Rebel Basement: David Yow Interviewed

Daniel Dylan Wray speaks to Jesus Lizard front man, actor and Scratch Acid punk about the long gestation of his first solo album

When I last saw David Yow on stage it was with a reformed Scratch Acid in 2012 and he was spewing a venomous bile that exploded back and forth between sublime praxis and barroom amateur hour – a position Yow has maintained in and excelled at throughout all his years fronting both that group and the Jesus Lizard. At the age of 51, some thirty years since Scratch Acid originally formed, Yow prowled and stomped across the stage like a patient pacing a padded cell being bounced around as his head-first charge pin-balled him from wall to wall. Torpedoing himself into the crowd with such a surge of abandon and reckless obliviousness, it appeared his intention was to cause not only grave injury to his target (the audience) but also to himself. He fired chunks of phlegm to the ground so thick and fast throughout the set that the stage became a precarious minefield of mucus and beer drool. He was, in short, a menace – a fear-inducing, slobbering, powerful beastman who gargled and barked his way through a performance that injected a much-needed dose of noise and chaos to an otherwise fairly quiet and reserved Jeff Mangum-curated ATP. While my research dug up a seeming penchant for belching and occasional wind breaking in interviews, Yow appeared considerably tamer in discussion and during our conversation he actually proved to be warm, loquacious and fun, a far cry from the man who makes you hide behind the nearest person the second he sets foot on stage.

In June this year, David Yow finally released Tonight You Look Like A Spider his first ever solo album. It was actually finished and has been sat awaiting release since 2007 and it’s actually been 15 years since work first began on it. The vocals of Yow – that Michael Azerrad once described as sounding like “a kidnap victim trying to howl through the duct tape over his mouth” – are vacant on this record, instead it finds Yow plundering the depths of his imagination for sounds, visions and experimentations almost exclusively of the instrumental, dark-ambient kind.

As seen in the above video clip, Yow ran a limited edition concrete-block display vinyl version, but buyers probably ended up with more than just concrete and vinyl, “As I went along it got more and more fun and I started to put a bunch more things in there, they had insects in them: bees, flies, crickets, pubic hair and the nasty, crunchy calcium shit that builds up on your shower drain and stuff like that.”

Starting as a project in 1998/99 and concluding in 2007 the tone of the record didn’t alter enormously over the years, “I think the great majority of it – other than ‘Visualize This’ and ‘The Door’ – was done, before I moved to California, in my basement in Indiana and I guess the biggest difference between how it sounded initially and how it sounds now is just that now it’s been mastered it sounds a little richer, juicier and delicious.”

It’s unsurprising to learn that this album was made in a basement. It slinks with crepuscular footsteps, a creeping, squeaking, occasionally nightmarish construction coming from somewhere underground. “There are definitely places where I wanted there to be a suspense, Joyful Noise have described it as ‘terrifying’ but I think that’s going a little too far, but you know that’s fine, they have to sell records. I like the idea of creepy, but it’s weird, it was so long ago creating it that it’s hard for me to remember what was going through my head but I like the idea of some sort of spookiness.”

Some of the "creepy" sounds emitting from "below" could just as easily be the sounds of a decomposing pile of bodies being "dealt with" by a butt-naked Yow in a chef’s apron with a hacksaw as they could anything of a musical origin. Yet, while undeniably "basement" in its tone and connotations, it’s not the kind of U.S. basement, that you see on television and in films – that are nicely decorated, furnished, warm and actually inhabitable, proving a solace for grumpy teenagers to smoke pot and listen to heavy metal or for middle aged people to sit and grump wishing they were still a teenager smoking pot, listening to heavy metal.

Instead, Yow’s basement feels more the kind us Brits are used to: a squalid, damp-sodden room festering under our feet as we ignore its existence. The kind in which spider webs remain an immovable and impenetrable force in all corners of the room, where boxes of Christmas decorations sit lugubriously in the corner until December rolls around again; the walls flaking, crumbling and smelling faintly of piss; the only option of light being candles, as the electrics swing from a frayed socket above your head, swaying like a teasing death switch.

Tonight You Look Like A Spider sounds like it comes from a place not of comfort and electricity but a place of grot and fear. A den of miserableness, a place where a lonesome man sits banging on a pan with a wooden spoon, scraping the walls with his nails, simply trying to keep himself sane because he has been locked in the decaying basement of terraced house in Middlesbrough.

In recent years, when not locked in his basement making this record or fronting reformed incarnations of either the Jesus Lizard or Scratch Acid, Yow has been working primarily at becoming a full-time actor and he’s even appeared, bafflingly, in the Insane Clown Posse film Big Money Hustlas. As we speak he is involved in another cinematic project; he’s midway through shooting a video/short film, in which he stars, for the album’s ten-minute first track, ‘Opening Suite’. “It’s mostly boring; punctuated with moments of extreme excitement” he tells me, “The opening suite has five parts and my girlfriend had the bright idea of getting five different directors to shoot those parts.”

