DAVID YOW: THE JESUS LIZARD/SCRATCH ACID
Sixteen years ago I was helping a sweaty and shirtless David Yow make his way back to the stage of The Horseshoe Tavern where his band, The Jesus Lizard, were putting on another ferocious performance. Today I find myself on the other end of the phone talking about that band’s legacy to the legendary singer himself. For ten years between 1989 and 1999, Yow made his living as the most entertaining front-man in rock, who just happened to front, the greatest live band that these eyes and ears have ever had the pleasure to witness. Either with The Jesus Lizard or before that with the seminal Scratch Acid, when he wasn’t crowd-surfing his way to the back wall of any particular venue they were playing, he was getting arrested for exposing himself, getting barred from performing because of said crowd-surfing or getting knocked out from flying beer bottles. No matter how you sliced it; you weren’t going to forget it!
But time marches on and 2013 sees David Yow in a much different place. Having moved from Chicago to Los Angeles some years earlier, he is now one of many actors who are desperately trying to land roles in the unforgiving landscape that is Hollywood. Ever the versatile artist, Yow has done work as a professional photo retoucher and has also had his drawings subjected to multiple art exhibitions showcasing his unique talent. Though he says he no longer desires a career in music, he has recently released his debut solo record entitled Tonight You Look Like a Spider, via Joyful Noise Records. A far cry from The Jesus Lizard’s noise rock antics, Spider is an instrumental-only venture that Yow wrote, performed and recorded himself with nothing more than a basic understanding of Pro Tools, a rented trombone and the squeeze of a fat cat (his words). The debut release finds Yow trolling the darker corners of Edvard Grieg’s neighbourhood only to end up in a David Lynchian nightmare.
chorusVERSEchorus had the pleasure of speaking to David Yow about the guilty pleasures of Radiohead, the sex appeal of Benicio del Toro and everything else in between.
So, fifteen years in the making, how good does it feel to finally have Tonight You Look Like a Spider released to the world?
David Yow: Well you say finally, but in reality I had started it in ’98 or ’99 and than had blown it off for a number of years. I mean when I was making it, the prospect of releasing it to the world wasn’t on my mind. It was more for entertaining myself or maybe seeing what my friends thought of it. I had spoken with Mike Patton about it being released on Ipecac but we hemmed and hawed and it became obvious that it wasn’t going to happen, so I blew it off for a few years. Sometime later my friend Adam Harding was putting out a record on Joyful Noise called Dumb Numbers and so I called Joyful Noise up and asked them if they would like to release it, and they were only to happy to.
The majority of the reviews that I have read have been positive; have you been surprised by people’s response to the album?
DY: It really, really makes me happy. I would have been perfectly happy if everybody hated it, but the fact that folks say they like it and seem to enjoy it the more they listen to it, makes me go… “what the fuck?” , but I think it’s great.
I think people are so taken with it because there is nothing else out there like it.
DY: Maybe on the whole, but there are pieces in there that are taken from things like Angelo Badalamenti or maybe even, and I am a little embarrassed to say this, Radiohead. When I was making this I was listening to Radiohead a lot and I really, really did not want to like Radiohead but I ended up liking it a bunch. So, I think there is some Radiohead in there, a lot of Edvard Grieg and also at the time I was really into noise music and I was going to this place here in L.A. called Il Coral, which put on all of these noise rock bands. I don’t listen to that at all anymore though.
Who would have figured David Yow to be a Radiohead fan?
DY: Yeah, I had heard the first couple records and didn’t think much of it, but then Kid A came out and it had that song ‘National Anthem’, which sounds like The Butthole Surfers meets Pink Floyd, if either of them cared about pop music.
‘National Anthem’ has that killer bass riff, and you know a little about bass because weren’t you Scratch Acid’s bass player in the very beginning?
DY: I was. The funny thing is that I came up with an almost identical bassline back in those early Scratch Acid days. Just a few different up strums as opposed to down strums.
Do you think your time with the bass, as limited as that was, has helped shape the sound of Tonight You Look Like a Spider?
DY: Um…I don’t know how to answer that. The biggest reason why my record sounds so different than anything else out there is probably because I can’t play guitar or bass and I haven’t learned musical theory. Everybody else has a better idea of what there doing, I guess.
How about production? In your career with The Jesus Lizard you have worked with such notable names as Steve Albini, Garth Richardson and Andy Gill; did your experiences with them help you make your album?
DY: Of those three, I would say Andy Gill the most. Steve does have a lot of great ideas about mic placement and technique. Actually, Steve has a warehouse of great ideas but Andy was more into putting weird textural things into songs. Really the biggest influence was Alex Hacke from Einsturzende Neubauten, because he was the one who showed me how to work Pro Tools and he showed me how the possible randomness of trying out different things can work in music. I give Alex all the credit for that.
You mentioned Albini’s mic placement, which immediately makes me think back to Jesus Lizard shows when you were essentially swallowing the microphone or doing any number of obscene gestures with it. It sounded on the original recordings like you were doing some of the same things; being the recording wizard that he is, did this drive Steve insane?
DY: He would have me do anything I wanted. In fact, he would encourage me to drink more. I was so fucking drunk during some of them, I have absolutely no recollection of some of those recording sessions. I remember we did one take where I had the microphone taped to my headphones and I was bent over singing into a large trashcan. We did another take where I was laying on my back with a hand held mic, had another mic on a boom stand over my stomach that was pointed towards my mouth and then there was a third mic that was hanging from the ceiling all the way down to the floor that I was suppose to swing around my body once I started singing.
