Interview with Duane Denison
Guitarist with the Jesus Lizard
February 3, 1993
Rainbo Club, Chicago
(M)att: What’s today’s date?
(D)uane: Today’s date is the 3rd. February 3, ’93.
M: Duane Denison, correct?
M: How old are you?
M: You’re the oldest person I’ve interviewed. Paul, of the Effigies, is thirty-three. The Meat Puppets are all around 33. Do you know those guys?
D: I thought I met the drummer in Phoenix at the Sun Club. But I’m not sure.
M: Have you been in bands before Jesus Lizard?
M: Anything I would have heard of?
D: Not really. I was in a band called Cargo Cult, out of Touch and go, from Austin, Texas. Before that I was in a band that played the Detroit area for awhile. I played my first pro gig, I mean for money, when I was fifteen. Cuz my mom had to drive me. So that’s quite a while ago. I think the reason I’m so old now is because I studied music in college. I have a degree in music.
M: What college?
D: Eastern Michigan; Ipselanti. The home of Iggy Pop. I just wanted to learn as much as I could before having to get out and do it for a living.
M: Was your idea to be in a rock band even though. . .obviously you didn’t study “Rock Music” in college.
D: No. I played classical guitar, and played a lot of avante guard kind of music.
M: So when you were a kid did you take any kind of music lessons?
D: Yea. I took piano lesson starting when I was eight. For about three years. We had a piano in the house.
M: Were you taking them seriously? Or was it the kind of thing your mom made you do?
D: They didn’t have to make me do it. After awhile, when I got to be, like, eleven, I think I wanted to just play sports. I didn’t want to sit inside and play piano. But I had three pretty good years.
M: When did you start the guitar?
D: When I was about twelve. My sister got a guitar. She started taking lessons at the YMCA.
M: Electric guitar?
D: No. Just a cheap acoustic guitar. When she wasn’t playing it I’d pick it up and play it. And since I could already read music, I kind of picked it up easily. By the time I was fourteen or fifteen I was playing in bands; actually 13.
M: In rock bands with electric guitar?
D: Yea. Just rockin’ out to the hits of the day: Foghat, Robin Trower, Montrose.
M: So are all those bands you named heroes of yours?
D: No. Then I started getting into more progressive rock, and I played classical guitar cuz I wanted to develop, really. So I did that for awhile.
M: Were you taking any serious guitar lessons in high school?
D: Yea. One of my first teachers, he was a local guy, this is outside the Detroit area. I was surrounded by guitar players when I was a kid. It was a guy named Paul Warren. He played guitar with the Temptations. That song, “Papa was a Rolling Stone,” that’s him playing those licks in between the vocal phrases. He did that when he was 22 or 23. He now plays with Richard Marx. Literally across the street and two houses over was a guy named Steve Ezo. He was, like, a jazz taught guitar player. He’s a couple years older than me. He’s been playing with Tom Jones for the last couple years. I saw him on TV. . .that was him. And there’s other guys too. Local bar rock guys who, literally, there were guitar players everywhere in that place at that particular time.
Then the punk rock think started happening around ’78. I went to my first punk rock show in ’78. It was this band from New York called Shrapnel. They were playing in Detroit at this place called Bookies that we used to go to. Madonna used to go there. Sandra Bernhart used to go there.
I didn’t change overnight. But around the early eighties when the more. . . I guess the more artsy kind of punk rock stuff I liked; Magazine, Stranglers, Gang of Four, Souixsie and the Banshees, Birthday Party. And a little bit later, the New York stuff; Swans, Sonic Youth, Live Skull.
M: Do you like nay of the Southern California hardcore stuff?
D: Not much, no. I didn’t like that. I just thought it was, if anything, a regression. I didn’t like Minor Threat.
M: You didn’t think punk rock was a regression from the progressive stuff. . .
D: It was kind of a stripping away of all the excess. Like a reduction. But on the other hand there was. . .I really thought that around the early eighties was a very very fertile period for music. All the stuff that was out, it was all different, too. Devo, Pere Ubu, the Banshees, etc, etc. It was all great. I thought it was all great.
M: So you never listened to any of the Southern California. . .
D: Not at all.
M: I grew up in San Diego listening to Social Distortion, Bad Religion, TSOL, Agent Orange. . . then the ones that preceded right before them: Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Meat Puppets.
D: Didn’t mean a thing. I liked X somewhat. Black Flag somewhat. But that’s about it. Dead Kennedys. You gotta remember, growing up in Michigan, California didn’t mean a thing.
M: It’s interesting how music has these localities.
