Balancing the Scales
Coughing, hacking, and snorting back phlegm, David Yow is half asleep and trying to sound coherent. It's 12:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, and Yow is in a Montreal hotel room, resting between concerts while on tour with his infamously aggressive band, the Jesus Lizard. He has no idea he was scheduled to do an interview at this time. "No, nobody ever tells me," he growls.
This is one sleeping dog that most people would rather let lie. The members of the Jesus Lizard aren't exactly known for their good manners. In 1995, while playing Lollapalooza in Peoria, Illinois, the band's bassist swung his instrument at an audience member's head. He didn't miss. On the same tour, Yow repeatedly exposed himself on stage, contorting his genitals in a strange fashion during the song "Tight and Shiny." He got arrested for it in Cincinnati, and while in detention discovered that the policemen wanted his autograph. He obliged and wrote, "You suck shit. David Yow."
Perhaps Mr. Yow would prefer to reschedule this interview at a more convenient time? "No, we can do it now," he replies, clearing his throat.
Yow, age 37, has mellowed just a trifle over the past couple of years. He's actually a pretty nice guy. He may look like a crazy cracker with a violent streak -- cowboy boots, greasy hair, gap-toothed grin -- and he certainly sounds like one on the group's records, shrieking in his tonsil-tattered voice about lighting toads on fire and torturing his landlord. But in conversation, he speaks thoughtfully and openly (between hawking up loogies) about his music, his songs, and the evolution of his band.
The Jesus Lizard recently released its second album for Capitol Records, Blue. Despite its eyebrow-raising song titles, such as "Postcoital Glow" and "Until It Stopped to Die," the disc is the band's most accessible yet. Amid the twisted guitar riffs and bowel-shaking bass lines are hummable melodies and catchy choruses. The band even uses samplers (check out the Eastern-style strings on "Eucalyptus"), which long-time Jesus Lizard fans probably never expected to hear.
"I think we wanted to make less of a punch-in-the-neck record, because we've done that enough," says Yow. "We wanted to make something that was a little bit more moody."
Who knows what Blue would have sounded like had the band stuck with its original producer, John Cale. It was an unlikely partnership: The stately Welshman who cofounded the Velvet Underground teamed up with a quartet of uncouth sleazemongers from the Midwest. It was only a matter of days before Cale and the band parted. Members of the Jesus Lizard later complained to reporters that Cale had been demanding and inflexible in the studio. Yow told one Illinois paper simply, "He was a jerk."
Along came Andy Gill, onetime guitarist for the seminal punk outfit Gang of Four. Like Cale, Gill was not an obvious choice. He favors clean, angular guitars and pop hooks, while the Jesus Lizard favors wild, flailing guitars and blood-curdling howls. Nevertheless, says Yow, "We really hit it off famously. It was, by definition, a collaboration -- much more than we'd ever done in the past. There was a bunch of give-and-take on his part and our parts, good ideas and bad ideas. It was fun." As a result, Gill's influence can be heard all over Blue, from the tense rhythm of the opening salvo, "I Can Learn," to the dramatic chords of the closing track, "Terremoto."
"A lot of the songs are certainly more chorus-oriented. That was the idea of Andy," Yow explains. "We'd say, 'Jeez, Andy, don't you think repeating this chorus twice is enough? Do we really need to do it three times?' And he'd say, 'Well, you know, I like that pop music. Come on, David, do it again!'"
The Jesus Lizard has been the antithesis of pop music for its entire nine-year career. The band -- which includes David Wm. Sims on bass, Duane Denison on guitar, and Jim Kimball on drums -- is the end product of some of the most uncompromising acts in indie-rock history. The lineage begins in Chicago in the early '80s with Steve Albini and his influential band Big Black. Grafting the metallic screech of hardcore onto the fascistic rhythms of a drum machine, Big Black created some of the most violent and inhuman music of the decade, culminating in the 1987 album Songs About Fucking. Meanwhile Yow and Sims were living in Austin and playing with an out-of-control noise-band called Scratch Acid. Lyrically the two groups dealt with similar issues -- murder, sexual abuse, and arson, to name a few -- and it wasn't long before their paths crossed.
In 1988, after both groups split up, Albini asked Sims to move to Chicago and join his new band, Rapeman. It was a short-lived project: Workers at the record-pressing factory refused to handle a product with such a name, and Rapeman broke up the following year. Sims, now bandless, brought Yow to Chicago, and the two formed the core of the Jesus Lizard. The band landed on Chicago's premier indie label Touch and Go, which Albini had long called home. Albini served as producer for the Jesus Lizard's 1989 debut, Pure.
This was well before the clean-shorn, bespectacled Albini became one of the hottest record-producers in the music business. At the time he was an indie purist and a merciless critic of major labels. He was also known, then as now, as being arrogant, hostile, overbearing, and unpleasant. To this day most bands that employ Albini do so only once. But the Jesus Lizard used him on seven consecutive albums and EPs.
That is, until the band signed to Capitol Records late in 1995. Fans cried "sellout!" but it was a moot point. The Jesus Lizard was just one on a long list of indie artists that had joined a major label. The band's Capitol debut, Shot (1996), utilized the high-powered production of GGGarth Richardson, who had already worked wonders for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine. The same year Shot appeared, Albini served as producer on the Bush album, Razorblade Suitcase.
"A larger budget," according to Yow, is the only difference between the indies and the majors. "Which allows us the luxury of spending more time in the studio," he adds. "I think on Touch and Go, we recorded and mixed Down  in nine days, and that's the longest we'd ever spent on a record. And Blue took a little over seven weeks. So it's kind of nice to have that kind of time."
Yow claims that Capitol hasn't pressured the band to tone down its sound or produce hit singles. "Oh, they would love to have them," he says. "But I told them, 'Good luck! I don't think it's going to happen. You heard us when you signed us.'"
The Jesus Lizard hasn't lost its edge, but it has grown up a bit. The music still packs a punch ("Cold Water" is as nightmarish as anything from the band's past), but the sound is less raw and more focused. In concert Yow continues to stage-dive like a preteen punk rocker, but he no longer does the "Tight and Shiny." He's even thinking about a second career: Having designed most of the record sleeves for his albums (Yow was a onetime art student), he foresees becoming a graphic designer and visual artist. He has a wife and a house in Indiana and thinks he might "drop" a kid soon, though not until after the band calls it quits.
"Nothing lasts forever, except dragons and the Rolling Stones," says Yow. "We signed a three-record deal with Capitol, and now we've done two, so I'm sure we'll do at least one more. After that I don't know what." He feigns a world-weary tone and says, "You know, we're all getting pretty old. I'm tired most of the time."
Yow brings up one last lung-cookie and muses, "Well, now that I'm up, I guess I'll go get some coffee." Even if this grizzled Lizard is getting ready to have its last blast, it'll certainly do it in style.
The Jesus Lizard performs with the Stanford Prison Experiment at 11:30 p.m. on Friday, May 29, at Respectable Street Cafe, 518 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $9. Call 561-832-9999.
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