Photo by Diane Jefferis
We’re in David Yow’s secret and literally-underground bunker in Los Angeles eating some of his homemade habanero salsa with tortilla chips he’s imported from his favorite spot in Chicago when the now-bearded Jesus Lizard frontman kicks up his trusty cowboy boots and starts telling us about one of his most useful talents: Pissing while walking—without getting a drop on his pants. “It’s great if you have to pee and you also happen to be on a really long, straight walk, because you can look back and see the duration of your journey,” he offers. “There’s a very distinct pattern you leave just from walking. And you can get away with it because if someone happens to notice, they pretty much can’t believe it. It’s like seeing a naked person in public. People look, but nobody actually does anything.”
There’s more than one story about Yow urinating publicly—and getting drunk, naked and occasionally injured—in the new Jesus Lizard book, which is cleverly entitled The Jesus Lizard Book. The impressive coffee-table tome tells the story of one of the most powerful and unhinged rock bands of the 1990s, including in-depth recollections from all four Jesus Lizard members—Yow, bassist David Wm. Sims, guitarist Duane Denison and drummer Mac McNeilly—about their sweaty, balls-out journey through the American underground and beyond.
Noisey: Let’s start with the most obvious question: Why do a Jesus Lizard book?
David Yow: Is that the most obvious question?
I think so, yeah.
Okay, good question. I don’t know. Johnny Temple, who is in Girls Against Boys and runs Akashic Books, approached us a few years ago about doing a book. My kneejerk reaction was “Why bother?” I mean, we broke up a long time ago. Who would care? But then there was talk amongst the band, and somehow we got from “why bother?” to me insisting that I design it. There have been a few instances where we’ve put things out and someone else did the artwork, and I never like it. So I agreed to do it if I could put it together. But it took me so long to compile and color-correct the photographs, and I wasn’t making any money doing it, so it kinda started to put a strain on my relationship. It got to the point where my girlfriend was like, “You better hand it off to somebody.” That’s when I gave it to Henry Owings from Chunklet magazine. He took over and had some great ideas.
Did any of the other guys in the band feel the same way initially?
You know, I honestly don’t remember anyone being either strongly for it or strongly against it. But generally, when it has anything to do with the band, I’m the least interested.
Why is that?
Because I sort of feel like once you break up, it’s over. You don’t have to revisit it. I wasn’t initially into the idea of the reunions we did [in 2008-9], or as I like to call them, “the reenactments.” But we were always very democratic. The other guys all wanted to do the shows, so I’m not gonna veto it. I don’t remember specifically what swayed me to the book, though—probably that I got to design it. But it ended up being really good. I mean, the photographs are great, but the written pieces are what make it for me. I think it’s worth it if only for the pieces by Mike Watt and Alex Hacke from Einstürzende Neubauten. Those alone are worth the price of admission. Mike Watt’s piece is like, “What language is this?” When you finish reading it, you know exactly what he meant, but you have no idea what he said.
I especially liked the written pieces by the four Jesus Lizard members. Everyone’s personality really comes across, and the reader gets the sense that you guys are four very different people who figured out how to get over each other’s idiosyncrasies pretty early on in the process of becoming a band.
I don’t know how much there was to get over. We got along pretty well from the start. David and I had been friends since 1980 or something like that. When Mac joined the band, David, Duane and I lived together, and Mac came over to sort of check it out. We’d made all sorts of jokes about him beforehand like, “Oh, he’s probably a fag,” and stuff like that. We made a big dinner to welcome him to Chicago, and when he shows up it turns out he’s vegetarian. So we’re like, “Oh, great. A gay vegetarian.” But in no time we were fast buddies.
One of the early stories in the book is about the first Jesus Lizard show, which was at a Thai restaurant in Chicago. Corey Rusk from Touch and Go said it was the first and last show they ever had there. Did you guys trash the place or something?
I don’t know why they didn’t have any more shows there, but there was no rowdiness or anything like that. We were the first of three bands—it was us, King Kong and then Slint. I think I had my hands in my pockets the whole time. I was terrified. I remember it was dinner and then the show, and after the bands played, they cleared the tables out and the manager goes, “Okay, tables gone! Now we have dancing floor!” But people were sitting at dinner tables while we were playing. It was a weird setup because some people had to look over their shoulders to see the bands because their chairs were facing the other way.
Later on, you became notorious for throwing yourself into the crowd. David even wrote that he didn’t understand how you could remember your lyrics or even perform at all while you were being handled so many people. What was that like for you?
As far as remembering the lyrics, that was autopilot. They would just sort of be there. The only time I really remember fucking up and completely forgetting the lyrics was this one show in Milwaukee. We had a song called “Then Comes Dudley.” On the set list we would just write, “Dudley.” But I had a complete brain fart and just could not remember the words. So the song starts and I just start yelling “Dudley!” over and over again for the entire song. But usually when I forgot the lyrics, I’d just start spouting gibberish. That was one of the great things about being in a band like that. The other three guys were so precise in what they were doing that I didn’t have to worry. I knew no matter where I landed, they’d have it covered. It’s funny, I’ve seen reviews where they say, “Yow was crowd-surfing most of the show and didn’t miss a beat.” But really I missed quite a few beats. [Laughs] It just didn’t matter because it worked anyway.
After seeing the Jesus Lizard live, one definitely walks away with the impression that you were the wild card in the band. Did you feel like the wild card?
Sort of, yeah. I had this reputation, and I thought certain things were expected of me. Sometimes I’d sort of battle with that. If people wanted me to take my clothes off and jump into the audience, then I didn’t wanna do it. But then three-quarters of the way through the show, I would do it anyway. [Laughs] Usually because of alcohol.
Photo by Dan Parker
Did it feel like you were carrying around another personality?
