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 tour’s launch about possible plans for new music in the future from The Jesus Lizard, the band’s songwriting process and the tunes they will revisit on the tour.
CBS SF: It sounds like there was some discussion of possibly working on new material after the 2009 reunion. From what I was reading, Duane seemed particularly interested in pursuing new songs, but at the time the band collectively decided against it. For this reunion, are you looking beyond December as far possibly working on new music or extending the tour in the next year?
Mac McNeilly: I think Duane was absolutely right in wanting to pursue writing some new music. I just don’t think it was received…I don’t know what happened right then. I told him that I definitely wanted to do that and was ready to write new material and I remain that way. I’m always open to the idea of writing new songs with these guys because it’s a really satisfying experience.
Generally, it has not been that much of a struggle to come up with new material because of the way we tended to work in the past. I think it would work really well again. Without being cryptic — there’s nothing that I’m holding back or anything — I would just say that I’m totally open and you never know. The next year I think holds a lot of possibility.
I don’t have anything to tell you that would be significant right now, but I can say that I’m open to it and I always will be, because I hold the other three guys in high regard. Not just as formal as that sounds; we’re like brothers. We get along really well and I think have a good musical chemistry that still exists. So I would think that’s a good enough reason to explore it. So we’ll just have to see.
CBS SF: The band’s chemistry helped make the core three Touch & Go albums three of my all-time favorites. So many of those songs just sound perfect. What was the band process coming up with that material? Were you mostly writing together in the same room or were people bringing in individual elements that you worked out as a group? It seems like the parts fit together so well, you must have been working them out collectively…
Mac McNeilly: I think especially early on for Head and Goat, we were all living together in the same apartment in Chicago. We were always with each other. We were there all the time when we were home and we were with each other in a van or a motel room or sleeping on someone’s floor in the early days all the time. So we got to know each other really well. I think some of those songs were written where typically Duane or David Sims had a riff of some sort that they liked when they were messing around or running through ideas.
If they thought it was good enough to bring to the band to see what it sounded like, they would. Sometimes I remember back in that apartment early on, we’d sit around and they might play something just on acoustic guitar, like “Here’s the riff.” We’d just kind of get that in our head and maybe I’d think about what I could play on the drums to it. Then we’d go to the practice space and run through it.
It wasn’t like it was all arranged out like that. It was more like an idea was brought to the band and there might have been suggestions made, like “Hey, can you do this on the bass?” or “Can you think about doing this on the drums? What if you did this?” But in general, we felt comfortable with each other to let each other come up with our own parts.
So that is another kind of interesting thing about this band. When we were writing, it evolved very naturally, very organically, and it usually come from a pretty strong seed of an idea. Or maybe someone would have two parts or maybe David or Duane would come up with one and then the other would come up with an additional part and together those things seemed pretty solid.
If I put a drum idea to it that sounded good and everybody liked it, we’d have these sh–ty little cassette tapes that we’d listen to on our own time and figure out how to improve on it. So the next time we came back, we’d either get rid of an idea or build on it and kind of flesh it out that way. I think for the most part there was a real conscious decision to try to make these songs very lean and not have anything that didn’t need to be there.
So oftentimes we would shorten the song or make a new arrangement; like, “We don’t need to go back to this part one more time. It’s redundant. Let’s just chop that out.” I think we wanted to be lean and mean with no fat. That was kind of the attitude. I think Duane has mentioned something similar to that effect in interviews he’s given where there was a conscious decision to be kind of deliberate in what we were playing and have every part be necessary.
There was a common view of each player serving the song and playing what’s necessary. And sometimes that means playing really simply or getting out of the way and letting the song move on its own instead of trying to put every idea you have into it, you know what I mean? You value the musical space as well as the musical notes and beats that you’re going to put in there, because they all work together to make the final outcome.
I don’t think we analyzed it that much, but that’s kind of what went on in our minds behind the scenes. There was a real appreciation for trying to come up with the best part you could. That might not mean the most complicated part. How can we get this thing that we’re hearing to fully blossom. That’s kind of the approach.
