The Jesus Lizard (David Yow): Interview
“That was a good injury.”
David Yow has been behind some of the past three decades' scariest music. From the formation of Austin's Scratch Acid in 1982 to his current work with Qui in L.A., Yow's distinctive voice has been haunting our nightmares for more than a quarter of a century. 2009 marks the 10-year anniversary of the dissolution of his best-known project: Chicago's very own Jesus Lizard. To commemorate the event, Touch & Go has reissued the band's whole T&G catalogue (four albums, one EP), and the original lineup has reunited to play some select dates.
David was kind enough to meet with me outside the VIP entrance before The Jesus Lizard's set at the Pitchfork Music Festival (TMT Review). Not going to lie to you; the only other interview I've ever done with a recognizeable celebrity was conducted via e-mail, so the whole time David and I spoke, I was roughly a hairsbreadth away from crapping my pants. But thanks to David's relaxed, self-effacing manner (and also to a very kind volunteer who assured me that I was going to do a great job), I narrowly avoided the spontaneous evacuation of my bowels and can present to you some of David Yow's thoughts on the reunion tour, Steve Albini, and haut cuisine. Bon Appetit.
I Guess I'll start with the obvious question. What's it like playing with The Jesus Lizard back in Chicago after all these years?
That's hard to answer because we go on in about two hours and twenty minutes. We haven't played yet. I hope it will be good. I mean, I've never played a festival in Chicago, so it'll be a lot different than The Metro or Lounge Ax.
So you've been playing a lot in Europe…
Not a lot. This is only the… We played five shows in Europe before last week. We played Nashville, so this is the seventh show.
Okay, cool. Was there anything that influenced your decision to start in Europe, or was that just how the schedule worked out?
I think ATP was the first people who asked us to do this thing in the first place, so we did two ATPs — All Tomorrow's Parties — in Minehead, England. I guess it's sort of the way it worked out. I would have liked to have started in the States, but who cares? It's all the same.
So obviously, you've had a lot of other opportunities to reform over the years. What made you decide that this was going to be the year?
There have been people asking to do it before, but I don't think Mac ever wanted to do it, and I wouldn't do it unless it was Mac. And then Duane had been playing a lot with Mike Patton. Mike and The Melvins were curating an ATP, I think last December, and Mike asked if we could do that. So we sort of talked about it and said, “Yeah, let's do it.” But it was too short notice to get it together in time for that. And then Touch and Go started on about doing these reissues, and we went, “Well, fuck, let's do some shows, help the reissues.” And it went from — I think initially it was going to be very, very few shows. It was going to be, like, eight or 10 shows, and then it's gotten up to, I think 40 total, world-wide?
That's awesome. On the subject of the re-issues, how involved have you been in that process? Like, have you been sitting in on the mastering?
No, the mastering was all done by Steve Albini and Bob Weston, but they sent us reference CDs just to check out, and they sound great. They're louder and crisper and cleaner than they ever were. I came to Chicago to help Dave Babbitt, who was the art department of Touch & Go, with all the extra stuff. There's a whole bunch of liner notes and things and photographs and stuff to read and pictures and stuff. The vinyl are all gatefolds, and it's really nice. I just saw it Tuesday. They look great. They look really, really cool.
"There was this kid there who kept taking butane and spraying it in his mouth and blowing these flames, like, right in front of me. So I just grabbed it out of his hands and sprayed it all over me and caught myself on fire and threw it away and was like, “Fuck you, kid."
I'm pretty excited for those, myself.
Yeah, I'm excited, too.
You definitely deserve some deluxe treatment. Anyway, talking a little more about the band, and the history. You're voice is easily one of the most distinctive in rock. You've got a very unique singing style.
(Laughs) Thank you.
How did that come about? How did you develop that?
'Cause I don't really know what I'm doing, so I'm just kind of winging it. I sort of accidently made up an analogy the other day: It's like making soup without anything to make soup with. I don't think that makes much sense.
Well, you are the master chef, so you would know.
Yeah. I could make some soup.
