Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Fur Real: David Yow & the Art of Cats

When most underground music fans think of David Yow, they typically envision a drunken, often-unclothed madman slurring to the heavens with The Jesus Lizard, Qui or Scratch Acid. But as of a few weeks ago, he is also the man behind Copycat: And a Litter of Other Cats, a hardcover art book of cat puns.

Yes, cat puns. Check these out:

"Cat Burglar" by David Yow (courtesy of Akashic Books)

"Catatonic" by David Yow (courtesy of Akashic Books)

"Alley Cat" by David Yow (courtesy of Akashic Books)

Billed as “a very important book by David Yow,” Copycat was published in August by Brooklyn-based Akashic Books, who also put out the Jesus Lizard retrospective BOOK earlier this year. As discussed in this site's feature on BOOK, Yow's relationship with Akashic is based on the singer's longtime friendship with company founder Johnny Temple, formerly a member of frequent Jesus Lizard tourmates Girls Against Boys. The idea to turn Yow's cat art into a full-fledged book took shape shortly after the Jesus Lizard tome neared the finish line.

“I don't think [Johnny] did the Copycat book as a favor simply because of the amount of work I put into the Jesus Lizard book, but I think there was a little bit of leverage for that,” remembers Yow. “I think he might not have been 100-percent thrilled about doing a goofy-ass cat cartoon pun book, but I think he got a kick out of it, and the other people at Akashic got a kick out of it.”

Naturally, Copycat has found an audience unfamiliar with Yow's past musical exploits.

“That's definitely something I was hoping for,” he offers. “I think that if it was limited to an audience who gave a crap about the music I've done, I don't think we'd sell a whole lot of those books.”

Unsurprisingly, cats have always been a major part of Yow's life. Born in Las Vegas in 1960, Yow was still a toddler when his Air Force pilot father moved the family to Tripoli in Libya on the Mediterranean Coast.

“When we lived off-base, my sister and I found this kitten,” he recalls. “We asked if we could keep it, and my dad was very adamant that he didn't like cats; he was a dog person. My sister and I cried for a whole day until he gave in and said, 'Okay.'” My father was very clever; he said, 'We can keep the cat, but we've got to name it 'Me Yow.' That'll be the only cat in the world that could say her own name.'”

Fast-forward to 2014, and Yow and his girlfriend are loving owners of three cats - Little Buddy, Penny and Nico. At 20 pounds, the long-haired Little Buddy is the image of regality.

Little Buddy (courtesy of Akashic Books)

“He's so handsome, so striking and so cool that you think he's not afraid of anything,” Yow says. “But – and I hope he can't hear me – he gets really spooked really easily. If you'll drop a pencil, he runs away. But he's such a gentleman. When [my girlfriend and I] moved in together, he had pretty much never seen another cat, and neither had the girls. We figured that because he was so large that he'd be the alpha cat and rule the roost, but instead the girls are just fuckin' bitches to him. They hiss at him, swat at him and growl at him. For quite some time, probably three years or so, he was just like this pacifistic Gandhi-like creature. He would just lie down on his back and look at the girls while they're hissing and growling at him. He'd offer his tummy and be as sweet a gentleman as he could be. That's pretty amazing, I think.”

Penny (courtesy of Akashic Books)

According to Yow, the black-and-white Penny is “really, retarded.” The singer is convinced that she has The Carl Stalling Project playing in her head the whole time. Nico, who is the smallest at nine pounds, is described by Yow as “just a little lady, very prim and proper.” At the time of this conversation, Yow said he and his girlfriend were toying around with the idea of getting a kitten, “almost just to see what these three cats' reactions would be like.”

Nico (courtesy of Akashic Books)

Those who enjoy Yow's art have an opportunity to own some of it thanks to, the custom portrait site he launched in 2012. As of this writing, he has produced roughly 120 portraits of people and animals, all based on photos from customers looking for an artistic experience they won't find anywhere else. To achieve GetFaced's unique results, Yow tends to work with as little outside direction as possible.