I think as we got more towards the end of Goat and into Liar, we were practicing at a different space and less stuff was worked out on acoustic, because we weren’t all living together then, but we still spent a lot of time rehearsing. We were a band that rehearsed a lot. And then when we played on the road, the tours were many days in a row. We toured our asses off and then would pretty much always jump into the studio very quickly after we got back home from a tour. So we were all very warmed up and knew the songs very well. Long answer, sorry [laughs].
CBS SF: No, not at all. That was like a bullet-point presentation on how to be a great band making great music. Keep it simple, stupid. Serve the song. Listen to space between notes. They’re all good concepts that you hear all the time, but unfortunately not everybody making music is listening.
Mac McNeilly: Yeah, you do here that stuff floating around, but it’s kind of true. Again, we were very lucky in that I knew Duane was going to come up with killer parts, and David Sims as well. And David Yow, of course, with his lyrics and the way he delivered them, we didn’t have to worry about what anybody else was going to do or whether their part was going to work out.
We were really lucky in that respect. I think we just trusted each other and kind of got out of our own way without overthinking things and kind of let it happen. Which is not to say we didn’t put work into it, but we let the thing develop — whatever that thing was — and the end result is what we got. We definitely were more of a live band than a studio band, but we tried to capture what we could in the studio, which is really just that performance on that day at that place on tape. But it has to stand for more.
I think of people think of studio recordings as these definitive versions. And then when another recording or version comes along, it tends to not get held in the same way because they figure, “Well, there’s already been one that was recorded, and that has to stand.” I try to not be too precious about the studio recordings. I’m proud of them, but they were just what we had at the time. And that’s kind of how thing unfurled.
CBS SF: Do you foresee the setlist as mirroring what you did during the last reunion in 2009? I certainly can’t think of how you could improve on it too much…
Mac McNeilly: Yeah, we have an idea. There are three setlists we were alternating from and they were all very similar. I think they were all pulled from the 2009 shows. They were songs in a certain order that we felt worked really well, whether it was tempo or song key or the transitions between songs to keep the momentum going. There’s some thought to that in how they’re ordered. But I think most of the material will come from those core records you mentioned. It’s also for us. Those songs we really enjoy playing, so I have a feeling it will be somewhat similar with a few surprises thrown in.
CBS SF: I know the band released the Club DVD and recording from the 2009 Nashville show, but it seems like the last reunion tour was generally well documented. Are there any plans to release additional video? And, as an extension of that line of questioning, how in the hell is nobody working on a Jesus Lizard documentary? Have you ever been approached by someone interested in doing a documentary on the band?
Mac McNeilly: No, not that I know of. There have been a few things here and there. There was some filming done in 2009, but I think there are still some things to be worked out as far as that goes. Whether or not that’s going to be released officially, I don’t know. But there are those videos we put out, like that club show in Nashville at the Exit Inn that you can find. And some other stuff that existed from the ’90s.
And there’s a bunch of YouTube stuff that I’m really glad that someone was able to document that way. But as far as a formal documentary, there’s nothing I know of. It would be cool to do, to assemble a bunch of really great footage. But as far as I know, we never said, “Ok, we want you to film all these shows.” It was more people did it on their own.
CBS SF: I have to admit that I was pretty unfamiliar with your earlier bands 86 and Phantom 309, who you played bass with. I definitely hear a line between the sound of 86 connecting to what you did with The Jesus Lizard. Have you ever considered getting 86 back together?
Mac McNeilly: Yeah, there was a little bit of talk about that. I think that might be fun to do at least for an Atlanta show at some point. I was playing in 86 and we went through Austin, Texas, and that’s how I actually met David Yow and David Wm. Sims. They were at this club that we played at and we exchanged phone numbers. Scratch Acid was either broken up or was in the process of breaking up. David Yow and I said that in the future if we could do something together that would be really cool. And it was nothing more than that.
