Capitol Records bigwigs may have been the only ones surprised last year when the Jesus Lizard’s fifth studio album, Shot, sold 40,000 copies. After all, though the figure was low by major-label standards, the band had sold about the same number of copies of its last few albums for Chicago’s Touch and Go label. Shot was produced by GGGarth Richardson, best known for his work with the Melvins. His changes to the band’s sound were extremely subtle, but someone at Capitol heard a glimmer in the mix that sounded like gold. “They were just thrilled,” says singer David Yow. “They were saying, ‘Man, this is so good. This is way, way better than anything we anticipated. Thanks. You guys busted ass.’ And when it didn’t really sell much they were going, ‘Well, what are we gonna do now?’ Well, we did our job.”
Capitol marketing director Stacy Conde, who promoted the Jesus Lizard when both were at Touch and Go, says she was content with the sales of Shot. “I don’t think if the next one doesn’t sell a certain amount the band’s going to get in trouble,” she says. But last month–just after putting the finishing touches on Shot’s follow-up, which took almost twice as long to make, and just before going on the road to work the new material–band members let on that they know differently. “I think Capitol is working toward us selling more records, and we just can’t keep making more and more expensive records without expecting there to be some kind of payback one way or another,” says bassist David Sims. “But fundamentally, it’s not my problem. I don’t have to cut checks for the records, and I’m doing fine, personally. I don’t expect to be doing this forever anyway.”
It seems as if the Jesus Lizard has already been doing it forever. Since their first EP, Pure, came out on Touch and Go in 1989, Yow, Sims, and guitarist Duane Denison, and later drummer Mac McNeilly and his replacement, Jim Kimball, have methodically refined the sound–churning, relentless bass lines, cleanly fragmented guitar riffs in unusual meters, propulsive skin pounding, and hysterical yowling–and made band membership into a sweaty science. They make records, they tour for months at a time (which is why McNeilly, who’s married with two children, bowed out last year), and they pay their bills. “The only goal we ever had when we started this band was to be self-sufficient,” Denison says from the couch of Sims’s Humboldt Park apartment, just upstairs from his own. “We didn’t want to have to work, and we got that.”
Contributing to that leisure was the Jesus Lizard’s decision to sign with Capitol, which it did in 1995 after a stint on Lollapalooza. It was a move some fans, associates, and even friends spoke of acrimoniously. The most prominent naysayer was Steve Albini, who played with Sims in Rapeman and recorded all the band’s Touch and Go releases. In Out of the Loop, the recent documentary about the Chicago rock scene, Albini soft-pedals his stance, insisting that his current nonrelationship with the Jesus Lizard is the result of a natural growing apart. But Yow’s barbed comments in the same movie–he calls Albini the best producer in his own house–hint at lingering tension.
The new album (so far untitled but tentatively slated for release in March) was produced over seven weeks by the man from whom Albini originally copped his guitar sound, Gang of Four’s Andy Gill. “We couldn’t have made this record if we were still on Touch and Go,” Denison says. “To me the biggest benefit of being on a major label is being able to take your time in the studio and experiment, to work with people you’re excited about working with.”
Where most of the Jesus Lizard’s previous records have closely mirrored its live performances, the new album takes fuller advantage of the studio–the band uses keyboards and even a sampler for the first time ever. “We wanted to do some different things,” says Denison, “but it wasn’t like we needed to throw some drum ‘n’ bass in there.” In the process of hunting for a producer, the band also cut a few tracks with John Cale, which it wants to release, alongside some early sessions with Gill and a remix by Jim O’Rourke, as a prealbum single.
The Capitol contract guarantees the group one more album, and gives the label the option on any more the band might care to do. But the band members–who range in age from 31 to 38–are already contemplating life after the Jesus Lizard. “I think about it a lot,” says Sims, a nonpracticing CPA. “I’m just trying to figure out what my options are.” Yow, now the only married man of the bunch, is considering starting a computer graphics business. Though uncredited, he’s done the layout for the band’s last few records as well as for Neutrons (Quarterstick), the new record by DK3, Denison and Kimball’s instrumental side project with Ken Vandermark.
“I’ve thought about teaching, but I’d like to stay involved with music somehow, even though I realize you can only do rock for so long,” says Denison, whose playing in DK3 reveals an interest in jazz. “It’s really unappealing to see a middle-aged man playing for a bunch of kids. It’s like, ‘I could be your dad or your boyfriend.'”
Among the 93 events at the eighth annual Chicago Humanities Festival, going on all weekend at a variety of downtown cultural institutions, is a panel chat about pop music called “Money Changes Everything: The Business of Making Music,” moderated by Tribune critic Greg Kot. Oddly, only one musician (Janet Bean of Freakwater and Eleventh Dream Day) and one businessman (Jim Powers of the Minty Fresh label) made it onto the panel. Authors Greil Marcus, Fred Goodman, and former Reader and Trib contributor Chris Dickinson are insightful, talented writers, but they skew the balance considerably toward those who observe the business rather than conduct it. The hour-and-a-half discussion starts at 3 PM Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art; call 312-294-3000 for tickets.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Jesus LIzard photo by Brad Miller.