David Yow—the beer-swilling, crowd-surfing, lunging, occasionally dick-waving, shirtless, human sweat-mop frontman of post-punk iconoclasts the Jesus Lizard and Scratch Acid—is quite the congenial dude, despite the juicy belches meted out in my ear as he threw back a couple of cold ones while on the phone from Los Angeles.
During our conversation, Yow doled out props to his ex-Jesus Lizard mates (the influential Chicago minimalist noise-punks are now officially done) and even owned up to crying before their first reunion show; he also praised Nirvana, buddy Henry Owings of Chunklet fame, and Sarah Lipstate of Brooklyn’s dreamy drone heroes Noveller.
The aspiring actor admitted he’d rather be delving into his art and film rather than terrorizing audiences onstage. It wasn’t all wine and roses with Yow, though. Vitriol-laced moments were reserved for Jim Kimball (ex-drummer for the JL on their final album, 1998’s Blue), and Mudhoney and Soundgarden apparently once made his shit list.
Sound of the City caught Yow before he jetted off to Austin to prepare for yet another reunion tour—this time with Scratch Acid, the Texas noise-rock skuzz band he started in the mid-eighties with guitarist Brett Bradford, future JL bassist David Wm. Sims and drummer Rey Washam.
Which of your old bands do you enjoy playing with more: Scratch Acid or the Jesus Lizard?
[Laughs] Um, wow. That’s a good question. I don’t know if I know the answer [laughs]. Well, several years ago when Touch & Go [Records] had their anniversary thing, Scratch Acid played three shows and that was a lot of fun. But then a year or two later, a couple years ago, we did a whole big tour with the Jesus Lizard and I don’t know which one was more fun—probably the Jesus Lizard. That tour was a blast and it was really, really great. But I don’t feel really fair saying that. We’re going to have to talk again after this Scratch Acid tour is over.
When did Scratch Acid break up originally before you reformed to play the T & G anniversary and those shows in 2006?
We broke up sometime in 1987.
Since you guys have played so few shows in the last 25 years, what level of preparation is there for this coming tour?
50% of the band—the drummer, Ray and the guitar player, Brett—live in Austin, Texas, which is sorta where the band was from. David [Wm. Sims] lives in Chicago and I live in L.A. David and I are going to converge on Austin so we got five days of practice before we start this little tour. I think that’s pretty much what we did a few years ago—four or five days of practice.
When you first started singing for Scratch Acid in 1986, was there a frontman (or woman) who inspired you or that you modeled yourself after?
I hate to think that I modeled myself after anybody. But there’s definitely people who I admired so much that I probably did. I probably was more like Nick Cave than I would have really liked to be. I was really into Lee Ving [of FEAR] and Johnny Rotten and Lux Interior [of the Cramps]. Right before the punk rock, I was going to art school. I think that it’s normal for a person, whether they’re doing music or visual or some sort of art form; they may emulate people they admire more than they necessarily would like to. But then, hopefully and ideally, their styles turn into their own thing. And I think that’s what happened with me. But yeah, I was pretty taken in the olden days with the Birthday Party and Nick Cave.
So you grew up a punk rock kid?
Yeah, I played bass in a punk rock band before Scratch Acid. We were all for American [punk] but we were kind of English punk rock: Sex Pistols with a little Ramones, kind of thing.
What do you think of the interest Scratch Acid is getting all these years later?
I don’t know what kind of interest we’re generating. I know it’s been disappointing overseas. I know we got two shows in England but apparently there wasn’t enough interest on the continent to support a tour. That was disappointing ecause Scratch Acid went to Europe in 1986, which kinda freaked me out at the time because we were just a little band and I couldn’t believe that we were flying overseas to play shows. But I guess they just don’t care now.
How much are the reunions of Scratch Acid and Jesus Lizard are about raking in money?
[Laughing] The number one factor with both of them has been fun; otherwise I don’t think any of us would have wanted to do that. That’s factor number one, and I suppose money is probably factor number two. I don’t really know how much we’re going to make with this Scratch Acid stuff but I do know that, a couple of years ago, when we did that Jesus Lizard tour—I think we only did like between 40 or 45 shows—I made more money that year than I ever made in my life. So that was pretty cool.
What do you make of the money being thrown around?
It is unusual; I don’t really know what to make of it. There’s so many bands reforming that are punk rock. But The Sweet just played here in L.A. a couple nights ago and I was like, “What the fuck? Are you serious?” They probably aren’t drawing many people, but they are probably getting paid pretty nicely. I don’t keep up with much of the stuff that’s going on these days. I don’t know how well folks that are doing new shit are getting paid. It’s kind of surprising we made the money we made a couple years ago. Hopefully, I’ll have as wonderful a surprise at the end of the Scratch Acid tour.
Scratch Acid, “Owner’s Lament“
Are there any plans to do more Jesus Lizard shows?
No, there are no plans.
When Jesus Lizard reformed, did you talk about writing new material?
