David Yow of The Jesus Lizard

by Greg Prato

It's been said before, but it bears repeating: in the history of rock n' roll, few singers have had such a fitting name as Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow. He's often compared to Iggy (Pop, not Azalea) as an unpredictable live performer who is never on a low supply of energy (and never shies away from "visiting the crowd" during a performance), and has fronted two highly-respected/groundbreaking alt-rock bands of yesteryear: The Jesus Lizard and Scratch Acid.

Although The Jesus Lizard hasn't issued a new album since 1998, the band still manages to retain a large following, as evidenced by a successful reunion tour in the late 2000s, and with the release of a book which traces the band's entire career in photos and prose, The Jesus Lizard Book, issued via Akashic Books (another book penned solely by Yow, Copycat, was issued the same year - 2014). Additionally, the oft-overlooked Scratch Acid proved to be quite influential on grunge's first wave of bands.

In this chat with Yow, the never timid performer discussed the JL book, songwriting, playing shows with Nirvana, and the stories behind some of his best tunes.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How did the idea come up to do The Jesus Lizard Book at this point?

David Yow: I'm relatively certain that what happened was that David Sims, the bass player, was having some sort of a get-together in New York where Johnny Temple, who runs the Akashic Publishing Company, was at. Johnny is our old friend - he is in Girls Against Boys. I guess he suggested that we do a book on The Jesus Lizard.

I think that initially it was not met with much excitement by any of us, but the more we talked about it and the more we talked about the possibilities of having it as complete and thorough and multifaceted as it became, we could just figure, "Okay, well, what the hell. Let's see if anybody cares."

Songfacts: I was actually lucky to get an advance copy of the book and I think it's great. The photos that are included absolutely blew me away.

Yow: Yeah. The word I keep using is "worthwhile." I think it's a very worthwhile project. I've heard folks say that you don't necessarily even have to be a fan of the band to enjoy it. I'm not sure how much a complete outsider would care, but maybe they'd get a kick out of the recipe. [Laughing]

Songfacts: How did the songwriting work with Jesus Lizard?

Yow: I don't know if there's a set formula, but I don't think it was too much different than most bands where more often than not the guitar player or the bass player comes to practice with an idea and we just sort of expound on that. Like, suggesting minor changes or structural additions or subtractions or whatever.

But, you know, we just did the little book tour, just finished on Friday. We had done five different towns where we did a moderated talk and a Q&A. And in doing that I learned that David Sims was estimating that Duane probably came up with about 60 percent of the music and he came up with about 40 percent of the music. So it was mostly Duane Dennison coming up with the initial ideas, the seedling.

Songfacts: One thing about Duane, too, I don't think he gets enough credit for his guitar playing. He's a very original sounding guitarist.

Yow: For sure, yeah. I think he gets an awful lot of credit. I mean, there are people I've heard describe him as pretty motherf-in' incredible. And one of those stupid magazines, Spin or Rolling Stone or something, said that he was one of the top 50 guitar players ever, or top 100, something like that [Denison was named one of Spin magazine's "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time"].

Songfacts: Maybe the only guitarist I could compare him to, but they're not really even that similar, is Adrian Belew, from when he was playing with King Crimson.

Yow: Yeah. Or Robert Fripp or Jimmy Page.

Songfacts: I totally agree. As far as with the songwriting, would it ever be that you had lyrics prior or was it just that you would hear the music and come up with stuff on the spot, or how exactly would it work? Or did you have the lyrics for it first?

Yow: I think all of that happened except for the idea of creating a song around the lyrics. That was an idea that Duane and I wanted to do. Like, I would write as much as I wanted for a song, and then we would build the music around that. But we never ended up doing this.

Songfacts: I see. And was the songwriting pretty similar for Scratch Acid and Jesus Lizard?

Yow: Yeah. It was slower with Scratch Acid, just because that was really, really stoned and Rey [Washam] was probably really, really unhappy with everything we were doing. So there you go.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters and why?