D: If anything, people tended to like more New York bands. To me punk rock was New York and London.
M: I always like the Dead Boys. To me they were always the ultimate punk rock band.
D: In a lot of ways, yea. I met Stiv in Texas years ago.
M: So anyway, you were in college. . .
D: Droped out for a couple years. Drifted. Lived in Texas a while. Came back up. Finished school. Went back down. Lived in Austin five years.
M: Is that where you met David?
D: That’s where Yow. . .he was in Scratch Acid then. The band I was with, Cargo Cult, played a few shows with them.
M: I’ve got Just Keep Eating. It’s got a psychedelic cover on it.
D: Really! You have one of those? Wow, that’s really. . .
M: It’s got a baby’s head.
D: The one before that and the one after that are better.
M: But the cover. ..
D: The cover. You can’t beat that.
Yea. That’s where I met those guys. That’s where, actually, the Jesus Lizard started, was in Austin.
M: You guys have, what, three full-length albums?
D: We have three albums and an EP, and three singles. And the first EP, the first thing we ever put out was an EP and was actually written in Austin, for what it’s worth. The Dave Sims moved up here and played with Rapeman.
M: Which I don’t know much about.
D: They weren’t around long enough. Then Yow kind of came up here.
M: Was Scratch Acid fizzling out?
D: They had broken up.
M: So the rest of you must moved up here because the other two had moved up here?
D: There was just three of us up here originally. And then we recruited our drummer, Mac, from Atlanta, Georgia.
M: How did you find him?
D: I didn’t know him. David, our bass player, didn’t know him either. David Yow had seen him play. Actually, Yow and Sims had both seen him play when his old band, 86, came through Austin.
M: What was their name?
M: Oh. I thought it was the year ’86.
D: No. It was probably more like ’88. They came through and played and David Yow just thought Mac was great, which he is. They had a few drinks together and chatted. David said that he mentioned to him, “Hey, if we ever get a chance to work together, would you be interested?” And sure enough, a couple years later, three years later, they called him out of the blue and he came up.
M: Did you have a different drummer originally?
D: No. We had a drum machine.
M: I haven’t heard much of your early stuff, so forgive me.
D: That’s alright. Forgive me. Yea, the first E.P. was with a drum machine.
M: And how was that as opposed to having a drummer?
D: You just can’t beat a real drummer. It’s just great. Especially live, too. It’s so primal. People love to see somebody hit things. It just adds so much energy. As well as a certain amount of swing that you just don’t get from a machine. Plus I’ve become more and more anti-machine. I’m not anti-technology, but it just kills me to see these people come on stage and literally push buttons and not have to work at all. And yet be acclaimed as revolutionary artistes.
M: So you don’t like Ministry?
D: At least they have guitars and drums.
M: Do they have drums in the studio?
D: Yea. They might sample them.
Did you watch the Super Bowl?
D: To me it was the most pagan Super Bowl I’ve ever seen. For one thing, the team names: The Cowboys and the Buffalo Bills. It’s cowboys and indians hacking away at each other. And then at halftime we’re entertained by a hermaphrodite. It’s like a figure throughout history, a cult hermaphrodite who comes out and entertains the centurions: Michael Jackson obviously. Of course it was canned. Of course he was lip synching. I hate fakers. I think there’s something to be said for coming out and doing it live, in front of people. For better or for worse.
M: Cris Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets was saying to me, what they like about live shows, they’re the best thing they do, because there is so much improvisation. They don’t do their songs straight. . . he hates it when there’s a band who just comes out and does their songs. There’s obviously different ways of doing it. I don’t know how you guys do it.
D: We pretty much do the songs. Slight differences here and there; slight differences. And for the most part I like it that way. All my favorite bands, that’s how they work. Because I really think that people buy your records, they want to see you live. They want to hear recognizable versions of their favorite songs. I don’t think that’s too much of a burden to ask. I really don’t. I don’t mind doing it, either. Even if that’s not what they want, I’d still do it like that. Because no matter how hard you try to play it exactly the same, it’s not gonna be exactly the same. The acoustics, somebody’s having an off night, two out of four of the guys are having an off night, three out of four, maybe you’r getting really good that night, you throw in little extra things that only the band people notice. It’s never exactly the same. There’s subtleties. I think a lot of these guys miss that point. Well, for instance, Pigface. They’re one of those bands that doesn’t rehearse. They come out. . .
M: I don’t know much about Pigface.
