It was a cold Sunday night in suburban Chicago when I called Los Angeles to speak with legendary frontman for the Jesus Lizard and Scratch Acid, David Yow. A wild man on stage with the big time yelp, he was soft spoken and incredibly magnanimous as I peppered him with silly questions about his life in music and the upcoming The Jesus Lizard Book.
EX: Was Book something that was going to happen while the band was still together?
YOW: No. I believe Johnny Temple who runs Akashic [Books], and who used to be in Girls Against Boys, I think it was his idea to do the book. It was definitely years after the band, you know, broke up.
EX: So, after the reunion, if you guys were going to continue touring or try to record, the book would have waited until after all that was done?
YOW: I can't answer that because I don't think we ever going to record anything. I mean, there was talk of it. I don't care. You know David Sims [bass] lives in New York, Mac [McNeilly, drums]'s in Chicago, Duane [Denison, guitar]'s in Nashville, I'm in Los Angeles. Writing songs would be very difficult.
EX: How did Johnny bring up the idea for Book?
YOW: I think an e-mail. And, initially, I really wasn't very much into the idea. I just figured that it wouldn't be very good and no one would be very interested. So when we all decided to do it, I insisted that I design it because it's just too big of a thing. I wouldn't trust anyone else to do that. I pretty much designed it and handed it off to Henry Owings [Chunklet] who helped a great deal as well.
EX: It seemed like since you're a visual artist as well that I would have thought the book was your idea. So, it makes sense that you took a big hand in designing it. And it is a lovely book.
YOW: Yeah, thanks. I think it's really worthwhile. Last night, some friends had us over for a dinner party and I gave them copies as a holiday present and they were beside themselves. It was really cool. That was the first time that I'd seen anybody that wasn't involved with the book looking at it. It was kinda neat.
EX: I've worked in bookstores for over 15 years and I've seen all sorts of coffee table books and for the amount of pictures in Book, there's still plenty of content there. It's not just your average coffee table book. There's plenty of story that's really fascinating and at quite an affordable price.
YOW: It's a bargain.
EX: Totally. Obviously, there's some interesting insights. You mention in the book about your first concert as a singer and that you threw up all day because you were so nervous.
YOW: Oh, yeah, in Scratch Acid.
EX: I've seen you live and you're, at least the most fearless front man since Iggy Pop. I was at one of the last three Jesus Lizard reunion shows at the Metro and it was the one where you hit the ground, unfortunately, following a stage dive.
YOW: Oh, yeah. That was, boy, that sucked. The next day was just a horrible, horrible, horrible day.
EX: I saw you being helped down the stairs. A friend of mine was going to the show the next night and I told my friend, “Tough luck, buddy” because no human would go on the next night. I was in the balcony and saw you hit the floor and thought how horrible it looked.
YOW: Really...I didn't know that anybody saw what actually happened. I fell on my tailbone or something.
EX: It looked like a crowd unprepared. See, if that had the book, they would have known what to expect.
YOW: Yeah, damn it.
EX: You somehow made it back to the stage and Duane looked over at you. The look on his face was just, “show's over”.
YOW: Well, I think it was the last song so we couldn't have planned it better. I've seen the footage of that, taken from behind Mac, and the look on my face is disconcerting.
EX: How did you get to the point of just throwing caution to the wind, from throwing up to fully immersing yourself into the crowd?
YOW: So much of the punk rock that David Sims and I were weened on with bands like the Dicks, the Butthole Surfers, and a lot of other Austin bands that were just incredible to watch, it just seemed like the way to do it. As soon as you start, just go as hard as you can until it's over.
EX: Did you ever have any idea what you were going to do on stage before you did it?
YOW: Well, there were some costumes and s**t. We played the Metro one time where I covered myself in duct tape. I knew I was going to do that. It's generally pretty spontaneous. There were things that I knew I would do before we played and there was an awful lot of things that I had no idea was going to happen.
EX: How did you develop your unique vocal style? Where did your approach come from?
YOW: Early on, with Scratch Acid, I was a big fan of the Birthday Party. I really liked the stuff that Nick Cave was doing with them. I was a huge fan of the way Lee Ving sang with Fear and Lux Interior with the Cramps and David Thomas of Pere Ubu. It was just sort of take from those guys and, ideally, it sort of metamorphosed into my own sort of thing.
EX: Your voice is more or less absent from your solo album ["Tonight You Look Like a Spider"] that is out now. It's a lot more avant-garde than anything we've heard from you before. What can listeners expect?
YOW: When I first doing it, I made the analogy that it's a little bit like the way when children draw because they might know what they want to do a picture of but they don't have the coordination or whatever to do it very well. So you end up with very often are these really cool drawings with cool lines but they're not necessarily any good representations of a cat or a dog or a house or a person or a car or whatever they're drawing. The music that I came with for my solo album, I'm not really a musician so I was sort of shaping it and forming it into whatever sort of spun my prop. A lot of it is sort of orchestral, a lot of it is soundtrack-y. There's some f***ed up jazz kind of stuff and very little vocals. I whisper on one song. Another one I speak in an English accent. Then there's another one where a computer reads the words.
