Jesus Lizard’s Duane Denison: ‘I Can’t Imagine Ever Doing A Reunion Tour’

These are three hard-working men. One is bald, diminutive (around 5 feet tall) and brandishes a wrinkled, menacing smirk. This man has been arrested on numerous occasions for public exposure and enjoys his occupation, which involves howling, salivating, urinating and wrestling with complete strangers.

The second man is larger in width but by height only boasts a few inches. Engaged in his work, he uses his tool, the bass guitar, to drill out thunder and earthquakes. Don’t get his sneer wrong, though – as anyone will tell you, in person, he’s the nicest guy.

Last, the third man has acquired the nickname “The Silver Fox.” With sunken eyes and a trim frame, he is as subdued as a bashful teen, yet behind this front lies endless practice with a well-known instrument. His name Duane Denison and his weapon, of course, is the guitar.

This Curly, Larry and Moe trio-gone-to-hell are the founders of the Jesus Lizard, one of the most important bands the independent rock scene has produced in the last decade. Over the course of their 10-year career, they released seven full-length records, three EPs, four singles, a split single with Nirvana and performed 906 shows. Now, the band has finally decided to pack up the riot gear. Never again will the group be banned from a city (as was the case in Seattle and Cincinnati) or grace the mainstream (Lollapalooza ’95), and never again will frontman David Yow leave the stage on a stretcher (Albuquerque, Zurich). Aside from a Touch and Go rarities compilation due out later this year, the active career of the Jesus Lizard has come to a standstill.

So this is it. Just in time for the end of the millennium, the Jesus Lizard have called it quits.

“Personally speaking,” Denison said, “there comes a point when bands are no longer perceived as being as vital or important as they once were, and I felt we had hit that point. We still had plenty of energy and ideas, but there simply wasn’t that much of a demand for our particular brand of rock anymore, at least that’s how it seemed to me. Also, I personally felt it was simply time to move on to other things, rather than attempt to milk something to death. I don’t think any members of the band were afraid of trying new things, just the critics!”

Indeed, it appears that Denison is taking his own advice.

“I guess you could say my ‘career’ is going well,” Denison commented. “I’m lucky, I make a living doing what I like to do! Most guys my age [40] are burnt, bored or has-beens. Since I don’t have a trust fund or an inheritance or a family business to fall back on, I have no choice but to stay busy and try to be productive with my music.”

Denison summed up the current status of the ex-Lizard members as follows: “I’m currently playing with Hank Williams III, David Yow has recorded and performed with [the] Melvins, and David Sims has been practicing upright bass at home. Sims isn’t playing with Verbena, by the way [contrary to rumor]. Jim Kimball plays with Ed Roeser in a new band.”

Denison continued, “Working with Hank III has been fun and challenging. How long it goes for, I don’t know. He has an album coming out in September, so we’ll see what happens.

“I won’t be doing any more DK3 [Denison Kimball Trio] stuff, however. I’ve been writing songs all along and would like to do an album of my own sometime soon.”

Without doubt, Denison remained the quiet mastermind behind the Jesus Lizard, while Yow attracted all the media attention. With a solo career, Denison may very well reveal even more dimensions of his eclectic guitar talent.

Duane Denison has a wide variety of musical tastes. Aside from his career as a punk-rock guitarist and his degree in classical guitar from Eastern Michigan University, he once led the DK3, a jazz combo. He also contributed guitar to the entire Firewater premiere album (Get Off the Cross, We Need the Wood for the Fire) and two tracks to the band’s second release (The Ponzi Scheme).

At one point during our conversation, Denison recounted the birth of the Jesus Lizard: “I met the two Davids about 15 years ago when I was living in Austin, TX. I was in a band called Cargo Cult and they were in Scratch Acid. I was dating a girl who was a friend of theirs, and she introduced us, I think. Our bands also played a couple of shows together.”

After that, they headed to Chicago in 1988 and teamed up with Big Black’s Steve Albini to record their first record, the EP Pure, for which Denison had already drawn the schematics. With the aid of Albini’s drum machine, only afterward did the band hire a full-time percussionist in Mac McNeilly (Phantom 309). MacNeilly stayed with the band until 1997, when he departed and Laughing Hyenas drummer Kimball took charge. Two years earlier, the band had made the precarious decision to slough off Touch and Go Records and sign onto a major label. Under the auspices of Capitol Records, the band released its final two full-length albums: Shot in 1997 and Blue in 1998. The band was dropped from Capitol late last year.

According to Denison, the breakup of the Lizard went rather smoothly: “There are no negative feelings between any band members as a result of the split. We all saw it coming, and were in agreement about it. I talk to David Yow and David Sims regularly.”

