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The Lizard King: David Yow on Three Decades of Music and Mayhem

Speaking from his current home city of Los Angeles, David Yow answers his cell with a cartoonishly protracted, “Yeeeeaaahhhello” that sounds deceptively like the start of an outgoing voice mail. But it is indeed the former Jesus Lizard and Scratch Acid frontman, live and on the line. He’s in a good mood, and why not? Despite more than 30 years of literally bleeding for his art on-stage as the volatile singer for the aforementioned avant-punk bands, a self-confessed ravenous appetite for alcohol, and the usual music-industry trip-ups, he has survived to create another day.

On June 25, Yow released his inaugural solo record, a 15-years-in-the-making opus of mad-scientist cacophony titled Tonight You Look Like a Spider (Joyful Noise). The restless 52-year-old has also kept busy acting in a string of independent films over the past several years, in addition to his work as a commercial graphic designer, painter, and video artist.

Yow shared his insights about all the above, as well as what he learned sharing a movie set with Insane Clown Posse.

If you want to make a living doing any of the arts, good motherfucking luck.
In the last several years, I’ve been making an extremely concerted effort to do paintings and drawings and, at this point, I’m kind of a working actor. There’s a lot of luck, because it’s a ridiculous business to try and get into. I’ve been really fortunate as far as that goes. It’s the dream come true, to be able to pay your bills — which I can’t always do — through what you actually love doing. There are a percentage of people who can say they do that, but it’s so low.

It’s not really important whether people like your record.
But I am interested in opinions, because I have to accept all the blame. With Scratch Acid and Jesus Lizard, it wasn’t really important to me if people liked it. It’s funny, there have only been about four reviews now [of Spider], and they’re all really positive, and it’s surprising the fuck out of me. A few weeks ago, my girlfriend was getting angry with me because she thinks I’m putting myself down when I say I don’t expect anyone to like this record. And I would tell her, “I’m not putting myself down at all. I think it’s good. I like it a lot, but I don’t expect anyone else to like it.” But then it’s funny, the things people are saying are really favorable, and I’m getting a huge kick out of it. Maybe I’ll be an asshole and just dismiss negative stuff.

Not having to ask anybody’s permission to do anything is completely liberating.
It was a long time ago when I first started working on [Tonight You Look Like a Spider], but I remember coming up with “Opening Suite” and I was fucking giddy. I was giggling and laughing. At the time I was married and I was living in Indiana, and I was so proud of myself. I called my wife down to listen to it, and she kind of looked at me when it was over and went back upstairs and didn’t say a word. But in the meantime, I was thrilled. It was really nice not having to worry about stepping on anyone’s toes, or “Did they like this part?” or “I don’t like that idea of this.” There was no collaboration whatsoever.

With Scratch Acid and Jesus Lizard, I learned everything I was gonna learn a few months into it.
Whereas I really feel like acting will be a learning process as long as I do it. I hope that I’m doing it up until it’s checking-out time. Some of the people I’ve worked with and some of the things I’ve gotten to do with acting have been very exciting. It’s so fun and so rewarding to finish a scene, and I hardly even feel like it was me in the scene. It’s kind of magical. I get a huge charge out of that.

It’s acceptable to pay homage to the people who you respect but, ideally, you metamorphose from that.
It’s a normal process, particularly when you’re young, to pay great homage to the people who you are influenced by. It’s natural, at that time, for those influences to be more obvious than you might want. I remember with really early Scratch Acid, there was some live recording I heard it and I was going, “Oh my fucking God, I gotta stop that,” because it sounded like I was trying to be Birthday Party Nick Cave — which I was. Eventually, stuff changes.

ICP have got some sort of smarts.
The tiny bit of music I’ve heard of theirs is complete garbage, but they’re really fucking rich, and it’s all through merchandise. It’s bizarre. An old friend of mine from Chicago named Paul Andreesen was directing that Insane Clown Posse movie [2010’s comedy-western Big Money Rustlas], and he got in touch with me and said, “Hey, you wanna be in a Western?” And I said, “Yes I do.” It was just gonna be this tiny little part. I’d heard of Insane Clown Posse, but I wouldn’t have known it was the guys with the black-and-white makeup. I pretty much just hung out [on set] with all the old bearded extras who play bikers cowboys in movies and stuff.

Major labels brainstorm about the most retarded shit.
I still don’t understand why on earth there were Jesus Lizard shopping bags. For instance, when [1998’s] Blue came out on Capitol, they made blue shopping bags. I don’t know what the deal was with blue bags, but they were like, “Well, ya know, blue bags.” And I’m going, “Wha?” So they had these blue plastic shopping bags with our name on it, and it went completely over my head.

There are still a lot of people who think I’m a lunatic.
Maybe sometimes after a little brown liquor, but for the most part, I’m pretty even-keeled. I remember I was doing an interview in England, and at the end of the interview, the guy goes [in mock British accent], “Right, well one last question: Is David Yow mad?” I thought it was so ridiculous that he would speak to me in the third person or whatever. It was melodramatic British journalism. And then asking if I was mad after talking to me for 45 minutes where it was clear I’m the nicest guy he ever met.