Constant Vs. Variable: The Jesus Lizard Interviewed About Down

Nick Hutchings, who interviewed Jesus Lizard for us recently, loves their album Down. Trouble is, Duane Denison, Mac McNeilly and David Wm. Sims don't...

The Jesus Lizard were already a tight band with a cult following when they hit big with a Nirvana split single in 1993. The Nirvana track ‘Oh The Guilt’ was Kurt and co’s first since Nevermind and was hotly anticipated. The Jesus Lizard side ‘Puss’ was a real ear-opener. It was led by a rhythmical ebb and flow between drummer Mac McNeilly and David Wm. Sims’ effortlessly loud bass playing. It was punctuated by the strafing of Duane Denison’s metallic guitar, while singer David Yow threw out yelps like Jackson Pollock splattered paint on a canvas. The cover art was a brilliant illustration by Malcolm Bucknall featuring a native American next to a Marcellus Coolidge style anthropomorphised dog also in native dress. It was as disconcertingly beautiful as the music.

‘Puss’ made me go and devour the album Liar from which it had been siphoned, and I was hooked. The opener ‘Boilermaker’ was more powerful in its first ten seconds than most bands manage in a whole career. It dispensed with any lead-in, it just planted one straight in the mush from the get-go. Steve Albini had loved the band enough to record three of their albums, unprecedented stuff for such a notoriously uncompromising character.

Hot on the heels of Liar came the mini-LP Lash. It included two new tunes and live takes of old favourites including ‘Killer McHann’ and ‘Lady Shoes’. This was followed by a full live album called Show which came close to capturing the intensity of a live Jesus Lizard performance. With these records they worked with different engineers for the first time ever – Southern’s John Loder and Spiderland producer Brian Paulson. As great as both of these records were they felt like stop-gaps before an album proper.

Recorded 20 years ago in 1994, Down wasn’t an easy one to make. It became the last they did with Albini. The last for their spiritual home Touch & Go Records. It is documented in the official Jesus Lizard biography Book as a disappointment to all parties. The band had began to drift apart, with both Yow and McNeilly now living away from Chicago. They had come to the studio uncharacteristically unprepared. Albini had concentrated his efforts on front man Yow and distanced himself from the rest of the band.

The sounds recorded in the studio felt muffled compared to the full pelt of earlier album Goat. The cover art was again by Malcolm Bucknall and featured a beautiful image of a freefalling dog, but according to the band and in particular Sims, wasn’t matched by the contents within.

For me however, Down was and still is a real favourite. It was full of powerful and unique songs and some of David Yow’s most amusing yet menacing lyrics. It started with the disconcerting and claustrophobic ‘Fly On The Wall’. It featured possibly the most conventional rock song they’d ever made in ‘Destroy Before Reading’. It also included jazzy spaghetti western moments like ‘The Associate’ and ‘Low Rider’ seemingly inspired by Denison’s side project The Denison Kimball Trio.

The lyrics "you’ve got skin like dirty porcelain" (‘The Associate’) or "I’m gonna cut little gill slits in your neck and blow them in with a straw" (‘American BB’) were inspired, if a little unhinged.

And in the song ‘Elegy’ there was a funereal pace that displayed a beauty they hadn’t often tapped into. After reading Book I felt disappointed the band hadn’t enjoyed the album as much as I had.

I contacted the players Duane Denison, David Wm. Sims and Corey "Mac" McNeilly to answer some of my questions about the album which had left them down.

In Book David you mention you like Down least of all Jesus Lizard albums, why?

David Wm. Sims: I don’t remember learning much of anything. Russian microphones sound like crap, maybe?

Mac McNeilly: I think some songs are not as fleshed-out… and it has a different sound to it than previous Jesus Lizard albums. Goat was probably the best up to that point, sonically speaking, with Liar being a bit darker sounding. Down just seemed to have a few quirks that the others didn’t have.

Duane Denison: I think it probably has the least number of "killer tunes" on it of all the Touch And Go albums. Plus the sound was never really great on it, especially the muffled vocals.

What did you learn from recording it?

MM: We built on our experiences from previous records, and pretty much used our same methods to play things live in the studio.

DD: I think we were so busy touring that we could’ve used more time off to focus on writing. Plus this was our what, fourth album in a row with Albini? Most people only do one.

After Liar how much pressure had you been putting on yourself to deliver on Down?

MM: I don’t think we felt any real pressure… we just continued to do what we had always been doing as a band-playing live as much as we could. By this point in the band’s timeline, we were aware of playing bigger venues, having larger crowds, and making more money from touring, and we felt it was a natural progression from playing out as much as we did.

DD: I don’t think we put much pressure on ourselves. I don’t recall feeling that way, at least. Maybe we should’ve put more pressure on ourselves! We were too busy running around to think too much about it.

DS: We always wanted to make the best record we could at the moment.

How important was it to capitalize on the success of Liar and the ‘Puss’ single from it?

DS: It’s always important to capitalize on any momentum you have going.

MM: We didn’t really think of things that way… the band just kept going on the road and playing live shows.

