The Jesus Lizard - David Yow In Conversation

The grunge legend speaks ahead of ATP...
The Jesus Lizard 1991
The Jesus Lizard: legends outside of their lifetime, whose achievements weren't wholly appreciated ‘til it was too late; an influential foursome whose touch is felt today broad and deep, although during the Chicago band’s 12-year career few outside of ‘niche’ circles cared for their acerbic wares.

No more, it seems – with reunion shows on the table, including two sets at this weekend’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival at Minehead, The Jesus Lizard are once again the talk of discerning underground circles… and more. Because, oddly, their critical stock has risen incredibly since the band played their final show in Sweden in 1999; where once they were seen as an antidote to the conventional, nowadays their music can be interpreted as the foundations of a punk sound entirely in tune with what’s critically and commercially viable. Their earliest rumbles are today’s established cutting edge, their legacy one that extends beyond geographical boundaries to constitute cornerstones of many an acclaimed act filling magazine pages.

The band’s back-story is easily found online. Find it. The basics: they came, they played, they were celebrated, they split. The depth: can be explored with the slightest sense. So do so.

With their shows at ATP approaching, ClashMusic caught up with The Jesus Lizard’s singer David Yow to talk at length about… well, lots of things. Below runs the completely uncut transcript of our conversation together.

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The Jesus Lizard – ‘Boilermaker’ (live in Boston, 1994)


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I’d say good evening, but it’s not even the afternoon where you are…
Right, it’s 11am here. I was gonna say in sunny, sunny California, but it’s actually pretty overcast.

Probably not as grey as it is here. But you’ll be in Britain soon enough – do you feel any sense of the buzz building for the return of The Jesus Lizard?
Um, I don’t know, but when you called I was talking to a friend of mine called Buzz. I don’t know if he was building anything at the time, but… Y’know, I’m not the person to ask about the buzz building – some of the others would have a better idea of that sort of thing than me.

Well, I know lots of people here who are super excited about seeing you guys, many of whom never got the chance the first time around.
Well, it is going to be fun. It should be interesting to see old guys doing young guy stuff. I’m 48 now, but by the time this is over I’ll be 49.

How would the 48-year-old David stand up to the 28-year-old David?
Oh, I think the 48 year old would kick the 28 year old’s ass – I would fucking break his leg off and beat him to death with it.

Perhaps a tad excessive, but at least it shows the fires are still burning. That being the case, was the decision to bring The Jesus Lizard back an easy one to make?
It was weird, and I don’t really understand what’s happened. Ever since we broke up we’ve had offers to reform, from various people, and it’s always really hanged on Mac [McNeilly], our drummer. He’d never previously wanted to do it, and I’d never really blamed him. And then this came about and for some reason his wife was really encouraging him to do it, and so if we could do it with Mac rather than the asshole who took his place (Jim Kimball), then I’m in no position to veto it. And so it was with Mac, and I was like: “Okay, cool.” It’s been really cool to be back in touch with Mac, because before this came about I’d not been in touch with him for something like ten years, and hadn’t seen him for something like twelve years. I love his guts, and it’s really great to be back in touch.

So this reunion is as much about bringing friends back together as it is the band…
It is. It’s pretty emotional. We were together for ten years, and we were typically on tour for seven months of a year, so I saw those guys more often than I saw my wife.

So, the adage about absence making the heart grow fonder rings true.
Err, maybe. I think so. About Mac anyway – certainly not David [William Sims, bass] and Duane [Denison, guitar] (laughs). I’m kidding you…

David and yourself were in Scratch Acid of course, who reformed for a few shows three years back. Was that something of a catalyst in The Jesus Lizard reforming?
Um, I don’t know about a catalyst, but it certainly made David and I realise that this sort of thing could be fun, and I don’t think either of us expected it to be. We both walked away thinking it was a blast.

But it’s not like you’ve not been performing – you’ve been over here with Qui.
Oh yeah, and Qui is still going. We just recorded, and now we’re mixing, and we’re playing at ATP with a new 7” for sale.