The five different directors are: Jared Varava, Tim Rutili, Adam Harding, Jennifer Lynch and Todd Adam Phillips. The Lynch in question is indeed David Lynch’s daughter and Adam Harding is of recent Joyful Noise supergroup Dumb Numbers, featuring Lou Barlow (Sebadoh, Dinosaur Jr.), Dale Crover (Melvins), Murph (Dinosaur Jr.), Bobb Bruno (Best Coast), CR Matheny (Emperor X). Yow also stepped behind the camera and directed their recent video for ‘Redrum’. “The directors know who each other are now, but initially they didn’t know. They didn’t collaborate on ideas at all. So, the ideas could be – well, they are – very different from each other but because they are inspired by the same piece of music, I think it has a cohesiveness that’s going to be really cool."

A rewarding outlet to see people’s interpretations of his work no doubt: "Very much so, I kind of wish there were more. Ideally I would love to make videos for the entire record but I just don’t know if that will happen, if there’s budget for that and how long it would take.”

‘Opening Suite’ flickers with Spanish guitar before the spaceship hovering above your head, bad-guy behind you, doom-drone unfurls. Drums thud from a far away place and within seconds animals scream for life, while others seem to grunt with desire. What comes to mind isn’t the vast departure from Yow’s work with the Jesus Lizard or Scratch Acid but more his complete absorption of his new found love and creative outlet: cinema.

“It’s funny, when I created it I thought it would be CD only so I thought of it as one big piece, so the whole idea would be ‘Opening Suite’, ‘The Intermission’ and then ‘The Conclusion’ but then when it was going to come out on vinyl I was like, ‘Fuck, now you can’t listen to it in one straight go.’ I did feel that – perhaps even more so than other music I’ve been involved in – because the sequence matters, you spend a lot of time deciding what the sequence is going to be, but I think with the Jesus Lizard and Scratch Acid the sequences weren’t as important as on this one, but I may be fooling myself.”

So, ‘Opening Suite’ becomes just that, an opening to something, a chapter, a thought-out construction that moves both musically and

cinematically, guiding you in gracefully but forcefully. That said, it’s not all grace and fluidity. The closing drums smash with the precision of a life-long drummer but bang and thrash with the power of a raging, enthusiastic novice, whose only aim is to pound the skins into submission and derive as much satisfaction from their squealing and suffering as possible.

“I’m not traditionally a musician” Yow admits, “I can’t play instruments and I don’t really understand music theory. I’m not a very good producer and I’m not a very good singer, so these songs were very analogous to paintings, you just sort of start and hopefully – ideally – the work itself will make suggestions, you start with a rough idea and then you’ll go, ‘Ah, that sounds like there should be a French horn right there.’ They were all pretty much like my paintings, I didn’t have a preconceived notion of any of them at the beginning of the creation of each of them.”

The animal screams, the babies crying, the unrelenting sense of "dread" and "bleakness" reinforced by the accepted tones of what constitutes as "dark" could prove a cocktail for a record soured by forced experimentation, resulting in barbarous prosaic but Yow, when settled into his groove (or occasional lack of) really constructs something challenging and wonderfully bent out of shape. Is a lot of this record him pissing around on instruments and computer software he only has a rudimentary grasp of? Yes, absolutely. But does it come from the brain of someone who has spent the last 30 years constructing gut-churning noise? The latter question being a far more important one to ask.

One of the steepest changes for Yow on this record however, is the solo element. Yow did the whole thing alone, “It’s only me, yeah. I didn’t want anyone else to have anything to do with it. I had people offer but I would politely decline. Except ‘Senator Robinson’s Speech’ which my dear friend JR Robinson from Chicago is [sort of] on. He once wrote an email to me that was really disgusting, it was about if he were a homosexual, bestiality-loving rapist, and what he would do to me. So, I just had the computer read that email and recorded it but rearranged it and tried to make it sound a little more natural but I think it just sounds like a very bored woman; ‘You have much cheese buried between your ball-bag and your dark and musty blinker hole’”, Yow says, adopting the robot/ bored-woman voice, “He’s quite the artist himself, he’s a talented renaissance man”, he adds.

