The Jesus Lizard's Mac McNeilly
Published Nov 26, 2009For countless fans, the Jesus Lizard are one of the most significant and influential rock'n'roll bands of the last 20 years. Formed in Austin, TX in the late 80s, the quartet consist of Duane Denison, Mac McNeilly, David Wm. Sims, and David Yow and, after relocating to Chicago, these four men went on to inspire legions of serious music fans with their high-level musical proficiency, which generated an unprecedented and unlikely blend of melody with a genuinely terrifying sound borne of crazed vocals, lyrical imagery, and ferociously propulsive rhythms. While they broke up in 1999, ten years later the original line-up have returned for a full-scale tour, which coincides with the release of their entire catalogue on Touch and Go Records; the albums Head, Pure, Goat, Liar, and Down have all been re-mastered by Bob Weston and Steve Albini and are available now with bonus tracks. The Jesus Lizard recently played their first Canadian shows in a decade and drummer Mac McNeilly chatted with Exclaim! just prior to their Toronto stop.
Well, the obvious question about this Jesus Lizard reunion is simply why? What prompted the band to reunite?
Well, it started a while back, probably last summer. Mike Patton was curating a festival, All Tomorrows Parties in England. He asked Duane, our guitar player, "What would it take to get the Jesus Lizard back together for a show?" and Duane said, "Well, lemme see; I'll ask the guys." That's what started the communication between us. That was originally gonna be for December of 2008 and we couldn't quite get it together for that particular date, between everyone's schedule. So we told Mike that, and the ATP organizers said, "Well, we have another one coming up in May in England; can you do that one?" and that seemed like it was very do-able. From there, this whole reunion thing that has lasted most of this year kinda blossomed. It really was just gonna be these ATP shows in the west of England and then possibly a London show while we were over there. Once that got going and the word got out, we started getting a lot of feedback from people that said, "Well, hey would you do this or this?" It just seemed like the right thing to do; keep it to a limited amount of time so it remained a special thing. It just seemed like the time to do it, y'know?
It can be tricky because people used to be more cynical about reunion tours but now they seem to be happening more and more. Were you ever conscious of that or worried about how you might affect the legacy of the band?
I think all of us in the band were very aware that, if we did this, we didn't wanna do it halfway. We didn't wanna be the old guys that got up onstage and were creaking and falling over and having people say, 'Well, they're nice guys but they just can't play like they used to,' y'know? We said 'We're absolutely not gonna do it if it's gonna be something like that.' So, in order to do this the right way and for us to have a good time, we were determined to get back together to rehearse and get in shape to where we could present these songs the way that they're supposed to be played, which is the way we were doing it in the early 90s. So we did quite a few rehearsals to get back into shape and up to speed. We remembered the songs, we found out, but to play them at that level of energy consistently from the beginning to the end of the set, took a lot of work. Once we got there, it wasn't really a problem; everything else took care of itself.
You're an original member of the Jesus Lizard and were the only one to ever leave the band while it was active. What exactly prompted you to quit?
Well, at the time all that happened, there were many things going on with the band. From my own perspective, I had two very young kids at home and I was finding we were gone so much of the time ― some times out for six weeks at a time for these tours ― I was missing a lot of my kids growing up. I found that it was very hard to have these two different lifestyles ― band on one hand and then going back home on the other, swapping out between them. I felt like I needed to cut back on the touring and I think the band felt like, "We're still riding the wave going up." There was more demand for shows and we were making more money. At the time, we owed Capitol another record, so there were a lot of demands on the band. From the other guys' perspective, they really didn't wanna slow down, and I really couldn't increase the time we spent on the road. So, it wasn't anything but a timing issue. I felt like I had to make a choice between family or the band, and I chose family. That was really most of it right there and I wasn't very happy because of that situation. It was very hard to stop because I didn't really wanna stop. It was, at the time, the only choice that I felt I had. I also had a lot of personal issues that I needed to work on myself and it was all those things, and probably other ones too, that just kinda crystallized at one point. Something had to give and I think that's why I ended up saying, "I have to bow out right now."
Did you follow the band's music after you left?
Not much to be honest. It was really a hard thing to do, to stop that. If I could've found a way, at the time, to make it work, I would've kept doing it. It wasn't anything like personal or musical differences or anything like that. I absolutely love those guys; we were very much like brothers and still are. So, it was hard and because it was that hard to stop, it was hard for me to want to follow them and pay attention to it because it was just too much pain. It was a hurtful thing.
Were you surprised that they actually continued without you?
No because, to be fair to them, they felt obligated to keep going. Like I mentioned with Capitol and them owing one more record, there were already a lot of tour plans pretty much in place that they felt obligated to continue on with. I think it was a hard position for them, as well as it was for me. So, there wasn't really an easy, clear answer on that.
David Yow once told me that the Jesus Lizard wasn't a real band after you left and that they were kinda just going through the motions to fulfil their contract with Capitol Records; why do you suppose he would say such a thing?
Well, I think that we went through so much as a band, the four of us. From the point where I joined them ― when they decided they wanted to be a real band more than a project, and actually get a drummer, go out on the road, and do this ― to the point when I stopped, we had gone through and shared so much as a struggling band. We did have a leg up because David Sims had been in Rapeman and both he and David Yow had been in Scratch Acid, so there was some name recognition to where it got people curious about the band in the beginning. But we definitely worked our way up from small clubs and sleeping on floors and driving in the winter in a van with no heat ― things like that. We worked really hard at it and I think going through all that together really makes you very close as people as well. We had a musical language between us where, we felt like for that period of time we were together, it was relatively easy to create and make music we wanted to hear in a pretty honest way. So, I think maybe that's why it didn't feel the same [and wouldn't have] if any one of us would've left. If the other three had continued on, I can see why he would say that because it was very much like, "This is the thing ― the four of us."