D: Well, I don’t want to go into it too much. It’s the same attitude that jazz musicians sometimes have. They want to come out and try and play what they’ve never played before; try to improvise; try to do all that. Basically to me it’s somewhat selfish, isn’t’ it? On the one had I suppose. . .a lot of bands, I would think, that for them the music is more fun to play than to listen to. Especially with a lot of free improv bands. They come out and just play whatever they want off of the top of their heads. Sometimes it’s interesting, maybe, to other musicians. But to people who’ve paid money and want to be entertained, because after all, I think good entertainment is better than bad art any day.
That kind of thing is much more entertaining to play than to listen to. I cannot imagine a lot of these free improv guys sitting around listening to their records. And I cannot imagine anyone else putting on, say, Derek Bailey live in Vegas. And sitting there and going, “Ah. This reminds me of. . .Right honey? [makes kissing sounds]?” No. that doesn’t happen.
M: Is this an important thing to the definitions of “what is rock?”
D: I think so. Okay. This is what we’re getting at here. I really think that music, of almost all the arts, triggers emotional responses in people stronger, and more rapidly, than anything else. How many times I’ve been driving or whatever and a song come on that, “I haven’t heard this in years.” The next thing you know the flood of memories is flying by. It can make your day. It can make your day, it can make your week. One song. What else does that? What else does that?!
M: You don’t’ think that’s some kind of training, to learn to like rock?
D: No. Not at all.
M: You grow up in a circle of. . .all your family and all the people around you were painters and then you were driving down the street and you see a beautiful painting and that can make your day.
D: Yea. It’s true. But I don’t think it’s quite the same. It varies. I was talking about this with somebody else the other day. Why are some people—and I don’t associate with these kind of people too much, cuz music is just not much of a big deal to them. The kind of people who you ask them, “What kind of music do you like?” And they say, “Oh, I listen to anything. Oh, it doesn’t matter.” It’s basically just background, just a background soundtrack to their things.
I guess what that comes from is people who they grow up in a house whee maybe their parents don’t have much of a record collection. And for them music is just not an important thing. It’s just not important to them.
Whereas I think most of the people I know, everybody in my band, for instance, to their folks music was important. They had record collections. They had tastes. Although a pretty unusual range of tastes, but they knew what they liked and knew why they liked it. For better or worse.
I couldn’t think of. . .There’s got to be a lot more people like that than people who grow up in painters families.
M: It’s so much, I don’t want to say easier, music is so much more accessible.
M: Because it can be background.
D: It’s everywhere. It is everywhere.
M: You can do the dishes. You can’t drive and look at a painting.
D: Okay. So it’s like. . .
M: What is rock?
D: What is rock? Obviously I think rock is. . .
M: You’d call yourself a rock band, right?
D: Yea. I consider myself a rock musician. For me, when I was a kid. . .Let’s go all the way back. When I was a little kid, what I saw, and I watch TV more than I listen to radio, though I did listen to a lot of radio when I was a kid. For me, from what I saw on TV. . .
M: You were born in ’58, ’59?
D: ’59. So we’re talkin’ about the mid-‘60s. From what I saw on TV, all the bands either came from England or California. You were either the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or the Animals, or you were the Beach boys or you were. . .who else?
M: The Doors.
D: No. They weren’t really a TV band. Surf bands. This TV show, Where the Action Is, I can remember seeing that. I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I saw the Animals on Ed Sullivan. And it was vivid. I was vivid enough for me when I was five years old to remember it.
Andy Gill, from Gang of Four, he saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and I remember him saying that, reading something he said where he, as a little kid, he wanted to draw a picture of what they sounded like and all he could draw was the drums and the cymbals cuz quite literally isn’t’ that what it sounded like?
For me rock is. . . ultimately I guess it’s kids music. But to me, I am definitely an example of prolonged adolescence. I am not your typical thirty-four year old guy. I don’t live in the kind of neighborhood where most thirty-four year old guys live.
On the one hand maybe I don’t have a lot of material possessions, and a lot of money in the band. I’m doing alright. But on the other hand I’m not up to my neck in hock. I’m not stuck somewhere in a job where, on the one hand you hate it, and on the other hand you can’t quit because you’ve been there twelve years.
I like to think, to quote another rock buy, to people like that, “My week beats their whole year.”
M: Who said that?
D: Lou Reed. To me rock. . . it’s the music of. . .it’s a lot of things. It’s sexual, it’s the music of sex. It’s the music of aggression. It’s the music of your imagined power. It’s the music of money, fame, violence, whatever. It’s all of that in one. And you go see, to me, the bands that I like hit you on every fuckin’ level. To go see a band where three or four guys are louder than a symphony, louder than all that noise those one-hundred or so people can make. It’s louder. ..it’s like every are in one. It’s like theater. It’s like . . .