DD: Keep in mind we weren’t really selling nearly as much as some of our contemporaries. We were making a living and enjoying critical acclaim so in that respect we were successful. I don’t think there was any attempt to "capitalize" on anything – we were just keeping our momentum happening.

What were the redeeming features of Down?

MM: It allowed us to put a few new ones in the set list…

DS: I love the artwork by Malcolm Bucknall. Immodestly, it’s one of my favourite record covers by any artist. I still enjoy hearing ‘Fly On The Wall’ and ‘Destroy Before Reading’.

DD: Well, it looks great. And there are a couple of really good songs -‘Fly On The Wall’ and ‘The Associate’ are my favourites. Oh, and ‘Rope’ has actually held up, I think, in a rockabilly-infused kind of way. ‘Destroy Before Reading’ is pretty good too, now that I think about it, ha ha… hey, wait a minute – Down is actually my favourite too! Just kidding.

Which songs did you enjoy playing from it most (in studio and live) and why?

MM: ‘Mistletoe’ was fun to play live just because it was so demanding to play it right. ‘Destroy Before Reading’ was always fun live… even though it was a straight rock song, the parts took me on a ride every time. ‘Fly On The Wall’ is a favourite of mine… it slinks along like a bad animal, and feels very 3D. That one is fun to play live.

What lessons learned from previous albums did you apply during its recording?

MM: I don’t think we applied specific things so much as we continued the way of recording that worked for us. Usually, we were recording soon after touring, so the songs were played often, and we were together as a band, so recording was generally quick and easy. The band would do takes all together, then whatever we wanted to add would come next… the occasional guitar overdub or something like that. David Yow would record vocals, although sometimes he would keep some rough vocal takes as well.

What things do you wish you had done differently?

MM: Maybe we could have spent a bit more time writing, so we had more material to choose from… I don’t know… we didn’t really have a whole lot of time for writing, as we were always on the road, and I don’t recall us doing a whole lot of writing when we were touring-it was mostly done when we had rehearsal time in Chicago in-between tours.

DS: Given ourselves a few more months to work on the songs.

In the studio how did it work – Mac did you lay down your tracks with David Sims?

MM: The band would record each song together, much as we would do it live. David Yow would do a scratch vocal, and he would decide later whether he wanted to keep any of that first vocal tracks, or if he wanted to do a new take. Duane might have a bit of guitar he wanted to add on some songs, but generally we got each song in the first or second take, and approached the studio as a necessity. You needed to have recorded product. I think we were always a live band really. It was hard to translate that experience in the studio. Also, we wanted to be able to play our songs in a live context, so there weren’t many extras on those records which would have been difficult to do/re-create live.

Live how did you take your cues? Were you ever aware of what David Yow and Duane were doing or were you just locked into the groove?

MM: Well, we had a pretty reliable way of presenting our show live. I would say that David Sims, Duane, and myself were the constant, and David Yow was the variable. The three of us had David Yow taken completely out of our monitors, so that we wouldn’t get thrown off by his vocals should he decide to "play it different" night after night. I liked that aspect of the band… the fact that David had a certain freedom to get caught up in the moment and deliver his vocals from a more spontaneous place, so the songs weren’t static. He could float on top of what we were playing. Basically, David Sims, Duane and I could play those songs as instrumentals, and everything was going to end up where it should.

How did it change things now that you and Yow weren’t living in Chicago?

MM: The band wasn’t in each other’s space all the time, so there was a bit more breathing room, and it felt like a natural progression to have our own places to live. It made it a bit more of an effort to get a rehearsal going, and to schedule a regular time for that.

DS: Somewhat more difficult than it had been before, particularly to schedule rehearsals.

Mac, how did family life sit with being on the road?

MM: That time period was difficult, as the demands of the band were beginning to conflict with my family, and the time I wanted to have at home. I was drinking too much, and the whole thing felt like a slowly imploding cave… a band and a family aren’t really designed to co-exist, and when you force that situation, they both start to suffer for it. At least, that was my experience. I just couldn’t find the balance, and that was depressing.

How did working on Down draw your relationship with Albini to a close?

MM: The next record was going to be with Capitol, and that was a big deal back then… "Corporate" vs. "Indie", or Corporate Sell-Out Whores vs. Independent Righteous Pure-Hearts, or whatever. We were still riding around in our little van, driving hundreds of miles each day to get to the next town, play a show, and so on. The fact that the Devil was making us a nice comfy silk bed to take a long nap in didn’t really occur to us, cause we just didn’t see it that way.

Other folks chose to cut us loose because of "corporate involvement". It’s all in the past now, but man, we were labelled traitors because we didn’t satisfy some people’s idea of who we were supposed to be, and how we were supposed to conduct ourselves, and how we should position ourselves in the "punk" community. Steve is known for his opinions, and he had his. All I’m saying is, you can get painted into a corner by the very people who are your fans, because they sure don’t want you to change… they like you just as you are. But if you stay in the same space, even in that A-rated space for too long, you’re just wasting an opportunity to keep moving and growing.

