SO. I interviewed David Yow, the lead singer of the Jesus Lizard and Scratch Acid.
When I asked Mr. Yow for this interview, he could have said no thanks and I would have completely understood. Instead this sweet gentleman gave me his phone number and said to call him whenever. So I did. On Halloween. It seemed appropriate!
Jeff transcribed this and was kind enough to leave out most of my insane fan-girl rambling. And then upon editing, I was was smart enough to remove the REST of my insane fan-girl rambling. ENJOY FOLKS! <3
Miranda: The first thing I want to ask about are the recent acting projects that you’ve been involved in, and if you could talk about what got you into acting, and that kind of thing.
David: Sure. I took acting...I took DRAMA...in high school a bunch, but I wasn’t so serious about it. Then in Chicago at the end of the eighties/early nineties, I knew this fellow named Jim Sikora, an indie filmmaker. For some reason or another he thought I was good on camera and asked if I’d do a couple movies. I did, I guess, a total of four movies with him. I didn’t do much after that. After the Jesus Lizard broke up, I moved out to Los Angeles, mostly to do graphic art and photo retouching stuff, and also hoping to eventually maybe do some more acting. Early on, about 2003 or so, I put together a reel on a dvd, and I talked to some people at the William Morris Agency. There was a guy there, and I told him I put a reel together cause I wanted to do some acting, and he said “Oh, this is gonna be easy. Get me five copies of it on DVD and in no time, we’ll have you set up.” And, so, about 6 to 8 weeks later I hadn’t heard from him, so I called him and he said “Oh, yeah, yeah, sorry. Nobody was interested.” Well, it was because my reel, well, it sucked. There was nothing on there, certainly nothing that was impressive or that would make a casting director go “Hey, I gotta have that guy!”
But then, some years ago-seven years ago-a fellow named Dennis Hauck asked if I’d like to be in a western that he was doing and I got into it. It was really, really fun. Then I did a couple other tiny things, and I decided to pursue it more diligently. I took some improv classes, acting classes, workshops, did some writing classes and monologue classes. Some of that stuff has been tremendously helpful, some of it was just throwing money down the toilet. I was really, really nervous, either in rehearsals or just reading lines, certainly when the camera was rolling I’d get nervous and get choked up and not do it the way it’s supposed to be done. Then recently I worked with Bill Hellfire on Upsidedown Cross and when we wrapped that weekend, having shot two days in New York and then having shot stuff in New Jersey, something just happened at that time where I wasn’t afraid anymore and it was like turning a corner. It became really really fun. Like when the teacher says “Relax, have fun with it” and both those times I really had fun. Then I came home and shot this thing where I was a restaurant manager and it was fun and easy, and there’s just tons of stuff going on-I’ve got three scripts that I’ve been asked to do, there’s a famous guy who’s written a script where I’d be a hitman and we’d shoot in NY, NJ and Manchester. Tons of cool stuff.
M: That’s awesome. What do you feel helped you get over the fear? Was it just something that happened all of a sudden, or were there certain techniques that you employed to make it easier for yourself?
D: I think it’s experience. It’s a culmination of the number of things I’ve done up to now. I don’t even know how many movies I’ve done now. I mean, none of them are that big of a deal, but they’re all experience, and I think that the cumulative effect of these things sort of got me to the point where I’m not as afraid. In auditions I was absolutely petrified, but a couple of weeks ago I had an audition and it was FUN. It was the casting director, the producer, and the director, and the movie is very weird and disjointed, and I didn’t really understand the script. I asked the director a couple of questions beforehand, and we did the scene, and he said-twice, “That’s exactly how I pictured it.” So I said “That’s great!” Then he didn’t call me back, which is a very Hollywood thing, but the fact that it was fun was huge. I think it’s the experience.
M: Right, like once you do it enough and you’re not scared, you’re like “I don’t NEED to be scared to do this at all.” That kind of thing?
D: Yeah! So many years ago I had an audition in Chicago, and I’d sort of become friends with Michael Shannon, and I talked to him the morning before I had this audition and I told him how nervous I was, and he goes “Fuck that! What are you nervous for? Fuck those people. Just go there, show them what it is, and get out of there. Who gives a fuck what they think?!” And I was going “Man, I wish I could have that attitude. There’s no way I can think that way.” And I still don’t think that way, really, it’s more along the lines where I’m just not afraid of them.
