By any measure, we are living in the age of indie rock reunions. The line-up for this year’s New York All Tomorrow’s Parties looked like a fantasy from some alterna-wormhole, with Suicide, the Feelies and Boss Hog sharing the bill with more au currant acts like Animal Collective and No Age. Also on that bill was the Jesus Lizard, playing a follow-up to the Pitchfork set that marked the first time the band had seared a stage with their pigfucked ferocity since quietly bowing out in Sweden more than a decade ago.
By most accounts, the Jesus Lizard’s performances were highlights of both fests, a promising prelude to the tour the band is set to undertake beginning this week. It makes sense, though, as it was as a live act during the late ’80s and ’90s that the band made their reputation, singer David Yow becoming infamous for naked fits of fury that landed him both in the hospital and jail. Such antics might have overshadowed a lesser band, but the equation struck by guitarist Duane Denison, bassist David Sims and drummer Mac McNeilly was equal or greater to Yow’s behavior, a perfect balance of precision and severity.
Still, the Jesus Lizard’s records weren’t shabby. Working with Steve Albini, who gave a natural dryness to the band’s dementia, they recorded four albums and an EP for hometown indie powerhouse Touch and Go (the succinctly titled Pure EP, Head, Goat, Liar, and Down) before jumping ship to Capitol for their final two records (Shot and Blue). Goat and Liar remain the touchstones of the band’s catalog, with songs like “Mouth Breather” (from the former) and “Boilermaker” (from the latter) perfectly encapsulating the pounding rhythms, lacerating guitar riffs and rabid growling that characterized their best work. Touch and Go recently remastered and reissued those first five records, partially prompting the band to get back in circulation as well.
I caught up with Yow, who was relaxing in his living room in Los Angeles during the few weeks off before the tour.
You’ve mostly been doing festivals so far. Do you feel a kindred spirit with the younger bands you’ve been playing with or do you feel disconnected from that crowd?
David Yow: Some of them I feel a kindred spirit with, some of whom are friends, like the Drones and Shellac and the Dirty Three. There’s a fun connection playing these shows and hanging out.
At Pitchfork, fans picked the set. Was there anything unexpected or particularly difficult?
DY: No, I feel like if you talk to anybody who really likes the Jesus Lizard and ask them to pick their 20 favorite songs, they’re all going to be pretty much the same. There really were no surprises.
Did doing the Scratch Acid reunion prior to this have any bearing on getting the Jesus Lizard back together?
DY: The Scratch Acid thing taught me to quit saying “never.” Before that, I think I said that the Jesus Lizard would never get back together and Scratch Acid would never get back together. When I said those things, I thought they were true and never anticipated that we would play again.
Yet you seem to be pretty adamant with these shows being it, that that’s it when these shows are done.
DY: That’s the plan. As of right now, we plan on finishing at the end of November in Chicago. It’s largely because, if you look at other bands who have reunited, like Slint or the Breeders, it seemed like a really big deal, it was really fun and everyone had a blast. Then they keep going and no one seems to care. I think that’s sort of embarrassing and humiliating and I don’t want that to happen. I mean, I don’t have any desire to write new songs with the band.
It also seems like you’re not getting naked at these shows.
DY: I’m 49 years old—c’mon, nobody wants to see that! My girlfriend doesn’t want to see that!
But don’t you think people are expecting that to some extent? Don’t you think there might be some people who will be disappointed?
DY: There are. There were actually some beautiful young ladies who asked me to take my clothes off, and I told them that I didn’t think it was appropriate. Back in the old days of the band, I definitely felt that it was expected and that kind of was a deterrent. I wasn’t into doing what was expected.
Did you feel like those antics overshadowed the music at times?
DY: I don’t think I did then, but now when I see pictures, I think, “Who the fuck did I think I was taking all my clothes off in front of thousands of people?” I don’t know what the hell was wrong with me.
At the time, did you have an intention to shock people?
DY: I don’t remember intending to shock. It was probably just too much booze.
Did you ever wake up the next day and think, “What the hell was I doing last night?”
DY: Oh yeah!
We were talking about these other reunions that seem to be common place now, and every time a band gets back together, the revisionist history is that they were so under-appreciated during their time. But I saw you at Irving Plaza and you’re playing the same place this time around. Did you feel under-appreciated at the time?
DY: No, never, not that I recall. I always felt that we were blessed. We were all making a living at it, and I owned a house and didn’t have to have another job. So no, I never felt under-appreciated.
At the same time, do you think people appreciate the band more now?
DY: Yeah, I am very flattered by the hub-bub about us, but I don’t get it. I’m not sure if I understand what’s going on. I don’t know if it’s attributable to the internet or what, but it seems like people are more excited about these shows than they were when we were in the band. Which is cool—I’m happy about that and, like I said, really flattered.
Do you think it’s like you don’t know what you have until it’s gone?
