The Jesus Lizard Regenerate Again: David Yow on Acting, the 20th Anniversary of Blue, Leg Wrestling, and Ume

Interviews
09/26/2018
Owen Murphy
photo by Joshua Black Wilkins

For fans, the break-up of a favorite band is often a painful surprise as one is forced to reckon with the fact that you will never hear new music, nor see them live, or in this case, umm, naked, again. Right? I’ve seen a few of my heroes reform (Mission of Burma, Wire, etc.), but never thought I’d get the chance to see The Jesus Lizard again.

I’ve had this band informing my life since my early 20’s starting with the Steve Albini engineered Goat, opening for them at First Avenue (with Mickey Finn — thanks, Pete Davis!)(and, yes, I crapped myself), interviewing singer David Yow and guitarist Duane Dennison twice in New York City, and numerous shows, including when me and 30 of my closest new friends, them, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and Arcwelder played the (Maggie MacPherson’s) Uptown Bar in Minneapolis after a snow storm and freezing temperatures shut the city down. That never happens. Never.

Now that they’ve decided to bring their powerhouse show to a handful of cities, including Seattle, I cannot, CANNOT, recommend enough that you see them. The rhythm section of Mac McNeilly and David Sims (best rhythm section of their generation? Nirvana? Girls Against Boys maybe?), the otherworldly guitar playing of Duane (how the fuck did he make that sound?) Denison, and the stage antics of (please, God, keep that thing to yourself!) David Yow is a must-see.

Almost as important, simply getting to speak to them is often a treat. So when I was offered the chance to talk to Mr. Yow again (oh sure, he’s a nice guy, I like him just fine, but he is a mouth-breather), well, I downed a shot, then another, buckled up, and jumped at the chance. Now an actor in Los Angeles, David Yow spoke to me via phone and shared hilarious anecdotes about Andy Gill (Gang of Four), a certain show in Portland, and Mr. Steve Albini. I love this cat, and hope this interview is as enjoyable to read as it was to, err, conduct?


KEXP: So, this is the third time I've interviewed you for the first time in about 20 years or so. I think I interviewed you at the Capitol Records in New York City, around the era of Blue, I guess. Nice to talk to you again. 

David Yow: Well, you say that now. 

I was looking over some of your recent set lists, and you know people of a certain vintage who've liked you, I don't know, like 25, 30 years I don't know how long it's been. But this is an incredible set of songs. How does it feel for you to throw these together and perform them in front of people and, I would imagine, have people really enjoy them after thinking they'd never hear them or see them again? 

It's been really, really fun. We did six shows last December, and those were really fun, but then this chunk of shows, we increased the number of songs. I think before we had a total of 21 and this time we're doing 26. Which is kind of funny. I mean, I've often been of the school of thought that you should leave them wanting more. I think after 26 songs everybody is pretty sick of us. But it's been a lot of fun and it's lots of smiling faces in the audience, so that's rewarding. 

You're a fairly humorous fellow, and your lyrics are pretty funny in some regard. Is there a favorite lyric that you look back on that maybe you had forgotten about it and rediscovered when you start doing these shows? 

I don't think so. I know at practice in Nashville, David Sims our bass player pointed out that he's really glad that I put "the foregoing heretofore" in a song. That's from "Too Bad About the Fire." 

I don't even know what that means. 

It's a legal term. 

Is there a reason why he liked it? Just because it's maybe something out of the ordinary? 

I think he said, he thinks it's the only song in the world that uses it. All the other words probably show up in some other songs, but not "foregoing heretofore." 

You're an actor now. I actually follow you on Facebook and I find it fairly entertaining. Do you have a favorite type of character or facial hair that you like to employ? 

Oh well, ideally I'd like to be clean shaven, but I hate shaving so the bearded roles have been easy. So far if there's a single kind of character I play, it's kind of a creepy kind of bad guy. But I would like to play pretty much anything and everything, just to see if I can do it. 

While I was in Detroit, I spent the two days shooting a movie called Dinner in America where I play a smarmy band manager and it's my first time having sort of a New York accent. It'll be really interesting to see if it's good or if it's like, "wow, Yow sure can't do a good New York accent." 

