The Jesus Lizard's David Yow moans, yells, squeals and sweats his way through a concert, surfing the mosh pit in a violent effort to prove that, even if he can't sing a lick, he's still got more balls than anyone this side of Henry Rollins. In fact, for the price of admission, the Lizard's king will often show you his balls.
The Jesus Lizard was pegged by Rolling Stone as this year's Lollapalooza "sleeper"--an indie noisemaker pushed to the verge of a commercial breakthrough by its spot on the megafest lineup--but its music is often upstaged by Yow's concert antics, which include an arsenal of penile manipulation tricks with names like the "tight and shiny" and "pig drinking red wine from a trough."
Recently arrested at the Cincinnati Lollapalooza date for twisting his wee-wee into a pretzel, the unrepentant Yow whipped it out again in Detroit a few days later, this time without consequence. Yow's been doing his Jim Morrison impersonation since the early Eighties, when he fronted Austin psycho-rockers Scratch Acid (think of a cyclone with lead vocals).
Thankfully, there's more to this Chicago-based sonic juggernaut than Yow's dick. The sound, for example: a powerful guitar/bass/drums cacophony that resembles Big Black shacking up with Birthday Party for an evening of ritual torture. Add Yow's atonal howling (which seems puked up through a throat blistered from swilling Ajax), toss in lyrics that could give Manson nightmares, and you've got a workable soundtrack for the apocalypse.
At its best, on a broiling masterpiece like "Puss," the Jesus Lizard kicks ten tons of ass; at its worst, the band is simply unlistenable.
Behind the mayhem, says guitarist Duane Denison, the men of the Jesus Lizard all lead unremarkable lives--even Yow. To hear Denison tell it, behind the faade of a seething mess who sets himself on fire while bellowing lyrics about excretions and autoerotic fatalities, Yow is merely a nice guy. A regular guy. A guy, in fact, who flaked out on the following Q&A for the most pedestrian of reasons.
"You probably think he's laying face down in a pool of his own vomit, right?" says Denison, standing in for the vocalist. "He's actually doing laundry."
New Times: We heard from your agent that David was busted in Cincinnati. What happened?
Duane Denison: He got arrested. It had to do with part of the body being exposed, but I really can't talk about it because it's still up in the air.
NT: Has jail time fostered in him a new respect for the law?
DD: I wouldn't say that.
NT: Are you ever afraid his stage show detracts from the band's music?
DD: I don't think it does. Most people who like the band listen more for the music than the spectacle. David's antics draw people visually, then after a while they realize there's some interesting stuff going on musically. Hopefully.
NT: But don't you worry about being known more for your lead singer's exhibitionism than your musical ability?
DD: Yeah, and that's why sometimes he backs off. On the other hand, we're a commodity and we have an obligation to deliver what we're known for. I don't have a problem with that.
NT: So, is David a side-show freak or a singer?
DD: A showman, definitely. And I'm sure he would tell you the same thing. There's a difference between being a singer and a vocalist. Some of my favorite vocalists, David included, are not necessarily great singers. Mark E. Smith from the Fall, or Howard Devoto. Or Nick Cave when he was in the Birthday Party. None of those guys were great singers, but they all had interesting vocal deliveries. David is more like a percussion instrument. Sometimes he isn't as clearly articulated in a live performance due to various levels of inebriation.
NT: Is he deliberately trying to create an outrageous stage persona along the lines of an Iggy Pop or a GG Allin?
DD: No, no, no. We all pretty much despise GG Allin. David's gotten the Iggy comparisons because he's a muscular little guy and you've got three guys in the back-up band. I think we're a lot more advanced than the Stooges ever could have been. I'm not knocking the Stooges, but I think David sounds more like David Thomas from Pere Ubu with a bit of Lux from the Cramps. Another thing that makes David different is that he doesn't take himself seriously. He doesn't have any heavy "rock star" baggage to carry around, like, say, Trent Reznor. I don't know how that guy can be the Prince of Darkness every day. We take our music seriously, but we don't take ourselves that seriously.
NT: Given the nature of your live show and the band's perverse sense of humor, is it difficult to make the transition from the stage to real life?
DD: Not at all. We keep the two apart. The way we act and feel onstage is designed to release energy and to get ourselves off as much as the audience. To me, that has nothing to do with real life. We're a bit older than most bands and it's taken us a while to get where we are. We've all had crummy jobs, we've all gone through hard times, so that helps keep everything in perspective. If we were 21 years old and never had a job and then suddenly we're superstars, it would be easy to have this arrogant attitude. We're all just too well-grounded in reality to be like that.
NT: So you defy the archetypal sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll credo?
DD: I'm not going to pretend that I'm some idiot who never went to school. I'm not going to go around in a top hat with a syringe sticking out of my Adam's apple. Personally, we're probably not very different from the people who come and see us.
NT: Wait a second--have you actually taken a look at the people who come to see you at club shows? Virtually unemployable.
DD: (laughs) Well . . . But you know, we read a lot of the same books, go to the same movies, we probably listen to the same music, which is why it doesn't surprise me that the Jesus Lizard is becoming more popular. I tend to think that our tastes are not much different from the people who check us out.
NT: Obviously, Lollapalooza's a major boost in exposure. What's it like playing as one act on a blockbuster bill rather than as a club headliner?
DD: It was remarkably easy for us and it didn't take much adaptation at all. The only concession we've made is in terms of some of our songs. In bigger places where the reverberation time is longer, certain pieces just didn't sound good. Any piece that had a highly detailed or asymmetrical, jagged quality turned to mush. It's physics. So we're doing what we call our Arena Rock set.
NT: Any sordid tales to report from the festival front? Have you caught Courtney Love doing anything vile?
DD: Not really. I made it a point to introduce myself to her early on. I'd already met her band and they all seemed really nice, so I had their bass player take me into the dressing room so I could meet Courtney. It was pretty funny. She said something to the effect of: "So, am I the fat girl you come talk to when your friends aren't looking?" She is a pretty big gal.
NT: The good ship Lollapalooza comes to shore in Phoenix soon. What's your impression of our city?
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DD: Big hair and muscle cars, and a lot of strip joints. It's definitely an odd place. People's brains are sunbaked or something. Last time we played there, this guy--a local folk singer of some sort--approached me in the parking lot of the Sun Club. He was almost in tears. He goes [whimpering]: "Would you guys want one of my cassettes I just made?" So I said, yeah, okay. He goes off and comes back with a box full of cassettes. We said, "Well, we don't want this whole box; we've got nowhere to put it. How about just one?" And he goes, "Oh, I hate you guys," and he threw the box down and ran off. I think he used to work at the Sun Club.
NT: Speaking of peddling tapes, word of a lucrative record deal between the Jesus Lizard and Capitol is in the air. What's up?
DD: We keep doing the same thing, except that a different record company will be putting out the records. And we'll make a little more money. For us, the indie-versus-major thing was never a moral issue. It was Touch and Go Records (the Lizard's longtime label) against everyone else. We had gotten treated so well for so long that we really didn't want to leave, and it wouldn't have been in our best interests to do so. Until recently. As the band became more popular and opportunities came our way, it became more obvious we were in a position to tell a major label what to do.
The Jesus Lizard is scheduled to perform on Saturday, August 12, on the Lollapalooza main stage at Desert Sky Pavilion. The festival begins at 2 p.m.