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In the history of the “American Indie Underground,” Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad writes that David Yow “sounds like a kidnap victim trying to howl through the duct tape over his mouth.” Certainly Yow, the magnetic frontman and vocalist for storied American noise rock bands The Jesus Lizard and Scratch Acid—whose unlikely reunion tour stops at Metro Saturday, Nov. 12—has entered the pantheon of punk rock legend on the strength of his energetic caterwauling and (often shirtless) stage antics. In a word, he’s intense.
After disbanding in 1987, members of Scratch Acid would propagate among the U.S. punk underground, playing in an orbit around essential noise acts like Rapeman, Big Black, Lard, Ministry, and, of course, The Jesus Lizard, which reunited Yow with bassist David Wm. Sims. Following on the heels of that group’s 2009-’10 reunion tour, Scratch Acid hitting the road so many years after calling it quits seems even odder. Now made up of guys in their 40s and 50s, Scratch Acid will be playing its earsplitting symphonies of protean post-punk noise for a crowd one generation removed from the band’s heyday: twenty- and thirtysomethings, who have come to understand Scratch Acid as a legend of the “American indie underground” from back when terms like that meant something. But Scratch Acid (and Yow) are juiced by the most invigorating kind of raw punk power, the kind of that can’t really be weathered by time—or age.
The A.V. Club spoke with Yow about the appeal of reunion tours, quitting smoking, and old guys doing young-guy stuff.
The A.V. Club: How are you? It sounds like you’ve got a bit of a cold or something.
David Yow: We were in Austin a few days ago, and I don’t know if I was allergic to something down there or what, but I started having sneezing fits. And I’m still a bit snotty. I got some decongestants and stuff, so I’m hoping that’ll do it.
AVC: Are these the wages of the road nowadays, getting snotty and congested?
DY: Yeah, well it’s not even necessarily just these days. It’s always been that way.
AVC: On this new tour, are you guys as intense onstage as you were in the ’80s? It can’t be good for the immune system.
DY: We’ve only done two shows so far on this tour. The first night, in Atlanta, was a little difficult, but pretty fun. And the second night was in Carrboro, North Carolina, and about halfway through the show I thought, “I’m not going to make it.” We’ll see if I’m alive by the time we get to Toronto.
DY: The fact that we did the Jesus Lizard shows probably helped the possibility of the Scratch Acid shows. Do you know about the Jeff Magnum ATP, where he wanted Scratch Acid to play?
AVC: Sure, right.
DY: Well, the All Tomorrow’s Parties thing in December was kind of the catalyst for the whole thing. We just decided that if we were going to go to the trouble of converging in a city and practicing for a week, we should do more than just one show. So we decided to do a little tour.
AVC: It seems to speak to having a good time during the Jesus Lizard tour in 2009 and 2010, and also it being probably very lucrative, financially.
DY: Well, it was a lot of fun. That’s first and foremost. If it’s not fun, none of us want to do it. If it pays well, that’s a wonderful bonus, and no one would complain. The Jesus Lizard tour was a blast. And we got paid very well. And so far this tour has been a blast. It’s cool to hang out with the guys again, you know? I haven’t hung out with [guitarist] Brett Bradford for, I don’t know, 25 years?
AVC: Yeah, it’s been a long time since you guys broke up. How does it feel getting back in step with these guys after so long?
DY: It’s good. It’s really good. They’re great guys, and we get a long really well. So it’s really good. We have a lot of laughs and make fun of each other. We’re like old kids.
AVC: It seems like a lot of the people coming out for this tour are about a generation removed from your original audiences, which wouldn’t have really been the case on the Jesus Lizard reunion.
DY: I’ve been surprised at the number of younger folks in the crowd. And they’re really, really into it. They’re not just curious. They know the songs and stuff. It’s flattering and surprising to me.
AVC: What do you attribute that to? Just kids being able to get their kicks on anything and being able to easily find out about some fairly obscure, noisy post-punk band from the ’80s?
