The Making Of The Jesus Lizard’s Liar
In the early ’90s, the Jesus Lizard was untouchable. Not literally, of course—if you were at one of its hundreds of shows in that era, you could very easily touch ’em. And given the amount of time vocalist David Yow spent slithering on top of the audience, you probably didn’t have a choice in the matter.
By that point, the Lizard’s live show had already become a thing of legend, and a large segment of the indie-rock underground population had seen Yow whip out his cock and/or balls onstage at one time or another. But the band didn’t survive solely on that reputation. Releasing a record a year from ’89 to ’92, the Jesus Lizard topped itself with one masterpiece after another in a flurry of activity that began with the Pure EP, continued through the brilliant Head and Goat albums, then culminated in the game-changing Liar.
Cobbled together from former members of Scratch Acid, Cargo Cult, 86 and Rapeman, the Jesus Lizard sounded like nothing before it, and no one’s duplicated it since. “Noise rock” is the easiest descriptor, though it falls woefully short in capturing everything that’s going on in Liar classics like “Puss” (which also appeared on the band’s split single with Nirvana) and “Dancing Naked Ladies.” While many of the band’s peers achieved the “noise” part of that label through some element of chaos, the Jesus Lizard was clinically precise. The execution was machine-like, and even Yow’s unhinged vocals were carefully considered in the studio—think Public Image Ltd.-era John Lydon’s cynical snarl and Birthday Party-era Nick Cave’s depraved howling, but mixed in a way that’s somehow equal parts playful and terrifying. The end result was Liar, an album that’s too difficult for punk, too visceral for art rock. When the Alternative Nation was finally presented to the world at large, there was the Jesus Lizard, and there was everyone else.
“The previous album, Goat, I think was the one that kind of put us on the map more than any of the others up to that point,” says guitarist Duane Denison. “We really found our own sound, I felt like, there: our own sound and our own style of writing. That was the one where we kind of broke away from the influences, or at least the influences weren’t so obvious. I think that’s probably true with most bands. Usually the first record, or even the first couple of records, you can hear where they’re coming from pretty easily, and I think that was the case with ourselves. Goat was when we really started to get noticed, and then Liar to me was kind of the continuation of that.”
And where the three previous records all opened with a mid-tempo groove that eased the listener into the Jesus Lizard world courtesy of bassist David Wm. Sims and drummer Mac McNeilly, Liar wastes about 0.0000001 seconds before going for the throat.
“I think what I like about Liar is it just shoots right out of the gate tempo-wise at a much faster pace than anything else we ever did, really,” says Denison. “Right from the get-go—‘Boilermaker,’ ‘Gladiator,’ ‘The Art Of Self-Defense’— it’s pretty relentless. I don’t necessarily think that fast songs are what makes things rock harder. I think some bands get too focused on that, but I just thought that’s what made this album different. It just had a sense of urgency to it as a result of that, and that’s what’s always sort of stayed with me.”
“Goat and Liar always seemed pretty similar to me,” says Sims. “I think I prefer Goat. I think it sounds a little better, and I think the songs are a little stronger, but I like Liar, too. They always seemed to me almost two discs of a double album. They’re not because they were recorded almost a year apart, but they almost sound like that.”
And really, choosing one over the other is like splitting hairs. Some MAGNET readers might even remember a sidebar next to a recent review of Denison’s new band, the Unsemble, in which we called Goat the best Jesus Lizard record. Yow doesn’t even bother distinguishing the albums; we had to recite the tracklist to remind him which songs are on Liar.
“It’s sorta like if somebody asked you what you were wearing at that party you went to 20 years ago,” the singer says. “One has ‘Then Comes Dudley’ and one has ‘Gladiator,’ and they’re kind of the same beast. We always made sure not to put those songs next to each other in the set list.”