All three of them—Duane, David and Mac—kinda talked about wanting to do that. I really, really, really don’t want to. I don’t have any desire to revisit that. And it seems virtually impossible, being as how one of us is Los Angeles, one ‘s in Chicago, one’s in New York and one is in Nashville—and a very similar situation with Scratch Acid. The kind of music we played—you really have to be in the same room together. You can’t be sending MP3s back and forth. I don’t think that’s gonna happen.
In your mind, would new Jesus Lizard songs mar the legacy of the band?
I don’t know if it would mar it but it would just feel weird for me. I would feel like, “How do I focus this? Do I want to try and continue where we left off and sound like the last thing we recorded or do I write stuff that is appealing to me now?” I don’t see any need to go to that again. I really loved my ex-wife, but I don’t want to fuck her again.
When Jesus Lizard reformed, was it hard for you to get back in the frame of mind of the live setting and what you do physically?
Actually, that came much, much easier than I expected it to and it was so much fun. The first of those shows was at the ATP in Minehead, England. The anticipation in our little circle of friends, our booking agent, our girlfriends, wives, families and our soundman, was really palpable. I remember right before we went on, I think I might have been crying and throwing up—I don’t know, something . I told my girlfriend, “I probably won’t jump in the audience and probably won’t take my shirt off.” I think within the first fifteen seconds of starting the first song, I was shirtless and in the audience. It was completely, complete autopilot and it was an absolute blast. So, no, it wasn’t too hard to slip back into that spot.
Do you ever think to yourself “I’m too old to be doing that shit?”
Everyday! [laughing]. I’m too old to do anything. 51… halfway to 102.
Why did the Jesus Lizard choose to sign with Capitol?
Touch & Go, the indie label we had been on, was always, always great to us; they never did us wrong or anything. We didn’t leave because we were, in any way, dissatisfied with them. We just—honest to god—[wanted] more financial stability. A label like Capitol was able to give us a huge advance, which with I bought a house. Touch & Go, as much as they would like to, couldn’t really do that. We went around to a few different labels and boiled it down to a few of them . I can’t really speak for the other guys, but I think the reason we decided to go with Capitol to a degree was that Gary Gersh was the president of Capitol at the time. He seemed like a real guy; he seemed like the guy I could hang out with even if I had nothing to do with music. We could go to a bar, have a drink and hang out. That made a difference. But once we got in there it became very, very clear to me that it was not a family environment and it was nothing like Touch & Go. The left hand had no idea what the right hand was doing. They didn’t know how to deal with us, they didn’t know how to promote us and didn’t know how to do publicity for us. It was a complete failure. But, you know, I got a house.
Looking back, are you unhappy with the two albums you did for Capitol?
I like them quite a bit. I think they both have things about them that are really cool. I think the Blue album that Andy Gill produced, I think—texturally—it’s really, really cool. It’s a great record and the one Garth [Richardson] did—Shot—it’s a perfectly respectable record. I think the last Touch & Go record, which was Down, I don’t think the songs are that bad but it sounds like a big doo-doo. I blame ourselves for that, yeah.
Have you been drinking this evening?
I had a beer. I’m about to have another one.
Jesus Lizard, “Puss“
How much of a role did drinking play in the Jesus Lizard universe?
We could drink an awful lot. David, Duane and Mac were pretty good at not drinking too much before we played because they really want to be on their game. After we were done, particularly Mac and I would hit it kinda hard sometimes.
You have said that you would have never done the Jesus Lizard reunion without the original drummer, Mac McNeilly.
Absolutely, yeah. I think we all felt that way. The chemistry between the guys in the band is the single most important ingredient in a band. When Mac left—whatever that was—’96? The contract we had with Capitol was we had to do two more records or we would owe them like a gazillion dollars—I think one-and-a-half gazillion dollars. Yeah, that’s a lot of money. We had a three-record contract. If we had broken up after Shot, we’d owe them—I don’t know what it was—something like $150,000. That’s not that much money but that’s a lot more money we had to throw away. Mac insisted that Jim Kimball [of Laughing Hyenas and Mule] take his place. Duane played with Jim for years in the Denison Kimball Trio and we had known him off and on for years. But, yeah [Kimball] is no Mac. He’s kind of a fuckup asshole, and Mac is one of the greatest guys I’ve ever known in my life. Having Mac back in the band is so great. And nothing was different. The only difference between old Mac and new Mac is new Mac doesn’t drink or smoke.
Did the Jesus Lizard tour with Nirvana?
We didn’t really tour with them. Over the years, we had three shows with them; none of it was really a tour. Once in Hoboken at Maxwell’s [in ’90 or 91]…
Yeah, I was at that show. I was standing upfront with a friend and you grabbed his head and wouldn’t let go. It was awesome.
