Beneath The Bucket, Behind The Mask: Kurt Loder Meets GN’R’s Buckethead

Guitarist has chicken fetish, will speak only through his rubber hand puppet.

The Buckethead backstory begins with a kid named Brian Carroll growing up in
a Southern California suburb not far from Disneyland. He’s a shy kid and
spends a lot of time in his room, which is filled with comic books, video
games, martial-arts movie memorabilia, slasher-flick stuff, all the usual
youth-culture detritus. He also spends a whole lot of time at Disneyland.

As a teenager, Brian takes up the guitar, plonking away under the sway of
such metal masters as Angus Young of AC/DC; the late Randy Rhoads, of the
Ozzy Osbourne band; and Swedish overdrive virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen. Like the
latter two, Carroll incorporates a considerable amount of classical-music
consciousness into his burgeoning style. He reads a lot of music theory. He
starts getting really, really good.

Unlike his idols, however, Carroll is anything but flamboyant. Mane-tossing guitar-god moves are not something he’ll ever be comfortable attempting. In fact, in an ideal world, there’d be somebody else he could one day take up onstage with him and hide behind. Some sort of alter ego.

Nobody much liked the 1988 fright flick “Halloween 4: The Return of
Michael Myers.” After 10 years, this slasher franchise was pretty much played
out. (Even though it’s still with us today!) But Brian Carroll was inspired
by the film. He went right out after seeing it and bought a Michael
Myers-like white mask. Then, that night, as he was eating from a bucketful of
take-out fried chicken, another inspiration struck. He described it in a 1996
interview with Guitar Player magazine: “I was eating it, and I put the mask
on and then the bucket on my head. I went to the mirror. I just said,
‘Buckethead. That’s Buckethead right there.’ It was just one of those
things. After that, I wanted to be that thing all the time.”

Unlike the editors of Guitar Player (for which Bucket once wrote a column
called “Psychobuddy”), you needn’t be conversant with minor 9th intervals or
quadratonal arpeggios to be knocked sideways by Buckethead’s
war-of-the-worlds guitar eruptions. His star-burst chord clusters and
eye-frazzling eight-finger solos aren’t like much else you’ll be hearing on
this planet anytime soon.

Of course there are all kinds of aspiring guitar wizards out there (although
probably none within pick-flicking distance of this guy). But what sets
Carroll decisively apart from the pack is the outré “Buckethead” persona he’s
so painstakingly created. This character, with its vaguely sinister mask,
soberly upended KFC bucket, and absurdly detailed chicken fetish, is pure
American surrealism. Buckethead is a star of a strange new kind: not the
projection of a preening personality, as is usually the case, but a mirror, a
screen, a somehow lovable cipher. As a musical presence, he seems almost (one
of Carroll’s favorite words) disembodied.

Although most people are probably experiencing Buckethead for the first time
in his current stint with the new Guns N’ Roses, the man has been putting out
solo albums for the last 10 years. Some, like the 1999 Monsters and Robots,
are pure “post-metal psycho-shred,” as one writer put it. Others, like the
just-released Electric Tears, are serenely ambient. Buckethead also records
under the name Death Cube K (an anagram); the 1994 Dreamatorium is a good
one.

In addition to this solo output, Buckethead has also recorded and performed
with a wild array of other musicians, from P-Funk all-stars Bootsy Collins
and Bernie Worrell to Iggy Pop, Primus, avant-fusion bassist Bill Laswell and
the late Miles Davis Quintet drummer Tony Williams. He’s played on three
albums by “The Lord of the Rings” star Viggo Mortensen, one by the painter Julian
Schnabel, and some movie soundtracks and scores, too (“The Last Action Hero,”
“Mortal Kombat,” “Beverly Hills Ninja”). He longs to do an all-Disney album.
(“When You Wish Upon a Star” is one of his favorite tunes.)

We encountered Buckethead backstage at two recent Guns N’ Roses shows, in
Vancouver and Seattle (see “Fans Riot After Guns N’ Roses Tour Kickoff Canceled: Kurt Loder Reports” and “Axl Blows Out Throat, Dons Chicken Bucket For Glitchy Guns Tour Launch” ). On both occasions he was standing in his dressing
room, in full Bucket regalia, wailing away, at subdued volume, on his
extra-large, custom-made Flying V guitar. (Since he stands about seven feet
tall — with bucket — he feels that regular, off-the-rack guitars look too
dinky in his hands.) His fingers, like those of such renowned forebears as
Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix, are extraordinarily long, and dizzying to
follow as they caper among the frets. (He says he has a “really huge” big
toe, too. Whatever.)

As he played, he appeared to be meditating on a large rack in front of him
filled with odd dolls and objects: Michael Myers, of course; Leatherface from
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”; a little plastic replica of Colonel Sanders, the
late KFC impresario; and a rubber chicken straight out of vaudeville.

Brian Carroll is very soft-spoken and self-effacing. He seems to be the sort
of person who’s consumed by music, and one wonders, in talking to him, if
there’s any musical style or school with which he doesn’t have at least a
glancing acquaintance. Since the Buckethead character was famously raised by
chickens, and has made it his mission in life to alert the world to the
ongoing chicken holocaust in fast-food joints around the globe, we wondered
about the presence of the Colonel Sanders doll in his travel rack. Carroll
said, “It’s like your father; maybe he beats you, but he’s still your
father, and you love him, and … it’s complicated.”

Unlike Carroll, Buckethead doesn’t speak at all, at least not for public
consumption. When our cameras were about to start rolling, he fitted a
whole-head rubber monster mask over his right hand and said that this
improvised puppet — he calls it “Herbie” — would answer all questions. We
asked what the chicken deal was. Apparently, the evil man who owned the farm
where Buckethead was raised (with chickens, remember) came to the coop one
day and cruelly slipped some fried chicken pieces inside.

“And for the first time,” Herbie says, “he realized they were cooking
chickens. And they were his family, so he tried to put them back together,
and he just kind of went nuts. And he put the bucket on his head ’cause he
thought he could help all those dead chickens come back to life. So when he
plays, it’s like the sound of all those dead chickens coming through his
hands.”

Okay. And this rubber chicken here?

“This is kind of sad,” Herbie says. “It makes him play more pretty. When he
sees this, he thinks of lullabies and that sort of stuff. But it’s not real,
and he knows it’s not real.”

When Brian Carroll first got a call from Axl Rose inviting him to join Guns
N’ Roses, he was nonplussed at first. He knew the band, of course, but it
wasn’t really … his kind of thing, right?

Axl persevered, though. At Christmas he invited Brian over to his house. It
hadn’t been a happy Buckethead holiday up to that point: he’d really, really
been hoping that someone would give him a certain hard-to-find Leatherface
doll he’d been coveting as a gift, but no one had. Then he arrived at Axl’s
place, and Axl had that very doll — and he gave it to him. Brian took this as
a sign (“He must understand me somehow”), and he joined the band.

So has Axl been any help to Buckethead in scoring chicks on this tour?

There’s a pause, then Herbie says, “He’s scared of, uh, girls. He just gets
a weird feeling. He doesn’t understand the feeling that he gets.”

Some sort of chick/chicken confusion, maybe?

“That’s a possibility,” Herbie says. “I’ve never thought of that. And I’m
sure he hasn’t, either.”

By this point, showtime is impending. Bucket has to head for the stage. We’ve
pretty much covered everything, though: the chickens, the bucket … But wait
— the mask. What about the mask?

“There is no mask,” Herbie says.

Kurt Loder

“The Wrap” premieres Sunday at 9:30 p.m on MTV2.