When did you decide you wouldn’t work with Albini any more?

DS: During the recording of Down.

MM: Steve wasn’t going to be involved with the Capitol record, and we were looking for someone who might have a fresh take on what we were doing. I don’t remember "deciding" we weren’t going to work with Steve… it just sort of became the reality of the situation. Brian Paulson is a great guy, and we all got along with him, and had hung out with him for years in Minneapolis every time we went there. I don’t remember much of that record… or mixing it.

You mention in Book that Albini seemed to be gravitating towards Yow and not the musicians, how divisive was this?

DS: I don’t remember it being divisive within the band.

MM: David Yow and Steve would shoot pool together and hang out occasionally, so I don’t think Steve was gravitating to him really… they had a friendship, and I never felt this was divisive, or maybe I wasn’t paying attention.

Was it frustrating as the driving force of the band’s sound was coming from you and Duane?

DS: I would never argue that the driving force of the band’s sound was coming from just me and Duane, but, yes, it was frustrating.

How would you describe the mood in the camp at the time?

MM: I think we were all happy the band was doing so well in terms of the live shows and record sales, but we were also tired, as we were working at a pretty relentless pace. Sometimes we would go out for three weeks, have a week back home, then go out for another couple weeks, go back home for a week, then go to Europe for a month, come back home, and go out again here in the states after a week or two. Rinse and repeat. What made this possible was that we all got along extremely well…and besides a few things here and there, really had minimal conflicts with each other. Overall, I think we were proud of our efforts around this time.

DS: Harried, and then alarmed when we heard how the record was turning out. We remixed a number of tracks and then we almost decided to ditch the whole thing and record it again, but Touch And Go would have been very unhappy with us. The whole process became so stressful that there was a certain relief in just cutting it loose and moving on.

Lyrically some of my favourites come from Down. They seem to be both droll and menacing at the same time, how well does this describe Yow’s character and Yow at the time of the album?

MM: Honestly, I don’t think it describes David’s character at all. You have to remember that the lyrics don’t reflect what he’s actually feeling necessarily. Lyrics could be about someone else, or something David read, or heard about. It’s just too easy and wrong to assume his lyrics are a reflection of who he is or was. As far as "at the time of the album", David was always consistent in character, if a bit unpredictable in behaviour. Like most interesting people, he’s a beautifully complex individual, and I love hearing people try and connect the dots between his lyrics and what they think must be going on in his head. David likes to get a reaction, and I think his choice of lyrics might reflect that more than anything.

DS: David is one of the drollest people I know. I don’t consider him menacing, then or now. I don’t think anyone who knows him does.

For me Down was the first time that a Jesus Lizard album displayed real light and shade with slow songs like ‘Elegy’ – do you agree, and if so how organic was this, how had your song writing changed if at all?

MM: I think the way we wrote songs just naturally evolved into using different ideas. I think it was just the music we were making at the time… there wasn’t a particular decision made to sound a certain way, or write a certain type of song. ‘Elegy’ was interesting because it used a different (at least for us) method for tension/release, and for communicating the song’s mood in a dramatic way: restraint. Sometimes holding something down is just as effective as pushing it up…or insert your own combination of words here.

DS: I’m not sure I do agree. We wrote slow songs before ‘Elegy’. ‘Pastoral’ and ‘Zachariah’ both come to mind. We always worked at trying to not be one of those bands whose songs all sound the same.

The album also includes a bit of a jazz influence, on ‘The Associate’ and on the even gentler "Low Rider". How enjoyable was this jazzier stuff to play?

MM: I think we all enjoyed breaking out a bit… and for us, doing a song like ‘The Associate’, just felt like another one of our songs… we were aware it didn’t sound like some of the previous records, but at the same time, we didn’t have an agenda as far as changing our sound or anything like that. These songs were fun to play and for me, probably like a break in the live show since it wasn’t full on from the beginning to the end. I think sometimes the crowd was just waiting for something they could fling themselves around to, so they would patiently sit through the "unusual" songs, and then burp like a volcano when one of the more familiar songs would begin.

Musically, how do the albums that followed Down compare?

MM: After Shot, I didn’t really listen to the other records that much. It felt weird not being a part of the group, and it was just too difficult to listen with much of an open mind….

Mac, how did it feel getting back out there to play with the band on the anniversary tour? How had the Down songs fared amongst the others?

MM: That whole year of shows in 2009 was really a huge gift. I got to play music with my good friends again for a bunch of really appreciative, supportive people. It was a horn-blower, and in some ways, I felt stronger and more together that time around. The songs practically played themselves on a few nights…

For me Down is my favourite Jesus Lizard album – am I deluded/wrong? What do you think about people who like Down?

MM: Hey…glad you like it. Whatever makes your antennae stiffen up… embrace that which you respond to. I think people who like Down must also be people who like some things and don’t like other things. Hopefully they’re not the sort of person who puts a bag over their head and dances into traffic.

DS: I have no problem with people enjoying Down. I don’t get it, but I’m fine with it.

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