Q&A With Jesus Lizard Guitarist Duane Denison

 EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally published on 9/7/18. We are reprising it here in advance of the Jesus Lizard’s performance @ Union Transfer on Monday December 30th. Enjoy.

FrevelBY RICH FRAVEL Jesus Lizard ruled the indie noise-rock roost in the ’90s releasing six albums of elegant psychosis before breaking up at the end of the decade. And now they’re back. I chatted up J-Liz guitarist Duane Denison [pictured, above left] for a bit over the phone. Hopefully I don’t sound too stupid. Duane sounds smart — I’m pretty sure he’s a smart guy. When he’s not Jay Lizzing, he’s a librarian in Nashville. We talked about his signature line of guitars, his memories of past visits to Philly, CD’s vs LP’s, how he saved his hearing from the damaging shrill of decades of rawk and role, and more. Sadly, I’ll be missing this Lizard show, I won’t be gettin’ no Yow sweat on me… I’m certain I’ve been to all their other Philly visits over the decades. They’re def a bucket list band… so stubhub that shit if you ain’t got tix yet…. I gotta play guitar that night at Connie’s Ric Rac in my rock combo, Mt Vengeance (mtvengeance.com) I’m certain there will be plenty of tickets left for our show. xoxo, Richie “dynamite hot flash” (thee FRAVE) Fravel

PHAWKER: Hey, this is Rich Fravel. I’m here in Philly. You got me okay?

DUANE DENISON: Yeah, yeah, hey. This is Duane. I’m here in Nashville.

PHAWKER: Right on. I’m recording this, so heads up.


PHAWKER: And just a heads up, I don’t do this. I’m a rock fan. Jon Valania [How many times do I have to tell you it’s MR. VALANIA to you?1? — The Ed.] who runs Phawker, the site, thought I’d be a good guy to talk to you for a few.Jesus Lizard Down

DUANE DENISON: Oh, that’s fun.

PHAWKER: I’ve got some questions written out, but don’t expect, you know, professional interview mojo from me.

DUANE DENISON: Okay, well, you won’t get professional from me either then.

PHAWKER: [laughs] Okay, I’m going to be kind of reading from my script and going through my questions, but you can go on any tangent you want. We can make this short and sweet, or as long as you got time for. Whatever works.

DUANE DENISON: Yeah, we’re just getting set up here, so yeah. I’m fine.

PHAWKER: Ok cool. Duane Denison from The Jesus Lizard you’re coming to Philly for a sold out Union Transfer show on September 8th. You’ve played in Philly at least a dozen times or more in various groups. I was working at – way back when – at The Khyber and at the Troc doing sound and stage work in the early ’90s. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen The Jesus Lizard play. What’s your favorite Philly memory, if you can remember one?

DUANE DENISON: Laughs There’s too many. Philly — I’ve always liked coming there. It’s a hip, cool, obviously old East Coast town. It’s just, you don’t get the — you don’t get the ego and the attitude that you sometimes get in places like, oh, I don’t know, New York.

PHAWKER: True that [laughs].

DUANE DENISON: Not that I’m dissing them. God, I played there with not just The Jesus Lizard, but Tomahawk and Hank3. Probably others. I like the funky, old venues. Obviously The Khyber, and then I love playing The Troc, and it was on the edge of what would have been Chinatown, right? Is that all still there?

PHAWKER: Yes, it’s in the heart of Chinatown, still doing what they were doing back then. Union Transfer kind of picked up the slack with — it’s kind of a much better room than some of the smaller venues with real deal sound, and professionals that show up on time. So I think you’ll have a little different than shows were in the 90s.

DUANE DENISON: Yeah, yeah. I just like it. I grew up just outside of Detroit, and so, you know, I’m used to that kind of a gritty vibe, kind of a funky, old school kind of feel to things, and I like that. No, it’s just we’ve got some great fans from there over the years, and it’s all just such fun. Some of it I can’t even talk about [laughs].