EX: Like a Stephen Hawking voice?
YOW: No, it's a woman, the text speech that came with Macintosh computers. This was in '98 or '99. And I just sort of slowed it down a bit so that it sounded a bit more natural. It sounds like a very bored woman. My friend e-mailed me a list of things that he would like to do to me if he was a bestiality-loving homosexual. It was a pretty funny e-mail and I had the computer read it so it sounds like a very bored woman saying, “I would rape you with the corpse of a macaque monkey”. Stuff like that. So, it's kinda funny.
EX: Not many people get those kind of e-mails in the first place, which I think is a shame. More people should get e-mails like that, especially at work.
YOW: I think you're probably right.
EX: As mentioned in the book, you like creating new music but not the finality of the product itself, like you're never satisfied with the end result. This kind of begs the question that there must be more music to come from you.
YOW: Oh, I don't know about that. I think that there will be little projects here and there that people ask me to be involved with. Just today, I said yes to my friend Pen Rollings, a Richmond, Virginia fella who was in a band called Breadwinner, a band called Honor Role, a band called Lady Finger and now he's got a new thing called Bowl Ethereal and he asked if I'd like to sing on that and I said yes, I would. But when you're talking about creating a whole other thing like a solo album, I really, really doubt that.
EX: Are you done with ever being in a band?
YOW: Yeah, yeah, I think so.
EX: You've been really busy with your art and acting. You also have a book coming out featuring your cat art.
YOW: Yeah, I was actually working on that. As we started our conversation, I was about to starting my last two drawings. I've done 71 of 73. I think it's a goofy, funny sort of a book. I think it comes out in the spring or summer of next year [Copy Cat comes out Aug 5].
EX: Are you basing them on your cats, or is it just a fascination with the animal like Jay Ryan and his squirrels?
YOW: Neither. I love cats. I've always been crazy about cats ever since I was a little kid. There's a little paragraph in the book that explains it. In 1980, I think, I had a friend named Tom and I drew a little cartoon cat wearing a t-shirt, and the t-shirt said Tom on it. So I said that's Tom Cat. And then he was dating a girl named Cheryl and I did the same thing with her and that was Cheryl Cat. And then I started doing any place in the English language where a C-A-T shows up in that order, then that's fair game. Like catheter or catatonic or catamaran, scatological or a CAT scan, cat's pajamas. I got up to 96 but it'll only be 73 in the book. There were more that are too esoteric and scientific words that I don't even know what they mean.
EX: Speaking of drawings, are we going to see the rest of the “sketchbook” [read the book to find out what we're talking about]?
YOW: Oh, I don't even know where that is. I doubt that. Golly, even to me, that's pretty offensive. It was really funny to do while driving a van and doing those stupid drawings but I have no idea.
EX: I like that it wasn't enough for just one of those images to be one a page but for all of those things to be happening at once in a single frame.
YOW: The stuff in the book, like it says, were the most user-friendly out of the whole book. I mean, yeah, there was very f***ed up stuff in there that was pretty entertaining. Mostly, it was me and Mac doing drawings but Duane did some and our buddy Lance Turnbow did some. But I think it's the kind of think where Mac has 3 kids now and if I had children, I wouldn't want them to see that stuff until they're out of college. You wouldn't want little kids to know that their daddy drew that stuff.
EX: Like a pornstar's kid finding one of their old movies.
YOW: Or worse. At least a pornstar is making a living.
EX: So there are the sketches, the photos, the bios, and even a pretty awesome-sounding bread pudding recipe in Book. It's got a little bit of everything in it, it's kind of the ultimate holiday gift.
YOW: I think one of the coolest parts is that David Sims is such a list keeper and list maker, that there's a list of every show that we played with whoever was on the bill. I think that's pretty cool. The bread pudding is really, really good. And if you use Buffalo Trace [bourbon] as I recommend, it's really something. Any old bourbon will work but if you use Buffalo Trace, it's banana-y and really good.
EX: Any holiday dinner ideas to go along with that pudding?
YOW: It's probably going to be carnitas. Some friends of ours are having a big carnitas kind of thing. Either that or my Jewish girlfriend and I might have a Jewish Christmas, so eat Chinese food and go to a movie.
EX: In keeping with the Christmas theme, If Book is the bow on the gift that is the Jesus Lizard, what does the card say?
YOW: You probably can't read it because all the ink is run and you can't make out what it says but at the end, it says, “Love, The Jesus Lizard”.
The Jesus Lizard Book will be available in bookstores Mar 3, 2014 but can be ordered now through Akashic Books' website with a special signed edition including a 7" record and a David Yow illustration. You can check out my review of the book via the link below.