Edvard Grieg is not a name that is often listed as a favorite by modern day musicians, so if his name doesn't ring a bell, don't get down in the dumps. Mr. Grieg was a Norwegian composer and pianist, who lived from June 15, 1843 – September 4, 1907, who is often credited with the development of what would be considered "Norwegian folk music." One of his best known compositions is "In the Hall of the Mountain King," which was originally written for the sixth scene of act 2 in Henrik Ibsen's 1867 play, Peer Gynt.
Yow: Oh, gosh. Willie Nelson, because he's unpeggable. I don't know if you'd call Edvard Grieg a songwriter. [Laughing] Ummm... ummm... Lennon and McCartney were pretty good. Ummm... Elvis Costello, he was a pretty great songwriter. Ummm... yeah. I think that's about it.

Songfacts: Something else I've always been curious about but I could never really get to the bottom of: Did Jesus Lizard play any other shows with Nirvana besides that 1993 Roseland performance?

Yow: Yeah. The first show that we ever played together was at Maxwell's in Hoboken when Chad Channing was still playing drums. And at that time Nevermind had not come out. But right before that, Sub Pop had put out a single with Sonic Youth, who was not on Sub Pop, and Mudhoney was on Sub Pop.

And after we played with Nirvana at Maxwell's, Kurt and I were talking about the possibility of doing a split single the way Sub Pop had done. But doing it on Touch and Go. So we decided to do that, and then they signed to Geffen and Nevermind came out and everything changed. It took a while, but you probably are aware of that 7-inch, right? Split single?

Songfacts: Yes. I am aware of it.

Yow: And then also we played with them and Dinosaur Jr. at the Gothic Theater in Denver, Colorado, as well.

The "split single" between the Jesus Lizard and Nirvana that David is talking about was titled simply "Puss"/"Oh, the Guilt." With JL providing the first song and Nirvana the second, the single was issued on February 13, 1993 via the Touch and Go label, with both songs produced by Steve Albini. The single fared quite well in the UK, where it peaked at #12 on the singles chart over a two-week stay.
Songfacts: Out of all the times that Jesus Lizard played with Nirvana, would you say that there was any standout show? That Roseland in '93 show is considered a pretty big one in the career of Nirvana, because that was before their last album came out and they premiered a lot of the songs from that album at that show.

Yow: Well, I didn't think that show was very good at all. Kurt was so fucked up he could barely... I mean, he and Krist were writing the set list in our dressing room and Kurt was babbling - he could hardly function.

For me, of those three shows, the standout one was Maxwell's. It was great. It was before Nevermind came out, and the next day - and this never happens - in the van, Mac, our drummer and I, were singing "In Bloom," after having heard it once live.

Songfacts: I'm trying to think of any songs that I heard just once and I'd be able to sing them. There's not too many that I could think of that stick with you that quickly.

Yow: Right. Obviously, we weren't singing the whole thing. But we were doing (singing), "He's the one, likes our pretty songs." We had picked up on that because you absorbed it. That was so catchy.

Songfacts: Tell me about the Jesus Lizard song "Thumper."

Yow: Every now and then we would have working titles for the songs, because they might not have lyrics yet. David Sims had made that "Thumper" because Mac, the way he was playing, it was just like bompbompbompbompbomp - it reminded him of the Disney cartoon, the bunny Thumper, where he would thump his leg all the time. I don't remember what the words are to it, so I can't help you there. [Laughs]

Songfacts: What about the song "Thumbscrews"? That's also a favorite song of mine on Shot. Especially, I love the riff that Duane came up with, that strange kind of riff. I'm a big fan with that song.

Yow: That record has two songs that were written about the landlord that my wife and I had at the time, and "Thumbscrews" is one of them. The landlord who started out to be a really, really swell guy, and he just really seemed great, and we never understood what the problem was. But he went from being kind of a friend to an enemy. That song and "Good Riddance," which was also on the same record, were written about that guy.

Songfacts: And then you mentioned the split single before with Nirvana. What do you remember about the writing and recording of the song "Puss"?

Yow: That is mostly about this guy I knew in Chicago, and I should say his name, but I'm not going to. He's kind of a puss - pushed a girl down the stairs at a club in Chicago. The impetus of the song is him doing that.