PHAWKER: Good! Jesus Lizard always seemed to be an unsustainable beast of a band, at leastJesus Lizard Down in my mind that would eventually just evaporate and disappear, but here you are on the road again. A lot of my friends have seen you tell their younger friends, you know, you’ve got to see them live. The albums are cool, but it’s a must-see-live event. Do you ask yourself often how much longer can you do this, or is that just not a question that comes up?

DUANE DENISON: It doesn’t come up. Well, none of us really do music totally full time anymore, which is kind of nice, so we don’t have to do it all year ‘round like I did for, you know, for 20 years or so. Not necessarily with just The Jesus Lizard, but with others, you know, 20-25 years of full time music. Which was great, and I’m lucky to have been able to do that, but as you get older the wear and tear of just traveling alone can be kind of tiring, and tiresome, and hard on your system. So to be able to do it this way, where, you know, maybe once or twice a year we go out and play a few shows and have a great time is really nice. I could do this forever. And it’s gotten to the point where like, you know, like, we’re rehearsing the next couple days at a nice, professional rehearsal studio here and, you know, I’m not giving myself a hernia carrying gear upstairs.

PHAWKER: [laughs] Right?

DUANE DENISON: You know all that kind of thing that when you come up from, you know, the independent or underground or punk rock world, you know, everybody does all that stuff themselves, and to be able to do it where you’ve got other people doing some of the heavy lifting, literally, is great. And other people are booking the shows and, you know, doing all that, so, and we’re flying into things, and, so, you know, we could do this for as long as we want really, or as long as there’s a demand. Obviously when it gets to the point where, you know, playing this kind of music— eventually you reach an age where it doesn’t seem real anymore. Where it doesn’t seem like how could you possibly seem either relevant, or how does it seem real when you’re that age and still doing that kind of things. That becomes questionable, but, I mean, look at other people. I mean there’s bands that are way older than us. An obvious an example is going to be the Rolling Stones, but other bands play and sound great, whether it’s Deep Purple or whoever, so, you know, I think some of the people who I considered heroes when I was young, like David Byrne for example. He’s out touring and playing and doing his thing, so, you know, if you’re a real musician and that’s what motivates you, and that’s what gets you excited and wants you to keep playing and developing, then that’s just what you do.

PHAWKER: I was at the last show in Philly and for me, it seemed like the early 90s. All the same faces from back in the day were there. All the pieces were there. Actually, the band was maybe even a little tighter than it was back in the day, but—Jesus Lizard Down

DUANE DENISON: Yeah, in some ways.

PHAWKER: When you look at the audience now what do you see? I’m most curious. Do you see that same guy from Philly who’s always in the front row? Is he still there, or is he that guy with his kid now, staring at you? Do you recognize people from days gone by? With a little less hair and a little bigger belly?

DUANE DENISON: Yeah, all of the above. But it’s a mix you know. In the old days it would be people who more or less looked like us: people in their 20s or 30s. Hipsters making the scene, or other musicians checking us out. That kind of thing, and now, you know, it’s a mix of young and old people. People do bring their kids when they can, and then people who didn’t see it the first time but they heard about it, and so it’s kind of gratifying, really. And good for them bringing your kids to see, you know, an honest to goodness rock band.

PHAWKER: I bring my daughter who’s 13 — no, she’s 14 now, to shows once in awhile and she stares at me like, ‘Why the fuck am I here? Why are we doing this?’ But it kind of sinks in. I took her to Paul McCartney a few years ago and now, well, now she saw a Beatle, and whether she gave a shit or not, she can say she did 30 years from now. So be it.

Alright, guitar gear. This is a long, rambling sentence I wrote here, so hopefully we can pick and choose what makes sense out of it, but I recall the early Jesus Lizard shows seeing you with a strange aluminum guitar. At the time I didn’t know what it was. It seemed to be a Midwest thing. I learned it was a Travis Bean with an aluminum neck and body. I picked one up at a thrift store and just dicked around with it a little bit, but the balance was awkward for me. I’m just a Strat player, so it felt awkward. You now have a signature model, Duane Denison Chessie made with— you collaborated with the Electrical Guitar Company. Tell me a little bit about that relationship and tell me a little bit about what guitar you’re bringing out on the road with you?