Well, I hope he was okay. That show was also cool in a few other ways, because you know how rarely it happens where you see a band you’ve never seen before and they do a song you’ve never heard before and the next day you’re singing that song? I don’t think that’s ever happened with me except for that show. The next day, both Mac and me were singing “In Bloom” by Nirvana, which hadn’t come out yet. We were riding along in the van going [starts singing “In Bloom”]”… he’s the one…” And we were like, “What?” That never happens. I was just so impressed because I wasn’t that familiar with Nirvana and I knew it was Seattle and grunge and I don’t like Soundgarden and I didn’t care much for Mudhoney and I was just like “yeah, blah, blah, blah.” But I thought [Nirvana] were fuckin’ great.
So that night at Maxwell’s was the first night you met those guys?
First time I saw’em, first time I met’em, yeah.
Then you did the split single with them.
Yeah, it was that night, standing in the hallway that led between the venue and the restaurant [at Maxwell’s], Kurt and I talked about doing a split single. You know, a few years later… it was a while, but yeah [laughs].
What would you rather be doing at this point in your life: performing onstage or doing your art?
Doing art, probably. But even more than that, I’ve been trying to break into the acting world. I’ve done a lot of little tiny, tiny, tiny independent movies. What I would like to see is if I can pay the bills with it [acting] because I really enjoy it.
Scratch Acid, “Mary Had A Little Drug Problem” (live in 2006)
How are you able to lunge into a crowd, get trampled and crowdsurf all without supposedly missing a beat on singing?
Ya know, I’ve seen so many reviews where they go, “Yeah, Yow spent most of the time in the audience without missing a beat.” That’s crazy. I miss a beat every second line. Don’t worry about it [laughing]. I’d be singing the wrong lyrics at the wrong place. Yeah. I miss beats all the time.
Yeah, no one catches that, right?
Yeah, that’s one of the cool things about doing that. If I didn’t want to sing the right words, I didn’t have to. I could just make up whatever I wanted. Most of the time, you can’t understand what I am saying anyway so it was a great deal of freedom, as far that goes.
What music are you into these days?
I don’t really listen to music. When I’m driving, I have my iPod hooked up to my car and it sorta goes on shuffle or it goes on the country and western playlist or the Mexicali/Latino playlist. There’s not much stuff that I focus on these days. Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of Scratch Acid. Not when friends are around, though. That would be embarrassing.
And you are working with Henry Owings of Chunklet on a Jesus Lizard book?
Henry’s a good friend and we work closely together. Over a year ago, Johnny Temple, who used to be in Girls Against Boys and now runs a publishing company called Akashic, wanted to put out a book on the Jesus Lizard. I have done a great majority of the design and the layout for it because I don’t really trust anyone else. It’s probably about two-thirds of the way through and I’ve handed the rest off to Henry to finish it off. He’s really good at making sure all the little nooks and crannies and everything’s all tied up real nice and neat.
What’s the crux of the book?
It’s going to be a coffee table affair with a lot of photos. We’re trying to keep the photos to… they gotta be really good, nice photos and not stuff that everybody’s seen. Then there’s written contributions from all four of the guys in the band and a whole bunch of other people. It’s funny, at first, I was not so down with the idea. Then as these written contributions started coming in, I started getting excited. Within a couple of days, we got contributions from Alex Hacke, who plays bass in Einstürzende Neubauten, and from Mike Watt. Those two pieces make the book worthwhile. There’s tons of other cool stuff but the two things those guys wrote is just great.
Are you into David’s unFact project?
Of course. I saw David do that here in L.A. It’s enjoyable. I like to listen to it more than attending it live. I’m not sure I really understand the live presentation but I like to listen to it.
Is Qui still together?
Nah, Qui’s all done. It’s kind of a drag because Matt, who played guitar, sort of started doing a bunch of bad stuff, a bunch of drugs, stealing and lying. It was a drag because I love the guy’s guts but I am happy to say he’s much, much, much improved and he’s doing great but I don’t think we’re gonna get the band back together. It’s essentially sad because at the time all that went down, the new stuff we were working on was so exciting. It was unlike anything they—Matt and Paul from Qui—had ever done and certainly not like anything I’ve ever done. It’s really a drag that that will probably never, you know, come into fruition.
With Qui and the Jesus Lizard all done, do you have any plans about doing a new music project?
None? You have no interest in doing music?
No, I really kinda don’t. I am sure, from time to time, there will be little collaborative things that I’ll do. One of my best friends in the world, this guy J.R. Robinson from Chicago, is gonna be out here in the middle of November. Last January I joined him with this thing where he had a handful of musicians, making a bunch of music that he sort of conducted while we played in front of two Kenneth Anger films. We played in front of Lucifer Rising and Scorpio Rising. [Robinson] wanted to do that [in L.A.], but Kenneth Anger is apparently still alive and he wanted a shit ton of money for it. They re-worked it but I don’t remember the movie that we are doing it in front of. But on November 19, out here in Los Angeles at the Silent Movie Theatre, a handful of us are going to do some live music in front of another movie. I just sort of do grunting, screaming, yelling, talking and moaning and groaning sounds. But it’s cool—there’s a cello, a violin, three guitars, two drummers, J.R. on computer and directing and a guy on a crazy harmonium.
Scratch Acid play Webster Hall on Monday, November 7; Book will be released by Akashic in 2012.