During this time, the band was on the road almost nonstop. Denison says the Jesus Lizard was only home for three months in ’91. On top of that, the four band members shared a three-bedroom apartment in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, with McNeilly taking the couch. Where a lot of groups might buckle under those tight confines, the personalities that made up the Jesus Lizard managed to mesh. While each member now lives in opposite corners of the country—Yow in Los Angeles, Sims in New York, Denison in Nashville and McNeilly still in the Chicago area—none of them remembers any added tension as a result of almost never being able to get away from their roommates.
“We’re still all very good friends,” says Sims. “It’s always good to get to hang out with those guys. They’re still three of my favorite people in the world ever.”
“We didn’t seem to mind because it was very much a ‘we’re all in this together’ sort of attitude,” says McNeilly. “I think we all felt like we knew each other longer than we actually had. We were also a little bit older. We weren’t in our early 20s. We had all been in bands before, so I think that helped us not make huge things out of things that didn’t really matter. I think we had a better perspective on that.”
Living together allowed the band to introduce ideas whenever the mood struck. “We were touring a lot, and we’d come home and someone would say, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea.’ Sometimes we would just sit around with acoustic guitars and then go work them out,” says Denison. And that’s another thing that set the Jesus Lizard apart: The in-your-face, abrasive songs on Liar could be just as well unplugged.
“The guitar and bass lines work just fine,” says Denison. “Somebody can sit there and tap on a phone book and you can work that out. We weren’t necessarily dependent on volume and effects to make those songs work. I like to think that maybe that’s why they’ve held up better than some from that era. When it’s all said and done, you can reduce them and analyze them, and there is structure and a certain sort of logic to the way those songs flow together.”
“We had different practice places depending on what time of our history it was,” says McNeilly. “I remember for some of that we were in this basement of this friend’s apartment building. I remember going through the song ‘Gladiator.’ This basement was really dark, dank and old, and there were practically no lights at all. I don’t know how much that had to do with how the songs formed or not, but I have a very clear visual memory of that. Of course, I could be remembering it wrong, but that’s what it brings to mind.”
“David and Duane—sometimes Mac and I, but usually Duane and David—would have a particular idea, and they would expound on that,” says Yow. “The lyrics, sometimes I would have them already. Sometimes the music might inspire them. There were a couple times when I was unprepared and we were in the studio, and I had to shit them out pretty fast.”
Liar was recorded much the same way its predecessors were—in just a few days at Chicago Recording Company with Steve Albini. Most of the songs had been thoroughly vetted onstage at this point, so the band was usually able to nail each within a couple takes. There isn’t much in the way of embellishments, either; if a note wasn’t needed, it wasn’t played. At the same time, the musicianship far surpassed what one would normally associate with a punk or hardcore record.
“Steve always claims that he’s an engineer and not a producer, but to me that’s semantics,” says Yow. “I would say he’s a record producer. He had a lot of cool recording ideas, and he works quickly and efficiently.”
“He didn’t really want to view himself as a producer who was really going to change anything we were doing,” says McNeilly. “I think what he really wanted to do was document it. I think that’s how he felt he could help us. Especially during that time, he was one of our biggest advocates and biggest champions.”
“He was fairly involved back then,” says Denison. “He’d always make comments before, during and after practically every take. Some humorous, some were kind of snide. I remember on ‘Boilermaker,’ there’s that chorus line. He told me he thought it sounded like a theme from a game show.”
While Liar might be a refinement of the approach the band initiated on Goat, the Jesus Lizard still managed to break new ground. The hard-and-heavy “Slave Ship” crawls under your skin, while “Zachariah” sounds like a post-apocalyptic country/western soundtrack. Then there’s “Rope,” a rockabilly-ish number about a dude who accidentally killed himself by autoerotic asphyxiation.
“It’s a disgusting story, based on a true story,” says Yow. “Some guy was dating this girl, and he was over at her house; she lives with her parents. She and her parents left to run errands or go shopping or whatever, but when they came back he had accidentally autoerotically asphyxiated himself. I think he had a trowel in his ass. ‘Wow, dude. Get down.’”