M: That’s great. Relating to what you were just talking about, I wanted to ask about this: I just read that you were not originally supposed to be the singer of Scratch Acid, you were supposed to be the bass player, and then the singer got kicked out so David Wm. Sims moved to bass and you moved to singing. Were you prepared to be the singer? Had you ever sung before? Did you have stage fright?
D: I had not really had experience before, but it’s funny that you ask about stage fright, because the first show we played where I was singing was at a place in Austin called the Skyline Club, and it was us-we played first, Butthole Surfers, The Big Boys, and TSOL…
M: That’s insane.
D: …and I’m terrified. I threw up all day long.
M: Oh my god!
D: I was absolutely terrified. I had crazy stage fright.
M: And you had only sung at practice? You hadn’t sung in previous bands? That was your first experience as a singer?
D: Yeah, I’d never sang in front of more than three people.
M: That’s intense. And so, do you feel like there’s a relationship between what you do on stage as a singer and the acting you’ve been doing? Not like cause and effect, but what’s in common between those?
D: I think only the performance aspect of it. At least with any of the bands that I’ve been in I’ve had completely free rein- particularly live- to do whatever the fuck I wanted, to either sing the real words or make up words, or not even sing words at all, or go over there and do whatever. Whereas, most of the time with acting, you have very specific things you have to say in a specific way, and a specific thing you have to be doing at the same time. So, as far as that goes, they’re pretty different.
But the most nerve wracking stuff…it depends on the role. Like I told you, I came back here and shot the thing where I’m a restaurant manager and it was really straight forward-I was basically just talking to this woman. But then the stuff I did with Bill Hellfire in NJ, there was a lot of quote-unquote “performance” going on, and that’s a little more analogous to the band stuff where you have to continually step outside of yourself and do things that you would never ever otherwise do.
M: Right. And for the sake of it being a good show, that kind of thing, you would go above and beyond?
D: Exactly. Erin Russ and I talked about a scene in Upsidedown Cross where I had to throw her into an ice bath, and she, understandably, didn’t want to do that. I was saying it’s only going to be four minutes of hell, and it’ll be great for the movie, and that’s what we’re here for. You have to make those sacrifices to make the movie as good as it can be. I told her I have to eat fried eggs and it makes me want to throw up, but for the sake of the movie it was kind of fun to choke that shit down. That was our pact. If you take the ice bath I have to eat a fried egg.
M: Haha! That seems fair! So, what led to your vocal style? Do you have inspirations? There are some singers where I know exactly what the person is going for, and when I listen to you I have no idea. It’s really unique in that way. I’m wondering if you could talk about what led to your vocal style, and what kind of vocalists you listened to that brought you to that?
D: Well, when I was a teenager I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan, but I was also aware that Robert Plant was the weakest link in Led Zeppelin. There some things he would occasionally do that I liked. When punk rock came around, I was a huge fan of Lee Ving, Lux Interior, Johnny Rotten, and particularly Birthday Party-era Nick Cave, and I think that’s pretty apparent, especially in Scratch Acid and early Jesus Lizard stuff. But, because I wasn’t very good at, you know, traditional singing, I had to work with what I had. So I think my limitations probably forced me to make adjustments…
M: Like in vocal performance?
D: Yeah well I can’t sing very pretty, but I make these awful noises a lot, and that’ll be entertaining. I think early on with Scratch Acid I listened to a live tape before we put out a record and it just sounded like this kid trying to rip off like Nick Cave. I remember thinking “I’ve got to stop that!” You know, I didn’t WANT to do that. But, I think it’s very natural and acceptable. In whatever artform, or endeavors, where you are particularly enthralled by something that someone else has done, its normal for you to imitate that. And then hopefully, ideally you metamorphose into your own thing, and I hope that something like that happened.
M: Undoubtedly. Do you feel like your singing evolved a lot? Can you talk a little bit about the evolution from your earliest singing to the later Jesus Lizard records, and even today?
D: Early on it was really tweak-y. There were all kinds of horrible squeaks and things that would happen because I had no control over my voice. And I didn’t really care. I wasn’t trying to have control-I didn’t bother with singing lessons. Hitting the right pitch or the right key-I don’t remember that ever being a concern. If I felt like it worked with whatever we were doing, I’d stick with it. As far as trying to harmonize, I don’t think that really happened. After the Jesus Lizard broke up and I came to Los Angeles, I joined a band called Qui, that was just a three piece. Those two guys are really good and taught me a lot. Paul Christiansen taught me a lot. I actually took lessons from him. I don’t care much about playing music these days, but I can sing better now than I did then. (Mock vocal warm-up scale)
M: Nice! Can you talk about the songwriting process for the Jesus Lizard, and if lyrics or music came first? And also what was it like to be in a band with three of the best players of all time, as far as I’m concerned.
