Friday, May 9, 2014

The Jesus Lizard: BLOG

The frequently unclothed frontman. The use of four-letter words for the titles of their releases. The extraordinary rhythm section. The jaw-droppingly talented six-stringer. From 1989 to 1999, there was no band on the planet that acted, sounded or performed like The Jesus Lizard.

For one explosive decade, singer David Yow, guitarist Duane Denison, bassist David Wm. Sims and drummer Mac McNeilly (later replaced by Jim Kimball and Brendan Murphy, respectively) produced some of the most challenging and invigorating sounds ever committed to disc. Now, The Jesus Lizard’s storied career has been given the coffee table book treatment in the form of (you guessed it) BOOK.

Published by the Brooklyn-based Akashic Books, BOOK charts the Chicago band’s intense history: From their beginnings as a drum machine-fueled recording project to their rise in the American underground scene to the band’s highly controversial (yet financially beneficial) jump from indie label Touch and Go to Capitol to their eventual breakup in 1999 (and reunion 10 years later), it’s all there. With a slew of photos illustrating the tale, the band – as well as multitude of friends, supporters and fellow musicians – offer insight into the band’s caustic life and legacy. Even if you’re unfamiliar or disinterested with the band’s music, BOOK makes for an intriguing exploration of the alternative music scene of the 90s – a short burst in time when a band as gloriously odd as The Jesus Lizard could do whatever they wanted to do and get a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

According to Yow, BOOK was kickstarted by Akashic founder (and Girls Against Boys member) Johnny Temple, who pitched the idea to the band – and initially received a lukewarm response for his trouble.

“I don’t remember how excited everybody was at first,” admits the singer. “I remember thinking it wasn’t such a great idea because the band had broken up 10 years before that; I just figured nobody would care. We talked more and more about it, and talked about how complete it could be. I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’ but I insisted that I design it. I pretty much laid out all the artwork that we ever did for the most part. Whenever it was handed off to somebody else for some reason or another, I didn’t like it. It was really important to me that I be happy with the way this book looked.”

Yow went on to spend close to two years working on BOOK, resizing and color-correcting photos and designing the main look of the project. Eventually overwhelmed, he handed the project off to Chunklet publisher Henry H. Owlings, who helped put things together in InDesign. All told, BOOK took about three years to complete. The finished product greatly impressed the band’s original drummer.

“Something like [this book] can be presented in so many different ways, and the thing that I’m most happy about is that I don’t think it comes off as some sort of self-important indulgence by the band; that’s not what it was intended as,” McNeilly says. “When we were approached [with] the idea, we sort of went, ‘Who’s going to buy this? Why would anyone care about this band now?’ We were so close to it that I think all of us failed to see what kind of impact the band might have had. To me, seeing all the things in the book together in one place sort of brought that home a bit. I was able to acknowledge that, yeah, we must have made some sort of impact if all these other musicians were speaking so highly of us. Of course, we knew that while we were doing [the book], but I think we had such a keep your head down and work your ass off mentality when we were doing it that we just didn’t have much of a perspective because we were just so in the middle of the whole thing.”

Prior to The Jesus Lizard, Yow and Sims were members of Scratch Acid, a Texas – based band that offered one full-length and two EPs before burning out in 1987. For Yow, the differences between The Jesus Lizard and Scratch Acid were considerable.

“Being in any kind of band or collaborative, creative thing like that is very much like a relationship,” he says. “There’s so much compromise involved…I think to a degree, the four of us in The Jesus Lizard sort of meshed better, and I think maybe our chemistry was better than in Scratch Acid, or more conducive to being more prolific. Scratch Acid took forever to write a song; in The Jesus Lizard, we were able to work a little quicker.”

Following a brief stint in the band Rapeman with Big Black’s Steve Albini and Scratch Acid’s Rey Washam, Sims joined up with Yow and, along with former Cargo Cult member Denison, recorded and released the debut Jesus Lizard EP, Pure, in 1989. With McNeilly soon joining on drums, The Jesus Lizard made their live debut on July 1 of that year at a Thai restaurant in Chicago called Bangkok Bangkok. The band followed up this world premiere two days later with a show on the roof of then-Ministry/Killing Joke drummer Martin Atkins’ apartment in Rogers Park. Yow has colorful – if somewhat hazy – memories of the night. 

