Raucous reptilians

Like any ’90s band with a following even a fraction as zealous as the one attached to these explosive noise-rockers, The Jesus Lizard’s cult status can be easily confirmed without reading a review or seeing a show: A brief cruise on the Internet reaps a litter of affectionate Web sites (some more interesting than others — my favorite was written by a fan who offered a gentle apology for being drunk before launching into a meticulously detailed band biography) that provide all the proof one needs. But considering that the band has been harvesting this level of loyalty since its birth in pre-Web 1987, the best evidence still comes straight from the trenches.

The first Lizard fan I talked to told me he’d once received a kick in the head from lead singer (or is that screamer) David Yow (once described as possessing “scuzzy, sarcastic charisma”) as the frontman was passed around on the shoulders of the crowd at a Cleveland show. Relating this incident from the band’s early days, the victim’s tone was matter-of-fact: After all, the savage energy of live Jesus Lizard shows (more than a few have culminated in Yow’s arrest for indecent exposure and other forms of disorderly conduct) is as commonplace as it is legendary.

Another fan remembers seeing them first in Atlanta, where he was so entranced by the music that he found himself instantly transported from the back of the crowd to stageside without recalling the journey.

And yet a third could summon these lyrics of Yow’s with startling immediacy, reciting them with the tender cadence of a nursery rhyme: “They found spray paint in his sinus/Cotton in his ears/His cheeks showed little slugstyle tracks/That dried there from his tears” (from “Rope,” off 1992’s Liar, from Touch and Go Records).

The Yow I encountered during a recent morning phone interview was subdued and thoughtful. Between sips of water in a Montreal hotel, he contemplated the group’s latest offering, Blue (Capitol, 1998), which has been widely viewed as a departure from the harder consistency of its predecessors:

“We decided we didn’t want a record that was a representation of a live [show] because you can’t produce that believably and faithfully. We’ve done so many punch-in-the-neck records, and we were interested in trying something we hadn’t done.”

On Blue, that means no profanity, clearer vocals, more layered arrangements. “I wanted to see if I could use melody in more than one song,” notes Yow.

Of course, hints of Blue’s excursions into tunefulness have surfaced in previous works — e.g., the instrumental version of “Needles for Teeth,” which appeared on a self-titled EP released earlier this year. And diehard followers need not fret too vehemently. There’s still plenty of Yow’s signature screaming to be enjoyed on Blue.

But what about fans who find their need for Yow’s more raucous vocal stylings under-satisfied?

Too bad. Alienating the stauncher fringe of Jesus Lizard fans with an evolving product is not one of Yow’s concerns.

“What people expect of us doesn’t really come into play when [making a CD]. We just write what we write,” he says quietly.

The Chicago-based foursome have toured almost constantly for more than a decade. Two years ago, they left their first label, Touch and Go, for Capitol, and recently they replaced their longtime drummer Mac McNeilly with Jim Kimball. (Yow and bassist David Wm. Sims started out in the Austin band Scratch Acid, and guitarist Duane Denison has been with the band since its inception)

In that time, the group has obviously witnessed a huge change in the music scene. Similarly, the face of their audience has changed. Many older fans who cut their rebellious teeth on the brute edge of The Jesus Lizard have moved on to more tranquil waters.

“I think [the scene] has changed, because at first we pretty much had a college crowd,” Yow reflects. “Now a lot of the kids in college have outgrown this kind of music. … There’s a new college crowd, but a lot of younger kids, too.”

Ironically, the band’s riotous live performances have been a point of stasis in all this flux. “What [goes on] at live shows doesn’t change,” he admits, adding, “We’re just too simple of a band.”

As driven as they are by pure punk force, at their most elemental level, Yow’s songs are simply stories: brooding, morbid stories grinding away with the macabre creativity of a medieval torture instrument, but stories, nonetheless, that unwind with a strangely familiar logic.

The source(s) of these singular tales of doom? “They’re inspired by all kinds of things … dreams, and just stuff I make up,” says Yow.

The Jesus Lizard sound is commonly (and accurately) described as “apocalyptic.” But how would Yow himself want the group to be remembered if it were all destined to end tomorrow?

“I don’t know — a rock band,” he says simply.

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