Friday, July 10, 2009

The Jesus Lizard's Duane Denison: The Cream Interview

Posted By on Fri, Jul 10, 2009 at 11:07 AM

click to enlarge DuaneD2009.jpg
Last week I was fortunate to do an interview with Jesus Lizard guitarist and Nashville resident Duane Denison for this piece I wrote about the band in the current issue of the Scene. I only had so much space for the article and focused exclusively on the band's reunion tour, the U.S. leg of which kicks off on Tues. at Exit/In. However, in my conversation with Denison we touched on much more, including the current state of the music industry, the Shack Shakers indecent exposure incident at last year's Rancid RCKTWN show, amusing anecdotes about John Cale, Mike Patton, David Yow and more. Before the interview I posted on Cream to ask if anyone would like to suggest questions. I ended up using the two questions submitted by (user name) Matt. The other questions he basically answered before I got a chance to ask and a couple came in too late. Enjoy.

Nashville Cream: So you live in Nashville; how long have you lived here?

Duane Denison: I've been here just over 10 years.

NC: So what brought you here?

DD: Well 10 years ago, the Jesus Lizard pretty much officially broke up. Actually, it will be ten years exactly today I think. We played our first show ever July 1, 1989 and then we decided to break up July 1, 1999.

NC: For what reason?

DD: A number of reasons. We had been doing it 10 years longer, actually. We actually started before that but our first official show was in 1989. After 10 years and six or seven studio albums we kind of felt like we had sort of run out. Things had changed, our original drummer, Mac, had left a couple of years before and the chemistry wasn't the same so we just decided to call it a day and that was that...when the band broke up I got a call from Shelton Williams from Hank III, we had some mutual friends and he called and asked if I might want to come down and play guitar in his band, which I did for about a year and a half. That's really what brought me here, and then I just sort of liked it and stayed and got married and bought a house and all that. But yeah, that's what brought me here.

As far as getting back to the reunion thing it's been 20 years since we started and to be honest people have been sort of asking about it for years it seems like. I've been playing with other people and touring and stuff and everywhere I went people would ask about the Jesus Lizard, but to me it just seemed like we haven't been broken up for very long. What's the point 5 years, 6 years there's no reason to reunite, you haven't been apart. What happened this year everything seemed to line up. A) it was ten years from the time we stopped. B) Touch and Go has been remastering all the back catalog and its going to be reissued. There's already a singles pack out and all the albums are coming out in the fall with liner notes and photos and stuff like that. So it just seemed like if we're ever going to do it, let's do it now and our original drummer Mac was amenable to the idea.

We got an offer, actually, last December to come over and play the All Tomorrow's Parties that was curated by Mike Patton and the Melvins. We couldn't do it. We couldn't quite get it together in time for that, it was a little too sudden, but that kind of opened the door to it. We started talking about the possibility of it and then when we found out that Touch and Go was going to reissue the catalog we said well let's do it next year and make a party out of it, so yeah that's kind of how it all came together.

NC: Is the ATP show the show the only one you've done so far?

DD: No, we did two on the west coast of England, and one in London and we also did two shows, one show each in Paris and Barcelona. One of which was also an ATP show or some festival, I don't know I get them confused. So we've done 5 shows so far, all overseas and they've all been a gas. The crowds have ranged from--the London show was 1,600 or something like that and then up to, I don't know, 10,000 or 15,000 in Barcelona, something like that.

NC: Have you noticed a lot of people coming out to these shows that haven't seen the band before?

DD: It's a very mixed audience. My wife went with me and she was checking out the audience more closely than I was. She said it was all over the place, like you'd see older guys, guys who looked like they probably were there the first time around, guys and gals. And younger people, people who probably read about it or heard it somewhere and figure this was their chance to see the band.

NC: What can we expect at the Exit/In show in terms of song selection and performance?