I think the place [Martin] lived in was a 14 or 15-story building, he says. “I think they just had a couple of clip-on lights, and there was a fucking full-on swarm of bugs and moths and stuff. If you opened your mouth, you’d have three bugs in there instantly. I had to sing that way, and was spitting bugs out like crazy. After we were done playing, I had a few drinks…I used to entertain myself by putting myself in sort of dangerous positions. I hung off the side of the building by one finger while I was talking to my buddy Britt, who played drums in Slint…Right after I climbed back on, [our friend] Shannon [Smith] said, ‘What’s going on?!’ Britt, in his slow Louisvillian speak, just goes, ‘Maaan…I’m not gonna saaay.’ And I think [Atkins’ then-wife] Leila made some some really good Indian food; I don’t remember.”

Photo by Pat Graham  

Reading the extensive performance chronology that closes BOOK is a fascinating -  and at times bittersweet - experience. Most of the bands and clubs listed are no longer with us. One such venue, the sorely missed Maxwell’s in Hoboken, NJ, hosted its fair share of Jesus Lizard performances over the years.

“I always really liked Maxwell’s; I loved the smell of the coffee outside,” Yow says. “I think the first time I ever went there was with Scratch Acid. I remember we got into New Jersey really, really early in the morning and had nowhere to go. We went to some restaurant and had these really great egg, potato, bacon and cheese sandwiches. I always had a great time there; they always treated us right. I always liked the food, and the people who worked there were great. We had some really fun shows there. The first time we played with Nirvana was at Maxwell’s. Great place.”

Yow is also particularly fond of the Kennel Club in San Francisco, where the band once played for more than two hours – and took on Led Zeppelin in the process.

“[The audience] wouldn’t let us go,” he recalls. “We finished our set, and they wouldn’t shut the fuck up. So we did encore after encore; I think we played everything we knew how to play. I was just being silly, and I said, ‘We don’t know anything else, so we’re going to play ‘Dazed And Confused.’ I was just kidding, and all of a sudden David Sims goes boomboom – boom – boom – boom. I don’t think we did the whole song, but we did a good chunk [of it]. I got a huge kick out of that.”

When asked to name some bands that really impressed them on the road, Yow and McNeilly were both quick to praise the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Six Finger Satellite. Yow added Kepone and Pegboy, while McNeilly threw in Sonic Youth and The Melvins. They both also expressed a love of Helmet. 

“It was a blast to watch the audiences listening to Helmet,” Yow says. “There would just be a big horde of people moving as one. It was a sea of heads all moving up and down at the same time. It was kind of remarkable.”

“Those guys were wound very tight,” adds McNeilly. “[They had] these cascading riffs that would come at you, and it was fun to see them do that night after night.”

Of course, no Jesus Lizard live show was complete without Yow’s insane, anything-goes stage antics. A testicular tempest of exposed flesh and ungodly moans and growls, Yow stripped and snarled his way across the planet, impressing adventurous music fans while scaring the hell out of everybody else. According to McNeilly, there was a trick to successfully playing behind such a madman.

“We used to get to a soundcheck and look over at the monitor guy or the guy at the front of house and say, ‘We don’t want any vocals.’ They’d say, ‘None?’ And we’d be like, ‘Yeah, none!’ (laughs) David was so unpredictable; you couldn’t cue off of him. Duane, David Sims and myself would prefer to be going along; we knew exactly where we were going to be musically speaking…We were very content to play the songs with the precision we felt they needed to be played. So none on us were listening to David on the stage. He could do pretty much whatever he wanted to and it wasn’t going to jar you out of where you were at in your musical headspace. It was almost like we were playing instrumental music every night. [We] could hear David, but it was very much in the background.”

With Yow’s scrotum often in the spotlight, it was sometimes tempting to overlook the band’s fierce musicianship. But from the incomparable interplay of the guitarists to the athleticism of McNeilly’s drumming, The Jesus Lizard were an incredibly well-oiled machine.

“What went on musically between [David Sims, Duane and I]  just came about very organically and naturally,” McNeilly recalls. “I don’t think there was any time where we ever said anything like, ‘Well, let’s try for a sound like this’ or ‘Let’s deliberately make it this way or that way.’ In fact, I think one of the greatest things about playing with those guys was that it was so easy to just let go and trust that the other person was going to come up with his part that was just what was needed for the song. I do think there was a conscious effort to try to keep the songs pretty stripped down so there wasn’t a lot of fat. We wanted it to be as hard-hitting as it would naturally be without forcing it. A lot of times, that’s why the arrangements and even the lengths of some of the songs were fairly short…This wasn’t something we talked about a lot; it was kinda of something we felt. It was a real luxury to be able to play with guys like that, where we all really just knew that the other guy was going to do what he needed to do.”