Well, I must say, after you left it wasn't the same going to see the band either, for me as a fan. That's not to disparage the drummers who followed you; it just wasn't the same.
Well, it's hard to fill the shoes of someone who's been a part of it for that long. Having to play their parts ― it's just not going to be the same.
It's literally not the same, sure. But the vibe and spirit wasn't the same. Oh well, it's back now, so that's good!
Yeah, it feels great and really comfortable. Even though we didn't speak real consistently throughout the years, when we got back together, it was really as if no time had gone by. We just picked up right where we left off. It was very much like seeing family; we were that close as people that it wasn't strange or weird or anything.
So how has the reunion tour been going; what's it like to be in the Jesus Lizard and playing these songs again?
It's been great. I've been telling people it's like opening a present every night. That I get to go up and do that, it's really a gift is what it is. Especially for me because, seeing as how I didn't wanna stop when I left the band and felt I had no choice, it's a great way for me to go back and re-write that ending for myself or at least finish some shows in a positive way and have it all not feel like it's self-destructing for me. It's just amazing to play these songs again. It's kinda strange because some of them are 15 years old or older, but people still seem to like them a lot. We're getting a lot of fans that were there when we went through the first time in the '90s, and they're still intense. I'd say for the number of people we had as fans, they may not have been a huge number of people spread out, but the ones we had were fairly loyal and intense. Plus, to be able to do it again, we're seeing some people who were too young to see us the first time or maybe didn't know about the band and have found out about it since. So, we're seeing a mix of older fans that know the band really well and younger ones who are coming up and saying, "I'm so glad you guys could do this because I was too young to see you the first time around but I'd heard about you." So it's nice to be able to reach other people too. None of us are pretending we're back in the early '90s again but the songs seem to have a lot of energy and punch to them. I'm too close to say how relevant they are but they feel relevant. We don't feel like we're playing some old-fashioned songs or anything like that.
In their own way, they're kind of timeless actually.
I would hope they would have some element of that.
Has there been any discussion whatsoever about the band writing new music together?
That question has come up quite a bit in interviews and even just casual conversation. I know there're no plans to write any new music but at the same time, we're not saying never; we're trying to stay open to that. I think Duane put it really well when he was asked that question. He responded by saying that, as long as that type of thing ― writing new songs ― were to come about in a real honest way without there being some other motive to it, then I think it would be justified. But again, there are no plans to do that right now. We wouldn't want to be the band that keeps coming around ― "Here they come again" ― because I think then it would diminish the quality of it to a degree, or at least the perception that it's something special.
You mean to keep coming around again to play shows without a new record?
Yeah, and with no current music, we wanted to put a limit on how long we would do this, and I think that's probably a good thing. Even though for me, I could do this for quite a bit longer; it's fun. But I think you start to get diminishing returns after a while, especially for bands that reunite like this.
Right, but there is a possibility.
Well, yeah. We've learned to "never say never" because strange things happen. We never thought we'd get together again. Several years back if you were to ask one of us if this was gonna be a possibility, I'm sure we would have all said "Probably not."
And are you guys playing songs from [final albums] Shot and Blue?
We're not playing any from Blue. We're playing a couple from Shot but it's mostly from Head, Goat, Liar, and a couple from Down. So, I'd say the concentration is really Goat and Liar and we're having a good time with it. We've found a set list that works and we sorta change it up a bit, but we've found a sequence of songs that we all like and throws the energy out and keeps it going. But it changes slightly from night to night depending on what we want to do.
What about you: Is there a band that you'd like to see reunite?
That's hard to say. I don't know what I could tell you as far as that goes because I think some times that can be a scary thing. Like you mentioned before, some times it's not so good; some times you should really let that band stay broken up (laughs), because when they come back around, often times it's not what you would've hoped and it can't be the same as it was back then and there's gonna be some differences. Instead of bands reuniting, I would rather transport myself back in time to say, around 1970, where I could see bands like Grand Funk Railroad and early versions of Deep Purple and Captain Beyond and bands like that. I got to see Black Sabbath in '74 and that was pretty good; that was right around the time Vol. 4 came out. But y'know, I think I was born a little late sometimes. Like the late '60s; I would've been a good candidate to see live music around then. I like some of the psychedelic stuff that was going on and the really hard rock that was first starting to come out then.
So, I'll say that as my answer, as opposed to having any bands reunite. Actually, I'm sorry I missed Mission of Burma. That's a band that I would like to see that's currently playing that I did not get to see the first time around when they were doing their thing. They just played this Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, Texas and I missed them because I had to fly home early.
That's a drag; I just saw them a couple of years ago and they were fantastic.
Yeah, I'm sure. See, that's a band that, to me, should be playing again because I loved the records and everything.
And what about the Jesus Lizard re-releases; you must be happy with them.
I am and I think the sound is really good on them. I think they're improved without stepping on the original sound. Both Bob Weston and Steve Albini worked really hard in trying to preserve what was good about the originals without changing too much. I think they just enhanced the right things and it does sound better. You get liner notes and pictures that weren't there before so it's a good package. We're trying to give some good value here.