DD: You can expect high decibel derring-do, she-male shenanigans. [Laughs.] No, for that show, who knows, we'll probably play everything we've been practicing. We've actually been practicing here in Nashville under the radar. We started last January and we did a few days here. I have a space out in Bordeaux; do you know where that is?

NC: I actually don't, where exactly is that?

DD: Bordeaux is north. It is still part of Nashville but on the other side of the river it's kind of north and west of town if you look on a map. It's an interesting part of town, it's where they put all the stuff they don't want to think about like the sewage treatment plant and the old prison.

NC: Oh sure I know what you're talking about, that kind of industrial area off of Briley and what not?

DD: Exactly. So I have a place out there and we've rehearsed twice and actually they're coming again in about a week or so before that show. We have as of right now about 25 songs or so that we can play. Typically at the festival shows you have a fixed amount of time to play so you play an hour or so, but I don't know we might run through everything but we will go all the way back to the beginning and play everything from I think every album we've ever done expect for the last one on Capitol but we will do a couple songs from Shot, which was the first Capitol thing. But yeah all the Touch and Go stuff, all the singles.

NC: Can we expect a full performance of "Tight and Shiny?"

DD: Ha ha, I don't think so, we haven't done that. David Yow has been flying through the air with reckless abandon at all these shows so far. You can go to YouTube and see what things about been like and what we roughly sound like now and look like. That kind of thing, I don't know, I think we all like to think he's beyond that.

NC: You said you guys are doing the Pitchfork Festival and you're playing one of the nights were the fans select the songs. What songs do you expect people to vote on?

DD: Well, it's funny they already have, they've been sort of tallying that as they go. Honestly, as I expected, there are really no surprises there. The ones they like the best are the ones we like the best and we're already playing them. I don't think there are going to be any big surprises there.

NC: If there were, is there anything you guys would refuse to play?

DD: No, there is really nothing, I mean obviously, anybody that plays in a band [knows] there a some songs that you much prefer to others for whatever reason, you just like playing it better or you just like it, maybe there are some lyrics in there you don't agree with or they don't mean the same to you as they did when you first wrote them. No, it's a group so I say, "okay, I'll play that one but you have to play this one." You know, you make deals.

NC: How long can we expect this reunion tenure to last? Do you have plans to record or anything long term like that?

DD: No, there are no long term plans. We don't want to milk it, it's not going to be an on going thing. It is a reunion in the sense that we will go out and play some shows and that's it. I think as of now we will probably play 20 or 30 shows spread out between now and up to December, maybe the end of November or the beginning of December. At least, that is the general consensus right now. Personally, I always leave the door open for things, like recording. Personally, I kind of like that idea just because I know for a fact everybody is in good health, everybody's chops are up, we still get along great, we have fun hanging out and playing, so if new ideas present themselves, why not? But there is no ulterior motive or hidden agenda behind it. This isn't something that we are re-launching here, if it happens, great, if it doesn't seen to be happening, I don't think anyone needs to force it.

NC: Which of the Jesus Lizard records is your personal favorite?

DD: Probably Liar. Though to me Goat and Liar are almost two sides of the same coin. It seems like Goat was when we really started to sound like an original band and Liar was where we refined it just a little more with the song writing and arranging. It seems like those two albums are the ones that seem show up on lists as well, like Rolling Stone's Top 100 of the '90s and Pitchfork. I guess I have to agree with it, because it seems like that's when we were peaking and really hit our stride.

NC: When you say an original band, how do you mean that exactly in terms of what you would say the idiosyncrasies are?

DD: Well it seems like before that, we did an EP called Pure and an album called Head and like most bands, usually that first release or first couple of releases you can hear the influences pretty plainly. Almost song by song you can say, "well this kind of sounds like Birthday Party or this kind of sounds like Public Image and this one sounds like Big Black." To me by the time we hit Goat it wasn't like that anymore. We kind of hit that thing where the bass and drums would set up a certain type of groove, this very sharp sort of angular guitar surfing on top of it, and then these vocals sort of going against the grain in and out of time, that kind of thing. Then, by the time we got to Liar it was even more streamlined and stripped down, just rhythmic energy, texture, and then some sort of vocal information, and that was it. That was what we thought a rock band should sound like.