With the exception of 1994’s controversial Down (more on that in a bit), all of the band’s albums get a song-by-song overview (complete with some often-brutal critiques) in BOOK courtesy of Sims. In the bassist’s mind, the 1996 major label debut Shot was “the best album [he has] ever played on,” while a few songs (like “Perk” from 1992’s Liar and “Needles For Teeth” off 1997’s Blue) were pretty much stinkers. How close to the mark are Sims’ comments when compared to McNeilly’s views of the band’s past?

“I don’t know that I would agree with David on every point that he made,” he replies. “If you were at ask all four of us for our opinions along the same lines of basically dissecting an album down and sort of analyzing each song under the microscope, I think you get a lot of similarities with our general opinions, but then you’ll find some differences as well. I think that’s fine for David to have gone through [each album] like that, and I think of it as a really kind of unique window into how he sees things. I’m sure he doesn’t even think he’s speaking for the whole band; he was just giving his perspective. I do agree, though, that some songs – especially in hindsight once you get some space from it – didn’t work as well as others did. But we didn’t really have a whole lot of time to sit around and think about it. We were so busy as a band when we recorded those records. We were on the road most of the time; whenever we did record a record, it was usually purposefully scheduled right as soon as we’d come back off the road so that there wasn’t much downtime and we were very used to playing every night, and our chops were up and we were really functioning tightly as a band. When we went in to record the songs, it was just kind of knock em out, much like you’d do it live. There were a few overdubs here and here, but it was mostly just the band playing each song live from beginning to end.”

“I don’t think I’m quite as giddy about Shot as David is, but I do kind of share with him that Down is our crappiest record,” offers Yow. “I think some of the songs are okay, some of them aren’t so good and the sound of it is kind of poopy.”

In addition to reminding the singer of audio excrement, Down also represented a major turning point in the band’s existence. Not only was it the last time the band worked in the studio with Steve Albini behind the controls, but it was also the band’s final release on Touch and Go. Albini doesn’t mince words in BOOK when describing his feelings at the time of the band’s jump to Capitol Records:

It isn’t overstating it to say that the Jesus Lizard’s descent into “professionalism” felt like a betrayal, and that I was in a kind of mourning afterward. They had been doing everything so well, so efficiently, so on-the-ball, that they were continually proving the point that a band didn’t have to sell millions of copies, or even aspire to sell million of copies, to be the most important bands of its generation. They were so far ahead of the pack that dismissing it all to be a fourth-tier specialty act on a mainstream label seemed oblivious and destined for failure.

Philosophical dilemmas aside, the truth of the matter is The Jesus Lizard sounded just as good (and perhaps even better) on a major label than they did on Touch and Go. While that previous sentence might elicit a shrug from anyone born in the post-Dookie music industry, rest assured that switching to a major label was a very big deal in 1995. How does Yow feel about the move with the benefit of nearly 20 years of hindsight?

“I can’t postulate on what would have happened had we not [signed to Capitol], but I don’t regret having done it,” he says. “I got to buy a house. 

Despite the monetary rewards of the deal, McNeilly still struggles to express a definitive point of view on this period in the band’s history.

“To us, we felt like we had done everything we could at the level we were at,” he offers. “Signing to a major label, for us, wasn’t going to change anything really, except make it a little easier for us to pay bills and tour. Basically, for us, it was going to be a different logo on the back of the record and we were still going to do our thing – still driving around in a van on tour, not being extravagant or changing anything that we did. I don’t think any of us anticipated quite the backlash that we experienced with that as far as the perception that we ‘sold out’ or somehow turned our backs on the independent scene. It’s not like that now; you don’t get, ‘Well, a band is no good if they’re on a major label.’ That mentality doesn’t exist right now, and I think that’s all been blown into its proper perspective. A band is a band; do you like them or not? Back then, I think there was much more of the corporate-versus-independent thing. Everyone decided to get on that bandwagon, and that was unfortunate. I think it lost us some fans and prevented us from getting some new fans…I can understand from a fan’s point of view, ‘If it aint broke, don’t fix it. Why would you guys jump and do a major label thing?’ It really was more of a behind-the-scenes thing than anything that overtly influenced us or changed any of the music we were making or anything like that.

“[Albini] may have had some points, and if I had to do it all over again, I might have made different choices. I don’t know,” he continues. “We were functioning as a band, so we all kind of had to stick together. It was kind of tough. But also, you never know how long a band’s life cycle is going to be. I think at that point, I was having problems as well being away from my family – my wife and two very young kids. I was starting to have issues with touring as much as we were, and the band wanted to do more, so I was having my own split right around that time. Right when we jumped to the major label was not a good time for me personally in any way. Things just got more and more difficult for me to where I felt I had to make a decision – either it’s the band or the family.”