M: So what bands? What bands do you like?
D: Right now?
M: I don’t know.
D: Most of the bands that I really like aren’t around anymore. I really liked Magazine.
See, for periods, I like certain period of bands. I really liked Siouxsie and the Banshees for certain periods. I really liked the Birthday Party. I really liked the Sex Pistols when they came out. I like the Ramones.
M: You were old enough to be conscious of the Sex Pistols?
D: I remember seeing them on TV. Unfortunately I didn’t go see them, but I. . .
M: I remember being in 7th grade, which was like 1978, and having somebody, I didn’t even know what punk rock was—I was into Kiss—somebody said, “There’s this band that sings ‘God Save the Queen’ and they tell everybody to ‘fuck off.” And I thougt that was cool but I didn’t know who they were for another three years.
D: The first rock concert I ever saw was Humble Pie and Roxy Music. It was Roxy Music’s first American tour. I saw Roxy music and Humble Pie, and Eno was playing keyboards on that tour. I saw Talking heads in 1979 and that was great.
Then I went through my techno perio. I really liked Kraftwork. I saw their Computer World tour; I guess that was ’80, ’81, ’82. I don’t know. Ultravox, too. I’m ashamed to admit.
M: That comes through in your sound, don’t you think? The Jesus Lizard sound. The abrasive. . .
D: I think so.
M: It’s very abrupt stops. It doesn’t blend in like something like the Grateful Dead might.
D: Where it just kind of flows.
M: You guys don’t flow. Not in that way.
D: I know what you’re saying. We were all very much into the punk rock scene.
What were we talking about?
M: What is rock.
D: What is rock? Rock is guitar, bass, drums, vocals. That is the four basic food groups, the primary colors, whatever.
M: Do you need a lead singer?
M: for a rock band?
D: I think so. For one thing he’s almost a million different things rolled into one. He’s almost like the court jester, the propaganda disseminator, the visual focus, all of that. The antagonizer. All of that. The other guys are playing instruments and sort of have to, occasionally, concentrate. Whereas the singer, all they have to do is remember the words. And even then, not even half the time.
M: Second, after signer, is the guitar player, as a visual focus. The lead singer usually does all the. . he’s the jester. But then second is usually the guitar player.
D: In our case, I think it’s probably the drummer.
M: I have not seen your. Are you gonna play Chicago anytime soon?
D: I’m not the jumping around type. I don’t worry about it either. The same with our bass player. We have our own little things we do, but the visual things. . .that’s not my main priority.
M: So how important is the visual in rock? In the definition of rock does the visual have to be there?
D: I think somewhat, yes. On the one hand I don’t. . .I really don’t care for bands that obviously spend a lot of time cultivating their look and their image. Where they spend more time on that then they do on what they’ve got to say and what they’ve got to play. I don’t like that.
But on the other hand, people want to see a band. They want to see them. They want to see what they look like, what they’re wearing. They want to see how they act. So I don’t fully discount it either. I’m not going to go on stage and wear a Buffalo Bills t-shirt and some sweat pants. I wouldn’t want to go see a band that did, either. On the other hand, I’m not gonna spend a whole lot of time figuring out what I’m gonna wear.
Especially when you’re on tour. When you’re playing night after night and you don’t get a chance to wash your clothes for weeks at a time. After a while, to me, it doesn’t become important.
On the other hand, if you have two groups and they sounded exactly the same, and one group looks like the Ramones or, what, the Police, and the other group looks like your dad and his buddies, obviously no one’s gonna go see them.
I think there’s a lot to be said for rock. Look at the Rolling Stones. Look how old these guys are and they’re not fat. They don’t look like a bunch of typical guys their age. They don’t look that bad. Well, Keith Richards doesn’t look good by any means, but. . .I see guys that I went to high school with and they look like they’re middle-aged already. It’s sad.
You gotta think like a kid. You gotta keep that kid’s kind of. . .and not be closed-minded.
M: So who do you think your audience is, the Jesus Lizard audience. It’s obviously not the general pop/rock audience.
D: No. There’s a big underground, alternative rock, alternative, college radio, whatever you want to call it, audience. I think by now pretty much everyone that’s into that scene. . everybody knows who we are across the country, I’m pretty sure.
M: they at least know your name.
D: They at least know who we are. Maybe they’ve seen us. Some of them buy our reords. But as far as the average rock person. . I don’t know who those people are, you know what I mean? Like the kind of people who listen to commercial rock radio. I really don’t know who. . I don’t associate with people who go see. . I don’t even know. Who’s big now?
M: That depends: Pre- or post-Nirvana?
