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Coughing, hacking, and snorting phlegm, David Yow is half-asleep and trying to sound coherent. It's 12:30 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, and Yow is in a Montreal hotel room, resting between concerts while on tour with his infamously aggressive band, the Jesus Lizard. He has no idea he was scheduled to do an interview. "No, nobody ever tells me," he growls.
This is one sleeping dog most people would rather let lie. The members of the Jesus Lizard aren't exactly known for their good manners: In 1995, while playing Lollapalooza in Peoria, Illinois, David Wm. Sims, the band's bassist, swung his instrument at an audience member's head. He didn't miss. On the same tour, Yow repeatedly exposed himself onstage, contorting his genitals in a strange fashion during the song "Tight 'N Shiny"; it would become his signature move, what got the kids out on a school night. He got arrested for it in Cincinnati, and while in detention discovered that the policemen wanted his autograph. He obliged and wrote, "You suck shit. David Yow."
Perhaps Mr. Yow would prefer to reschedule this interview at a more convenient time? "No, we can do it now," he replies, clearing his throat.
The 37-year-old has mellowed just a trifle over the past couple of years. He's actually a pretty nice guy. He may look like a crazed cracker with a violent streak--cowboy boots, greasy hair, gap-toothed grin--and he certainly sounds like one on record, shrieking in his tonsil-tattered voice about lighting toads on fire and torturing his landlord. But in conversation, he speaks thoughtfully and openly (between hawking up loogies) about his music and the evolution of his band.
The Jesus Lizard recently released its second album for Capitol Records, Blue. Despite its eyebrow-raising song titles, such as "Postcoital Glow" and "Until it Stopped to Die," the disc is the band's most accessible yet. Amidst the twisted guitar riffs and bowel-shaking bass lines are hummable melodies and catchy choruses. The band even uses samplers (check out the Eastern-style strings on "Eucalyptus"), which longtime Jesus Lizard fans probably never expected to hear.
"I think we wanted to make less of a punch-in-the-neck record, because we've done that enough," says Yow. "We wanted to make something that was a little bit more moody."
Who knows what Blue would have sounded like had the band stuck with its original producer, John Cale. It was an unlikely partnership: The stately Welshman who co-founded the Velvet Underground teamed up with a quartet of uncouth sleazemongers from the Midwest who began their careers in Texas, shooting off shotguns and calling it rock and roll while in Scratch Acid. It was only a matter of days before Cale and the band parted. Members of the Jesus Lizard later complained to reporters that Cale had been overly demanding and inflexible in the studio. Yow told one Illinois paper simply, "He was a jerk."
Along came Andy Gill, onetime guitarist for the seminal punk outfit Gang of Four. Like Cale, Gill was not an obvious choice. He favors clean, angular guitars and pop hooks, while the Jesus Lizard favors wild, flailing guitars and blood-curdling howls. Nevertheless, Yow says, "We really hit it off famously. It was, by definition, a collaboration--much more than we'd ever done in the past. There was a bunch of give-and-take on his part and our parts, good ideas and bad ideas. It was fun." As a result, Gill's influence can be heard all over Blue, from the tense rhythm of the opening salvo, "I Can Learn," to the dramatic chords of the closing track, "Terremoto."
"A lot of the songs are certainly more chorus-oriented. That was the idea of Andy," Yow explains. "We'd say, 'Jeez, Andy, don't you think repeating this chorus twice is enough? Do we really need to do it three times?' And he'd say, 'Well, you know, I like that pop music! Come on, David, do it again!'"
The Jesus Lizard has been the antithesis of pop music for its entire nine-year career. The band--which includes Sims on bass, Duane Denison on Guitar, and Jim Kimball on drums--is the end product of some of the most uncompromising acts in indie-rock history. The lineage began in Austin during the mid-1980s, when Yow and Sims' Scratch Acid skronk-rock seemed so revolutionary, so brand-new, so dangerous--imagine the Butthole Surfers fronted by a man who didn't need the drugs to get him fired up. But the handful of records Scratch Acid scratched out wouldn't hold up over time (especially not Berserker), mostly because the sound of an explosion dims after a while and becomes a tepid echo; every indiepunk band from the Midwest sounds like this now.
Speaking of which: Around the same time in Chicago, Northwestern University student Steve Albini was using his college loan money to make self-proclaimed pigfuck rock and roll by grafting the metallic screech of hardcore onto the fascistic rhythms of a drum machine. His band, Big Black, created some of the most violent and inhuman music of the decade (culminating in the 1987 album Songs About Fucking). Like Yow and Sims, Albini was writing about murder, sexual abuse, and arson; theirs was a match made in...well, it sure wasn't heaven.
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