DUANE DENISON: Yeah, well, it’s pretty simple. You pretty much nailed it. Yeah, I play Travis Bean guitars for most of the time. Not always. I’ve played other stuff too but that was the signature one, and ones that I recorded most of the albums, like Liar and Goat, with mostly Travis Bean stuff. Yeah it was actually, those had wooden bodies with aluminum necks, and then the pick up was set in aluminum. But yes, they are kind of heavy and they are kind of awkward, and eventually when I moved to Nashville I sold those and played other things for awhile, and Kevin Burkett who runs the Electrical Guitar Company approached me about making me aluminum guitars, and he does all aluminum, and so I was able to collaborate on that. Yeah, and we got my model. Semi-hollows, and we tried to get the weight down and tried to get the balance improved without sacrificing any of the sound. He told me the characteristics, and so I think we did it. He also has, he now has the licensing deal to make Travis Beans again.

PHAWKER: Wow, cool.

DUANE DENISON: But I find as I’ve gotten older my back and my neck just can’t play them anymore. The weight and the balance just throws me off, so I prefer the electrical Chessies, and that’s what Jesus Lizard DownI’ll be playing on this tour. I’ll be playing a white one, and I have a yellow one too that I might break out.

PHAWKER: Cool, I know — I think your model had a Bigsby on it?

DUANE DENISON: Yeah, uh-huh.

PHAWKER: Is that your — I don’t recall lots of whammy action on your stuff, but maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

DUANE DENISON: No, but it’s just nice to have. It’s nice to have a kind of – you can kind of make a chord waver and do things you can’t normally do.

PHAWKER: I gotcha. What amps are you bringing, and what are you practicing on?

DUANE DENISON: I’m just gonna use rented Marshalls. JCM 800s. There’s a consistency to them. In the old days I would play Hiwatts. I like a little more grind now. You can just overdrive the Marshalls at just a little bit lower volume. And then for practice I typically use PC electronics, their G force and a Midi controller. For somewhat of a different pre-amp and delay and chorus and tremolo.They’re very simple, but very high quality, great sounding rig.

PHAWKER: Okay, tell me a bit about battle wounds. From years on tour you always seem to be the stoic maestro overseeing the chaos of David Yow, but surely some shrapnel has come your way.

DUANE DENISON: [laughs] Oh God, everything, everything.

PHAWKER: Yeah? You name it?

DUANE DENISON: There was a tour in- we were in Europe. Probably in ’96 and I pinched a nerve in my back, and right before the show, right before a big festival in France, and I had to play, and I was hurting so bad it was making me nauseous, and I told them, keep a stretcher by the side of the amp in case I pass out. And I made it through the show. I hardly moved, and I was just sweating with pain the whole time, and then fortunately we had two days off in a row where I could just lay still, but I was just hobbling for the rest of the tour. But I finished the tour, and then, you know, came home, and got physical therapy and all that, and whatever. It’s manageable. It never goes away. That kind of stuff never goes away. So that was the first real thing along that line, and then about 10 years ago I got a hernia carrying a cabinet up a flight of stairs and it was the same thing. It was right during the middle of a tour. I kept going for a few weeks and eventually I was just limping, and so then I went to see a doctor on a day off, and he said, man, you really need to go home and get some surgery. And so I did, it took months to sort of recover from that, and it still aggravates me from time to time. I’ve had my knee kind of bothers me, well a lot of it is just aging, you know? As you’re getting older your joints bother you.Jesus Lizard Down

PHAWKER: I turn 50 this year. I hear you, you know. I hear you loud and clear.

DUANE DENISON: What you do for a living or what you do in your spare time. You know, my knees bother me. My wrist, elbows, joints sometimes bother me. Neck and shoulder pain. You work out, do your stretches, get a massage every so often, see a physical therapist if you need some more help and you get through it.

PHAWKER: How are your ears? Any permanent ringing?