NC: What was the major label experience, in the case of Jesus Lizard, like for you guys?

DD: Well our situation was mostly good I have to say. It's funny; it's kind of complicated. By the time we had signed to Capitol, we already had like four albums and a couple of EPs out, so we were not kids. We had good legal representation; we made a very well informed decision. We had talked to a variety of labels and we had friends like Sonic Youth and the Melvins etc. who had also been on major labels and told us what to watch out for. So, unlike probably a lot of bands here in Nashville, we did not get ripped off. We signed a contract that guaranteed us x amount of money over x amount of time, and that is exactly what we got. Now on the negative side, obviously for a band like that, that cut its teeth and worked its way up from the underground or independent scene, by a lot of people we were seen as traitors at that point. There was a definite backlash, because people felt we had turned our back on that scene. Which basically, a lot of people did not like that first album on Capitol. They made up their minds they weren't going to like it before they ever heard it. We all thought it was much better than the one before it that was on Touch and Go, or at least I do, personally. So, we kind of got it from both ends, I guess you could say. We kind of anticipated that sort of thing but we did it anyway. By being on Capitol it also enabled us to have a higher profile, and we immediately found ourselves playing bigger venues. We immediately found ourselves playing the main stage of Lollapalooza, opening for larger bands like, oh God, Rage Against the Machine, which I guess some of our fans found as distasteful as well. From our stand point you have to think about we had been doing it for a long time, not just in the Jesus Lizard but other bands as well. So for us, a chance to go out and play bigger places, why not? We went back to playing clubs, didn't we? I still do, it was not like I stepped off the boat forever.

NC: Did you enjoy that experience, doing that on a larger level?

DD: Yes and no. Yes, it was nice to do something different. No, I think playing those big sheds and arenas and stuff, I don't think we were cut out for it. The way our music is being kind of busy and detailed, it doesn't sound good in big buildings, it echoes. Those buildings echo too much, there is a reason why arena rock sounds the way it does, because it's simple and block headed, so it sounds good in big empty buildings, whereas our music didn't. We never had pyrotechnics or a light show or props so, you know for people who go to big venues wanting that kind of experience I don't think we were the right band for it. When we went back to playing clubs and theaters I think that was more our element.

NC: I actually remember seeing you play with Tomahawk opening for Tool about six or seven years ago at the Forum in L.A.

DD: Yeah, that was different too. Obviously with Mike Patton and John Stanier whom have both been in bands that played those kind of [places] all the time, whereas with me it wasn't nearly as much. Opening for Tool is weird because they have a huge light show and all that other stuff, so you're going to seem insignificant no matter who you are. We did it anyway and sometimes you do things just because you know that it will expose you to new people and they will go buy the album and go see you again and that is what happened.

NC: So you feel that was a success?

DD: Yes.

NC: It seems that in this day in age it'd be impossible for a band like the Jesus Lizard to catch the attention of a label like Capitol, let alone manage to stand the label for two records.

DD: Yeah, those days are gone.

NC: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

DD: I don't know. It seems like if anything the music business is back where it was when independent labels first started or like the early 80s when I first started becoming aware of it and becoming involved in it. In those days if you sold 10,000 albums on an indie label that was a lot. That was like a gold record. Now it's almost come back to that. If you can consistently sell 15,000 or 20,000 album you're doing pretty well because you can go out and tour and make a living at it. Back then the expectations when people started bands, they didn't expect much more than that. So, you ran your business with a much lower overhead and you learned to work within those parameters and not be extravagant. Well, I think it's kind of like that again now, where the playing field has been wiped clean and yeah there still are major label rock bands that sell tons of records but that company has to spend millions of dollars to publicize them and the indie labels, yeah some of them are having a hard time but some of them seem to be doing okay and working through it.

