We Talked to Lydia Lunch and She Didn't Seem to Like Us Very Much
An interview with the iconoclast that can out-fight, out-fuck, out-perform, outlast most of you fuckin’ namby-pamby motherfuckers reading this right now.
In 1973, 14-year-old Lydia Lunch (née Lydia Anne Koch) strutted into the brutal, drug-and-whore-ravaged, garbage-strewn, bankrupt hell that was New York City, befriended some scum-sucking punk dudes, and made the rounds in infamous fuck-fests with throngs of scenesters and musicians as a hanger-on at practice pads, shit-hole clubs, and art dives.
Ultimately, Lunch transformed herself into the iconoclastic no wave skank goddess and criminally underrated string-scraping guitarist by fronting ultra-confrontational art-noise-rock revolutionaries Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and 8-Eyed Spy, thus ripping the downtown NYC scene a scuzzy new o-ring of ginormous proportions, one that still resonates to this day.
The short-lived no wave movement ended as quickly it shot its noise load, but three decades later, Lunch trudges on. Since Teenage Jesus briefly reunited in 2008 (with Thurston Moore subbing on bass), the Barcelona transplant has stayed busy. On the music front, Lunch tours constantly with her slut-blues rock trio Big Sexy Noise, and recently she assembled a visionary murderers row to back her new project, RetroVirus—she enlisted Flying Luttenbachers' Weasel Walter, ex-Sonic Youth/Pussy Galore drum-punisher Bob Bert, and Algis Kizys, formerly of Swans. A live document has already been released via ugEXPLODE Records, and Lunch and her RetroVirus pals will be hitting New York City on May 29. Lunch, along with her partner in crime Weasel, have even formed a Teenage Jesus duo. The beastly twosome first played Paris and will soon embark on a destructo tour.
But that action is just a small morsel in Lunch's universe,since she spans both Europe and the States. She's always collaborating on spoken-word experimentalism with the likes of avant violinist Mia Zabelka, turntablist Philippe Petit, and Cypress Grove, and from May 24 to the 27 is curating the Post Catastrophe Collaborative Workshop: Artist's Workshop By And For Women. Furthermore, Lunch even has a cookbook out called The Need To Feed, A Hedonist's Guide.
Recently, Noisey enjoyed coffee with the whorish punk queen on the Bedford Avenue strip as she gloriously vented on her living in Spain, how America sucks ass, RetroVirus, The Need To Feed, Teenage Jesus, and a host of other topics that only Lunch could wax poetic over.
Noisey: You've lived in Spain for the several years. How often do you come to the States?
I've been coming to New York so much since last fall, more than in most years. I came to do RetroVirus and something with Weasel (Walter). I was working on a screenplay in Los Angeles back in March and now I'm back.
Do you feel detached living in Barcelona?
[Laughs] From what? You? From what? VICE? From what? Williamsfuckingburg? I don't feel detached. Everyone comes through Barcelona. Did I feel detached in Pittsburgh? Only as detached as I wanted to be. I like to spend a lot of time alone. I like quiet. As a writer, one of my methods is to pace a lot, chew my fuckin' inner lips, drink a lot of coffee, smoke cigarettes, sometimes do drugs, pace, pace, pace. Then, I sit down and do it. When I'm focusing on words, I need to spend a lot of time alone, and there's no place better to be alone than a city like Barcelona.
Do you like living anonymously?
Unless I walk the streets naked, I think I could live anonymously anywhere. Who should know me? I'm not that notorious. There are no wanted posters of my face. Why would anyone fuckin' know me? You think I'm much more iconic that I am. Reality check: just a small chick with a big mouth who's got more stamina than most people.
Will you ever move out of Spain?
I'm good in Spain for now. There's still so much there. It's such a contradiction—it's so multi-dimensional. Its history is so perverted, between the Inquisition and Dada and Salvador Dali. There's 3000 ghost towns, the architecture, the art, the history. It's so contrarian within itself that it feels very comfortable. I've been going there since 1984. I spent summers there, weeks, weekends, and it's always called to me for some reason. It has a joy for life and for someone that deals in the negative.
What runs through your mind when you come back here?
You suck. And I don't mean you, Brad. But you suck. It's kind of gross. I'm just gonna say it as it is. It's gross.
Do you mean only New York?
The whole country. In writing the cookbook—and as an experiment in my own near-destruction—I've seemed to have gone from superfund site to superfund site to superfund site trying to suck up as much poison as I can. From upstate New York to New York City above a plastics factory to New Orleans cancer alley to Richmond, California's petro-chemical plants to Pittsburgh. Is there any pocket of puss I have not inhaled? [Coughs violently]
Are you surprised you've made it this far?