D: There were no rules as far as like, the music came first or the lyrics came first-both happened. We talked about trying to write music around the words a couple times, though I don’t think we ever did that. Duane in particular really liked the idea of me writing something and figuring out some kind of phrasing that I like and then building a song around that. I don’t think we ever ended up doing that. But, gosh, the lyrics. Jeez, Miranda, I don’t remember. A lot of them came from dreams I had. From the beginning of the song to the end of the song there’s not necessarily a cohesive thing where it’s about one or two things. Often I felt it was more important what it sounded like than what it was saying. My father was really quite a wordsmith, and I think I inherited a bit of that. There were some little cleverisms that I liked, but it was never really important to me if that came across. If I wrote some line and was like “Oh, that’s a good line.” I was more concerned with the way it sounded than with somebody saying “Ooh that’s a cool line.”
M: Cool. What was the recording process like? Do you have any specific memories or anything funny to share about the recording process with The Jesus Lizard?
D: Well, specifically with the Jesus Lizard, like you said, the other three guys were pretty good at what they did. We practiced like motherfuckers. We rehearsed like crazy and we toured a lot, so whenever we went into the studio, unless there was something brand spankin’ new that we wanted to work on, we had it down. Certainly 75% of it, at least. So, it was usually really quick, and Steve (Albini) was very efficient. I think in his world, you never really need to do more than two takes, and we never really did more than one or two takes. We had all the screws tightened down before we went in.
Some of the stuff Steve did was pretty cool, sort of experimental mic-ing. He did all sorts of kooky things. They would tape microphones to my head, or I would be inside of a trash can. They would have a microphone on a stand in front of my mouth, and then another microphone hanging from the ceiling about a sixteenth of an inch from the other microphone, and as I started singing I would swing the one hanging from the ceiling so that as it passed by the other one the phase would shift. Goofy shit. It changes things. I don’t if it necessarily makes it better, but he was really into that kind of thing, and I got a kick out of it.
M: Yeah. I’m sure it makes it more unique sounding, even if you’re not really aware of what exactly is happening when you’re listening to it.
D: Yeah, instead of (sings a note), it would go (sings a modulating note.)
M: Nice. Did you have any specific things that you used to do to record vocals? The vocals are so performance based-I’m trying to say it the right way... I mean, it seems like you couldn’t really make it sound right without doing it full on. Did you have specific things you would do when you when you were recording your vocals to make it as real as possible?
D: Usually we’d drink way too much. I was soused. For instance, when we recorded Head, we had a list on the wall, a checklist of things that had been done and things remaining to be done. We came in one morning after being in the night before and the song “Pastoral” was checked off, and I said “No, I still have to sing that.” They said “You did that one last night.” That’s the version on the record. I was so drunk I didn’t know I did it.
M: Can you talk about the Jesus Lizard book that just came out, ”Book?”
D: Sure. I’m not certain actually how it came about. I think it was Johnny Temple from Girls Against Boys, who runs the publishing company Akashic. I think it was his idea. He approached us about it, and my knee jerk reaction was, “What a tremendous waste of time.” We broke up, I don’t even know how long, fourteen years ago? I really didn’t see any point in doing the book. But we talked more about it, and had some ideas and stuff. I said if I can design it, I’d be willing to do it. Because-I don’t want to get into specifics-but the things that have been released that I had nothing to do with I was not particularly happy with. And I was not willing to have a book come out on us where I didn’t like the way it looked. So, we started doing it and we got a shit-ton of photographs from different people. We scanned them, color corrected them, retouched them, and sort of got an overall look I wanted for the book. Then we handed them off to Henry Owings who does Chunklet Magazine, who has a much much better grasp on how to lay out a book. So, he did the layout, after I sort of figured out what it should look like, and I’m really, really excited about it now. I have a copy of it at home. It looks great. I think it’s completely worthwhile. There’s tons of written stuff in it by a lot of contributors-particularly, to me, Alex Hacke from Einsturzende Neubauten and Mike Watt are just incredible. Really, really great! Mike’s piece is like beatnik, Dada, Abstract, Jackson Pollack. It’s great. The way he writes…it’s like he’s got his own language. But yeah, they’re great photos of us as kids, each of the four of us, stuff about our lives, a detailed list of every single show we played. It’s really worthwhile.