DY: I don’t know about that, because I think for a lot of the people it was never “gone”—it’s something new.
The people who didn’t see you before?
DY: Yeah, some of the younger folks who’ve never seen us before.
How do you feel about being associated with the term “pigfuck?”
DY: Pigfuck? I haven’t heard that in about 17 years! I don’t know, it doesn’t really enter my picture.
Given these records coming out again, are there any that are particular favorites or ones that you loath at all?
DY: I’m not much of a fan of Down, although the reissue sure sounds better. Well, all of the reissues sound so much better.
Why don’t you care for Down?
DY: The production is kind of crappy, and I don’t care for most of the songs on it. I think it could have been a lot better both in terms of production and songwriting.
Any that stick out as ones that you are particularly proud of?
DY: I don’t think so. I’ve always thought that “Monkey Trick” was the best song we ever did, but I still think, even with the remasters, it’s never been done justice as far as the recording goes.
DY: It just doesn’t seem as monstrous or huge as I think it should, and I don’t know how to fix that.
Was there a thought behind giving the albums all four-letter titles?
DY: Yeah, but I don’t remember what it was. I think at the time we were making jokes about how four-letter words have such a bad reputation. And we liked the idea of giving them all some continuity besides just being the same band. Like, for the most part, Black Flag had Raymond Pettibon do their covers—we liked that continuity.
Given the subject matter that a lot of your songs deal with, is it cathartic for you to play?
DY: You mean as far as exorcising demons? Probably not...
Or even as far as getting some aggression out.
DY: Honestly, I’m not aware of it, but there’s probably a degree of that.
Do you have any concerns about releasing the reissues with Touch and Go given the present state of the label?
DY: No concerns. I’m not worried about them not selling well. I don’t expect them to sell that much anyway as the current state of the music world is pretty fucked as far as people buying things when they can get them for free. I don’t expect we’re going to get rich off of these reissues. I just think it’s sad that Touch and Go has been forced to close their doors. Other labels are doing the same thing. Ipecac has almost stopped their business, and it’s a sad statement on how things are in the music business.
You seemed at least somewhat anti–major label for a good portion of your career and then you signed to Capitol. Was there something that changed your mind or made you ultimately decide to do that?
DY: I think it was the money. They offered us a lot of money to do three records, and it allowed me to buy a house. As happy as we were with Touch and Go, they couldn’t offer that.
Do you regret doing that at all?
DY: No, not at all. If it had fucked up my friendship with Corey (Rusk, owner of Touch and Go), then I would, but Corey and I are still dear friends and we always will be. He understood and gave us his blessing.
In interviews I’ve read, you’ve described the period after Mac left as being like a job.
DY: Yeah, but that wasn’t the fault of the major label. That was just the fact that Mac was gone. We had signed a contract, and if we had broken up when Mac left, we would have owed the record label a shit ton of money. So we were kind of forced to continue on without Mac, and once he was gone, it was just a job. And that’s part of why doing these reunion shows is such a blast because I absolutely love Mac and I had been out of contact with him for about 12 years. It’s so good... I feel like Peaches and Herb, “Reunited and it feels so goood.” It’s really great to be spending time—with Duane and David too—but especially with Mac.
Does it kind of give the band a happier ending?
DY: Um... sure, okay.
What I was going to say before about you describing it as a job is on the other hand, you were making money and you had Andy Gill (of Gang of Four) producing your record. You must have at least kind of felt like you “made it,” for lack of a better term.
DY: Yeah, but “made it” or “success” is kind of relative. It depends on how you define it. I always, at least as far as being in the band, defined success as if you can support yourself doing what you love. None of us were ever wealthy, but simply being able to do the band and not have to have a regular job, I think that’s a roaring success. And then if you add to it getting to work with Andy Gill or being friends with Timothy Leary—stuff like that is just really cool extras.
I realize this a big what-if, but if Mac didn’t quit, do you think the band could have continued on indefinitely?
DY: I don’t know about indefinitely. There’s only so much you can tap from four guys. Like I said earlier, I don’t have any desire to write new songs with the Jesus Lizard. It’s kind of a case of having been there, done that.
So does doing Qui give you things that you hadn’t gotten from the Jesus Lizard?
DY: Exactly. It’s all new and fresh and exciting. The guys in Qui have taught me how to sing, and I can hit keys and pitches at the right place, which I suppose I did some with the Jesus Lizard, but there were never harmonies or anything like that.
Do you feel like with the Jesus Lizard that you have a legacy to live up to?
DY: There’s a degree of pressure with our reputation. It’s really nice that people say things like “greatest live band,” but that’s a little hyperbolic. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves as well. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves, and just like always, we play as hard as we can. When we played in England a few months ago, we saw our old tour manager from when we’d play overseas. He said that we only have one speed, off or on, and that’s the way we play.