I don't imagine that you were a band that had smarmy band manager types, but I imagine you ran into them on occasion. How did you prepare for that role? 

Well, I based it on Jimmy Iovine. When all the record companies were sniffing our butts, we had boiled it down to Capitol and Interscope. Jimmy Iovine was running Interscope, and he's just a fast-talking... just disgusting to me. I went to a wedding — a really nice wedding — at his house. I don't know how old he was, 60 something or another [ed. note: likely mid-40's], and he's wearing leather pants. It's like, come on. 

So, yeah, sort of based on him and then mannerisms of other seedy types that I've met. And you're right: our manager/booking agent is terrific. He's hardworking and he's been a dear friend ever since we started the band. 

This is the famous Botch, right? 

Yeah, Botch. And while we're on the subject, I got to say, considering that I did music for 30 some plus years and now the acting stuff, I consider myself very fortunate in that I have not run into that many of those kinds of people. I spend as little time in West Hollywood as I can. I've been really lucky I don't have to deal with those types. 

Is there a film or a project that you've acted in that we should be looking for right now, that has just come out? 

There's a really good one called High & Outside which is a very depressing story about a minor league baseball player who's just failing at everything. It's doing the festival circuit right now. I'm not sure when it'll be available for the public. 

There's another one coming out December 7th called Under the Silver Lake which is directed by David Robert Mitchell who did It Follows. I have a small but important role in that. I've seen the trailer and it's very enigmatic and really compelling. I can't wait to see that movie. Not too long ago, a movie called An American in Texas came out, and that's a good one. I don't know how you go about seeing it. Anybody interested should go should go to my IMDB page. I think IMDB says I've done like 31 movies or something like that. 

photo by Bekka Berkman

 

I was just looking and it's pretty incredible actually. And I must say right now: handsome, very handsome photos. 

Well, you're kind. It's Photoshop. 

And, I'm blind. Was being the frontman of the Jesus Lizard and I suppose, Scratch Acid was that playing a character or was that absolutely, positively you, as you are in that situation? 

It's me as I am, turned all the way up. We've spoken a few times and you know, I'm a very nice guy. I think that when we play shows, I'm not "not nice"... 

I think you're entertaining as hell. 

Thank you very much, Owen. But yeah, it's kind of "me on 11." 

Did you ever play The Showbox here in Seattle? 

We did. I know Scratch Acid played The Showbox 9 or 10 years ago. 

I'm from Minneapolis and I know you played The Uptown, and that's now closed. And CBGBs is closed. There's talk of tearing down The Showbox which has been there for 70, 80 years to build a 40-story high-end condo building of some sort. What is your sense of the natural, or not natural, progression of these types of clubs closing or not closing? 

Well, nothing lasts forever. It is sad when you fall in love with these places. The Uptown and Maggie Macpherson — I love Maggie and I loved The Uptown. CB's... that was my institution and it was really sad when it shut down. I guess it's inevitable. When I first moved to Austin in 1975, the Armadillo World Headquarters was a venue there that had a pretty amazing history. That's where Zappa and Beefheart recorded Bongo Fury. I saw Zappa there and I saw a few bands there, and then that shut down and became — I think they put a bank there. It's like a pet or a loved one. [Laughing] Anything that you end up liking a whole lot, they're gonna take it away from you. 

It's funny you talk about The Uptown. Again, I'm from Minneapolis and I lived with Maggie for a few months right above OarFolkJokeopus Records store that just closed down, and The Uptown was an institution. You know, it's 6:00 in the morning, they'd start serving breakfast, and then lunch, and dinner. Bands would play and you'd drink your face off. And then the next morning, do it all over again. And it's gone now. And that neighborhood, I think, really lost something important to the vibrancy of it. I do, in some regard, feel like something important was lost, a part of our culture was lost, and it's a shame that that happened. And that's that's why I ask about The Showbox and what these types of places mean. I guess that's the long way around of asking, is there somewhere that you revered that is now gone and you wish wasn't gone? 