D: I think the pre-orders will ship before Christmas, but they’re not going to be in stores until February or March.
M: Okay, I just want to ask a couple more things about personal stuff, and then we’ll be done. Thank you so much. I really appreciate this.
D: Of course!
M: What were your parents like growing up?
D: Well, in the book I describe where I was born and I describe my mother and father, and I think the last line in the paragraph about my mom, I think I said “I’m not lying when I say that my mom was the sweetest little woman to ever walk the face of the Earth.”
M: Aww. That’s nice.
D: That was my mom. My dad was pretty great. He was a fighter pilot, he flew incredible airplanes and did some amazingly dangerous things. He was an officer in the Air Force, so there was a fair amount of the discipline and regimentation, and he could be a real fuckin’ prick. There was a time, right after high school, like right when the punk rock thing was going on where he and I did not like each other at all. At all. And then so many years later, he kind of cleaned up his act, and the last thirteen years of his life, we were really tight. I’m really grateful for that.
M: That’s great. Really great. Do you have any siblings?
D: I have a sister who is two years older than me. She lives in central Texas with her enormous family.
M: Do you still hang out with her?
D: No, no. We talk on Christmas, her birthday, and my birthday.
M: Was there something that made you want to be in a band as opposed to just being a spectator or fan? And not to say that there’s anything wrong with that, but was there anything that specifically made you go “I want to do this and not just watch it?”
D: I think punk rock. When I was a little kid I was a huge Beatles freak, and I’m old enough that I bought the 7" when they came out. Like I bought the “Hey Jude” 7 inch when it came out and stuff. I was living in Virginia at the time, and then we moved to England in the early and mid 70s when there was T. Rex and Slade and The Sweet and I loved all that shit and then Led Zeppelin and stuff. But with that kind of music, I didn’t have the wherewithal or the desire to learn to play an instrument well enough to play in one of those bands. They were so far removed from anything that I would be interested in. But then when the punk rock came along, I loved the idea of the sort of do it yourself-ness and that you didn’t have to be very good at what you were doing. I think that’s what opened a door for me, like “I’m not gonna be good either!”
M: Ha. I think that happened a lot. I think, like, a lot of people feel that way.
D: And about that time, I lived in this little house with a friend in Austin, when I was in my first little band called “Toxic Shock” where I played bass. We would do whatever to get a show. Behind the house we lived in was this garage where this other band practiced and they were sort of like prog-rock, jazz-fusion. They were really really good at it. Now... I didn’t care much for it, but they were really good. But it never occurred to them to play a show! They would practice, you know, 8 days a week for 5 hours a day, and then expect some record scout to just stumble in and say “Hey, do you want to do a record?” And meanwhile, we’re playing all the time having a screaming blast!
M: Okay, last but not least: any ghost stories?
D: Any ghost stories?
M: Anything that ever happened to you. Any kind of paranormal activity that happened to you in real life.
D: I think there are two. The first one was when I lived in Chicago. We lived in a sort of a two story, sort of like a brownstone thing, and we always entered the side door. For some reason we never used the front door. One day-I don’t remember why-but I opened the front door instead and one of the cats ran down the stairs and got out. When I went to go get him-and I’d only taken a couple of steps- he came rocketing back up the steps. He was going so fast he was on the wall, not the stairs.
D: He was a tough guy, and I looked at him and he was freaking out. He was hyperventilating and his fur had gone insane. I thought “What the fuck!” I checked downstairs and there’s nothing there. There’s one of those beneath the stairs storage spaces and there’s nothing there but a snow shovel. There was no hole where a rat or mouse could’ve gone in or anything. There was nothing there. So, I think he saw something there that I couldn’t see, and it scared the fuck out of him.
And then here in Los Angeles, there have been a handful of times this sort of ghost cat shows up every now and then. Most of the things around here are easily explained away. Like it’s a reflection, or out of the corner of your eye or whatever. But one morning my girlfriend got up and went to the bathroom, and you got past the guestroom to get there, and she yelled back “Hey, David. Did you move the guestbed?” There are three paintings above this bed, and the bed is centered beneath them, and the bed was moved like 18 inches. And I have no idea. That is not our imagination.
M: Right, that’s physical.
D: And the cats certainly can’t do it that quick.
M: Yeah. Haha!
D: One of the ghosts decided to move the bed.
M: That’s intense. Well, thank you for talking to me.D: Thanks.
Thanks David Yow. Check out this website to see David's artwork. And this one for his acting info and some Jesus Lizard video.