Later on, I was playing bass or at least playing on the bass — I’m not a bass player — in Phantom 309 when I got the phone call from him. He said, “Hey we’ve got this band The Jesus Lizard. We’ve got a drum machine but we want a real drummer. Do you want to come up and try out? We have plans to go to Europe.” And I said, “Hell yeah!”
So he sent me a cassette of the songs from Pure and I thought that it was pretty cool and I wanted to get back to playing drums in a band. It’s funny that you bring up 86, because that was what led to us meeting each other. I had a lot of fun in 86. We mostly played regionally in the southeast, although we did make it round the country a couple of times. That was a fun band.
That band had a completely different writing process. We would jam for an hour or more, just complete improv off the top of our heads and get deep into it. And then we’d listen to that back and pick out little ideas and from those ideas would come the songs. And that’s never how The Jesus Lizard would have written stuff. We never jammed. We never were a jam band.
So it’s interesting. I’ve gotten to see both sides and how they work. I wouldn’t say one method is better than the other. They both have their strengths and advantages. They’re just two different ways of coming up with stuff. But it’s really interesting that I came from doing things that way and then went into a situation where a pretty concrete idea was presented, even if it was a pretty basic one, and then we built upon that. But we’ll see if there’s an 86 reunion.
CBS SF: I was reading in other interviews about how prog rock had an impact on your development as a player and you mentioned Captain Beyond’s first album, which I think is one of the great, underappreciated classics of the ’70s. Of that style of music, is there a specific band or album that you’d single out as exerting a bigger influence?
Mac McNeilly: That Captain Beyond album definitely stands out to me as well. If you’re a fan of hard rock in general in the early ’70s, that was an amazing effort. And if you’re a drummer, Bobby Caldwell was a really hot drummer who had his own style. The players fit together really well for that record.
When I started playing drums, I was about 13 or 14. That was right around the middle to the end of the ’70s. So I was listening to a lot of stuff. But as far as what influenced me, it was a lot of the typical stuff. Like John Bonham of course was amazing. I was listening to Zeppelin. The first four Black Sabbath records were great. Some of the early Deep Purple records with Ian Paice were just amazing. I still think Machine Head is great, even though everyone has heard “Smoke on the Water” too many times. And In Rock had some good songs. I liked the way he played.
Also Grand Funk. They have a record called Live Album from 1970. It was before they did “We’re An American Band” or any of that kind of stuff. They were a three piece before they added a keyboard player. That album just smokes ass. That one and also E Pluribus Funk. I think the earlier albums showed a lot of promise, but they didn’t quite have it together as far as the sound. That live record is amazing. I would suggest anybody that likes hard-rock music listen to it. It’s rough in places, but the drummer, Don Brewer, was just great. I’d say he was an influence too.
As far as the prog rock stuff even after Captain Beyond — Gentle Giant, Yes, Bill Bruford — that kind of stuff all was going in. I was like a sponge. I listened to a lot of stuff. Even in high school, some of my friends were heavy into jazz. You know Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Don Cherry and all sorts of guys like that who were pushing the boundaries at the time. So I was hearing that stuff too.
CBS SF: Did you get into any of the fusion stuff that was happening? To me, some of it was kind of the other side of the coin as far as prog rock. I remember having tapes that had King Crimson on one side and Mahavishnu Orchestra on the other…
Mac McNeilly: Oh yeah, I had Inner Mounting Flame, Birds of Fire and Visions of the Emerald Beyond. Some of that stuff and Larry Coryell with 11th House. That was really cool stuff because it had the rock in there too. It was not just going out into the jazz stratosphere — though there’s nothing with that — but I like to have something that has some grit to it and some rock basis. There was this band If that put out a couple of great records. I’ve still got a load of old vinyl in the basement that I’m not going to get rid of [laughs].
You just tried to listen to as much stuff as you possibly could. Back then, there was no Internet. Now you take for granted that if there’s a band that comes to mind or someone mentions to you, you can check them out on the Internet and follow some links. You had to do a little more digging back then. You had to tape some things from your friends. But it was very cool. It was a very cool time.
The Jesus Lizard plays the Independent in San Francisco on Friday, December 15. Tickets are sold out.