DUANE DENISON: Ears are great, no, my ears are good. I’m always surprised at that, because we were a very bright band, and we were loud and bright. Lots of symbols. A Travis Bean through a Hiwatt is pretty bright and David [Sims]’s bass sound is pretty bright. But no, my hearing is really good. I think most of that is because I started protecting my ears back in the 90s. I wore earplugs and things. I don’t have any custom stuff. You know, just better quality over the counter, and then I almost never listen to music on headphones or buds. I almost never. And I think that’s what hurts people’s ears more than anything. Everybody’s got earbuds. Everybody’s in their own little world, listening to music by themselves, and I like to listen to it in the air. I like to hear it whether it’s in the car or at home, in my home in my music room, or whatever.

PHAWKER: Yes, if we didn’t have speakers in our house, old school speakers, I know my daughter would not know what they were.

DENISON: My daughter’s the same way. She’ll take a shower and she’ll be playing it on the Bluetooth. She thinks it gets better, but the sound gets worse.

PHAWKER: The laptop speakers are how people are fashioning their records for nowadays, which is a shame. When you’re not rocking, are you indeed a librarian?

DUANE DENISON: [laughs] Yes. I work for the Nashville library system. That’s been going on for a couple years. I was full time music for decades, and then I just kind of thought well, the time between projects is getting longer, right? And there’s no excuse for me not doing something else, and working, you know, 40 hours a week that much, really isn’t. And I still have plenty of time to practice. Plenty of energy left. Time and energy left to work on music. And, you know, I save up my vacation time and whatever else and then go play shows and the people I work with or work for are totally cool with that, and they know, you know. They know my background and what the deal is, so it all seems to work out.

PHAWKER: So they get it. Is it rewarding? Do you like working with the kids, and helping a person out that needs just a push in the right direction?

DUANE DENISON: Yes it can be tiring and stressful sometimes, you know. People can be difficult, you know. People, you know. It’s a free service that we’re offering and yet people. There are some people that just go through life looking for things that— I don’t know.

PHAWKER: My ex was a librarian, so I got some experience from her first hand.

DUANE DENISON: Yeah, so you know, and anyone who does any kind of job where you’re dealing with people knows what that’s like. A lot of the time I’m not dealing with people in that way, so I can just do other things. You know, looking through things, looking things up, going through donations, you know, that kind of library work where you don’t wait on people, so it balances out. It’s fine.

PHAWKER: And you get health insurance and all those must-have things?

DUANE DENISON: Oh yeah. A benefits package you can’t beat. For years, you know, when you’re a musician you’re basically a self-employed contractor.

PHAWKER: Right.Jesus Lizard Down

DUANE DENISON: So of course you’re paying all that yourself. And you know that going into it. But it’s nice not having to pay for that stuff.

PHAWKER: Right. After this September run of dates, are there any plans for the future?

DUANE DENISON: No. There are no plans beyond this. There are no plans. This kind of came up fairly quickly. We had an offer — what drove this — we had an offer to play the Riot Fest in Chicago which is a big thing, and that is kind of what pushed everything else. Well, if we rehearsed and get it together for that, we might as well play more shows, and so we put the word out, and everything’s just kind of fell into place from there.

PHAWKER: Selling out Philly, you know, may be a bit more of a challenge than it was way back when but that seemed to happen very quickly this time, so that’s all good. Most of the shows have sold out or doing well?

DUANE DENISON: Yeah, I think maybe Austin is a bigger venue, and I don’t know if that one’s sold out yet or not, but, you know, it’s getting there, you know.

PHAWKER: Yeah, no, it’s great — great to see that you’re still going strong and people wanting to see it live. Let’s see. A couple other kind of wrapping up questions for you. Your favorite Jesus Lizard song, what would it be?

DUANE DENISON: Off the top of my head there’s one called “Then Comes Dudley,” which is kind of one of our more signature songs. Kind of a very definitive Jesus Lizard song in that you’ve got this bass and drum line and the guitar comes kind of chiming in, and there’s some odd sort of guitar sort of turnarounds in it. That one’s kind of a classic, and then “Boilermaker” is fun to play. It’s fast and it’s got different parts. Single line chord stuff, some arpeggiated stuff, kind of a challenge to play. A couple songs like we just did that mash-up of Chrome songs. It’s just called “Chrome” and there’s a solo in there that I can cut loose a little bit.