Naturally, McNeilly’s departure after Shot had a considerable effect on what turned out to be The Jesus Lizard’s final album, 1997’s Blue. Produced by Gang of Four’s Andy Gill, Blue found the band (completed by new drummer Jim Kimball) taking their music in unexpected – and, in some cases, infinitely more accessible – terrain. Looking back on the only Jesus Lizard album to not feature his creative input, McNeilly respects where the band took their sound in the final stages of their career.

“I was glad to see the band going in a different direction,” he says. “I think I probably felt that if I’m not part of it, then I don’t want to hear the band doing the same thing. I reacted to that in a more positive way and was glad to see them experimenting and stretching out a bit. After a while, you become very aware of repeating the same kind of general idea with the songs, and it doesn’t sit too well if you know you’re doing that. You really have to find whatever your source of creativity is and hopefully get inspired to keep doing something. I’d say for those several records we did for Touch and Go, it was just a very easy, natural progression of, ‘Here are the songs that are coming out of us. We’re on tour playing all the time and living together.’ Those just kind of fell out pretty easily. In some ways, it takes a little more effort the longer you’ve been together because you don’t want to keep repeating yourself. I think there was a conscious effort on their part to try some new things.”

Photo by Pat Graham  

Following a European tour in 1998 that saw Brendan Murphy replace Kimball, the band called it a day. In 2009, the original members reconvened for what Yow calls “a reenactment tour.”

“I think the biggest surprise for me was how much fun it was,” he says. “I just figured we were old guys doing young-guy music, and I didn’t know if we’d be able to pull it off well, and I think we did. Just hanging out with those guys was a blast; it was so much fun.”

While the “reenactment tour” turned out to be a lucrative excursion for The Jesus Lizard (Yow says he made the most money ever in his life that year), the series of performances had a particularly personal resonance for McNeilly.

“It was so much fun to play those songs again; it felt really good,” he says. “For me in particular, the way I had to exit the band before wasn’t a very good end for me. I was very torn up about it and had a lot of difficulty with it. For me, [the tour] was a new way to close the book and write the end chapter for myself. It was great; it was like getting to open a brand new present every night we got to go on stage.”

In addition to teaching at the School of Rock in Evanston, IL, McNeilly currently performs in Nature of the Drum, a percussion-heavy instrumental project also featuring bassist Gordon Patriarca and Machines Of Loving Grace’s David Suycott. He and Patriarca also work together in an improv project called Step Into Space. Additionally, he is working with Jeff Pinkus of The Butthole Surfers in a currently unnamed project that he describes as “’70s Hard Rock.”

Although Yow released a solo album (the brilliant Tonight You Look Like A Spider) last year, he is concentrating most of his creative energies these days on acting. Recently, he starred in two hilarious videos (“Hypnotized,”  Red White And Black) by the band OFF!, fronted by former Black Flag/Circle Jerks frontman Keith Morris. (“It’s interesting that a band can be current and viable in 2014 and sound exactly like they came out of Southern California in 1978,” Yow says.) On the art side of things, Yow runs a custom portrait site called Get Faced and is set to release Copycat, a collection of cat-related pieces, this August on Akashic. 

As far as The Jesus Lizard is concerned, fans shouldn’t hold their breath for new shows or music.

“The ‘re-enactments’ that we did with The Jesus Lizard and that David [Sims] and I did with Scratch Acid [in 2006 and 2011] have taught me to quit saying ‘never,’” Yow says. “I used to always be adamant that there was no way we would ever play again. Well, that kind of bit me in the ass because we did. I can’t say definitively that we will never play a show again or do some sort of something together. I just think it’s highly unlikely.”

If The Jesus Lizard has indeed ceased to be, BOOK serves as a fantastic final celebration of one hell of an unforgettable band.

Order BOOK

BONUS AUDIO: David Yow on The Dicks 

Authors note: In November 2005, I saw one of the greatest shows of my life when the legendary Texas/California band The Dicks played at The Scene in Glendale, CA. At one point, Dicks frontman Gary Floyd asked David Yow to join the band on stage to sing Wheelchair Epidemic, a classic 80s Dicks tune later covered by The Jesus Lizard. Do I even have to get into how incredible that was? I used my recent chat with David for this feature as an opportunity to ask him for some thoughts on the mighty Dicks. Heres what he had to say: 


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