D: That’s true, too.
M: Post-Nirvana are some bands that I think are decent rock bands. I like the Chili Peppers.
D: Chili Peppers, they’ve always been. . .I saw them live years ago. I don’t begrudge them their success.
M: And Nirvana. A decent rock/pop band. REM is a decent band.
D: I like the guys. Pete Buck’s wife is one of the nicest people. She runs the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia where we play all the time. And he’s been to our last couple shows; and some of the other guys show up. And she runs that place and she is so swell. They’re automatic for the people. I don’t have any of their records and I never listen to them, but I’m not gonna slag ‘em.
We’re gonna be doing a tour with Helmet in a month. And we’re gonna play for a lot of people that otherwise probably wouldn’t see us.
M: You’re gonna be opening?
D: Yea. There will be three bands, we’ll be in the middle.
M: Who’s the first?
D: Therapy? They’re Irish, I think. That’ll be interesting. So that’s kind of what the record company wants us to do. Get people who don’t normally buy our type of thing and try that, and that, in their words, will “move us up a notch” in sales.
M: You and Helmet will be fairly compatible sound-wise. You guys are a little more. . . deranged.
D: I think we’re a little more adventurous. We’re not nearly as rigid, I think, and formalized. But I’m looking forward to it because they are all really good guys. Being around them for a few weeks will be a pleasure.
M: How long were you a band before you. . .were you always on Touch and Go? Did you do the Austin local thing before you were signed?
D: We didn’t play out. No.
M: How did you get on Touch and Go?
D: Scratch Acid were on Touch and go. My old band, Cargo Cult, were on Touch and Go. So we knew Cory Rusk, who ran Touch and Go Rcords. Rapeman were also on Touch and Go. So we knew Cory and Lisa at that time, who ran the label.
M: And still run it.
D: Cory does. So we had kind of an inside. The fix was in from the beginning. At that time there wasn’t really anyone else who we wanted to be on. Caroline was okay. SST and. . .we didn’t want to. We didn’t really have to deal with anybody else. As for Chicago, that’s where the label is based.
M: Do you make a living off being in the Jesus Lizard?
D: Yea. The last few years. . .I’ve worked here and there, part-time jobs, but not in awhile, not in over a year. And I give guitar lessons here and there. But no, I don’t need to work.
M: How many albums did your last record sell?
D: In the states, less than 20,000. The new one is around 30,000now and it’s still selling. These aren’t big numbers by any means. But on the other hand, our overhead is so low. We record so much more cheaply than most bands.
M: Why? Because you don’t have the money or that’s the way you like it?
D: Cuz that’s the way we like it. There’s so much that I think a lot of people do that I think is unnecessary. WE don’t waste a lot of time in the studio. We don’t waste a lot of tape and we don’t. . .we play songs, you know. The next one is gonna be interesting, the next album.
M: Meaning the recording process?
D: Everything. The songs. . .basically I feel like we’ve kind of bought ourselves some time because we made a lot of money touring last year. We made decent money off the album. So we’ve got a little more time, you know what I mean, to spend on the songs. Whereas in the past we haven’t always had that.
M: I imagine you’ve at least had major labels talk to you.
M: What kind of interest have they shown in you and why, or why not, haven’t you gone to a major label?
D: Some more than others. The label interest we’ve had has gone from like very, very interested to just giving us business cards. Because the set-up we have at Touch and Go, with the percentage that we make from each album, is so much higher than anything we would get from a major label, it doesn’t make sense to me, or the rest of us, to sign to a major label. In order for me to make the amount of money I make in royalties now, on a major label, we would have to sell ten times as many records.
M: And you don’t’ think they could get that many records sold?
D: Maybe. But I think with the kind of music we do. . .no, I don’t’ think so. I don’t think. . .maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but I don’t necessarily think so. And the thing is, in order to do that your budget becomes so high that you don’t make any money. I know several people, their bands are signed to a major label, and they have less money than I do. People that work here are in major label bands. Not tonight. Rick Rizzo, one of the bar tenders, plays for Eleventh Dream Day. They’re on Atlantic. The guy that we took on the road with us our last tour, our t-shirt salesman, Doug McComb, plays for Eleventh Dream Day. They’re a major label band.
If you’re on a major label, immediately your studio cost goes way up, they won’t let you get away with an inexpensive recording, they want you to spend their money. Your video costs, your promotion, etc, etc. they force you to have a manager that takes 10% of everything.
M: You don’t have a manager?
D: No. We don’t need one. We have a booking agent, that’s it. What do you need a manager for? To tell you when to wake up? To tell you what time dinner is gonna be served? What do you need that for?