Later in the interview, he described the band’s final performance, which took place at the Umeå Open in Umeå, Sweden on March 27: “Since it wasn’t absolutely certain whether it was our last show or not, it didn’t seem like a particularly solemn or joyous occasion, either way. After the show, I passed out cold after smoking some really strong hash and spent the night in the hospital! I was fine the next day.

“We decided to break up on our 10th anniversary just for the sake of symmetry, I think,” Denison continued. “There was talk of a 10th anniversary show, but it fell through. Also, 10 years sounds pretty impressive. More so than, say, nine years 10 months.”

Duane also mentioned the wear of playing 906 shows: “I must confess to being a bit tired of playing the same songs again and again. When you count rehearsals, studio sessions and gigs, there’s some songs that were played literally thousands of times. I also had gotten tired of the modus operandi in general, our way of writing, practicing, etc. I think we all needed to play with other people and stretch out a bit.”

But the most important questions in regards to the end of the Lizard remain: Why did the collapse happen when it did, and why did it transpire at all? Always recurring in matters such as these, the question of “selling out” and its consequences arises. According to the vast majority of indie-rock musicians and fans, signing onto a major label is like handing over your signature to the Grim Reaper. One of the exemplars of this belief is Albini himself, surrogate president of indie rock, who I spoke with last fall.

Commenting on the Jesus Lizard being dropped from Capitol this past year, he told me, “Looking at the performance of bands that signed on in the end of the signing frenzy that happened in the early/mid-’90s, the obvious examples are bands like Firehose, the Butthole Surfers, the Jesus Lizard and Girls Against Boys. [These are bands] that were doing quite well on the independent level and then had a brief moment of interest in the mainstream, but have since been dropped or become utterly ineffective as a band because the mainstream record business didn’t see an immediate enlarged return on its investment.”

Denison contended the matter. “Capitol Records didn’t contribute to the demise of the Jesus Lizard,” he said, “and had we stayed on Touch and Go, we probably would have broken up sooner. There are some things money can buy, and time is one of them.”

Similarly, Yow expressed no qualms about the band’s decision to move to Capitol in an interview I conducted with him in November 1997. He spoke in reference to the fact that in synchronization with the band’s shift to Capitol, they opened for some heavy-hitting mainstream bands:

“Bush, Rage Against the Machine and Ministry … I think we were sort of hoping that we could reach some people that otherwise never would have heard of us. I guess we did; I don’t know how many of them went out and bought one of our records, but …”

Regardless, the effects of the shift to Capitol were irrefutable. Aside from sharing tours with commercial bands, and Yow directing an Offspring video (“All I Want”) and interviewing Iggy Pop in Spin, the band’s sound changed drastically. Critics denounced Shot and Blue as listenable, striving for audience-friendliness. Yow’s wailing became attempted singing, Denison’s guitar lost some distortion and experimentalism, and the band, on the whole, tamed itself.

However, the Jesus Lizard kept touring the club circuit, refusing to abandon their indie roots. Touring with bands like Brainiac, Trans Am and Firewater in 1997 and 1998, they defied their major label citizenship. Yow told me, “I prefer club shows. They’re much more conducive to direct contact, which I think is a lot more fun for everybody.”

Besides, with bands like Nirvana and Beck, indie-rock veterans themselves, having revolutionized the mainstream, who’s to say that the Jesus Lizard should be criticized for trying to do the same? The Jesus Lizard challenged the general public with tight, raw songs, a borderline math-rock guitarist, a hammering bassist and a dwarf-on-drugs vocalist. Moreover, the Jesus Lizard were a band that knew how to take the house down.

Inevitably, the idea of a Jesus Lizard reunion tour arose in our conversation, however premature it may seem. “I can’t imagine ever doing a reunion tour,” Denison remarked. “We’re already as old [as] most bands are when they do those awful things! Maybe for a million dollars … what would it be, a package tour – ‘[The] Monsters of Grunge/Math-Rock Reunion’?”

Toward the end of the interview, Denison recounted an overview of what he will remember most about being a part of the Jesus Lizard:

“There’s so many memories, it’s difficult to say. I guess there’s some moments – going overseas for the first time, meeting famous people, reading about/seeing yourself in magazines, hearing your songs on the radio, getting recognized in public, watching your ideas become reality.”

Finally, I asked Denison his closing thoughts on the band that has consumed the vast majority of his musical career. “Parting words? Sentiments? God, I don’t know. All I can honestly say is that we lasted longer, played more shows, and yes, earned more money, than any of us ever thought we would. And I’d like to think that we made some good music along the way. Muchas gracias to all, it was a swell time.”

Originally published as “Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow” in The Creature, fall 1999.

Check out the Bad Penny’s other interview with Duane Denison – along with Tomahawk bandmate Mike Patton – or try to solve the Jesus Lizard trivia labyrinth.

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