Having the reformation shows at ATP – is it exciting to be involved in a line-up with modern bands that have more than likely been inspired by The Jesus Lizard?
Well, I’m excited about playing with Devo! I’m not that familiar with many of the other bands playing the festival.

Well, HEALTH said they were pretty excited to be playing the festival with you. “What more could you want?” were John’s words.
Oh really? I don’t know of HEALTH. They’re from Los Angeles? Cool…

If The Jesus Lizard were just coming out now, do you think there’d be more of a ‘market’ for your music, compared to back in the late 1980s?
Oh boy. That’s… um… I mean, it’s hard for me to answer. Right now, with Qui, we’re not yet able to make a living from the band, but there seems that there’s a hundred million bands these days. I know that’s not necessarily a good thing, but if people are having a good time and doing what they want to do then that’s great. I guess it’s harder to pick out the great bands, though – like, the more people in the room, the lower the average IQ.

Accessibility is completely different today, obviously. I mean, imagine if you released (debut album) ‘Head’ today – it could reach so many more people.
I guess it would.

I presume the Qui album went out digitally?
It did, and that was the first time we’d been involved with that on the release date – all the Jesus Lizard stuff on Touch And Go is on iTunes now, but obviously it wasn’t when it came out. Things have even changed in the one and a half years since the last Qui record came out – Ipecac had to let us go, because the business model they worked just doesn’t work now. The same with Touch And Go…

Well, much has been made of Touch And Go downsizing, and not working with any new bands anymore. As one of the label’s defining acts, that must hurt a little.
Yeah, they’re just gonna be a back catalogue label, and it does hurt. I was just in Chicago a week and a half ago to help with the artwork for our reissues, so it’s hard to be so far away from them here in Los Angeles, but when you’re there, in the building, there’s so much memorabilia on the walls. Everyone that’s worked there has done so for so long, and they’ve worked so hard, so yeah, it’s heartbreaking.

Weirdly, it’s like as the industry has grown – as more and more bands can find an audience – these classic ‘niche’ labels actually find themselves in really difficult situations.
There’s gonna be a whole new way of doing things before long. With Qui, we’ve recorded pretty much a full album, but I’m not sure it’ll ever see the light of day as an album. I think, instead, it’s more likely that we’ll release a song for the hell of it, like, tomorrow; then a week or so later we’ll do something special with one or two songs. I suppose eventually it might be out on CD and vinyl, but things have changed a lot, and really fast.

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The Jesus Lizard – ‘Puss’ (live at Reading Festival, 1994)


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Swinging back to these reformation shows – do you get the feeling you’ll be playing to people who never saw you before, so it’ll almost be like the first few tours where you’d have played to a sea of new faces?
Sort of. I think it’s really weird, as so far as I can tell we’re a lot bigger now than we were when we broke up, and I’m assuming that’s down to the passing of time and word of mouth. It’s a lot like Slint, who headlined ATP – when they were together the first time, I don’t think they ever played to more than maybe 800 people, maybe a thousand. Then they reform and they’re huge! We’re certainly not on that level, but it’ll be weird… I think the difference between the fresh faces that saw us back in 1990 and the ones we’ll play to this year is that the people back then had no idea of what to expect; people seeing us this year are gonna have some sort of expectations. Honestly, it’s going to be interesting. I’ve read a bunch of shit recently along the lines of “Who is the Jesus Lizard? Oh, only the best live band ever.” I never really thought that was true, but it’s something to live up to, so we’ll see if these guys in their late 40s can pull it off.

What about your own expectations?
I think we’ll play better than we played before, and I can do a lot more with my voice nowadays, mainly down to playing in Qui – those guys have taught me harmonies, and how to hit actual notes when you want to. The only thing I worry about is how physical it is, especially for me, but I’ve been doing lots of exercise and eating right and shit for several months.