Clearly a performer who thrives on audience interaction as well as a tight-knit inter-band dynamic, Yow reflects on making a record in isolation, “It was strange process but it was really cool, it was really fun because I played everything on it and as much as I have enjoyed collaborating with the people I have done music with, this was very liberating, there is no compromise and that is also sort of the cool thing about being in a band because it’s all compromise. With my record, I had total complete control and complete freedom. It’s weird for you to say isolation though because I wasn’t necessarily isolated, I would play it for friends who would come round and stuff and also at the time I was married but that was kind of comical because our marriage was kind of collapsing at the time and I would work on pieces down in the basement and I would get really excited about them and have my wife come down and she hated it, I’d play it for her and I’d be sat there grinning like a little boy and then she would just look at me and walk back up the stairs and not say a word. I thought it was hilarious.”

Has she heard the finished record?

“She has, and we get along fine now. I think she has a respect for it but it’s just not really her cup of tea."

Does a record coming out fifteen years after beginning work on it increase the sense of expectation you feel the audience are likely to have or eradicate it?

“I think eradicate. Initially Ipecac were going to put it out, Mike Patton told me he wanted me to do a solo record and Ipecac would put it out but then things changed so much and like Touch and Go it became a back catalogue label and not really doing stuff unless it was Mike Patton or the Melvins. I just kind of blew it off and thought, ‘Fuck it, nobody wants to hear this record anyway’ and I wasn’t going to do anything with it, then when this possibility arose [with Joyful Noise] I thought, ‘What the hell.’ Maybe eradicate isn’t the right word… erm… wait I’ve stumped myself… I’m really curious to hear people’s opinions on it but I haven’t expected anyone to like it and I’ve been very surprised at the positive response I’ve had to it. None of that was expected, as a matter of fact – I mentioned my ex-wife – my current girlfriend would get angry with me when I would say nobody is going to like it because she thought I was putting it down and I had to explain, ‘I’m really proud of it, I think it’s worthwhile but I can’t expect anyone else to like it.’ I’ve been really happy that a lot of people seem to like it.”

We move back to cinema again and how the album in many senses feels like a soundtrack: “Very much so, I completely concur. ‘Visualize This’, the long piece near the end, to me – who did the score for Blade Runner? I think it might have been Vangelis? – it really reminds me of a lot of Blade Runner, I’m not sure exactly why but yeah, I hope it works its way into movie scores.”

Any particular one?

“I guess the next David Lynch movie, that I would ideally have a leading role in. That would be perfect.”

The aforementioned ‘Visualize This’ is perhaps the album’s pinnacle. A swirling twelve-minute hiss of submerged gloom-gloop that shifts so restlessly that the textures and environments we are taken to never settle for long enough to give us a concrete sense of place or space. If it is Blade Runner-esque, it perhaps shares its state with the film’s vehicles – the spinners – hovering and hanging in the air, stalking and praying the city’s inhabitants, taking in the lives and sounds of others as they glide through the streets, absorbing the noises of everything from rats scurrying through trash cans to TV static blaring out an open window – leaving a trail of paranoia, suspicion and uncertainty behind them. While this song, and arguably the whole record, feels free from definition, certainties and time-periods – often even reference points – it’s actually a record imbued with direct influences and ones that David is happy to confess to.

“There’s definitely some influences. I’ve always been a fan of Edvard Grieg, I think there’s a fair amount of things that he would do in there like at the beginning of ‘Lawrence Of A Labia’, it has these sort of dense, distant cerebral note clusters that happen and then the piece sort of comes in gradually, that’s kind of a trick he did a few times in ‘Peer Gynt Suite’. One of the parts in ‘Open Suite’ is almost a direct rip-off of some Tchaikovsky tune, the one that goes…”

He starts humming said tune, but my classical knowledge fails me and I don’t know which one he means either, “I was also listening to a lot of Angelo Badalamenti and some noise music.”

What the future holds for the solo David Yow currently looks uncertain, “Part of the reason I stopped doing it in 2007 was because I was getting tired of it, it is fun but it’s also tedious and I was working on other stuff. These days I’m more interested in acting, so it’s conceivable down the line that I’ll fuck with it some more, but not in the near future.”

The same goes for a live tour of the record: “I’ve thought about it a lot. I haven’t come to any conclusions, I’d like to do it, I don’t really know the logistics of it but some of the pieces I think would be almost impossible for an ensemble to play. Especially with something like ‘Senator Robinson’s Speech’ because it has no tempo, no time signature and no key, so you would have to get some really snappy-ass musicians to play that stuff. So I think what I’ll do, is not play that stuff at all, maybe recreate things that are similar to the record and not necessarily try to recreate the song. I think it would have to be a multimedia kind of thing, I certainly wouldn’t want to come up to a table with a laptop and push play, so I don’t know.”

In the meantime, should you be in Australia/ New Zealand or “possibly Japan" and "maybe South America" you should be able to catch the reformed Jesus Lizard sometime soon.

Tonight You Look Like A Spider is out now on Joyful Noise

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