M: do you think you would need one if you were on a major label?
D: No. We still wouldn’t need one.
By the time all that is deducted, there’s nothing left. There’s nothing left!
M: Do you ever foresee yourselves being on a major label?
M: What if the hand of God came down and you were the next Nirvana? You wrote a song that went out the roof. . .
D: I’ve always thought, and this is another thing about rock, all it takes is that one song. All it takes. . .
M: You wouldn’t jump to a major label if you had “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” Touch and go couldn’t pay for that, could they?
D: You know, when we first started, they couldn’t. Now they could. This last tour Cory flew down to New Orleans and had a meeting with us to see what’s up. And he let us know that however big we get, they can handle it now. They could handle that amount of sales. So I see no reason to leave.
M: Some bands, like the Butthole Surfers, left.
D: Yea. And what have they done? What have they done since they left? Their last album was Pioughd on, what, Rough Trade? And the Rough Trade went under. That was years ago. What have they done? What have they been doing for two or three years?
Hi Rick. There’s Rick Rizzo right there.
M: From Eleventh Dream Day?
I’m not gonna slag ‘em. But where have they been for two or three years?
M: So you see no reason to go to a major label?
D: No. No. Now you just talked to Beth, didn’t you? Manager of Urge?
D: And I’m sure everything she said is 180 degrees different from what I’m telling you right now.
M: She was saying that on an independent they don’t need a manager. If a band goes to a major label, however major label executives don’t want to talk to the band. They want a middle-man or woman to deal with.
D: Is that her job now?
M: She’s the manager. She says she does everything for them. If they can’t pay their gas bill, she pays their gas bill. She says that on an independent you don’t need one, on a major you do. Because of the way executives work. And from her positions, she’s the manager, of course she has to say that.
D: She’s had music industry type jobs for a long time. The more the better for her. I don’t know. I can see the need once in awhile for a tour manager. Especially if you’re in foreign countries and need someone to interpret or someone to push people and get things done. But we don’t have one. We have a sound man and a merchandise guy.
I just think it becomes bloated. Like the Soviet Union bureaucracy or something. Everybody adding themselves to the payroll. The next thing you know there’s nothing left!
M: Are you talking about just in monetary terms, or do you think it takes away somehow from the music?
D: I think both ways. As far as economics go, on the indie level, you see where that money goes. With our band, David, our bass player, is an accountant also. He studies accounting at school. Every penny is accounted for. If we could save a few bucks here and there by not having this and not having that. I’m all for it. I’d rather have it in my pocket, than paying someone to line-up your Motel 6s for you. It’s ridiculous! To make sure that you have a Motel 6 to go to every night. Fuck it! Go do it yourself.
On the other hand, I think that’s a very pampered, coddling, childish treatment. That stuff you don’t need! Jesus Christ! Are these musicians such. . .are they infants in such a nebulous dream world that they can’t even attend to their own everyday affairs like he rest of the world’s population? In think not. Just because you happen to earn your living doing something that other people wish they could earn their living at doesn’t negate the fact that you have to deal with your own business.
M: The second half of my question was about the art part of rock, authentic rock. Do managers and all these people take away from whatever rock is?
D: I don’t think so. On the one hand, if you have somebody who’s your manager or your tour manager, stage manager, or whatever, naturally if you’re gonna be around them a lot you’re going to want someone whose tastes are similar to ours, obviously. So that when they talk to you, and they’re bending your ear, you don’t want to hear about the Lynard Skynard tour of 1976. You know what I mean? From that level I can see that.
Ultimately, if it’s an original bad, the authenticity comes from the band members. No matter who’s around you, that’s not gonna change. They’re not gonna know where it comes from.
And most rock isn’t authentic.
M: What’s authentic?
D: What is! What is?!
M: I’m asking you.
D: Almost nothing. I mean really. I think most rock, and myself included, most bands are sort of like different combinations of things and influences. Different things that really made an impact or impression on you, and even come out unconsciously when you blend those different things together. And it comes out new, it comes out sorta fresh. Very rarely does anyone come out and totally reinvent something, and totally revolutionize, and really make a big splash.
M: Who could you say? Did Nirvana do that?
D: No. I think that they came out and did something that. . .they said and did a lot of things that people wanted to hear. They were out there. They were pushed out there at just the right time.
M: They were pushed?
D: Once they got on Geffen, of course they got pushed out there. Had that record not come out on Geffen, and they had been on, say, SubPop, it still would’ve been huge, but maybe not quite as big.
M: It was one song.
D: Just one song. But a pretty good song.