PHAWKER: Are they a part of the current set?

DUANE DENISON: Oh yeah, and “Bloody Mary.” That’s one of our earliest songs that we ever even practiced together. I’d like to think of it as family distinctive arpeggiated things and David Yow’s vocal performance is really good.

PHAWKER: You probably hear this a dozen times a week, but I don’t even have to think about it, but at least once a month for an hour words from “Mouth Breather” just pop into my head for no good reason. It’s just there once in a while.

DUANE DENISON: [laughs] Well that one people just like to sing the words, “I like him just fine be he’s a mouth breather!”

PHAWKER: [laughs] Are you a record collector, yourself?

DUANE DENISON: No, I have an okay collection of records, and I have more CDs than albums. I think because for a long time I was moving around a lot, you know, from Michigan to Texas to Chicago to Nashville, and vinyl takes— I’m not really, like, a vinyl junkie. I actually think CDs sound better.

PHAWKER: I’m with you. I go to the thrift store once a week and I’ll buy 20 CDs for a dollar, you know, and I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding me. This is insane.

DUANE DENISON: I still occasionally buy CDs. I have a CD player at home and in my car and I use it. I also have satellite radio package in my car that I like, and I have the turntables also so, you know, it’s covered, but I’m not like, no, I’m not a collector. I have a fair amount of stuff that I genuinely like. I don’t collect things just to collect them to put it that way

PHAWKER: Is there anything current that you’re kind of grooving to lately?Jesus Lizard Down

DUANE DENISON: Lately I kind of go between what I’m hearing on my pet radio stations. It’s funny I’ve got a satellite radio package with 300 radio stations, but I only listen to 4 or 5 of them consistently. Classical stations, 40s swing stations, couple of rock stations, maybe the outlaw country station, and a reggae station. And that’s what I listen to. And then things come through the library, they catch my eye. A CD or an album. For instance, the other day there was a new soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead. I forgot, it was a new movie, I can’t remember… Daniel Day Lewis. I can’t remember the name of it.

PHAWKER: Phantom Thread.

DUANE DENISON: That’s it! Phantom Thread, yes.

PHAWKER: Any plans for a comprehensive retrospective everything-we-ever-did box set.

DUANE DENISON: No, we did that more or less in 2009.

PHAWKER: The singles, right?

DUANE DENISON: Well the singles, and then we reissued the whole back catalogue, and they had — it was remastered, and it had some improved packaging. It had a lot more expansive liner, notes, and photos and stuff, so I feel like we kind of have already been there. And then we did that book that came out on the Akashic called Book. So it’s all pretty well-chronicled at this point.

PHAWKER: That is kind of it, unless you got some parting words you want to share with the fine folks from Philly.

DUANE DENISON: No, I’m sure people in Philly are tired of hearing people talk about Ben Franklin, and the Liberty Bell, and Pat’s vs. Geno’s, and you know who’s from Philly who I like is Sam Fogarino from Interpol.

PHAWKER: Oh, he’s a Philly guy.

DUANE DENISON: Yeah he is, and I was with him one day in Philly, playing with his — he had a side project Empty Mansions and he took me to a different cheesesteak place that was neither Pat’s nor Geno’s. He said this is the real thing, and it was really good.

PHAWKER: Everyone’s got their hidden spot. At least in Philadelphia— got their own cheesesteak spot that’s the best.

DUANE DENISON: I remember playing the Troc one night, and I having nothing to do , and this is the only time that I’ve ever gone to a fortune teller and she gave me a stone. A special stone that would protect me from evildoers and people who wish me harm, and I swear to god I kept it in my flight case. I still have it, but I don’t use it. My little beat up flight case that I used for years, and I do think it did protect me, because nothing truly bad ever happened. The kind of catastrophic thing that often happens to musicians or people who travel a lot — it never really happened to me. So maybe I’ll go back there when I’m in town.