Sounds like a David Lynch film.
DY: Yeah, it was a weird situation.
You mentioned your lack of sobriety during some of those Jesus Lizard recording sessions; the band’s back catalog was remastered a few years back, so I was wondering if hearing those songs again was kind of like hearing them for the first time?
DY: Golly, you know I actually haven’t listened to them. I was here in Los Angeles and Steve and Bob Weston worked on them back in Chicago. Actually, I did listen to Down because I thought Down sounded like poop, but I think they did a reasonable job of fixing it.
So are you happy they remastered the albums?
DY: Oh yeah. Though I thought they already sounded good.
We spoke earlier about Badalamenti influencing your work and of course he is famous for his work on “Twin Peaks”; has anyone approached you about scoring a film or TV show? Would you have any interest?
DY: I haven’t been approached yet. I kind of thought that might happen, but I don’t think I want to do that, since I don’t have music in any other part of my life right now. Also, not being a musician, I wouldn’t even know how to approach something like that.
The Jesus Lizard and Scratch Acid reunion tours went over well critically and financially, did they seem like victory laps to you?
DY: They were a lot of fun, way more fun then I could have possibly imagined. Before we got back together and started rehearsing, I thought why bother, it’s stupid, we already broke up. I mean, you wouldn’t go back to your old girlfriend, right? But I can’t believe how much fun it was, in particular that first show at the All Tomorrow’s Parties gig in London. I was thoroughly scared and I told my girlfriend before it started that I wasn’t going to take my shirt off and I wasn’t going to jump into the crowd. Well, I think it was ten seconds into the first song and I threw myself into the crowd!
What I have gleaned from past interviews is that the other guys are willing to record new music but you are not, is that right? Why not?
DY: I just don’t know how we’d do it. I mean we all live in different corners of the country and I just have no desire to do that.
Well if we can’t get new music out of you, I guess the next best thing is a new book. What can you tell me about this Jesus Lizard book that Johnny Temple from Girls Against Boys is putting out on his publishing label (Akashic Books). Whose idea was it to put out the book?
DY: It was Johnny’s idea. Well, it’s really cool. It’s going to have our bios, concert posters, a list of all the shows we did, lots of cool pictures and some great written pieces from Albini, Mike Watt and Guy and Joe from Fugazi. In fact, I just sent the cover proof to the printer yesterday.
I cannot wait to get my hands on it!
DY: I think it’s worthwhile, even for somebody who isn’t interested in the band. Now we just have to decide what to include for a special edition, whether it’s a seven inch or something else.
Speaking of Girls Against Boys, I saw that you joined them on stage in Europe for a few songs. How much fun was it performing with your old touring partners?
DY: That was so much fun. They are dear old friends whom I never get to see anymore. That was fun and then my girlfriend and I took a vacation through Vienna, Budapest and Prague.
So it is accurate that you no longer wish to pursue a music career and that you want to focus solely on acting?
DY: That’s right. I don’t have any desire to do music at all. I imagine there will be collaborations; Qui has reformed and I did some stuff for their new record; my friend Adam Harding has asked me to sing a song on the new Dumb Numbers record, but as far as a career goes…I am much more excited about acting.
If this is the end of your musical career, what do you look back on as being the true highlights or favourite moments?
DY: Um…..(long pause) definitely that first reunion show at All Tomorrow’s Parties…(another long pause) Oh, I know! On Halloween in 1996 Shellac were going to play a gig dressed up as The Sex Pistols but they needed a Johnny Rotten, so they asked me. We were on tour in Europe that July when I got the call, so I took that time to get my hands on all The Sex Pistols video I could find and I came up with a wardrobe and we played that Halloween gig as The Sex Pistols. That was one of the greatest nights of my life!
So how has it been living the life of an actor? Have you been on a lot of auditions? Have you been offered parts out right?
DY: Most of the roles that I have gotten have been because the director wanted me, which makes it nice and easy, but it’s been really disappointing that I have yet to get a role through an audition.
Are there particular actors that you try and study or pattern your acting style after?
DY: Not really, I mean there are actors who are always up for parts that I would like to play, people like Steve Buscemi, Michael Shannon or Benicio del Toro. Actually, I was at a movie star's birthday party a few years ago and it was a star-studded event; Brad Pitt was there and a bunch of other people, but I saw Benicio del Toro standing there and I went up to him and I said ‘I don’t want to bother you but I just wanted to say thank you’ and then I tried to scurry away. He was so nice though, he stopped me and asked me what my name was and we talked for ten or fifteen minutes. And I tell you what, I am not a gay man, but if I was… I’d jump that motherfucker! He is so handsome.
Finally, we always like to finish interviews with what’s next up for our subjects; so what is on the horizon for you in the near future?
DY: Well, tomorrow morning we are shooting some additional footage for this movie we have been working on for a while called “High and Outside”, which my girlfriend is producing. Also, I am working on a book of “cat puns” that will be coming out on Akashic. Basically it is a bunch of my drawings set to any words that feature C A T in the English language. For instance: catatonic features a cross-eyed cat next to bottles of Tonic!