“Sometimes, I'll ask questions,” he says. “If somebody sends in a picture of their dog and they don't say anything about it, I'll ask them what the dog's name is, what their favorite toy was and stuff like that. There have been a few times when people would say, 'I like this kind of color palette,' and I kind of don't care. I say on the website, 'I won't print this until I'm proud of it. You have no idea what this is going to look like, but I promise you I won't send it to you until I'm proud of it.'”

On the musical front, Yow made waves last year with the release of his first-ever solo album, Tonight You Look Like A Spider. Yow's ventures into solitary recording began shortly after The Jesus Lizard's breakup, when old friend Alexander Hacke (Einstürzende Neubauten) showed him the rudiments of ProTools.

“It was kind of retarded stuff,” says Yow of his early noise experiments. “I really liked it, but the analogy I like to make is that the music that I was making was sort of the way children draw. There are no rules and almost no parameters.”

Yow began thinking about releasing a solo record as far back as 1998, when Mike Patton (Faith No More/Tomahawk) expressed an interest in putting it out on his Ipecac label. However, Yow's work moved slowly as the years carried on. By the next decade, the idea had lost momentum.

“I think around 2006 or 2007, I just blew it off,” he remembers. “Ipecac quit releasing stuff unless it was The Melvins or Tomahawk. I figured, 'Well, okay, it'll never come out. I don't care.' It didn't seem that important to me.”

That was until Yow crossed paths with Indiana-based label Joyful Noise Recordings, who released his friend Adam Harding's extraordinary Dumb Numbers album last year. Partnering with the label, Yow put together a collection of his years-in-progress recordings as Tonight You Look Like A Spider in June 2013. The album was made available in both a standard vinyl edition and a long-sold-out “Monolith” edition (limited to 50) that was crafted by Yow himself and included an actual cement vinyl-displaying sculpture created from the same mold pictured on the front cover.


In addition to presenting a very cool argument against illegal downloading, the Monolith edition is in line with Joyful Noise's penchant for odd and memorable packaging. (For example, this writer's copy of Tonight... was boxed with a strip of Laffy Taffy.)

“They're pretty cool about packing up goofy little special treats and hand-written notes and stuff like that,” Yow says.

Away from art and music, Yow has maintained a steady schedule as an actor. Recently, he filmed the role of “a party host who hangs out in a shower cap and [his] underwear” for the upcoming film Entertainment, which will also feature such heavyweights as John C. Reilly, Dean Stockwell, Michael Cera and Greg Turkington (otherwise known as Neil Hamburger). At the time of our chat, he was planning to travel to England to shoot his first lead role – “a New York hitman who fucks up a job and has to get out of the country” – in a movie called A New York Story.

Of course, interested parties can also experience Yow's thespianic skills on the Cooking With Yow segments on the brilliant (not-just-for) children's show, Pancake Mountain. Joined by co-host “Rufus Leaking” (voiced by Pancake Mountain co-creative director JR Soldano), Yow (in varying states of coherence) offers tips on cooking things like “Pizza Cake” (get it?) and coconut macaroons while the often-bewildered Rufus looks on. Cooking With Yow is great fun, even if the episodes rarely (if ever) feature any actual food or cooking – a fact that impresses Yow's girlfriend, a behind-the-scenes veteran of reality cooking shows like Chefs vs. City and Cupcake Wars.

“She thinks that Pancake Mountain has done for cooking shows what Breaking Bad has done for regular television,” he laughs. “Nobody in the past who was on a cooking show would ever think of not showing the food!”

With his acting schedule getting heavier by the day, Yow is committed to developing his craft as much as possible.

“I want to get to the point where I can do paintings or something if I want to, or sing on a friend's record, but mostly I want to just keep busy with acting,” he says. “That's the most rewarding, challenging and interesting thing to me right now.”

From pouring cement to create his album's packaging to putting out a book of cat jokes, David Yow has made a life out of being as unconventional as possible. Lord knows what he's going to come up with next, but you can be sure that whatever it is will be worth your time and interest.


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