Elsewhere you’ve got a pygmy monster on a murderous spree (“The Art Of Self-Defense”), while “Puss” is about the time someone in Urge Overkill finally flipped out over the ridicule the band was getting from a local zine.
“There was a great club in Chicago called Lounge Ax,” says Yow. “At the time there were these two girls who did a zine called Stalker, and mostly it was poking fun and making fun of the Urge Overkill boys. The Urge boys had plenty sense of humor as long as it didn’t hurt them, but they didn’t like that zine very much. Blackie Onassis pushed one of the girls down the stairs at Lounge Ax one time. ‘Puss’ is sorta based on that. Like, ‘Wowee, you pushed a girl down the stairs?’”
Yow filtered these often morbid tales through a delivery that, while not necessarily devoid of melody and rhythm, put greater emphasis on mood.
“I think the juxtaposition of the music being really precise and David Yow being all over the place was really this thing that was unusual,” says McNeilly.
“I used to think of his voice as almost like a saxophone,” says Denison. “You had this free-jazz saxophone going. If everybody was doing that, to me, it wouldn’t be a rock band anymore. It wouldn’t be enjoyable to listen to. At least that’s how we thought. We wanted the bass and the drums to be very tight and machine-like, and then also have the guitar fit in there in a very tight, machine-like way. That was our sound.”
“I’ve gotten a kick out of the handful of Jesus Lizard cover bands I’ve heard,” says Yow. “But the part that struck me a few times was that the vocalist is simply not paying attention. They would just scream everything, and I didn’t do that. I did a lot of quiet shit. I did a lot of whispery stuff, some singing stuff, whatever.”
Liar’s iconic album cover came courtesy of England-born, Austin-based painter Malcolm Bucknall, the father of a childhood friend of Sims whose work also appeared on the split single with Nirvana, as well as Down. Sims said he would go over to the Bucknall household because his friend Tim’s parents let them smoke pot there. The rationale was the parents didn’t think they could stop Tim from doing so, and would rather he do it at home than get arrested somewhere else.
“There were these remarkable, amazing, beautifully executed, thrilling to look at and very, very strange paintings that his father had done just hanging around the house,” says Sims. “It was just a treat to go over there and be able to look at these.”
The Liar cover is a rendering of Bucknall’s Allegory Of Death. “I do recall that I told Yow and Sims that Liar sounded wild, primitive, barbaric—to their delight,” says Bucknall. “I’ve sometimes described my work as ‘uptight expressionism.’ By comparison, the Jesus Lizard is ‘expressionist,’ yes, but ‘uptight,’ no.”
Bucknall only asked for copies of the album and posters as compensation. “My one stipulation was that the reproduction be of good quality without visual additions—no mustache on the Mona Lisa,” he says. “Frankly, to me, these were kids who were enthusiasts and having a go at something they loved, and I suppose I was coming from the paternal instinct. However, the amount of attention and sales that have come directly from my Jesus Lizard connection is remarkable and ongoing. Punk rockers grow up to be art collectors, it turns out.”
The band’s own stature has continued to grow as well. After calling it a day in 1999 (10 years after its first show), the Jesus Lizard kicked off a wildly success reunion tour in 2009 (10 years after it broke up). But the legacy wouldn’t be there without Liar, a record that guarantees that any brash band playing discordant music with a certain swing is forever going to be compared to the Jesus Lizard.
“I think when we were going in the early ’90s, there were a select amount of people who knew about the band, and we had really diehard fans who would keep showing up,” says McNeilly. “Maybe the reputation of the band has increased somewhat. It was a lot of word of mouth, a lot of people talking about the band. I think we did leave some sort of imprint. I don’t know how big it was, but it feels good to have made some sort of impact that hopefully will last for a while.”
“It seems like there are more people who care than in the old days,” says Yow. “I was certainly happy with the number of records we sold and the number of people who came to our rock shows and stuff. You can’t expect anybody to like you anyway, so when a bunch of them do, that’s pretty cool.”