The Jesus Lizard
The Jesus Lizard
Since the early Nineties the Jesus Lizard have lured a veritable cult following around their sweaty and sometimes shocking live performances. The band emerged out of the much-lauded Austin, Texas outfit Scratch Acid; founders David Yow and David William Sims surfaced in Chicago in the late Eighties to record with legendary indie producer Steve Albini, best known for his work with Nirvana, and regrouped. The Jesus Lizard subsequently recorded several albumsfilled with nihilistic songs for the Windy City’s Touch and Go label, but broke with the notoriously cranky Albini when it came time to record their 1996 major-label debut on Geffen, Shot
The Jesus Lizard, noted Andy Lewis in the Rough Guide to Rock, put forth a “primordial, often indigestible stew of blues and punk,” and “have consistently managed to reinvigorate a genre often in danger of extinction or self-parody.” Most of the band came of age in the thriving Eighties protoalternative rock scene. Yow grew up in a well-traveled military family that had settled in Texas. He dropped out of college and with Sims formed the art/noise/metal act Scratch Acid. After disbanding in 1987, Yow and Sims found themselves adrift; both wound up separately in Chicago. Sims had joined a band fronted by former Big Black member Steve Albini, while Yow was there to work with guitarist Duane Denison.
Albini’s new act never achieved much before falling apart, but the three musicians coalesced as a band and asked Albini to serve as their producer. They recorded the EP Pure, and shortly after found a drummer to replace a drum machine they had been using. With Mac McNeilly—a member of whom the band once said was much better than a drum machine, because he could carry gear to and from the road van—the band began touring extensively. From the start, they faced criticism as simply a knock-off of Big Black, but their odd, seditious lyrics and Yow’s vocals set them far away from any other act. “Yow’s voice,” wrote Lorraine Ali in Rolling Stone, “flails between shaky, high-strung whines and a deliriously guttural sing-speak, his words cracking hoarsely in strangles of anger and desperation. His lyrics are disjointed and abstract, evoking nightmarish images and sometimes even nervously funny scenarios.”
The band released their first full-length work, Head, again on Touch and Go, in April of 1990. Still touring extensively, they cut another record, Goat, in Albini’s Chicago studio and released it the following year. Liar followed in 1992. It was “scarcely easy listening,” according to the Rough Guides Lewis, “but strangely enthralling.” By this time, a Jesus Lizard stage show was
Members are David Yow (born c. 1961), vocals; David William Sims (born c. 1964), bass; Mac McNeilly (left band, 1996), drums; Duane Denison , guitar; McNeilly replaced by Jim Kimball.
The Jesus Lizard formed in Chicago in late 1989. Yow and Sims were founding members of Scratch Acid; Denison and Kimball were in the Denison-Kimball Trio; Kimball was also with Mule and the Laughing Hyenas, and Denison was a veteran of Cargo Cult; McNeilly was a former member of 86 and Phantom 309. They released several LPs on the Touch and Go label, issued a split single with Nirvana, and signed with Capitol Records in 1995.
Addresses: Record company; —Capitol Records, 1750 North Vine St., Hollywood, CA 90028-5274.
a hot ticket among indie-rock cognoscenti. Yow, like Iggy Pop, was known to mutilate his body onstage, and once even urinated on himself, all while delivering the grisly yet eloquent lyrics that spoke of “violence, bodily corruption and decay,” noted Lewis.
In the early Nineties the Jesus Lizard were often paired with Seattle grunge act Nirvana for tours. They even cut a split single with them, “Puss,” (Nirvana’s side was “Oh, the Guilt.”) in the spring of 1992—after a long negotiation period between executives from both band’s labels. SubPop, Nirvana’s label, wanted to control the pressing, but the Jesus Lizard insisted that their friends at Touch and Go keep control. Released in 1993, the single made waves in Europe and lured even morefans to Yow’s unusual antics. By this point, Nirvana was huge, and some longtime fans may have seen it as a sell-out. But Yow dismissed such charges. “A lot of people may think we’re trying to cash in on Nirvana,” he told Rolling Stone writer Greg Kot at the time. “But this has been in the works for two and a half years, and I still think it’s a good idea.” Still, the Jesus Lizard remained a pigeonholed indie act at the outermost fringes. Though always a favorite with critics, record sales were often disappointing.