In terms of the subject matter of the songs, they're very dark, but there's still kind of a humorous edge that comes out here and there. Is there something intrinsically funny about even the darkest material?
I think so. Especially for me, a lot of the punk rock that I was weaned on in Austin, Texas, a lot of it was really intimidating, but a lot of it was kind of humorous as well. And I like to laugh. I've got a pretty juvenile sense of humor, so, you know, the dirty gross stuff comes out kind of funny.
Like, as a matter of fact, Shellac played in L.A. not too terribly long ago. We were hanging out, and Bob reminded me of a joke that I made up in, like, '89 or something like that, that I'd completely forgotten about. It goes, “Why did the dog lick his asshole?”
I don't know.
“Because he loves the taste of my sperm.”
On the subject of Shellac and Steve Albini, I was reading a lot about the band in preparation for this interview, and there was a lot of talk about there being a split between the two of you guys in the mid-'90s. Was that just fabricated, or… ?
Nah, we had a hard time for a little while, but that's all completely in the past. We're pals, I call him up, probably once a week. I came into town for four days. We hung out and ate and kind of ran around.
I'm glad to hear that.
Me too. I love Steve. He's one of the nicest… I take it back, one of the most generous people I've ever known. He's a fucking genius. He remembers everything he ever learned. It's pretty amazing.
"... we had a three-record contract, and we'd only done one record, so if we had broken up then, we would have owed them something like $150,000, or something like that. So we had to continue on."
So, getting back to the band's reunion. The Jesus Lizard is definitely one of those bands to see a substantial increase in popularity among younger people as time has gone on. How does it feel now to be hailed as one of the greatest live bands of all time?
(laughs) That's ridiculous. I've seen video tapes. We're nothing special.
Okay. But those of us who weren't around the first time, we get all these stories about some of your more confrontational antics: dousing yourself in lighter fluid, public exposure. What is it that fuels these kinds of displays? Is it thought out ahead of time? Is it spontaneous?
Well, the lighter fluid thing—we played in Lawrence, Kansas one time. There was this kid there who kept taking butane and spraying it in his mouth and blowing these flames, like, right in front of me. So I just grabbed it out of his hands and sprayed it all over me and caught myself on fire and threw it away and was like, “Fuck you, kid.” So that was not planned ahead, and that was the only time, I think, I ever did that.
But, once again, with the punk rock that I was weaned on in Texas, with bands like The Dicks, and Sharon Tate's Baby, and The Butthole Surfers, and stuff, it was always really… not only was their music good, but they were amazing to watch. It was really entertaining; it wasn't just toe-tapping English pop, you know?
Have you sustained any injuries from your live shows? Any lasting scars?
I have a lot of them.
Any particularly interesting ones?
In the liner notes on the reissues, there's a story about when we played in Zurich one time, and I jumped in the audience, and they just kind of parted. The guys kept playing, because that kind of thing had happened many times before. But the audience picked me back up and put me onstage because I was unconscious. David Simms said he stopped playing when he saw that I was laying there motionless with my eyes open, and the pool of blood under my head was getting bigger. So I had to go to the hospital and they brought a gurney. Our tour manager told me the next day that, as the guy was taking me on the gurney, I kept telling him that he had a really nice mustache, and I kept repeating “Nichts ist falsch,” which in Germen means “Nothing's wrong.”
Then, the next morning, I woke up in the hospital, not knowing why I was there. There was blood all over my pillow, and I had an IV and one of those robes. All my stuff was on the floor next to my bed, and I went to light a cigarette and these other guys in the room, these older guys, said “Keine Rauchen in here. No smoking,” you know?
I said, “Fuck that.” I went over, opened the window, and lit up a cigarette, and they all joined me. So it was like, me and four or five old Swiss guys standing, smoking cigarettes in our ass-less robes when our tour manager came and picked me up. That was a good injury. I've got the X-Ray from that.
That's awesome. Well, not awesome that you injured yourself, but that's a good story. When you were discussing the demise of the band in '99 with Britain's Clash Music, you said that, “When Mac left, to me, the band was over. It was just a job after that.” What was it about his departure that kind of signaled the end for you?
