By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Rightfully revered as one of the best bands to emerge from the post-punk underground during the late ’80s, Chicago-based quartet The Jesus Lizard spent the over a decade destroying stages and making some of the most uncompromising music of alt-rock era before calling it quits in 1999. Founded in 1987 by two former members of Austin, TX noise-punk mavericks Scratch Acid (unhinged singer David Yow and bassist David Wm. Sims) and guitarist Duane Dennison, the group worked out its initial songs using a drum machine.
The band would relocate to Chicago and work with renowned engineer Steve Albini — who Sims had joined in his short-lived, egregiously named group Rapeman — recording their debut EP Pure for Touch & Go Records shortly before the addition of human drummer Mac McNeilly in 1989. Over the next several years, the quartet would refine its brutal, spare science that meshed Dennison’s lurching, atonal stabs of guitar with the propulsive, push-and-pull rhythms pounded out by Sims and McNeilly, all as Yow snarled and spat out tales of back-alley violence and depravity shot through with the singer’s dark humor.
The Jesus Lizard continued its work with Albini, recording a string of corrosive albums — Head, Goat and Liar — between 1990 and 1992 that still stand as some of the most bludgeoning and beloved post-punk efforts of the decade. Meanwhile, a relentless touring schedule would hone the band’s muscular, minimalist sound and Yow’s proclivity for flinging himself on top of audiences (both with and without his pants on) and demented stage banter, establishing The Jesus Lizard as one of the most feral and entertaining live acts of all time.
The release of a split single with avowed fans Nirvana (who would work with Albini on their final album In Utero partly based on his recording history with The Jesus Lizard and The Pixies), helped boost the band’s profile and the post-Nevermind major label feeding frenzy for all things punk led to the group signing with Capitol Records after the release of their final Touch & Go recording Down in 1994.
While the move to a major had some fans crying sellout, The Jesus Lizard did not do much to tone down it’s uniquely ferocious sound on Shot in 1996. A bigger blow to the band would be the departure of MacNeilly later that year after the drummer committed to leaving life on the road behind in order to help raise a growing family. The band soldiered on with new drummer Jim Kimball (ex Laughing Hyenas and Mule, as well as a member of the Dennison/Kimball Trio, an experimental jazz duo with guitarist Dennison) and remained a powerful live act, but would split up in 1999 after releasing it’s recorded swan song Blue.
The members of the band participated in some interesting projects after the split — Dennison recorded and toured with Tomahawk, the supergroup he co-founded with singer Mike Patton, while Yow explored acting and joined LA-based experimental punk duo Qui for a time — but clamor for a reunion never quite faded to the background. Fans got their wish in 2008 when the quartet announced it was reconvening with McNeilly back in the fold as Touch & Go embarked on a deluxe reissue campaign of The Jesus Lizard back catalog.
Fiery appearances at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival and two separate All Tomorrow’s Parties events in England and New York followed, along with a string of celebrated headlining tour dates that found the band back in fighting shape, delivering their classic songs with an undiminished fury and precision that had many hopeful for an extended reunion.
Instead, the group drifted back to inactivity in 2010 with only the release of the coffee table band biography Book in 2014 interrupting the quiet surrounding The Jesus Lizard camp. That silence came to an end a few months ago when the band was announced as one of the acts at Houston’s Day For Night Festival, followed by a limited number of U.S. tour dates including the final pre-festival show at the Independent in San Francisco on December 15.
Drummer Mac McNeilly recently spoke with CBS SF ahead of the launch of the first tour by The Jesus Lizard in eight years about his own musical projects outside the group and what it takes to get the band ready to take to the road.
CBS SF: The last time most people saw you play live was likely the tour the Jesus Lizard did in 2009, but some lucky people in San Francisco got to see you and David play with Brickbat at the Bottom of the Hill benefit for Scott Jones back in 2013. I seem to remember that you had some connection with Scott from his time in Brickbat. Was that how you and David got involved in the show?
Mac McNeilly: We did end up touring with them. I’m sure they opened for us someplace. I don’t recall if it was a one time thing and we got lucky and made friends with them. Then we asked, “Do you guys want to open up for us on tour?” Anyway, they did. So we played a handful of shows together.
