps talking about his mistakes, and I was saying, `Goddamn! Sell me some of those mistakes!' There just wasn't that much Band-Aid work needed."

Leary says local engineer Stuart Sullivan, who's worked on many a Leary production, deserves a round of credit. "He's done a lot more for me than anybody, because he's a really good engineer and a fuckin' lotta fun to work with." Asked what he's learned from Sullivan, Leary replies, "Leave him alone and let him do his job. `What's that reverb, Stuart? Turn it off!' It took me a while. It seems like the more I do, the less I do. The best thing is usually to get outta the room and let people do their job."

What did he learn from John Paul Jones?

Leary takes a long pause. "Well, when we worked with him, here we are, we didn't have a drum tech or a guitar tech. `Gee, wouldn't that have been a smart thing to have? Drums that sound good, guitars that are in tune?' After that, it's: `Keep the whiskey hidden!' He doesn't drink anymore, though. He stopped drinking after our last record. Capitol Records gets a bill for $4,000 worth of whiskey. And they still didn't drop us!"

The interview's winding down. The obvious thing to ask this gentleman with the stringy hair and lysergic eyeballs, who still can't bring himself to wear the mantle "record producer" with any sort of comfort, who wishes he could re-record about two-thirds of all the records he's done, is: What advice have you for aspiring young producers?

"Don't wait for somebody to give you the job," says Leary. "Look at that record Ween made on their 4-track recorder! Jesus! It's a great record! It kinda depends on what you want. You can't always count on somebody sharing the vision with you. You've gotta do it yourself. Not to talk shit on producers, but they're a luxury."

Less money you have to pay on the recording, right?

"Oh, yeah! Producers aren't cheap, and thank god!" he laughs.

Maybe we shouldn't be printing this, Paul! You might be out of work, soon!

"Ah, I don't care! I need a vacation!"

It's doubtful you'll see one of those for a while.

"You never know," he smirks. "It's like ice cream: people get sick of you really quick!" n

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