[Q&A] Scratch Acid's David Yow on pulling a MacGuyver, making reunion bank and losing his virginity

David Yow is one of the more interesting frontmen to have come out of rock and roll in the past few decades, if only because of the contradictions inherent in the way that he operates: on the one hand, he's a classic rock wildman-- I've personally witnessed more piss, puke and genital exhibition from Mr. Yow over the years than from anyone I actually know socially-- but he's also a thoughtful, intelligent and grounded human being who seems to comprehend the ridiculousness that is playing rock and roll.  He is profane, frequently inebriated, and a rock firestarter of the finest vintage, but he's also funny, serious, and one of the most down-to-earth people in the biz.  He is most acclaimed for the decade-plus that he put into fronting chronic road warriors The Jesus Lizard, a pummelling post-punk crew that burst of out Chicago-via-Austin with a compact-yet-chaotic din that was, in the early 90s, almost the antithesis of the day-glo bounce being sold as grunge to the masses.  But prior to TJL, he cut his teeth in Scratch Acid, a spunky group that rocked super hard and spun weird and wild, with Yow's trademark vocal whirlwind treading down strange alleyways over a focused rock din that was heady and arty yet totally visceral.

 Scratch Acid called it quits by '87, but their legend has only grown since then, eventually resulting in a burying of the hatchet of all the principals involved with the 2006 three-show SA reunion "tour."  but three shows is scarcely enough for the clamoring of a new generation of post-punk acolytes, and the massive success of 2009's Jesus Lizard reunion romp has resulted in this year's SA tour, which touches down tonight at The Paradise.  We featured the band in last week's issue, but any conversation with Mr. Yow is bound to dart outside the confines of a brief feature piece-- so we thought it best to let you read the full transcript of our talk with the man himself:

So how does it feel to be doing this Scratch Acid tour, after the success of the Jesus Lizard reunion tour a few years ago?  I mean, it’s crazy the demand for both bands, a demand that seems far greater than for the bands during their original phases-- especially Scratch Acid.
Yeah, well it’s so weird.  When Scratch Acid broke up, and when the Jesus Lizard broke up, both times I said that we would never play again, that we’d never do a reunion.  And I have since learned, by cramming my foot all the way up my mouth, to not speak in such absolutes, especially about things that you will quote-unquote never do.  But yeah, back in ‘06, the three Scratch Acid shows, Austin, Chicago, Seattle, they were a blast, a full on blast, I couldn’t believe how much fun it was.  Same with the Jesus Lizard, just so much fun, it was great.  A trip down memory lane, it was fun playing those songs.

And I’ll tell you: doing the Jesus Lizard a few years ago, I made more money that year than I ever made in my life.  And I don’t have a problem with that.

Well, that makes sense-- the Jesus Lizard were always a pretty hard-working band, playing a ton of shows and touring non-stop and all...
Oh yeah, that was kind of our goal, “Let’s do a band that we’re proud of, and try to pay the bills!”

The Jesus Lizard had such a massive work ethic-- was that a reaction to the way Scratch Acid worked in any way?
I think it was a reaction, but sort of a negative one-- or a positive reaction to a negative thing.  Because with Scratch Acid, everything moved very slowly, for anything to get done.  So I think with the Jesus Lizard, it was a deliberate thing to bust ass.  With Scratch Acid, we tried to bust ass all the time, but for some reason we just didn’t.

Was there a difference in the way the two bands were received, and how much of that had to do with Scratch Acid being an Austin band and Jesus Lizard a Chicago thing?
The Jesus Lizard really formed in Austin when David [Wm. Sims, bass in both Scratch Acid and TJL], Duane [Denison, guitarist] and I moved down there and started fucking around with a drum machine, and then relocated to Chicago.  It wasn’t a location thing, it was-- it might have been age, it might have been naivete, or the chemistry between four guys.  For instance, Rey Washam, the drummer [for Scratch Acid], is an exceptionally good drummer, and also quite a perfectionist.  And in those days, he was also kind of an asshole; and Brett Bradford [SA guitarist], who was a very very gifted guitar player, but not in the traditional sense-- if you told Brad to play C-sharp I don’t think he knows how to, but he can do these magnificent things-- and things got really really heated between Rey and Brett, and I think that often times slowed down our progress.  And that was sort of the way the band broke up, just problems specifically with those two guys.

