JESUS LIZARD SUPERSTAR
Bassist David Sims has no idea where his act, the Jesus Lizard, fits in with the rest of this year's Lollapalooza main-stagers.
"We're certainly not the headliner," he notes. "And I don't know if I could convince you we're one of the girl bands or one of the rap groups. I guess you could say that we're more at the extreme end of the rock spectrum."
The word "extreme" may seem a little tame to those familiar with the Jesus Lizard's punishing, full-tilt attack--"chaotic," "homicidal" and "nihilistic" are more accurate tags. But Sims is right about one thing: Those who attend this year's festival probably won't have much trouble differentiating the Lizards' antics from those of, say, Sinead O'Connor--or anyone else, for that matter. That's because the eight-year-old band (featuring Sims, singer David Yow, guitarist Duane Denison and drummer Mac McNeilly) has been declared by virtually every music publication worth reading to be among the world's greatest live rock-and-roll bands. Plenty of the group's peers agree; for instance, the late Kurt Cobain admitted that he copped some of his best moves from this scrappy foursome.
For his part, Sims feels that the esteem in which the onstage Lizard is held means nothing more than that the players are doing their jobs. "I think we do put on a good show," he states. "But, I mean, what can I say? We play rock shows the way we think rock shows ought to be played. They should be very immediate, in-your-face, visceral sorts of experiences--and very physical. I think we cover all the bases, and therein lies our reputation."
Much of the group's power flows directly from Lizard frontman Yow, who--when he's not swimming in the arms of the crowd or kicking over mike stands--takes delight in lighting his jeans on fire or twisting his genitalia into odd and interesting shapes. He also sings. But his snarling, muffled cries usually come out sounding more like noises made by a desperate vagrant trapped inside an abandoned refrigerator than the warblings of the average rock vocalist. In short, Yow would be the last person you'd want to invite to a formal dinner party. Sims, however, has learned to cope with the singer's intermittently maniacal behavior. "David's like anybody else," he reveals. "There's a terrific spontaneity and energy there that on the one hand is truly inspirational and on the other can really drive you nuts sometimes, depending on how things are going."
Of course, Sims has had plenty of time to adjust to Yow's personality quirks. The two became chums in high school and have been making beautiful racket together for nearly fifteen years. They started their first band, the fondly remembered Scratch Acid, in their hometown of Austin, Texas, in 1982, where they played alongside such popular, neo-hardcore combos as the Butthole Surfers and the Big Boys. During its five years as a band, Scratch Acid recorded a trio of near-flawless platters: Scratch Acid, Just Keep Eating and Berserker.
Like the Lizard, Scratch Acid also gained notoriety for its free-for-all live performances, which more often than not straddled the line between poor taste and full-blown psychosis. According to the liner notes on The Greatest Gift, a compilation of the three Scratch Acid albums, the bandmembers once dressed as characters from The Wizard of Oz, with Yow as Dorothy and a dead chicken as Toto. This is hardly the sort of thing you'd expect to see featured on American Bandstand--which is precisely why young misfits the world over mourned when Scratch Acid disbanded in May 1987. According to Sims, the split was caused by the usual personal and artistic differences. "People change a lot between the ages of 21 and 26," he explains. "We basically had four people who started out in a band together, and four years down the road, we had four completely different people. I mean, it wasn't a tragedy or anything like that. Everybody just wanted to go on to different things."
For Sims and Yow, the move was also a geographic one. Soon after the breakup, they migrated to Chicago in order to escape Austin's small-town atmosphere. Says Sims, "Austin was a great place to grow up, but it's not very big. Chicago is a great place to be. The Midwest is a really great place to start a band, because there are so many places to play. It's so easy to drive around here."
The city also was home to likeminded musicians such as Steve Albini, with whom Sims collaborated as part of Albini's post-Big Black project, Rapeman. Upon his departure from that group, Sims joined Yow and longtime associate Denison in the studio, where they laid down tracks for Pure, the Jesus Lizard's debut EP. Pleased with the results, the threesome recruited McNeilly, a native Atlantan and onetime Texas Christian University student, to play drums. The newly formed quartet's first full-length outing, Head, appeared a year later, setting the stage for an onslaught of singles and long players. The most recent example of the latter, Down, hit stores last October.
All of these releases are available on Touch and Go, a rising Chicago-based indie that's also issued The Greatest Gift. Despite dozens of major-label offers, Sims says the Lizard has no plans to leave the label. "We have a way that we want to do things," Sims points out. "We have a certain amount of control that we expect to keep within the band. Within those constraints, we're going to do whatever makes the most business sense for us. Given those guidelines, the answer has always been Touch and Go."
There have been exceptions to this rule: Last year, the Lizard put out a live album, Show, on Giant Records' Collision Arts imprint, and placed a song on the Clerks soundtrack on Columbia. But if Sims feels that these decisions constitute a sellout to the corporate mafioso, he's certainly not letting on. In his words, "There's plenty of scumbags at small indie labels, too. I've met lots of them, and plenty of my friends have been fucked over by them. Anybody who tells you that all of the scumbags are at major labels and only at major labels doesn't know what the fuck they're talking about."
Sims has equally harsh words for the British press--particularly the writers at Melody Maker, who seem to change their opinion about the band more frequently than Yow changes his drawers. "British people just don't get rock in general," he claims. "So I really don't expect much from them. They don't have any good rock bands, and they don't like good rock bands. I don't really think they like us, and if they do, it's only because it's a flavor-of-the-week sort of thing. Here people like us, and when we go back to their town next year, they'll still like us. As long as you put on good shows, they keep coming back."
Whether the throngs at Lollapalooza will follow this pattern remains to be seen. After all, Sims and his bandmates are at their best in clubs, where Yow can terrorize spectators up close and personally. But Sims isn't worried. "The question has come up: `Do you think you can handle playing on a stage that big?' I guess I don't really see what's to handle. I mean, we've done it, and it just ain't no big thing. We're pretty much inclined to let our songs stand on their own merit, and that seems to work. We do that on big stages, too, and that seems to work out just as well."
Then does the bassist think that playing at Lollapalooza will help the band cross over to a more mainstream audience, as it has for so many acts in the past?
"No," Sims responds. "I don't really see that happening. I think that there are certain common denominators to be found in music that gets that popular, and I don't really think people will find those in the Jesus Lizard."
Lollapalooza, with Mighty Mighty Bosstones, the Jesus Lizard, Beck, Sinead O'Connor, Pavement, Cypress Hill, Hole, Sonic Youth.
1 p.m. Saturday, July 8, Fiddler's Green, $28, 830-
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.