M: Did they reinvent the wheel?
D: No. No. If you listen to their music, to me don’t they sound like the Beatles a bit? Don’t they sound a bit like Cheap Trick? Kind of like filtered through a northwestern sort of post-punk kind of view. But I hear a lot of Beatles in there.
Rarely do you ever hear anything, that I think, rally is unique or original. Maybe for a short while Hendrix was. Maybe for a short while the Beatles were.
M: What about the Butthole Surfers?
D: No, but I think that what they did. . .there was a couple of years there where I thought they were the greatest. Around ’85, ’86. And I didn’t see them until ’85. Yow and Sims both told me they saw them in, like, ’81, ’82. They said they think they were better then, I don’t know about that.
You gotta remember at that time everybody was either hardcore to the max, or it was English post-punk, you know, Killing Joke. And the Buttholes came out and they were, like, psychedelic and excessive in a way that I hadn’t seen since bands of, like, the late sixties. They were college guys just being dumb. Just dope smokin’, beer drinkin’, up there doing these extended rambling drug jams and there was nothing else like it at the time.
So yea. I think they had their day in the sun. But now, I don’t know. I’ve watched them change over the years. When I first saw the Gibby was like the manic front man. This giant six-foot whatever guy with a megaphone and a beer gut. And now he’s more like a technician. He just stands there and twists nobs. And musically they’re. . .
M: Generically, is there such a thing as selling-out?
D: Yea. Okay. Here’s my definition of selling-out. Selling-out is when you play, or write, music that you don’t like, strictly for money. When you’re doing it just for money and for nothing else. And even when you get to the point where you try to con yourself into thinking that’s not why you’re doing it. You try to con yourself and other people into thinking that this is valid. That’s when it’s too late. When you’re doing things just for money.
M: What about writing one song, off of one album so that that album will sell, so that you can do all this other stuff. One song so that you can keep making a living. Is that selling-out? Or maybe make one album that you know will sell so that your next album can be something off the wall. That happens, I think.
D: I don’t have a retort for that. I guess that happens all the time.
M: Another thing that happens is as a band matures in some way they get different views of selling-out. Like what you seem to be saying about the Butthole Surfers.
D: I don’t necessarily think they’ve sold-out. I think that they’re doing what they like. I just think that they’ve lost. . .what I liked about them, they’ve lost.
M: There’s something about rock being authentic, about it being in the heart and in the blood. And it’s about living in poverty, the starving artist. When you start making money you can’t sing about those hardships of life anymore, if you don’t live those hardships of life. So maybe REM isn’t singing about those things anymore.
D: I agree. They’re all living fine. They’re all living very well as a matter of fact.
M: If they’re singing from the heart. . . they can still sing from the heart, or make music from the heart, but it’s gonna be about different things.
D: Of course. I couldn’t agree with you more. Don’t you think that people’s lives just naturally follow certain basic patterns. And as you grow older the patterns change. Your priorities change. I think that you can’t, in order to make music that is still viable and valid, you cannot lose touch with what turned you on to it in the first place. The excitement. The fun. The energy. All that.
I think a lot of rock bands, when they become successful, and suddenly things change. For one thing they have the kind of money where they can insulate themselves from the people they don’t like. The kind of people that annoy them, the kind of people that irritate them. I think that irritation is one of the basic building blocks of the universe.
And also I’ve noticed with bands, when bands start using drugs, and become successful, drugs change. Their drugs change. It throws things off. They lose their vision of what it was they had.
M: They change from what, marijuana and acid to cocaine?
D: Yes. To cocaine and heroin. And they become so. . .even the kind of sound they like changed. I think that also rock reflects the drugs of the era. When I first started enjoying rock in the seventies, slow drugs were popular: marijuana, downers. . .what were they? 714s, Darvon, all that stuff. And if you think back to bands: Sabbath, slower stuff.
Then it changed. Suddenly in the late seventies, punk rock. I don’t even count disco. It sicken me to no end when people say “seventies disco.” No. “Seventies punk rock!” That’s where it came from . When coke and heroin came on. Especially coke. Coke and speed. It’s like, “no.” People wanted it stripped down, streamlined. Any sort of supernatural, or spiritual, or otherworldly impulses, “No. That does not count anymore.” Even the way people looked obviously changed.
M: Interesting that the other side of the sixties, in England, was the Mod scene. Which was all speed and uppers.
D: Yes. And people seem to overlook that, too.
M: It was a much rawer, quicker sound.
D: Yea. Of course. Real jagged. The guitar sound was thin and trebly. They way they dressed was sharp and clean. The lines were clearly defined.
