Lock the doors. Bar the windows. Keep your back to the wall and don't ask questions.
Jesus Lizard is coming to town.
Jesus Lizard is a chemically imbalanced band of misfits led by David Yow, an absolute nut with a microphone. Yow's m.o. is to scream and yell, rant and rave, and generally let loose with a considerable catalogue of guttural sounds. Yow's public performances have included acts of borderline self-mutilation, along with such questionable habits as telling AIDS jokes onstage at San Francisco clubs. "Our sound is so powerful that I just get kind of taken by it all," Yow says in mild-mannered fashion. He's speaking by telephone from the headquarters of Touch and Go Records, Jesus Lizard's Chicago-based record label. He sounds nothing like the diseased wild man his fans know and love.
"I just really like the music," Yow continues. "But then again, I'm aware that I'm onstage. I'm conscious of the entertainment aspects that come into play."
Yow's been entertaining the outer limits of alternative music for almost a decade. He's best known as the former front man for Scratch Acid, a little ol' psycho band from Texas. Scratch Acid confronted Reagan-era youth with healthy dollops of hard-core, metal and Caucasian voodoo. The Austin band was a dynamic stage act. But Yow and company could never fully transfer their anxious energy to vinyl. By 1988, after three erratic albums, Scratch Acid had rubbed itself raw.
"It started getting to the point where it wasn't as much fun as it should be," Yow says. "It would take a month just to write one song. The drummer was a perfectionist and the guitar player was a looser kind of stylist. They weren't getting along and it just wasn't working out."
Scratch Acid bassist David Wm. Sims eventually bolted for Chicago, where he hooked up with Steve Albini, the notorious noise maven of Big Black fame. Albini had just formed a predictably disturbing band called Rapeman, which went on to release a couple of indie discs, including a charming long-player titled Two Nuns and a Pack Mule. (Sample songs: "Hated Chinee" and "Kim Gordon's Panties.")
Yow soon followed Sims to Chicago. The two ex-Texans teamed up when Rapeman ran its course. Guitarist Duane Dennison and a drum machine were subsequently recruited, and Jesus Lizard debuted with Pure, a four-song EP released in 1989. Reviews at the time were encouraging. Phrases like "sickening aural assault" and "purveyors of innovative filth" filled the air. The band was definitely finding its voice.
Three albums later, Jesus Lizard is still bellowing from the fringes. The band's noise has maintained a consistent level of mayhem, though there have been some changes over the years: A real drummer, Mac McNeilly, has replaced the old mechanized model, and newer Jesus Lizard songs show the band's chops getting nice and sharp.
But Jesus Lizard is still, essentially, playing catch-up to Scratch Acid's legend. It's a race that Yow, for one, thinks is over.
"I personally feel like it's so much better now," Yow says. "The biggest difference is the people I'm working with. This band is more accurate, more succinct. It's like if Scratch Acid and Jesus Lizard were looking through gun sights, Jesus Lizard would be more apt to hit its target."
Yow's aim hits home repeatedly and without mercy on Liar, the new Jesus Lizard disc on Touch and Go. Liar's opening cut, "Boilermaker," starts up with a series of sonic body blows almost comical in their relentlessness: "I'm calm now," Yow screams over the din like a bloodied beast. "I've calmed down, but I'm shaking," he reiterates before howling, "Make me another boilermaker." Later the tension cuts a groove as Yow rides Dennison's contagious riff on "Slave Ship," a mini-epic of tortured proportions. Liar, like all of Jesus Lizard's recordings, was produced by the aforementioned Steve Albini. "Actually, he just engineered the thing," Yow says. "He and the four of us in the band were the producers. Often [Albini] has some really good ideas. But sometimes his ideas are really dumb, so we listen to him and then smack him on the back of the head, the little freaky bastard."
Albini has a sizable reputation for "engineering" studio anarchy. The diminutive, bespectacled knob-twister is especially noted for distorting any halfway pleasant sound he comes in contact with. The results are as soothing as a swift kick in the gut. "I know his reputation, and I hate to say this," Yow says, going ahead anyway, "but we use him mostly as a matter of convenience. He's cheap, he works efficiently and he lives in the same town."
Chicago, indeed, seems to be ground zero for American noise music. From such early-'80s bands as Big Black and Naked Raygun to the industrial apocalypse of Al Jourgensen's Ministry-Wax Trax bunch, the city of big shoulders has made for some big sounds of late.
"I really like it here," Yow says. "It's a nice change of pace from Austin. Culturally, there's a lot going on in Austin, but there's not a lot to get out and do. This here is a world-class city."
Yow does have one reservation about life in the middle of the country.
"The Mexican food here is absolute shit," he laments. "It's inedible, not fit for a dog."
Yow's opinions on eateries need little prompting. He's worked as a cook at a number of kitchens in Texas. Yow even says he seriously considered slinging cuisine as a career option back when Scratch Acid called it quits.
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"Yeah, I can cook," Yow says, taking on an oversize Texas accent. "Ya oughta come on up here and I'll make you some pork enchiladas that'll kick yer ass, boy."
But Yow's dream of donning a chef's cap and kicking culinary ass is on hold for a while. The manic front man's demented presence with Jesus Lizard is helping the band become a steady staple among discriminating slacker-punks.
"We're getting pretty big in Europe," Yow says. "Especially London. It's because they've got nothing but floppy little bands over there right now. There's nothing really like us." Jesus Lizard also works nicely as an alternative to the "alternative" stateside sounds of Pearl Jam, Mudhoney and everything else out of post-Sub Pop Seattle. It's actually been argued that Yow and his pals in Scratch Acid are long-lost ancestors to the more aggressive elements of the Seattle sound.
Scratch Acid a godfather to grunge? "You know, I've been hearing that," Yow says. "But the idea really offends me. I very strongly dislike grunge. If grunge is meant to mean Sub Pop, Soundgarden--I can't stand that shit. And if Scratch Acid was in any way responsible for that, I sincerely apologize to the world. I'm really sorry.