You suffered a collapsed lung last year, right? Did that make you re-evaluate how you were leading your life?
I did have a collapsed lung, and it made me quit smoking. But the lung collapse wasn’t due to smoking or any sort of abuse, it was due to an injury – it wasn’t like the nicotine ate a hole through my lung!

But I guess quitting smoking has to be a good thing, as a vocal performer?
I think so, yeah – it’d be really difficult for me to jump around for an hour if I was still smoking. But don’t get me wrong, Mike – I miss it.

You talk about how your reputation has grown over the years. Now, as you’re coming back, are you able to appreciate just how influential The Jesus Lizard were?
Y’know… David, Duane and Mac are tremendous musicians, and it wasn’t like they were doing stuff nobody had ever done before, but they did have their own unique take on that. I can hear some influence from us in some bands, but I still don’t believe our reputation is deserved, I think it’s very hyperbolic.

But if you’re at the heart of it, it’s natural to be a little wary, I suppose, of believing your own hype.
Ideally – you shouldn’t let your ego go crazy! But I’ve seen lots of footage of us and I’ve thought: well, that’s alright.

Like, “I suppose we were okay…”
(Laughs) That’s what they should say: “The most OK live band ever.”

But the praise must be quite warming.
It’s very flattering, honestly.

But people do see you as this iconic figure, and the band as this truly significant act…
Honest to God, it’s so cool that people feel that way. And there have been good times when I’ll meet a fan and he’ll be, like: “I can’t even talk, I’m so excited”. I’m going: “I’m a fucking moron!” I’ve known myself my whole life, and I’m just a twerp, so it’s so strange that anyone would think of me that way. Last week, I went to Portland to talk at this art and design university – they wanted me to yammer at them about my life, music punk rock, art and stuff like that. Afterwards I was signing posters and that for the people that attended, and this guy was like: “Man, that was so cool, you’re like sensitive and intelligent… I thought it was gonna be like GG Allin.” I thought, shit, what a drag – I loathe that kind of crap.

You were seen as this vibrant, energetic performer, though – when you went off stage, did this sort of switch off? Were you totally different off stage?
Um, sort of. After shows – and very often whenever the sun went down – there was a very strong chance that I’d be drunk as shit. So there’d be that. The boys in Qui, who are 17 years younger than me, we did a US tour a couple of years ago. We all started out drinking in the morning, and that lasted only a couple of weeks before they were like: “Whoa, I don’t want a beer for breakfast anymore!” It’s a natural survival instinct – you’ve got to slow that shit down.

Are these reunion shows final bow, ‘blow-out’ affairs? Do you foresee there being any more once the year is out?
Well, doing the Scratch Acid shows taught me to quit saying never, but after these Jesus Lizard shows are finished, in November, we’re done. That, I can say with conviction. But are these shows going to be blow-outs? I think the most important thing is that we want to play as well as we can. That’s the most important thing, priority number one. Once we get off stage, well…

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The Jesus Lizard – ‘Destroy Before Reading’ (from the album ‘Down’, 1994)


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At ATP, are you gonna make an effort to see other bands?
Oh yeah. I’ve only ever been once before, when Slint had Melvins, and I did a couple of songs with them.

What I love about the festival is that the bands can mingle with the punters, and it’s rare that anyone’s put on a pedestal. Going back sort of to what you said before, it’s just: you’re a guy, and I’m a guy, cool.
The ATP I went to before was great. I don’t know if holiday camps are mainly a British thing, but I thought it was a really cool set-up. It was almost like being on an island for a few days. Have you been to the Minehead site?

Yeah, a fair few times now. I prefer it, truth be told.
How many live rooms are there? Three? Okay. How big is the big room?

Oh, it’s big enough. It’s a lot slicker than the Camber Sands site. It’s more comfortable.
Oh, cool!

Well, make sure you see HEALTH.
It’s weird – we’re from the same town but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of them.