I don’t remember how many it was, but it was more than just a couple. We got to know them pretty well and just really liked them as people as well as their music. So we kept in touch over the years. So when James, the guitar player, got in touch about what had happened to Scott and we all felt awful about it. So he organized a benefit. There were two benefits. One was in Wilmington where they’re from. I played that one with them, playing a lot of the old Brickbat stuff, and then David was brought in for the San Francisco thing to help with that too.
CBS SF: What have you been up to in the time since? In one podcast interview I listened to, you mentioned having a couple of bands in Chicago in the works in addition to playing with Jeff Pinkus from Butthole Surfers and Melvins. On the musical front, have any of those become regular outlets for you?
Mac McNeilly: No, those haven’t really become regular things as far as a working band or anything, but Jeff Pinkus and I have worked together before. I went out to Austin one time and we ran through a few songs. It’s on the backburner for us, but it’s definitely something we both want to do.
I imagine this next year, we’ll get it together. Though the magic of the Internet, I can send him some files and he can work on them and send them back to me. It’s a great way to work to at least get some ideas down before actually going out and spend time rehearsing. I would love to put something out with him and I think we will. I don’t know a timetable for that or who would be involved, but it would be even better if we could do something live for it. Even if it wasn’t a typical touring band or anything.
And then I have another friend here in Chicago named Bob who is a guitar player. He and I have worked on about ten songs that aren’t mixed yet, but they’re all recorded. I’m sure that will end up being some sort of download or CD or something. It would be nice to to play that stuff live, but I don’t see that becoming a full time band either.
I have so many musical ideas. I want to be active, but I’m writing my own stuff too. It’s an exciting time for me. I don’t have so much of a goal of being in one main band and making that into a touring thing and taking up all my time. But I’d love to be able to do live performance and work on music with different people I know of and admire. So I’m looking forward to whatever happens. I’m remaining pretty open.
CBS SF: It seems like the Touch & Go 25th anniversary festival in 2006 — which I’m still kicking myself for not attending — was another opportunity for the Jesus Lizard to reunite. Did anyone propose the idea then or was it impractical given that Scratch Acid was already getting back together for its first shows in years at the festival?
Mac McNeilly: I don’t think it was impractical because of that reason. My memory is a bit hazy as to the details of if that was presented as a possibility. There were a couple of times through the years since the band broke up in 1998 to that 2009 reunion where I was approached and there was a show we could play and they were offering a good amount of money. I just wasn’t in a place where I could do that for different reasons. So for whatever reason, I think that was a similar case for the Touch & Go thing.
But the 2009 tour that happened and the re-release of the records, that for some reason just felt right. It started off small. Were were just going to do one or two shows at All Tomorrow’s Parties over in Minehead, England, and then maybe a London show and that would be it. It was going to be a very special thing.
But then the whole record remastering and re-releasing of the Touch & Go catalog happened and other shows kept getting added in and it really just felt right. It felt like the timing of everything came together well and we were all in a good spot. We rehearsed together and it took us a little bit of time to get back up to speed, but not much. Everything returned fairly quickly and we were able to do that and enjoyed it so much.
That whole year as far as playing and touring together and Corey [Rusk, Touch & Go Records founder] re-releasing the records, everything went amazingly well. We enjoyed being with each other just as much as playing. For me it was another way to make a better ending for the band, you know? Because we didn’t really know if we were going to be doing it again after that year.
It could have been the last time we did that, but it’s kind of funny that here there’s another handful of shows in December. So I don’t think of us so much as broken up as mostly inactive. But then again, we’re finding that it’s a lot of fun to do. It would be really good to get some new material out, but for right now, it’s just playing the older songs. And it’s nice to know they’re still appreciated, to be honest. We didn’t want to just go through the motions and play those songs. We wanted to make sure that they were played the way they were meant to be played with that energy and presentation. And it was a lot of fun, I tell you what.
CBS SF: Was this reunion spurred by an offer from the Day For Night Festival in Houston? Or were you already thinking about it when the festival got in touch?