Yes. Of course. I mean, look: when you're young, you don't think you're gonna see 20. Once you get past 30, you might as well fuckin' live because, come on, we don't live as long as sea turtles. So you might as well just go for it. Also, people die really young in my family. Like 56 or 57. My health has never been better after living in Barcelona for eight years. The food is not poisoned, the water is not poisoned, the air is not poisoned, there is no stress. So, I'm in perfect health.
Are your feelings on healthy food the reason you did The Need to Feed?
There are a few reasons. One reason is I've been cooking for people forever. Another reason is that Michelle Forbes from True Blood said I was a big influence on her. So I said, "Let's do kind of a True Blood thing." I have to cook because when you're in my decade of life and you've consumed so much poison, puss, and sex, you gotta balance that shit out. Plus, cooking is one of the most intimate things this side of sex—cooking leads to good sex. You are touching something that someone else is digesting. Your DNA is on the food they eat. It's a form of impregnation—which is basically what my entire artistic motive is, anyway. The whole goal of why I create is to either allow people who have been poisoned or contaminated to feel some relief. So cooking is just natural. Plus, cookbooks are so awful and boring. Except for Coolio's, who measures the spices with nickel and dimebags.
What's the difference between food in American and in Europe?
Cooking is something we do every fucking day. I think we need to have more respect and because in this country, you don't know. Food is treated much differently in Europe. In America, the dining room table is a battlefield—that's where the battles happen with your parents. But in Europe, it's the opposite. It's joyous, it's food, and it's good. It's health, it's love, it's lust.
I think everything is so unbelievably contaminated here. Everything. Every bit of food, ground, water, air, and atmosphere. There's so many drugs in everything. It's sad, it's depressing, it's grotesque. America has always repulsed me to some degree and that's what I've always focused on. Especially in New York, people think it's the fuckin' center of the universe; it's the fuckin' asshole of the universe! You just don't' realize it. You're a cog in the fuckin' machine. You come here and it sucks everything out of you. I left in 1990, but I left for four or five years before that, as well. It's not that nowhere is the center of the universe. This place is so tricky, so duplicitous and it's like the whole country. It's a fuckin' lie, it's the great hypocrisy. It's bullshit. Own it, you've blown it.
Well, isn't that what drew you here and excited you to come to New York City back then to begin with?
No, because it was much fuckin' different when I got here in 1977 than it is now, thank you very much! What excited me in '77 was because it was desperate, you couldn't pretend it wasn't, and you couldn't pretend you weren't inhaling poison. You weren't living under the threat of fuckin' death every time you walked down the street.
July 4th, 1977: a thousand fires in Brooklyn; two false alarms. That's what we dealt with then. There's a difference between a slow poisoning of the psyche, the soul, the physical body of the entire country or crash and fuckin' burn arson. It was much different, and why should anything stay the same? That's why I need to live in a place that's full of fuckin' light, laughter, and love. I've been here [in the States] too long [on this trip] and it does remind me of why I had some much hatred. [Laughs]
Once you get back to Barcelona, you'll be fine.
It's interesting because there's one thing I can't give up in my art—and I feel somebody's gotta talk about it—is no matter what I do, I'm always going to come back to the endless war. That's what America does: wage an endless fucking war. 800 military bases and Bradley Manning on fucking trial. I have to always go back to the endless war. I'm just the hermit on the hill with the bullhorn and the shotgun and the dog screaming before a drone falls on my fuckin' head. It's what I do and what I am. I take great comfort in that because my dog would be well trained and I'm a very good fuckin' shot. And a bullhorn? Don't even need it. The war is never over.
They always used to say what an exaggerator I was, when I first starting doing political stuff or when I did The Gun Is Loaded under Reagan. I didn't know what I was fuckin' talking about; it was just clearing off the top of my head what I felt. You go back and you can say the same fuckin' speech now—it doesn't matter.
It really doesn't matter who's in office, huh?
Beige puppet. Bushwhacker. You can't exaggerate what the situation is. That's why I have Big Sexy Noise—that's why I have to rock, because, it's like "Look. Gotta rock. Gotta cock rock." It's fun. Gotta balance. Look, I'm not pissed off and miserable every day in my private life. But my anger and hatred is focused on something on a grander scale. I don't run around in my daily life miserable. I'm pretty optimistic that… the end is near, or as Kafka said, "There is hope but not for us." As I say to Weasel, we are "happy haters." We HATE! That's why I love Weasel. He hates as much as I do. But we laugh.
You and Weasel seem to have hit it off.