Well, I always thought that none of us were replaceable. I think that probably the single most important ingredient in any band is the chemistry between everyone in the band. I suppose it's possible for somebody to leave and be replaced and still be good, but it's unlikely, and that was definitely the case with Mac. I mean, I love his guts, and he's one of my best friends ever. And so, when he left, it was just like, we had signed to Capitol and we had a three-record contract, and we'd only done one record, so if we had broken up then, we would have owed them something like $150,000, or something like that. So we had to continue on. I mean, we still had fun, but without Mac, it wasn't nearly the same beast that it should have been.
"I kept repeating “Nichts ist falsch,” which in Germen means “Nothing's wrong."
And that's not an attitude that you get from a lot of bands. The idea of a kind of chemistry between these people. You see a lot of replacements going on. I think that's very cool that you espouse that. So where do you see The Jesus Lizard in the history of music, underground music, punk, whatever?
(Laughs) I don't know how to answer that. Four white guys who liked to play a cross between Led Zeppelin and The Birthday Party.
I love The Birthday Party.
I saw those guys.
Did you really?
I saw them the day before Easter, 1982.
Oh my gosh! Where were they playing?
In Dallas. I think they only played, like, 12 U.S. shows.
Was it one of the crazy violent ones?
It wasn't crazy violent, but it was very fucking cool. And there were only about, maybe 50 or 60 people there. Nobody knew who they were, and David Simms and I flew up from Austin to see it.
Oh, my gosh!
Yeah, everybody went from Austin, New Orleans, or Oklahoma City to see that show. Nobody there was from Dallas. Well, a couple people.
Are there any current musical trends right now that you see as being particularly positive or negative?
I don't keep my finger on the pulse of any of it. I don't listen to music much at all.
Okay. So… according to several sources, you are quite the cook. Is there a recent dish that you've been working on that you're particularly proud of?
(Long, considering pause) There's one I'm looking forward to doing when I get home. I won't be able to do it right because I probably can't get the quality of beef, but last month I was in Tuscany and Florence and Venice and stuff. In Venice, they've got this… I'm sorry, in Florence there's a traditional dish called Bistecca Fiorentina, which is, like, a 4-and-a-half-inch thick t-bone, and they put this rub on it that's mostly salt and garlic and herb and sage and rosemary. And then they put it on a really hot grill and sear the outside, and it's served rare. If you ask for it medium rare, they'll go, “No.” But it's really, really good, and I want to do something along those lines, when I get home. I bought that same rub when I was out there. So it's not much of a recipe, mostly is just a… to try and… yeah. So that's what I want to do when I get home.
I read somewhere that you worked as a chef at restaurants in Chicago?
Chicago and Austin. Yeah, I've had more cooking jobs than anything else.
Where in Chicago?
I worked at The Four Farthings on… fuck, I don't know where that was… on Lincoln. And then I also worked at…I can't remember the name of the place. On Clark, I don't remember the name of the place, but that was, like, 1989, '88.
So this was kind of concurrently as the band was starting up.
Yeah, it's been a long time. Last time I had a cooking job was in '90, '91.
So have you given any more thought to working on that cookbook that you were talking about in other interviews?
Sort of. With Qui, we want to do that. I don't know if it'll ever come to fruition. What's probably going to happen is, somebody else will do it and then…The Melvins will probably beat us to it. That's what they seem to always do. We have great ideas, and the next thing — I don't know if they're bugging us, or what, but we come up with great ideas, and The Melvins beat us to it. Those fuckers.
(Points back to VIP entrance) Look, there's Mac and his kids. That little boy in the shorts with the long hair and the blue and green shirt? That's Angus. He's absolutely amazing. Fucking amazing.
Are those his girls also?
The one in the red shirt is his daughter. The girl that just turned around is his wife. That's Elsa, Angus, and then Owen is sitting down with the red sweatshirt on.
Excellent! So just really quickly, because I think our time is running out, are you checking anyone out this weekend at Pitchfork?
David: (pause) Ummm… No.