Well, yeah. The Uptown, CBGBs, Armadillo. I loved the Kennel Club in San Francisco. It's no longer the Kennel Club, it's a different place, but I loved the people who ran it back in those days. 

photo by Joshua Black Wilkins

 

When I was looking at your set lists you can actually see your set lists at setlist.fm and play each song and the first thing that struck me is, what an unbelievably great drummer Mac [McNeilly] is. What makes Mac great? 

Mac was weaned on and was really influenced by John Bonham (Led Zeppelin) and Mitch Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix Experience) and stuff in the '70s so that that might have something to do with it. And then the power and aggression, sort of a more modern punk-rock thing. And as far as that's concerned, I'm pretty fortunate to have been in a band with Mac and in a band with Rey Washam (Scratch Acid). They're the two best drummers in the world. 

And you look at the rest of the band, you know Duane [Denison]. So I'm a hack guitar player. I'm terrible and I honestly I don't understand how he plays guitar. I don't understand how he gets the notes and noises to work together the way he does. From your perspective, what makes him unique and interesting in regard to playing guitar? 

I think he always challenges himself and he practices all the time whether he's playing in the band or not. He's like a chemist. It's like a recipe using ingredients that you wouldn't necessarily think would go well together. And he comes up with strange and marvelous combinations of notes that don't really occur to other people. He's very hard on himself. He's very self-critical. Oh, I said, "hard on." [Laughs

Why do you think he's so hard on himself? 

Well, because that's the way you ought to be. You try to be better than what you are. 

You told me a story once I think it was in Portland of getting (aroused) on stage. [Laughing] That was 20 years ago you told me that story, and it still stays with me. 

That's the only time I ever got any "weight" on stage. That show was over the top. It was crazy. It's a small venue but it was packed to the gills like, I mean, I think they stacked people on top of each other. And when we'd finish a song, it just sounded like a screaming jet engine meets Madison Square Garden. It was just over the top. There were other people in the audience who were not fully clothed or whatever, and then this girl got up in her bra and underwear, and it was just mayhem. It was great. 

Ed. note: slightly NSFW footage of said show above, shot at Satyricon in Portland, OR 11/1992  ]

What is a Jesus Lizard show like now? I would imagine you're still radically feeding off amazing audience interaction, as it were? 

Yeah. I'm not sure if they're as dangerous or chaotic or out of hand as they used to be, largely because I'm near death. But the crowds are incredible and there's a lot of smiling faces. So that's pretty cool. And they're bigger venues, too. I think the smallest we're playing on this tour is twelve hundred. On that show that went so crazy, I think capacity was 350 or something. Some tiny little place. 

That must blow your mind that so many people want to see you play after all these years. 

Oh man, it completely blows my mind because the venue in Austin, the capacity is two and a half thousand people. I'm pretty sure it will not sell out, but as far as I know, we've already sold 1900 tickets, and that freaks me the fuck out. [Laughs

I think you deserve it. You guys wrote a ton of fucking great songs that were totally unique to you and there's real value in that. I'm not sure the rest the world really got when you were doing it. 

Well, thank you. I don't know exactly what to attribute it to. Just word of mouth, or the passing of time, or the internet. I think the Internet. I know there's a pretty fair percentage of people who may not have been born or were not old enough to see us in the old days who seem pretty excited about it now. 

Does the aggressiveness of your sound feel different in this social and political climate than it did in the mid-'90s

Not that I've noticed. Partially because we're not creating anything new, we're just kind of doing the same old stuff. If we were writing new songs, maybe that would present itself more. 

Is there talk of writing new songs? 

There's been talk, I mean, nothing will happen. I haven't been calling these "reunion shows", I've been calling them "reenactment shows" because that's kind of what we're doing. A second reenactment show. 

So there's talk of new music. What would it take to get you over the top to make new music? 

I have no idea. I don't have much desire to do that. There are other things I'd rather focus on. I feel like we did what we did, and that we kind-of ran our course. But also because of these reenactment shows and the ones we did in 2009, I have finally learned to quit saying "never." So, you know, I'm not going to say it's impossible, but I kind of doubt anything that will happen. 

