Interview: Duane Denison Recalls The Jesus Lizard’s Glory Days of Creation and Demolition
On July 14, 2009, at the Exit/In in Nashville, Tennessee, pioneer alt-noise band The Jesus Lizard made history.
After a 10-year breakup, the band played the first U.S. show of their long-awaited reunion tour. Before the gig, documentary filmmaker Matthew Robison volunteered the shoot the show no strings attached, and on August 23, Club will be released on DVD with MP3 downloads for each of the 22 tracks played that night.
For those unfamiliar with The Jesus Lizard, the Chicago-based band formed in 1987 when ex-Scratch Acid members David Yow (vocals) and David Wm. Sims (bass) hooked up with guitarist Duane Denison and the three started writing offbeat, angular songs that incorporated elements of hardcore, art-rock, blues and jazz.
The band’s first EP, 1989’s Pure, was written with a drum machine. The next year, they recruited precise, but freewheeling drummer Mac McNeilly and started to turn heads with their 1990 full-length debut Head. Over the next decade, the band put out five more full-length albums, a live disc and two more EPs before breaking up.
The decision to reunite came after their former label, Touch & Go, decided to re-master and re-release four of The Jesus Lizard’s records with bonus tracks. After receiving rave reviews at a series of festivals in Europe, The Jesus Lizard planned their U.S. reunion tour.
Guitar World recently talked to Denison about the Club DVD, the distinctive guitar sound and style of The Jesus Lizard, the group’s rocky history, his distain for the Metallica movie Some Kind of Monster, the other groups he’s in and the future of The Jesus Lizard, a band that, for a decade at least, made volatility and danger an everyday event.
GUITAR WORLD: The Jesus Lizard reunion shows were amazing. How did the DVD come together? And is it just a live show or a documentary?
Matthew Robison. He’s done some documentary stuff and was a fan of the band. He was at the show. He contacted me and asked if he could bring a camera crew and a sound crew, and he said we had no obligation. If we didn’t like how it turned out, we could give him the word and that would be that. So how could we go wrong? It turned out that it was a good show. So he found a distributor and everything fell into place.
What was the highlight of the evening?
It was the first U.S. show. We had played overseas at All Tomorrow’s Parties. So really, right from the get-go, there was a lot of energy. I think we opened with “Puss,” which has always been one of my favorites. And seeing the crowd go off right from the beginning was really good. Also, a lot of people wouldn’t think of The Jesus Lizard as a sing-along band. Well, there was no shortage of people that knew every bit of every song. So that was enjoyable, too.
Toward the end of the band’s run, we signed with Capitol and that seemed to alienate people, some of whom never even heard those albums. And we played a few songs from those as well, and they went over just fine. So that was gratifying on a number of levels.
Were you happy with the records you did for Capitol? Did they pressure you write more commercial songs?
No, it wasn’t anything like that. Half of the people who bought the previous album on Touch & Go, Down, didn’t buy Shot, and Shot was a better album. It sounded better, the songs were better. In retrospect, that’s how people were. I don’t know if they’re still like that.
Does the DVD also have a documentary element to it?
No, it’s just the show. We tried throwing some skits in there, but it didn’t work. We were trying to mock the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster, where they have their therapist with them walking them around. I just thought that was embarrassing and truly awful and an excessive, infantile presentation. There was a child psychologist who lived down the street from me and he was a Jesus Lizard fan. So he was pretending to council us and we were going along in a mock way. We did a couple of them and they just weren’t funny. It just didn’t work. They’ve been deleted and will disappear.
Jesus Lizard were considered a noise rock band, but dissonance was only a part of your sound. You brought an angular guitar style to the group, had a keen sense of building and releasing rhythmic tension and incorporated elements of jazz and blues that many of your peers lacked. How did you apply those elements to the music and make it work?
It was never arbitrary. If there was dissonance, it was usually built into the chords themselves. Harmonically there was still a pretty close relation to the tonal structure of the songs, as usually laid down by the bass –- at least the foundation of it. There was not too much that was random about my playing. I always knew what I was doing. My brother-in-law used to say, “You always played the wrong notes.” Well, no, they’re not wrong, they’re all completely intentional.
Even though we were part of the hardcore scene, at the same time I always thought it was more like art rock played more aggressively and in more of a stripped-down manner. When I think of hardcore, I think of Cro-Mags or Agnostic Front, where it’s driven by straight-up power chords and usually the bass and guitar are playing the same thing and a singer yells aggressively over the top. Sure, there are times when only a power chord will do, but we wanted to do things that weren’t so obvious and ham-fisted. We wanted to avoid clichés, at least most of the time. At the same time, we didn’t want to get too clever with it or too artsy with it, or it stops being rock and stop having that visceral experience.