DY: God, I don’t know what to blame it on. I’m not much of a self-back-patter. But it’s funny, right before I left L.A. I told some friends that, “Yeah, it’s old guys doing young-guy stuff.” And my girlfriend said, “Bullshit! It’s old guys teaching young guys how to do it!”
AVC: Well yeah, nowadays you’ve even got Iggy Pop strutting around on stage with his shirt off and the whole thing. It seems almost like a defense against aging or something.
DY: Yeah, Iggy’s a much stronger man than I. There’s no way I’m going to be doing this at his age.
AVC: You don’t think so?
DY: No, I’m sure of it.
AVC: So there are no plans to properly reform Scratch Acid after this? It’s just a one-off tour?
DY: That’s the plan, yeah. I mean, I finally learned to quit saying “never.” I’m sure when Scratch Acid broke up I said, “We’ll never play again.” And when Jesus Lizard broke up I said, “We’ll never play again.” That’s just what I assumed. So, I guess it’s possible that we’ll play again after this tour. But it’s highly unlikely.
AVC: You’ve got so many other irons in the fire, with your photo work and acting—and rumor is you’re quite a good cook as well—that it must be nice to plan one of these tours whenever you want, and know that there’s an audience for it.
DY: I was right with you until you said, “and know that there’s an audience for it.” Because I don’t really know that. For instance, the show in Atlanta was supposed to be at one particular venue, and the advanced ticket sales were so low that they moved it to a much smaller place. And the fact that the All Tomorrow’s Parties thing has been, not canceled, but sort of postponed is interesting. I certainly don’t blame Scratch Acid for that. But we were part of that bill. Do you know about that, ATP being pushed back until March?
AVC: Yes, but not really the exact details as to why.
DY: Well, I don’t really know exact details either. But apparently Barry [Hogan], one of the guys who runs ATP, as far as I understand, lost a whole bunch of money in the New Jersey ATP. And I guess someone, like his accountant, told him that if they did one in December they’d lose even more money. So I guess they decided to reschedule it.
AVC: You suffered a collapsed lung a few years back. Has that affected your vocals at all?
DY: I’m fully recovered. I was just in the hospital for four or five days until they drained my lung and it inflated right. But I’m fine. I quit smoking, but c’est la vie.
AVC: How long had you smoked for?
DY: Um ... I don’t know, 32 years? Something like that. It wasn’t easy.
AVC: So did you go cold turkey, like just not smoke anymore?
DY: Initially, when I was in the hospital, the doctor said I had to quit smoking. I said, “Okay.” It didn’t really seem like a big deal. My dad had quit smoking by just telling himself he wasn’t going to smoke anymore. And he was at three packs a day. So I figured, “Okay, if my dad can do it, I can do it.” I did really well for about six months or so, then I’d go out and I’d bum a cigarette, or bum puffs. I couldn’t do it on my own. I ended up going to a guy in Boston named Yefim Shubentsov, “The Mad Russian.” I’m not sure exactly what he does. He says it’s bio-kinetic energy. I say it’s hypnotism. But I raised my hand and paid him 65 bucks, and I haven’t smoked since. That was over two years ago.
AVC: What did he do, exactly? Or is that part of the secret, that you can’t talk about it?
DY: No, I can tell you. There were about 20 people who came in. And you all go sit in his office. He has a really, really thick Russian accent, and he talks really fast. And my hearing sucks, so I was missing a lot of it. I was going, “Jesus, I hope I’m not missing the important part.” But he was mostly talking about common sense. You know: Don’t do stupid stuff; you don’t really need to drink eight bottles of water a day ... stuff like that. He talked to us for about 40 minutes or so, and he started calling one person in at a time. He opened a door every two minutes and said, “Next!” And I went in there. He said, “What are you trying to quit?” And I said, “Smoking.” He told me to imagine myself smoking and raise my hand so I did that, and he grabbed my shoulder and made this noise like, “Phifft!” And let me go. And I haven’t smoked since.
AVC: Really? That’s incredible.
DY: Oh, it’s crazy. The next day I was waiting for a cab outside the hotel, and all these people were smoking, and it didn’t matter at all. They had no significance, cigarettes. But nothing else was different.