They’re kinda associated, over here at least, with The Smell, and bands like No Age, Mika Miko…
The Smell? I know that place. That’s amazing… So, people in England, and Europe, know what The Smell is?! It’s called The Smell for a reason, you know!

I think a lot of it comes down to big corporations buying up live venues – kids want a ‘real’ venue to call their own, and associate themselves with, wherever that place may be.
Well, the same kinda happens here, with venues getting bought up, becoming part of chains.

I guess there’s no getting away from it. But then again, The Jesus Lizard were signed to a major, and it’s not like that messed you up.
I bought a house off it!

When (final album) ‘Blue’ came out in 1998, on Capitol, did you feel the band was winding down at that point?
Well, yeah, I guess. When Mac left, to me the band was over – it was just a job after that. Mac was on our first major label album, ‘Shot’, and we had a three-record deal. I even told Gary Gersh, who was running the label at the time, that we wouldn’t sell any records, but he was like: “David, I think you’re wrong.” And then we didn’t sell any records, so after the second one they said we didn’t have to do a third, and that we could go, so I quit right then.

Was it weird to have your final show in Sweden? Would it have been nicer to have your final show at home?
Oh, I don’t know – I’m not really a fan of heralding the last show. I don’t know about that. The weirdest thing to me about that last show – and I was sure it was our last show – was that when I said, “This is our last song,” I knew it. It was pretty emotional. “Well, we’re done after this is over.”

Was it an alleviation of weight from the shoulders or a sinking of the gut? Do you remember?
It was both – it was sad because of the good times we’d had, but like I said: after Mac left it was just a job, so it felt good to punch out and leave.

Nowadays, if you look at how The Jesus Lizard operated, as in you managed to get by and tour well, it stands as a good model of how to get by without the need to sell tens of thousands of albums.
Uh-huh, yeah. I guess…

Aw, c’mon. You did have a top 20 hit over here.
Yeah, but that had nothing to do with us.

Yeah, but you’ve got to be in it to win it, as they say.
Honestly, c’mon Mike. If that ‘other’ band hadn’t been on that other side of that 7”, d’ya that it’d have charted where it did? C’mon man!

But to, albeit briefly, court that sort of attention, was that a fun experience?
Man, other than being on Top Of The Pops, it didn’t have nearly the impact you would think. And I think that was because there weren’t that many copies – I think there were 50,000 for the US and 50,000 for the rest of the world. Which, really, isn’t that many. The biggest impact, to me, has been in terms of questions in the press: “What was it like doing a split with Nirvana?” You know… I don’t think that it really increased record sales… But then again that’s not what we were trying to do. We weren’t looking to jump on a bandwagon, because when we actually agreed to do the 7” they were still on Sub Pop.

But still, Top Of The Pops… dead and buried now.
No, really?

Yeah, it’s pretty much just Jools on the television now, but never mind. Anyway, to wrap up: I hear you like your cooking?
Yeah, I like to cook a lot. Qui has… we’ve toured with the idea of making a Qui Cookbook, because we really like to cook, and I have been taking photographs of the fancier things I’ve prepared, over the last year or so. So I’d like to do the cookbook, although I’m not sure it’ll ever happen ‘cause I can be kinda lazy.

You don’t see yourself as a potential celebrity chef on the telly?
Oh, I don’t know about that. Years ago in Chicago, Steve Albini and I – because he’s quite a cook too – played with the idea of getting onto public access television and doing a cooking show. We were excited about putting mirrors above the stove at 45 degrees, so you could get the shot of the food from directly above…

Well, you know ATP have a television channel during the festival…
Mmm, really? Well, there’s an idea…

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The Jesus Lizard – ‘Nub’ (from the album ‘Goat’, 1991)


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The Jesus Lizard’s fan-maintained online home can be found HERE. If you like. The band plays All Tomorrow’s Parties at Minehead’s Butlins holiday camp, May 8-10 - get tickets HERE - and also at London's Forum on May 11 with Grails and Harvey Milk - click HERE for tickets.

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