Mac McNeilly: Yeah, that’s exactly what happened. There was no talk necessarily of doing anything, although we’ve all been in touch with each other. But then the offer for Day For Night came in and it was significant. So we said, “Well, we could do this and rehearse X amount of days before. As long as we’re at it, can we add just a few more?” Maybe do some major cities. Nothing extensive, but as long as we’re doing this, can we make these other things work? So our booking agent looked into it and found there was enough interest to put together what we have, these six shows.
So it worked out really well. Because it’s not too much time away from home or out of everyone’s schedules, but it’s a significant commitment. We’ve already rehearsed once in Nashville in October and then we’re going to get together for a few days before we start this thing in early December.
CBS SF: I remember seeing a clip on Facebook of that initial get together. So you just hung out for a few days in Nashville for that first rehearsal?
Yeah. That was just us getting together in early October. In Nashville, we rehearsed in this tiny room that was great for what it was. Just us getting in there and running over these songs and letting the muscle memory come back. And in the meantime, we’ve all been individually working on our stuff, working on our parts and getting more in shape physically and mentally to do this.
So then we have two more full days of rehearsal before we start this in Nashville. It’ll be great. In 2009, when we first started rehearsing, it was a little rusty at first, but very quickly got up to speed and we felt really good about it. I think I say this every time, but we didn’t want to be the guys who used to be good and are playing their songs again and it’s kind of embarrassing. We weren’t even going to do it if we couldn’t bring it up to a certain level that we expected of ourselves and that the people who liked our music expected too.
We definitely rose to the occasion. I don’t think we had doubts, but we were pleasantly surprised when we had people telling us that we were as good if not better than back in the day. And that’s the ultimate complement, because we definitely wanted to present these songs the way they were meant to be played. They need to be done a certain way and we’re able to do that.
CBS SF: Did you consider playing when Book came out a couple of years ago? That seemed like another chance to get together…
Mac McNeilly: I don’t know that there was much talk of doing live shows. Part of the reason, if I’m remember correctly, was that Duane wasn’t able to do that book tour because he had commitments with Tomahawk I believe. They had a very busy year as far as touring. I know they did the States and Europe and South America, and they may have gone to Australia and Japan as well. That’s my recollection. I think it was kind of off the table, us getting back together and doing a series of shows then.
Plus it was kind of close to the 2009 thing. It had been a few years, but still at that point we weren’t looking to jumping back into doing it again. Those shows were very special. It wasn’t necessarily “We’re never playing again.” It wasn’t so much like that. It was more that we wanted to just let that stand and we’d keep open to things
CBS SF: What did you take away from getting to see the band’s history laid out like that?
Mac McNeilly: The book itself came out pretty great I think. It’s kind of hard for me to tell because I’m so close to it, so I can’t really approach that with the perspective of a fan who is into the band and wants to know more or wants to have more photos or stories or things like that. But I think one of the things that touched me the most was how flattering it was from other musicians who we knew and had played with over the years in the ’90s to come out and speak so positively about the band. It was really touching.
I do think if you’re a fan of the band and wanted to know more, it was a good thing to have. Hopefully it was more like a gift that we could give to people who were really into the Jesus Lizard. Of course, if you didn’t know anything about the band and didn’t like our music, then it wouldn’t be worth very much [laughs]. But hopefully for people who liked the band and enjoyed our shows, it was another thing to add to the music.
CBS SF: Another thing I wanted to ask in relation to Book; the deluxe version had a signed copy of a 7” single with two demos. That kind of begs the question of whether the band has any additional unreleased material you might consider putting out that didn’t make it onto the album reissues?
Mac McNeilly: I’m sure there are some demos and stuff that exist of other songs, because we did do quite a few demo sessions. And some of them are kind of available on the internet. The BBC Peel stuff is around; that wasn’t really officially put out as a separate thing. But I wouldn’t be able to speak for the rest of the band as far as what we consider putting out. I don’t thing there’s been a whole lot of consideration about that. I’m sure there’s some material, but I wouldn’t want to speculate about whether that could be released. We haven’t talked about that kind of stuff.
In the second part of this interview, McNeilly discusses the possibility of new Jesus Lizard recordings in the future, what the band plans playing during the December live dates and his early musical influences as a drummer.