But very often the lyrics to any given song might be taken from all kinds of different things. So the "Get around in a truck" part is kind of based on that scene in the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre when the girl is down and she's in a bag in the floor of the truck and the guy's jabbing her with a stick.

Songfacts: Going back to Scratch Acid, what do you remember about the song "Cannibal"?

Yow: [Laughing] Wowee. Whew. Wow. I think that's the first song I ever wrote. I wrote the music and the lyrics to that. I had been in a punk rock band before that, and my girlfriend, Carla, who was just a sweet, wonderful, beautiful girl, had dumped me.

A few of the songs on that first Scratch Acid record are kind of about her and "Cannibal" is one of them. I mean, after she dumped me, I just felt sick for so long. I had headaches, I had stomachaches. My heart was broken.

Songfacts: What were some of the other songs on that that were about her?

Yow: [Laughs] I just know I wrote some other songs about her. I can't remember the others. That was 32 years ago.

Songfacts: I remember Kurt Cobain mentioned that the Scratch Acid self-titled release was one of his favorite albums of all time. Did that come as a surprise or did you know that he was a pretty big Scratch Acid fan at the time?

Yow: At which time?

Songfacts: I think that article that he picked out his favorite albums is from '92 or '93.

Yow: That time when we played with them at Hoboken, he came up to me when I was having a beer outside with the band. The first thing he said to me was, "Hey, I've seen you live. Is it okay if we open for you guys?"

And they were bigger than us. I laughed and said, "Well, no, that's not going to happen." He told me what a big fan he was of Scratch Acid. At the time, Nirvana was a really good band and people knew who they were, but they certainly weren't famous and rock stars or anything. So I wasn't too froke out that he liked the stuff that we'd done.

Songfacts: I know there was a Sub Pop promo picture, it was back at the time when Chad was still the drummer, where Kurt's wearing a Scratch Acid shirt. I've seen that in magazines before [check out the pic right over here…].

Yow: Yeah. That just recently came up. Somebody stuck that on Facebook with the new article I think in The New York Times. And that particular shirt, I drew that. It's neat to see a picture of Kurt wearing a shirt that I drew.

Songfacts: Lastly, do you think that this book may lead to more Jesus Lizard shows or possibly new recordings?

Yow: I have finally learned to quit saying never. But it's really unlikely. I can't believe that we would ever write anything new. I live in LA, David's in New York, Duane's in Nashville, and Mac's in Chicago. So I can't believe that we would write anything.

I have no desire to do that, and I feel like we already did the reenactment tour. We're even older now, and it would just be old guys doing young guy stuff, doing the same music that we wrote so long ago. I really don't see any point in it. The only reason I can imagine that is if somebody wants to give us so much money that we can't say no.

July 31, 2014.
See what David is up to on Twitter and check out more info about The Jesus Lizard Book.

David Yow photo by Adam Harding
Jesus Lizard band photo by Whitney O'Keeffe

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 5

  • Kitty Witch from Road To Nowhere AvenueQuit while they're ahead, save face, dignity blah, blah, blah the 2017 shows were f--king fantastic and they killed it at every show, tighter than ever, they just got better with age, same for the 2018 shows, and now playing shows in Nashville, Philly, and Brooklyn December 2019. Every show sold out and every performance just gets better and better.
  • Not One from West Virginia David Yow has it all right. Exactly how I would do it . Quit while your ahead, go out with dignity when your too old! Save Face! Do miss Jesus Lizard but hey!
  • Pigford from MarylandHe's right about old guys doing young guy stuff which is all rock&roll is these days,there are a few young underground bands that are pretty good but after the rock explosion of the early 90's that was it,nobody picked up the torch so now if you go see any decent rock band they're old & it's not something I care to see,I'm 45 & I don't want to see a band my age or older trying to rip it up...the Stones are in their 70's & watching Mick Jagger dancing around like a fruit & Keith Richards still thinking he's a badass is embarrassing....unless something comes along soon I hate to say that rock&roll is dying
  • Guy from TexasYow's cover of Jesus Christ superstar just made my world. Scratches Ac Jesus Christ superstar just made my world. Scratch acid.
  • Armogi from Sfgood one, good guy, miss the JL!
see more comments

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