Things began to change with their 1994 release Down. In the studio, they managed to boss around Albini for a change, but the contentious atmosphere resulted in another well-received work, and one slightly more accessible. Tracks on Down showcasing Yow’s bizarre imagery included “Horse,” a tale of southern dysfunction, and “Countless Backs of Sad Losers.” The following year, the band played Lollapalooza. On one stop in Cincinnati, Yow took all his clothes off onstage and spent some hours in jail for it. Yet the mainstream alternative tour introduced new fans to the Jesus Lizard experience. Yow was fond of diving into the crowd (and often sported scratches from fans), and reciprocated the hospitality to fans who clambered onstage in a steady stream to do the same. The stage-divers didn’t bother Yow: “They’re just doing their thing and having fun—plus I’m glad so many people are into what we play,” the singer told Keiron Mellotte of Convulsion. However, his bandmate Sims has been known to whack stage transgressors in the head with his bass if they venture too close.
Their growing fan base attracted the attention of major labels, and late in 1995 the Jesus Lizard signed with Capitol. “We were pretty apprehensive about signing, but we tried desperately to find dirt on [Capitol] and couldn’t find any,” Yow told Billboard write. David Sprague. They were also fortunate to have their former publicist at Touch and Go come to work at Capitol’s marketing division. For their 1996 release Shot, they kept to their habit of giving four-letter titles to their albums, but broke with Albini as the fifth Lizard. “Steve played a huge role in our past records, but it was getting to be time to move on,” Yow told Sprague.
Show evidenced the typical Jesus Lizard humor in songs like “Skull of a German” and “More Beautiful than Barbie.” Other tracks, wrote Rob O’Connor in Rolling Stone, “feature Yow’s typical lyrical concerns (twisted romance, violent urges and overflowing toilets).” The critic also praised the new slant given by producer GGGarth Richardson, who toned down the emphatic rhythm assault of past works and instead played up Denison’s guitar. “With the Show record, we spent more money than we’d ever spent and had more time than we’d ever had,” Yow told Jennie Punter of the Toronto Star. “And I think the result is [our] most accomplished album, and it sounds the most like us. We’re not ones to experiment a lot. We’ve never really done that.”
After their major-label debut, the band underwent some changes. Drummer McNeilly left, a casualty of the band’s love of touring and its attendant debauchery; he was replaced by Jim Kimball. Yow tried his hand at directing, working with young punkstersthe Offspring on a video. He professed to hate the commerciality of such endeavors, however, when it came to his own band: “If it was financially conceivable, I’d love to do a video for every song and then not give them to MTV,” Yow told Billboard’s Brett Atwood. “There are few things I loathe more than MTV.”
Jesus Lizard shows were still a hot ticket, and Punter remarked in the Toronto Star that they now enjoy a reputation “as one of the tightest, most dynamic and sonically satisfying live ensembles going.” It seemed unlikely that they would tire of the adrenaline rush of performing, though Yow did once assert that most bands, including his, have a definite creative lifespan. “Even though we are getting older, as long as I’m still physically capable of doing it, there’s nothing I’d rather do than tour,” Yow told Billboards Sprague. “At least this way, I’m able to plan my personal life so that I’m always in a place like Australia in January. It’s a very human way to live.”
Pure (EP), Touch and Go, 1989.
Head, Touch and Go, 1990.
Goat, Touch and Go, 1991.
Liar, Touch and Go, 1992.
Down, Touch and Go, 1994.
Show, Collision Arts/Giant, Geffen, 1996.
Also released the split single “Puss” with Nirvana on Touch and Go, 1993.
The Rough Guide to Rock, Penguin, 1996.
Billboard, March 9, 1996, p. 13; August 3, 1996, p. 102.
Convulsion #4, 1994.
Rolling Stone, April 1, 1993, p. 20; December 15, 1994, p. 97; August 10, 1995, p. 48; May 2, 1996, p. 52.
Toronto Star, January 16, 1997; January 19, 1997.
Additional information for this profile was provided both official and unofficial web pages devoted to the Jesus Lizard.
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