Scratch Acid were-- let me just say it, you guys were a weird band.  What was the reception like at the time, what was the 80s punker reaction to the arty weirdness you guys were all about?
That’s sort of hard to answer just because it’s so long ago and it’s kind of blurry.  But we were accustomed to pretty mundane crowd responses and pretty small crowds.  I remember one thing that impressed the fuck out of me was that we went to Europe in December of ‘86 and that floored me.  I couldn’t believe that-- I knew that Black Flag had been over there, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, all these big bands. But i couldn’t believe that Scratch Acid would get to do a tour of Europe.  And that was a blast, but it kind of blew my mind!  I guess that doesn’t really have anything to do with your question.

I remember specifically how, when we formed the band, making a record and putting out a record did not really ever come into play.  We thought maybe it might be cool to make a cassette and pass it out to our friends, and maybe if we generated enough interest we could maybe sell them to people we don’t know.  But then we put out our first record and sold over a thousand of ‘em and we were thinking “Wow, we sold over a thousand fucking records!”  It was crazy.

You guys kind of coalesced in the midst of the move from punk to hardcore, but also this American indie post-punk resurgence.  Were you guys aware of that at all while Scratch Acid was a going concern?
You know, I don’t remember being cognizant of that during Scratch Acid.  Yeah, I don’t know, that’s a good question but a hard one to answer.  I was more aware of that during the Jesus Lizard’s tenure.  I’m sure it was going on, I think that after the very early 80s, it was all getting more and more people involved, in whatever the post-punk garbage that was happening.

Was your aesthetic kind of a reaction against what was going on in punk at the time?
Um, I think a lot of it just came natural.  It was a deliberate effort to not be straight-ahead punk.  I had been in a punk band before, and Rey and Brett had been in sort of a punk band, but they weren’t that punky.  And at the time, there was a huge trend of that beginning of hardcore-- and I didn’t like any of it.  So it was a deliberate effort to not do that.  So I guess with our punk rock influences and, you know, Led Zeppelin and Motörhead and stuff like that, it was Siouxsie and the Banshees meets Birthday Party meets Led Zeppelin sort of thing.

It must have been weird attempting to foist a Siouxsie Sioux thing on a bunch of hardcore tough guys.
Yeah, I mean, there was some-- well, I don’t know who-all, I mean there were the Butthole Surfers, and there was a fair contingent of skinhead hardcore in Austin, you know, once all that started going.  I don’t know the names of any of the bands because I kind of ignored them!

You have a really unique vocal style, that a lot of people misinterpret-- and what’s remarkable is how fully-formed your style was in Scratch Acid, just how varied your approach was and how arty and insane.  How did you approach coming up with vocals for this band, was it something you had been working on for a while before Scratch Acid?
Well, first off, thank you: that’s the nicest thing anybody’s every said to me.  I think that the way that I came about doing vocals, particularly with Scratch Acid, was that we fired our singer so we needed a singer and I took over.  My control was minimal, my ability to actually sing was pretty close to minimal, so I’ve never thought of this before but it was kind of like MacGuyver: “Well, you’ve got a piece of shit and some rubber bands, make it sound like a song!”  So I was just sort of working with what I had.

You’ve always had a real surrealist bent, was that also inspired by a reaction to the straight-forwardness of punk and hardcore?
Um, I suppose.  You know, a lot of it was driven by a very immature sense of humor, things like the Birthday Party, David Thomas of Pere Ubu, and being tight with the Butthole Surfers, who were just outrageously creative at the time.  So I think those things were sort of-- and also, when I was going to school, one of my teachers, Mark Todd, who did several record covers, like the first Scratch Acid cover and the the covers of Pure and Head for the Jesus Lizard-- he was a tremendous influence on me in a lot of ways.  He was also a writer when he was going to college, and he still does a lot of writing, and his aesthetic, combined with these other art-punk aesthetics, really formed where I was at.  both with visual art and the written word, opinions on the world, etc,-- he was a very big influence on me.

1st Scratch Acid EP, 1984, cover by Mark Todd

The Jesus Lizard, Pure EP, 1989, cover by Mark Todd

The Jesus Lizard, Head LP, 1990, cover by Mark Todd

I didn’t lose my virginity until I was in college, and he was a teacher of mine in college and he taught me how to talk to girls, how to do a drawing with cool composition, and he said to me when I was in freshman year of college that Jesus started VD and then he used to fuck sheep.  And I went “Mark, you can’t say that, don’t say that!”  Now I don’t give a fuck but at the time I was floored, I was going “Man, you can’t say that, God’s gonna strike you down!”  Although I didn’t, you know, believe in God really, but it still felt like dangerous territory.  And I’m glad that Mark and I are still friends, I talk to him all the time.

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