A little bit, yeah. I’m a nice guy; I’m really easygoing and stuff. But people always talked about how crazy or aggressive I was. I never thought of it as aggressive. The music those guys played sort of drove me nuts. It was fun. It was entertainment. I realized that and tried to be entertaining. But I was injured many times doing that stuff. No broken bones, but bruised nerves and head injuries that were bad enough that we had to either stop shows or cancel the rest of a tour. Once when we were playing in Albuquerque, this kid grabbed my arm while I was on top of the crowd—and I know it wasn’t malicious—but I kind of flipped over and landed on my tailbone. When I went to stand up, my legs wouldn’t work. I pushed myself off to the side and we had to stop the show. I was 37 and had my first-ever Mohawk at the time. So we go the hospital, and the doctor comes in with the x-rays and showed me that there was a fart in my butt that was obscuring what he needed to see. Which I thought was hilarious. It was like Obscured By Clouds, or that Butthole Surfers song, “I Saw An X-Ray Of A Girl Passing Gas.” You really can see farts on x-rays. But it ended up being a bruised nerve, and we had to cancel the rest of that tour.
What about the time you got knocked out in Zurich?
Yeah, I think our tour manager told that story in the book. I’ve seen a video of it, and it nearly made me puke because the audience picks me up and puts me back onstage, and it looks like they’re putting a dead guy up there. Seeing my arm flop against the monitor like that really made me nauseous. But that was funny too because apparently they were wheeling me out on a gurney and I was telling the emergency medical technician that he had a beautiful mustache and “Nicht ist los,” which means “Nothing is wrong.”
At one point you guys had a song called “Metropolis” but changed the title to “Tight N’ Shiny” because you liked to pull your balls out onstage during the song. How did that start?
The first time we played the song, it was an instrumental called “Metropolis.” I think it was like our fourth or fifth show ever. I didn’t know what to do onstage while those guys were playing, so I smoked a cigarette and pulled my balls out. At some point not too long after that, we changed it to “Tight N’ Shiny.” I think Steve Albini might have coined that term. He said it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen.
Do you have any idea why you decided to whip your balls out?
I didn’t know what else to do! I had this old friend from Dallas who did this thing at parties that he called “The Spoon Trick.” We’d be at somebody’s house and he’d go get a spoon and pull one nut out of his zipper and just hold it in place with his nut resting on the spoon. He’d walk around all nonchalant, talking to people casually, and either they’d notice or they wouldn’t. He was completely lackadaisical about it. So he was probably the inspiration.
And that sort of became your thing. Well, one of your things.
Yeah. People would yell, “Take your clothes off!” or “Show us your balls!” Many times they just tore my clothes to shreds, which kinda pissed me off because I didn’t have a lot of clothes and I couldn’t afford to replace them every night.
Mark Todd, your old art teacher, described your lyrics as “startlingly specific, yet ambiguous.” Do you agree with that assessment, and is that what you were going for?
Well, I don’t know what I was going for. I don’t know if they were simultaneously specific and ambiguous, but… okay, “Monkey Trick,” for instance. I think that’s the best song we ever did. And lyrically, I don’t have a clue what the song is about. But it sounds like it could be about something. At the end, it’s talking about “body parts all over this town.” I remember when I was living in Austin, hands and feet started showing up in different dumpsters all around town. I thought that was really horrible but also really interesting. But that part has nothing to do with the rest of the song. So the parts aren’t necessarily associated with each other. But I think if you read the lyrics to that song, it gives an overall feeling. I don’t think I was aiming at a destination, though.
You guys took a lot of shit from your fans and from the indie world in general when you signed to a major label after four records with Touch and Go. What do you remember about that time period? It must’ve been incredibly frustrating.
It’s weird because people considered it selling out. But the way I define selling out is doing something for money that you’re not proud of. If the thing you’re making is what you wanna make and you’re proud of it, you should get as much money as you can for it. Initially, I was apprehensive about going to a major. For one thing, I loved Touch and Go. But it had gotten to the point where it seemed like we couldn’t go a whole lot further with them. And they had always said from the beginning that if we wanted to go somewhere else, we had their blessing.
Do you think you actually lost fans by signing with Capitol?
I think probably so. It’s funny: People who got into us later seem to think of Shot as our best record, and that was the first one we did for Capitol. I only say that because I’ve seen it said on the Interweb. But that was many years after the fact. At the time, though, our audiences were dwindling. I think the move to a major did that. But with Goat and Liar we were touring like crazy, so maybe people were just tired of us. [Laughs]
Were you tired of it before it ended in 1999?
Yeah. After Mac left, it was just a job. A pretty good job, but a job. It was heartbreaking when Mac was basically forced to leave because of his family, which I don’t fault him for at all. He had two kids at the time. I don’t have kids, but if I did, I wouldn’t wanna miss a day of them growing up. And we were touring seven-plus months a year.
There’s a story in the book about your 500th show, and someone says that “David punched out David,” but it doesn’t say which David did the punching. Do you remember that incident?
Yeah, the person who said that was mistaken. It was weird that we left it in there because it didn’t happen like that. David punched some guy at the party that happened after the show, but it wasn’t me. The closest we ever came to blows was in Arizona one time, when we were playing on the same night that Nirvana and Mudhoney were playing across town. I guess they had an earlier show, and some of them came to our show. I was hanging out with everybody and got way too drunk to play—to the point where I could barely stand. I remember reading a review of the show that basically said, “David Yow, you owe me twelve dollars.” At the end of that show, I was just sort of babbling into the microphone, and David knocked it out of my hand. I went backstage all pissed off that he had done that and we almost got into a fight. It was getting close and then we both said, “I don’t wanna fight.” So David and I never got into a fistfight. Sorry, everybody.