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The Jesus Lizard Sheds Its Skin

By Sam Shiffman on November 18, 2009


The Jesus Lizard Sheds Its Skin

Stop me if you've heard this one before: A band walks into a bar. The singer pulls down his pants and wraps his penis around the mic stand. The rest is history.

Now let me set the mood. The Place: The Court Tavern in New Brunswick, New Jersey. It's called The Court Tavern because it is around the corner from the county courthouse. During regular business days the lunchtime drinking crowd is wall-to-wall lawyers cutting deals and then heading back to the courthouse to pretend that what's happening in the actual court has some bearing on the jurors as opposed to being decided over greasy food and flat beer. In the evening, the old man who owns the bar lets his son run the joint.

The son then turns the basement over to the local degenerates to hold a court of their own. Weeknights it's mostly his Jamaican buddies playing slam-down on the table. But on the weekends there are bands -- shitty local bands interspersed occasionally with some unknown touring outfit (usually shitty, too).

On this night, like most at the Court Tavern, the downstairs bar is filled with some of the most despicable human flotsam that I have ever seen and their assorted hangers on. We are not talking college tattoo wannabes. We are talking real Nazis, real heroin addicts and life's real losers. The obscenely obese man standing next to me smells like what I would expect an obscenely fat man to smell like. He was just shooting up in the backseat of my car ten minutes ago... and I always thought heroin addicts were supposed to be thin.

I am a dumb, stupid kid. I have a dumb, stupid kid hardcore/punk group called Post Ejaculation Depression. But I not only worship Minor Threat, I love The Replacements, The Dicks, Butthole Surfers and Scratch Acid. That is why when a new band called The Jesus Lizard (featuring ex-Scratch Acid members) started playing, I marched downstairs to the bar and introduced myself to the band.

This band looks so average. They are polite and very friendly. They seem well-adjusted. They drink domestic beer. They are salt of the earth midwestern guys. I end up shooting the shit with them for a couple of hours, talking about stupid guy stuff (guitars, music and food); all of a sudden, they politely take their leave. Before I even know it, they meander onto the stage. They start playing suddenly and instantly I hear the soundtrack to all my fucking life's misery.

The drums and bass: tribal, beautiful and indescribable. It fucking stops everyone dead in their tracks and then the guitar kicks in. This is guitar from hell. The riff: it just cuts through everything. It;s frightening and unknowable. Reverb jazz licks played backwards and forwards. It;s like my worst dreams finally have their own musical accompaniment. The bass player ignites the fuse, the drums kick in, the singer screams and the guitar separates my spine from my head. Anyone who has seen the films of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky would have some idea of what I am talking about.

Then, out pops the singer. He looks just like my dad: short, greasy and psychotic, and is as ugly as we are. He rips his shirt off and starts braying about urine running down his legs. He can't feel his eyes. I can't feel my eyes...

Before I even have time to ponder what is happening, the crowd, the psychotic bad-smelling crowd, goes apeshit. Most have no idea who the hell they are watching, but the music takes over. Shit is flying everywhere...compelling destruction. And then the singer pulls out his dick and wraps it around the mic stand. Someone shouts out, "You sure you guys aren't called The Dwarves?" I hear the guy next to me mutter, "No fucking way. No fucking way. No fucking waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay."

If you saw The Jesus Lizard in the early '90s, you too would proclaim to the heavens without the slightest hint of irony: "This is the best band on the planet!"

The Jesus Lizard story requires a bit of suspension of belief. The cultural landscape that begat them featured bands so indescribable and off-center that even the local college bars wouldn't let them play. I know it's hard to believe there was a time that the Butthole Surfers, 7 Seconds, The Minutemen, Husker Du and X would sometimes be on the same bill at the same VFW hall. But, there was nowhere else to see these bands unless the local smarter-than-average knucklehead rented out a hall for the night and talked his parents into letting the band sleep in their driveway.

It was 1987 and there were so few enlightened people that it was easy to know who was on your side. Your choice of where to live was severely limited. Chicago was affordable and unpretentious. The cold weather inspires movement, so David Yow and David Sims of Scratch Acid moved there. In Chicago, Yow and Sims recruited Cargo Cult guitarist Duane Dennison and suddenly, The Jesus Lizard was born. The first version of the band featured a drum machine, but realizing the drum machine wasn't cutting it, they recruited a hot-shit drummer called Mac Macneilly. Big Black's Steve Albini was behind the boards. A real band was born.

Now, 22 years later, Touch & Go Records is re-releasing the remastered and noticeably kick-ass, expanded edition of their Jesus Lizard releases. These include extended liner notes, photos, and scholarly analysis of the their output. The band has reunited for a tour this summer and fall. On this momentous occasion, Filter met with them to get a firsthand account of all that has and will transpire.

No matter what you have come to expect, The Jesus Lizard is comprised of four complete and utter gentlemen. And the term "gentleman" is apt to describe these gentle souls -- polite, generous, slightly reserved (and in the case of David Sims, laconic). However, it is this normalcy of spirit which allows one to confess that there is no better band to be around in case you suddenly find yourself on fire -- they will happily piss on you to put it out. 

Duane Dennison

Why reunite the band now?
Duane Denison:
I would like to think for a lot of reasons. The timing was perfect. It's been 10 years since we officially "broke up." 10 years almost to the day of our first show. Obviously, the money is good. Also, Touch & Go is releasing our back catalog. We are at a point in our lives that if we don't do it now, it's going to get harder and harder to do it. We are all in good shape, still play and the chops are up. We can do this, and not only prevent embarrassing ourselves but raise the bar a little bit as well.