I'm trying to get him to come to Europe more, get him on some of the things I do there and get his solo stuff on there because he's just gotta play more [in Europe]. I am on a mission to pimp Weasel. I started playing Europe in '77, then I moved there eight years ago because I couldn't support myself in this country, because, could I ever? I manage to support myself in Europe.
Doesn't Weasel have a family here in New York?
Yeah, but he still has to make money. He can't make money here, so if he could make money just by taking a six-hour flight, it's not a big deal. I'm not asking him to move there.
You just did a duo thing with Weasel in Paris doing Teenage Jesus songs and more gigs are coming up. How did that come about?
Look, the good thing about Europe is, again, you can do so many different kinds of things. I work a lot with the University of Chicago in Paris and I went there and did a lecture. I went there with Bibbe Hanson and then the guy that books these series for the students wanted to show Parallax Sounds—a film about Chicago's underground music scene of the 90's—and Blank City. I suggested they bring in Weasel for a no wave lecture—he's the expert and knows more than I do! At the same time, Weasel and the guy who was booking it said, "Well, why don't we do a Teenage Jesus two-piece?" I fell on the floor laughing, literally, for a day. So we've been rehearsing that. Weasel is playing drum and bass and it's kind of hilarious. Because I'm a contrarian, I'll do it and because I'll do it there for the students.
What are you calling this duo with Weasel?
Just Teenage Jesus. And the Jerk! Just because…I can. And it's just for that. I feel precious about Teenage Jesus.
You also had that "reunion" of Teenage Jesus five years ago.
Only because Thurston Moore wrote that love letter (No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980). While Thurston was sitting on my couch, he asked if I would do a Teenage Jesus reunion, to which I said, "Most of them are dead, but if you want to bow to the coat hanger," which is how I train people to play like that—he said he would—and as a contrarian, I said "Alright."
Did you enjoy that reunion?
Love/hate. I loved it because it's so fuckin' pure. But it made me so hateful to (play at) the Knitting Factory. The music is hateful and why I feel I've had no cultural significance whatsoever because instead of Teenage Jesus impersonators, we had Riot Grrl. That's not my scene.
But it's interesting to revisit it yet again because I'm playing a song like "Baby Doll"—which I wrote when I was 17 or 18—and I'm like, "What did the 13 year-old or Weasel or anyone view this music and think?" And Weasel nailed it: he told his mother, "It's like a horror movie. But it's music." Genius. That's why I work with him.
What I also liked about the Teenage Jesus reunion is that Stephen O'Malley, Paul Leary, Phil Caivano…Glenn Branca! Glenn Branca dropped to his fuckin' knees calling me—which I am not—a rock star. To have all the guitar players worshiping me made me just fucking laugh. Because I'm cute.
I saw you at a show recently with J.G. Thirlwell. Do you still speak to your no wave peers?
Those that still live. Connie Burg [of MARS] was at a recent reading of mine. Of course [I do].
And you had Thurston playing bass for you at the Teenage Jesus reunion in '08.
Thurston is one of my favorite people in the world. I've been stalking him for 30. He's great. He makes me happy. Anyone, that's still alive—I'm down, I'm here, hello.
Are you amazed that some of your peers still live in New York?
Disappointed. Shocked! Put it this way: on the Knitting Factory stage for the RetroVirus was a fuck of a lot of fun. Again, contrarian to what you would imagine—I love doing a retrospective. I'm like "Wow. I have over 300 fuckin' songs!" You gotta pull ten out occasionally.
Was RetroVirus your idea?
Actually, I wrote the intro for Caesar Padilla's book Ripped on DIY T-shirts and I saw that book everywhere and that's one of the reasons I also did The Need to Feed. So, I saw this Ripped book everywhere and I'm like "Hey, motherfucker. I gotta get a book out!" So, that was another reason I wrote The Need to Feed. Then Padilla had an exhibition last fall at the Fashion and Design Institute in Los Angeles and I wanted to bring Big Sexy Noise. But it's so complicated to get musicians over here from Europe at this fuckin' point, even if it's just two of them, and we ran out of time to do it. I really wanted to do the gig to support this thing and I was, just, well…RetroVirus! It just seemed natural. I contacted Bob Bert and Algis Kizys (Swans, Foetus), because I've always wanted to work with Bob. Bob and I had a list of guitar players 15 long. I really wanted Paul Leary, but Paul wasn't going to leave his house. And then Weasel volunteered.
Who else was on that guitarist list?
Oh, many people but they just weren't appropriate because it's too schizophrenic. Weasel sent me an email saying "Hey. I play guitar." Damn straight you do! Once Weasel said he was on board, I was completely relaxed. I completely knew he could whip it into shape.
You've never worked with Bob Bert before?