Are there plans for more shows more "reenactments"  after this run? 

No, there are not. 

That's the wrong answer. The answer should be, "yes, there is, Owen."

I could say that, but I don't want to lie to you. 

Thank you. 20th anniversary of Blue this year. As I recall, I think you told me a story that [producer] Andy Gill was a leg wrestler. Do I have that right? 

Yes. We were at a bar, and at one point there was kind-of dead air, and I said, "Hey, you want to leg wrestle?" and he said, "Yeah, sure." And so I laid down on my back, and he goes, "what the fuck are you doing?" And that's not the way. He knew how to leg wrestle. His methodology was that you sit in the chairs facing each other, and one person has their knees on the outside the knees of the other person, and the other has the inside, and the inside tries to open their legs while the other one tries to keep them shut. And so we did that at a table facing each other, and any passersby or anybody else in the restaurant couldn't really see what's going on underneath the table, but above it, these two men are going "AAARRGGHHH" screaming as hard as they can. It was pretty funny. 

It's still funny. What are your memories of the making of Blue and its impact 20 years later? 

Working with Andy was a blast. I was thrilled and honored to get to know him and we became friends. After spending all day recording, the other guys would go home and go to sleep, and Andy and I would go out and hit the bars. One night he really wanted soft shell crabs, and so we found a place downtown Chicago that serves soft shell crab. We went there and he suggested that I try ume. It's a sea urchin. It's the gooey, nasty shit inside of a little sea urchin. He said, [putting on a British accent] "Imagine yourself in the Bahamas. The water's right above your knee and the sun's going down. It's perfect, just fucking perfect." And I was going, "great, man." And then it was the most horrible crap I'd ever put in my mouth. Sitting at the table, I covered my mouth with my hand and threw up probably five times over and over, and just sort of swallowing it, and the whole time Andy was going, "You're a good man, you're a good man, you're a good man." I won't eat ume again. 

Did he know that was going to happen? Was he setting you up? 

Well, the more I found out about it, some people really, really like it, and if it's just right, it's supposedly outstanding. But if it's wrong, it's really... this was like shit and rotten eggs and bum socks and just, it was just horrible. 

Last question. Steve Albini has maybe softened over the years. I don't know the last time you spoke to him. What are your thoughts of older maybe a different Steve Albini than the one you worked with 25 years ago? 

I think that if you ask Steve right now he would still say that I'm the best friend he ever had. We were pretty close, we were pretty tight. We spent a lot of time together. We would shoot pool sometimes for eight or 10 hours a day. But I do think that — you know in those days — Steve lived in a very black and white world. It was like this, or it was like that, and there was no medium. I'm not sure what to attribute the change to. It might be having a wife. That's my guess. But yeah, I talk to him semi-regularly and he's much more open to allowing others to have their own opinions without shutting them down saying, they don't know what they are talking about. But, also, he's very, very smart. So, very often — like it or not — he was probably right. 

There's this weird sort of hypocrisy in Steve. I mean, he recorded Nirvana but refused to record U2. I don't really get it. He's recorded over a thousand bands, but as far as I know the only one he said no to was was U2. That doesn't really make sense to me. There are plenty others you could say no to. 

Why was he the right guy for you guys? 

I don't know. 

It sure sounded good. 

Well, it's funny. When I listen to other things that he did, like The Breeders or The Pixies or some other bands, I really preferred the drum sounds he got with others. Like on Goat, to me, the snare drum sounds like a stick hitting a phonebook. Steve was relatively experimental with us — I think maybe more so than with other bands — and so the process was really fun. We got some pretty weird ideas, particularly about recording vocals and it was fun and entertaining. 

[ ed. note: In addition to being an actor and vocalist, Yow also released a book of cat illustrations titled Copycat: And a Litter of Other Cats (out now via Akashic books), and Owen forgot to ask him about this. // photo by Kevin Scanlon ]

 


The Jesus Lizard perform this Friday, September 28th at the Neptune Theatre in Seattle, all ages. 

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