AVC: This is really interesting. You see all these hypnotism weight loss, stop smoking places in strip malls on the side of the highway, and kind of assume that’s all hokum and quackery.
DY: Oh, I certainly always have. But this guy does have a very high success rate. And he’s kind of world-renowned. I’d known of him for years. He goes by “The Mad Russian” in Boston.
AVC: It must be important to be good health on this tour, though. It’s been written that back Scratch Acid’s heyday, you’d almost clear rooms or send people heading off the sides of the floor because you were so wild onstage. Is it at all weird now when people are coming to the show, in part, to see David Yow’s legendary antics? Does this add any pressure?
DY: I don’t really remember clearing rooms. That didn’t happen very much. Any pressure that I feel is self-imposed. It doesn’t really have anything to do with anyone else. It has to do with whether I think the way I’m behaving is worthwhile or entertaining, or whatever. It’s not about whether it’s what’s cool or not, if that makes sense.
AVC: Is this what you shoot for every night, just the feeling of being exhausted and totally satisfied?
DY: Sort of. I mean, at the end of the night when we’re collapsed backstage, there’s almost a sense of pride—like you did something really good. We always try to do the best we can. My motto for a long time has been, “Always take what you do seriously, but never take yourself seriously.”
AVC: Do you still get as naked onstage on this tour?
DY: I didn’t really do as much of that with Scratch Acid. It happened one time, and it wasn’t me! My clothes got removed for me, instead of me doing it. Also, I’m old and hideous, and nobody wants to see that. So I don’t do that.
AVC: You’ve done a bit of acting as well. And one thing that stands out is your name in the credits for that Insane Clown Posse movie, Big Money Rustlas. How did you manage to get involved with that?
DY: It was being directed by an old friend of mine, Paul Andresen, who had directed at least one video by The Jesus Lizard. He asked me if I wanted to be in a movie, and I said, “Okay, sure,” and showed up on set. I think I played three different characters, but I don’t know if I show up three times. I played a piano player, some bum who got shot, and just a pedestrian. But there’s no actual acting in that. I was just sort of standing there.
AVC: It’s such an odd thing to even see online: David Yow appearing in the Insane Clown Posse clown Western movie.
DY: It was absurd, completely absurd. I can’t tolerate their music. It was a weird experience. And what’s his name, Ron Jeremy, was there on set, and a handful of B-movie stars and stuff. It was an odd setup.
AVC: Maybe we’ll have to dig up a copy so we can see it—
DY: No you don’t! You don’t have to see it. I wouldn’t bother. I haven’t even seen it.
AVC: Do you have anything else coming down the pipe, in terms of acting?
DY: Yeah, I do. There’s a handful of things. I’ve done more than 20 little movies. There’s a possible television show that Dennis Klein, who was co-creator of The Larry Sanders Show, wants me to be in. He’s trying to push it to some cable network. There’s another movie ... I wish I could talk more about it, but I’m not really at liberty. If I get this role though, which is in a major motion picture—and I think I’ve got it—then it’ll really open doors for me. I should know within a week or two if I have this. But it’d be great.
AVC: “Theatricality” is kind of a boring word, but there’s something about your stage person where it seems like you’re acting or performing, in a way. So it makes sense for you to move into acting.
DY: It’s interesting to me that, for all the movies that I’ve done, the directors have all approached me. Any role I’ve sought out, I have not gotten. All the stuff I’ve done is because they wanted me based on something they saw in me, whether it was some other role I did, or being live onstage. I guess that’s a bonus.
AVC: Given this career move, is there any more incentive to preserve yourself a bit more when you’re onstage with Scratch Acid? It seems like you might be more mindful about getting injured if you have an audition the next day.
DY: Well, it’s never occurred to me that I should do it because I have auditions. I’ve never liked getting hurt. And I’ve never tried to get hurt. But sometimes it’s out of my control. I almost got dropped pretty hard in Atlanta the other night. I could hear the people around me going “Whoa!” They caught me, thank God. I don’t want to get hurt.