M: That’s an interesting hypothesis. And now. ..
D: And now, what is it? It’s everything. It’s crack.
M: That’s more, like, rap. But what are the white kids doing?
D: A lot of white kids are into rap, metal and rap. That’s where it’s at for a lot of white kids.
M: Northwestern college kids. The upper-crust of financial kids are way into rap. The white males are way into real hardcore rap.
D: Yea. It’s a chance to feel naughty. Singing about things that they have no understanding of.
M: They don’t have to touch these things.
D: Right. They can get into it an become. . .they can get into it for awhile and then when it becomes inconvenient, get out.
M: And heroin has made a bit of a comeback, right?
D: From what I’ve seen, here and in Europe, it’s easier to get, and cheaper, than marijuana.
M: Do you think that’s a big invluence on the whole Seattle grunge thing—heroin—following your hypothesis about drugs?
D: No. Well, maybe. In Seattle. . .that’s the hydroponic capital of the world from what I’ve seen. People grow their own dope. It’s really strong, it tastes good, the whole bit.
I really think, also, that the whole big Seattle thing. . .I think a lot of people in other parts of the country—New York, Chicago, L.A.—became so serious about the whole thing. It became such a grim, serious, determined struggle to be a band that they seem to lose track that, for me, part of playing music, and watching bands, is having fun. Getting high, getting drunk, and having fun.
And I kind of got back in touch with that when I moved to Texas, when I moved to Austin. Above all, it’s entertainment. No matter. . .Some more mindless than others, granted, but. . .and that’s okay. You can take your entertainment seriously. But above all you want to have fun. Rock should be fun and exciting to listen to. The kind of thing where. . .
So much stuff I hear. . .I guess there’s something to be said about being serious and heavy and all that. But you listen to, say, Rollins or. . .I love early Swans. I thought they had something for awhile, and then they lost it, which happen to everybody. You have something for awhile and then you lose it. But by the time you lose it, you’re making more money then you did when you had it.
So they realized, “I’m making more money than I ever did at a job, let’s keep it going.”
So the Rollins band. Every song is some kind of catharsis. Every song is some kind of life struggle between some imaginary forces taking over his mind.
M: What about, say, Alice in Chains?
D: It’s too shitty, if you ask me. Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, that whole bit. Take it away. I don’t want to know about it.
D: The music is pedestrian. The music is overblown. Some guy getting all worked up over nothing. I suppose somebody would say, “Well, but life and death and ODing and. . .” Big deal. Who hasn’t talked about that? Bands since rock have talked about those kinds of things. And then you laugh it off. You go on to the next big thing.
M: You were talking about overblown lyrics, and I’m thinking of the lyrics on your last album. They’re pretty serious lyrics. Seriously, I can imagine people saying pretty disturbed, pretty, not quite. . .more disturbing than a horror movie kind of lyrics. . .they sound like he wants to do some horrible things to some people. . they seem pretty damn serious, they don’t seem like fun.
D: A lot of times the lyrics provide an atmosphere for the music, and vice-versa. And sometimes they kind of cancel each other out.
M: Even the vocal style, it’s not fun.
D: He’s not a traditional singer, no. We are not a traditional rock and roll band. It’s not sing along. It’s not good-time sing along rock. But on the other hand, you go see the live show and it’s very much a Dionysian, bacchanalian experience. At least from the singer’s point of view. The rest of us are pretty business like and keep doing what we do. But his job is to interact with the audience. That’ part of the punk rock tradition. You read the lyrics of the Pistols, or Stranglers, or whoever, and they’re not necessarily, you know, traditional rock lyrics of care, girls, drugs, boobs, food. But it’s still fun. Just different definitions of fun. It’s still funny to me.
M: Is there a difference between fun and funny?
M: I can see, in a dark way, Jesus Lizard lyrics being funny.
D: Okay. Good. Because they are.
M: But not in the way that the Knack is fun.
D: No. Granted. I agree with you.
M: I haven’t seen you live.
D: We have fun. We are not grim, serious, determined. . .
M: But to the average listener, it’s pretty grim, serious music.
D: I suppose it is.
M: When you write songs are you thinking of fun?
D: Yea. But it’s a lot of work, too. Trying to come up with things that sound good to you, and sound good to everybody else, that you think are original but not totally inaccessible.
M: You can’t be too original and be accessible, right?
D: Exactly. After awhile you can only be so original. After awhile of constantly being unusual and startling, it becomes just as boring as someone who is mundane.
I see what you’re saying, though. It doesn’t necessarily come off to most people as being, “Wow! This is good clean fun.”