We felt that if it wasn't kickass, we shouldn't do it. We are kicking ass. I feel like there is a genuine need for bands like us out there right now. When I see some so-called "punk" bands, I feel like they are just copies of pre-existing punk bands and they all just want to be on the Warped Tour. Where are all the weird, art-damaged bands? I feel like we are a reminder that there was a time when bands like the Butthole Surfers, Black Flag and Husker Du roamed the earth, and they didn't have sponsorships. They just went out and did it.

You seem to always surround yourself with singers who can't keep their shirts on. They are always more psychotic than your average bear.
I am like [Elvis Presley's sideman] Scotty Moore. I think it takes a certain type of mentality to be a frontman, a fearless, extroverted thing. I am a sideman, a supporting actor, a foil. I play guitar and I write music. For me to be Iggy Pop or Lux Interior would be ridiculous, but I like bands that have singers like that.

While some have said that you guys sound like the American version of The Birthday Party, your music seems to inhabit an indescribable place beyond putting your influences in a blender.
We tend to gravitate more towards the jazz sound and then jack it up a bit. Over time, we got away from that and mutated and got into other things on the journey to find our own style.

What were some of the craziest and/or wackiest episodes for you guys?
Donny Osmond
came to a show. He was in Chicago doing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. By all accounts he had a good time -- Osmond even helped David Yow when he was crowd surfing. I also had this experience that was out of a Western while we were playing Philadelphia. Now generally I try to avoid fights... I've been in a few in my life. My girlfriend at the time was up front dancing and this fucked-up frat boy kept bouncing into her. At one point I saw him take the side of her head and just push her out of the way. I couldn't stand watching him do this anymore, so I kicked him in the face and then I jumped off the stage and landed six unanswered shots. They hauled him out of the club; I jumped back on the stage like a hero and finished the song. It was like one of those childish revenge fantasies and the audience clapped for me. It really happened.

Mac Macneilly

Why get the band back together now?
Mac Macneilly:
There were some younger kids who have not seen us; they had only heard of us. We found that since we have made it known that the band is getting back to together and that this is a temporary situation, we are getting better money offers and better shows. It's really nice for us; we are definitely in a place where we can really appreciate it. Things are very good for us; it's like being able to write the last chapter of the band.

So this is definitely "it," then? We arenÕt going to see a Stooges-like reunion album?
Well, Duane is the one that keeps saying, "I would never say 'never.'" The idea is that we keep this going through November and then do the final shows in Chicago and then say our final farewell. We don't want to be one of those bands that do a reunion show every year. We don't want to keep milking it and water things down. Also, none of us are pretending that this is back in the early '90s -- we are aware that we are older and playing these songs that were written back then.

Now that you are playing again and your wife and kids are in tow, what do they think of the shows?
We brought them to the shows in England, Paris and Barcelona. I don't know what it's like to see your dad doing this thing that you have always heard about but never got a chance to see for yourself. They see the band playing, but then they see adults acting in a wacky behavior they don't typically see. I was really glad they got to see it, though. And, I'm glad they got to be a part of what means so much to me and what I am: being a musician.

David Wm. Sims
Why now?
Last year we were invited by Mike Patton to play All Tomorrow's Parties in England. We couldn't make it. By the time they asked, it wasn't logistically feasible to get it together and learn a bunch of 18-year-old songs, but it did sort of start the conversation. It didn't work in 2008, so they asked, in theory, would we be willing to do it in 2009. And we said, "Yes."

David Yow and I had already done the reunion thing in 2006 with the three Scratch Acid shows. They were a huge blast. It was funny how it worked out for me. I agreed to do the shows in the spring. The shows were in September. We met in July, did some rehearsals and then for whatever reason, I just decided that it was a really dumb idea and I really regretted doing it and sort of spent July and August dreading it and pissing and moaning about it.

And then when it came time to play the actual shows, it was a blast. I just had such a great time. So, I knew that if the Scratch Acid shows were that fun, The Jesus Lizard shows would be even more so.

Would you like to elaborate on the time Donny Osmond came to a show?
Evidently he liked us so much that he sent a leather jacket to Touch & Go for us all to sign. They forwarded it on to us in Dallas. We had a bunch of those shiny silver markers that you can write on leather with, so we all signed it and wrote funny things.
David Yow, who is trained as a visual artist, drew on the entire length of the jacket a full-length erect penis. I have a feeling that the jacket was never actually worn in public. Maybe it will show up on eBay one day.

David Yow
How are you these days?
Things are going pretty rough. The past couple of days, my girlfriend and I moved in together and we have been unpacking, which is a whole lot better than packing.

You're a Los Angeles guy now. What does L.A. mean to you?
It's where I will live until I die. I like it here a lot. I used to rag on it, but it was just because my friends did. I have found that most of the complaints people have about Los Angeles don't hold water, particularly if they saw the house I just moved into. I am really digging it. I just moved from a really shitty part of Hollywood to Silver Lake. Really cool house, really cool front porch and so many trees and bushes in the front that I can't see across the street.

What's your favorite part of the present Jesus Lizard reunion?
It's way more fun than anyone could have imagined. It's been way more emotional and it's run the gamut from good to terrific. Hanging out with Mac and just marveling that he is the same amazing motherfucker that he always was has been incredible. The only difference is that he doesn't smoke or drink. When Mac left the band, it just became kind of a job, but when he was around it was everything it should be.

What do you think kids would like to know about David Yow?
I am a pretty good cook. Hang on just a second... [he asks his girlfriend in the other room]  Oh yea, I kick ass at Scrabble. I will beat just about anyone at Scrabble.

What's your best Steve Albini story?
I like the fact that Steven used to be a mime. To all you people who worship him and think he's god's gift to everything -- well, he used to be a mime. He was in a mime troop and he went to mime school.

What is the best part of being David Yow?
That I don't have a lot of time left.

This article is from FILTER Issue 37