I don't necessarily think that the Internet and downloading is a good thing. I think that there has been so much media attention on people making sure everyone gets in on the new technology before they really understand what's happening here. It seems like the people who are providing contents; writers, musicians, etc, are not getting the compensation that they should, at least not compared to what it was like in the past and nobody seems to care they just want to have an endless supply of new product on the ether out floating in the air. I think it's a classic thing where the technology is changing a lot faster than either the laws or the people creating stuff can keep up with it.

NC: Do you think it helps bands get exposure or do you think it just makes it so that there is just more artists and bands out there?

DD: There is just more. I don't know if it's better, I think there's just more, don't you?

NC: Yeah, it seems that way.

DD: There's just so much out there and everyone has a MySpace and this and that. Its come to the point where everyone is fighting for this same little bit of visibility and I don't know its just become very watered down to me, where there's so much of it and its so watered down. But, you know, they were probably saying that 20 years ago as well, when independent labels were sprouting up and people were like, "well now anybody can make a record."

NC: I asked our readers to submit some questions and I got a few decent responses from our blog. Have you read our Nashville Cream blog?

DD: I've looked at it from time to time.

NC: Do you follow the local music scene at all?

DD: When I'm around I do. I'm so in and out. I look at the Scene when I'm here and everyone I know here is a musician. My wife is a music attorney and she handles some local people so I can't help but hear about what's going on here and there.

NC: One reader wanted to know what the writing process with Mike Patton was like?

DD: It started off as a project with he and I we started Tomahawk. Typically I would come up with sketches, just rough things, chord progressions, riffs, and make rough demos and run them past everyone and then a lot of times he would take it to his home studio, rearrange it, add some temporary vocal. Nonsense words and stuff. Then we'd get together physically and work it out in the studio or rehearsal space. So it was probably not terribly different than most bands. We didn't just sit down all four of us and start from scratch. That's a lot more work than it's worth, it seems like somebody has to come up with a basic idea and present it and then it gets developed and that's typically how it was.

NC: Same guy asked; Do you realize the riff to "Mouth Breather" slays every other riff every written?

DD: (Laugs) That's funny. No, I didn't realize that, thank you for telling me. It's funny when I listen to it now because we never used a click track. When I'm practicing by myself I typical play along with the albums and playing along with that riff at the beginning it speeds up so much before the drums come in. I mean I'm obviously not using a click track. Now-a-days that wouldn't fly, the producer would go, "whoa, you're flying off the track here, let's go back and fix that." It's like, "why bother?", it's the vibe. The vibe is more important than the technical perfection.

NC: You were playing at the show last year in the Shack Shakers, the Rancid show, where there was the indecent exposure incident. Would you care to elaborate on that at all?

DD: Oh that was funny, yeah, I guess I can talk about it. To be honest, I did not see anything happen. It's funny, I seem to find myself in bands where the singers tend to do things people find morally objectionable. It was so slight, I didn't see it, but what people tell me there may have been about five seconds where his pants were just unzipped and you could or couldn't see a portion of a testicle, like an old man that goes to the bathroom and then forgets to zip his pants. So he was doing some sort of clownish dance and while that was happening he noticed he was unzipped and zipped up. That's all it was.

NC: So it wasn't even intentional?

DD: Well, I don't know, but there was no manipulation, no gratuitous exposure, it was just this simple clownish act. Next thing we know, we're on the local news and they're blowing it up into this story, "he manipulated his genitals in front of children," there weren't any children at that show. It was nuts, it was a Rancid crowd. You know tattooed punk rockers and rockabillies all swirling around in a pit. It was comical and we had some lawyers tell us what to do and they were laughing. All the local musicians were like, "Yay." On the news they interviewed this kid, I guess they have a skate park at RCKTWN, a Christian skate park oh what a great deal, and this kid is going, "I think it's terrible someone would do that," and he wasn't even at the show. Anyway the whole thing blew over, the cops didn't even seems to care.

NC: So he never was actually arrested?

DD: No, he tried to turn himself in and there was no warrant.

NC: That's funny because that was the word on the street that there was a warrant.

DD: That's what they said on the news, but there wasn't one. He went down to turn himself in and they said, "well we don't know who you are."

NC: Well I guess all's well that ends well. Who do you have better stories about; Steve Albini, John Cale, Andy Gill, or Mike Patton?

DD: Probably Patton, maybe Albini. I spent way more time around Steve and Mike than Cale and Gill....The truly awful things, I don't want to repeat...John Cale I ended up not really liking very much in the studio. When we recorded with him, I don't know what the reasoning was we just thought it was interesting, something different, we had a budget where we could do it. I kind of liked some Velvet Underground and some of his solo stuff, the Academy in Peril that's a very unique album. A lot of times to me when junkies or alcoholics clean up they kind of go overboard the other way, they become overly health nuts and overly zealous about everything and that's kind of how he was. He's an old man by this time, I mean this is ten or twelve years ago, so he's at least 60. He was wearing these like plastic work out clothes the whole time in the studio, like running shoes, shorts, and plastic vests. He drank so much carrot juice that his skin was bright orange. So he had bright orange skin, plastic clothes, and he had this very condescending attitude. I asked him if he brought his viola and he snorted and smirked and just shook his head like, can't you even answer my question.

When we were mixing he forbade us to come into the studio before 4 o'clock, it's like he didn't want to expose his secrets, but we went in anyway. I think that he didn't want us to see that his assistant was doing all the work. So John Cale: drag. Um, Steve, I kind of had a falling out with Steve years ago but since then we've kind of patched it up, I guess he's alright.... Let's see, Patton. We're in England on a Tomahawk tour in Manchester I think. We're back stage, and it's a pretty nice set up for a band like us. We have beer, liquor, wine, water, juice, soft drinks and snacks. It's a pretty good-looking spread, but there's no coffee. Patton drinks like 10 cups of coffee a day and he's like, "There's no coffee! I need some coffee!" So, the local stage guy comes back with a thing for boiling water and a jar of instant coffee crystals. Patton looks at it and goes, "You can't rule the world with instant coffee!" He takes the jar of crystals and throws it and smashes this giant glass case, then leaves the room. So there's broken glass everywhere, and actually the guy left before he smashed it so he didn't see him do it. Then he (stage guy) comes running back in and says, "What happened?" I say, "Man these fans came in and they were trying to get at Patton, and we told them they couldn't. We had to throw them out and one of them kicked it on the way out." That's where we left it, and they believed me.

Better [story] actually with David Yow. It used to be, if you went from one country to another in Europe--like now it's pretty easy, they just kind of wave you through--but there was a time when you had to get out and go through customs, fill out forms, they'd look at you, and you had to bring your passport. Now they're really not so strict, it's kind of weird. So, we were going into Germany where they're very fastidious and very strict, at least they were then. Their uniforms were crisp and neat and their hair was just right. David Yow was so loaded from the night before, that we could not get him up. We could not get him out of his bunk. We could not get him to open his eyes and stand up. So we took a drum rug, like a rug for putting drums on to keep them from skidding around, and we wrapped him in the rug and carried him through customs and set him upright, but his eyes weren't open. They're looking at him and they were like, "what is this? Is he sick?" And we're like, "No. No, he's just tired." and they're like, "Is he alive?" and we're like, "Yeah, look," and I had to take my glasses off and hold them under his nose to show that he was breathing.

NC: So it was that like a Weekend at Bernie's type thing?

DD: Yeah. Then I had to put a pen in his hand and held it while he filled out forms, and they were just disgusted and waved us through.

(Thanks to our editorial intern Rachel Warrick for transcribing this.)

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