Bob and I have been very good friends for a long time and he's great. The band was just perfect. A lot of those songs were played live maybe five or six times…or never! I have such an immense catalog that it is really a lot of fun. It's fun to rock and it showcases my musical schizophrenia. It's good to put out a set that nothing sounds like anything else, but it all makes some kind of cohesive sense all together. For my own amusement and for the few bad boys and girls who may be out there. Whatever. I can't take any of it very seriously, but it is fun. And the band is fuckin' tight.
The live RetroVirus record recently released on ugEXPLODE Records sounds really good.
Come on. It's awesome. Gotta rock. It keeps the balance.
What about revisiting your back catalog in RetroVirus and Teenage Jesus? Isn't doing that the antithesis of what Lydia Lunch embodies?
I can do any goddamn thing I want! One of my favorite songs is by Thirlwell! No, because it's so fuckin' schizophrenic, it's kind of refreshing. It's not like I did it before.
You also played some gigs here in the States recently with Big Sexy Noise.
We tour Europe a lot. Cherry Red is gonna release our last album Trust the Witch and a live [thing]. Now, we are a three piece, which is James Johnston and Ian White [Gallon Drunk], and it's a raucous good time. Cherry Red is going to do a double LP/CD for September. I wish we can do more shows here, but we do Europe. It helps my hard rock addiction.
What about playing guitar?
I play crying baby slide. I have my two techniques—that's all I need. What's interesting is that in revisiting Teenage Jesus, I noticed I had a few techniques that no real guitar player could intimate—even Weasel doesn't know the secret to that. I was like, "I know the secret." The slide is one thing, but because it's a harmonic that comes from the rhythm part. That's why Nels Cline couldn't play "Orphans" and I couldn't school him because I didn't know. No one should play Teenage Jesus songs—except for Weasel. And myself.
Do you think your guitar sound was ripped off by, say, Sonic Youth?
No, not at all. Nah! Sonic Youth have their own sound. Look, even up until three years ago, some passages of that [SY live shows] are the most beautiful holocaust of sound that has been committed to the stage. Nah, I don't think they sound anything like Teenage Jesus. [Laughs] I don't think ANYONE sounds like Teenage Jesus.
But maybe their guitar aesthetics?
Nah, I do not take responsibility for the crimes of Sonic Youth. I have the sound that nobody can steal, because it's so fucking horrible that only I could invent it. [Laughs]
What do you think of Swans' current success?
Let 'em go. Swans, specifically as well, they had a sound that was just so…Swans. If it takes people 30 fuckin' years to get the fuckin' point…well, hello?! That's why I'm still alive! Maybe you'll find out what I did 25 years ago tomorrow! Duh. Whatever. Look, Jesus Lizard revisited was fucking amazing. Butthole Surfers…amazing. Bring'em back because they are better than most of the shit out there. Sonic Youth doing Daydream Nation was amazing. It was great then and it's great now. If you can recapture the sound, it doesn't matter. My thing is if you don't have a vision, don't give it a fucking sound. Lock the garage door from the inside. But if you have a visionary sound, it doesn't matter if it's 1957 or 2017. It's still a visionary sound. Look, sometimes you have to wait 'til you're dead for people to get it. I would rather hear something old revisited that sounds fuckin' awesome than 90 percent of the fuckin' mucous that's out there.
Do you listen to jazz?
No. My head is jazz. Unlike Weasel, who is jazz and has to listen to jazz. What really impressed me about Weasel was the Jack Ruby 20-year search. You gotta give the man credit for that. What stamina. Or obsession. I have so much respect for the fact that he got that out. My memories are just blotto about it, although somehow I was in there. That kind of dedication wins a lot of points. He knows like I know: nobody ultimately fuckin' cares. Except a few of us. Anyone that's got that attitude—gotta love'em. There's no more of us now; there might even be less [now] than there ever was. I mean that on many fronts: on spoken word, on people that are so fuckin' hardcore, on people that will not suffer fools gladly, on brutarians of sound, of word, of meaning. I consider myself, I consider Weasel a brutarian, and Algis is a brutarian. Certainly, the brutarians are far and few between. There's gonna be more in "out" jazz now. We're brutarians. There's not many of us and certainly there's not many women.
How about Admiral Gray of Cellular Chaos?
The anti-Karen O. Love her. She's a brutarian. Definitely in the club. Carla Bozulich, who I love, she's a semi-brutarian. But she's like an angelic brutarian. I love Carla. She's one of my favorite people and musicians, voices. There are not many of us.
Nooo, she's not in the club. If that's brutal to you…
Let's talk about playing music in Europe as opposed to here in America.
Hello! Cultural sponsorship! I do a lot of shows at museums and it's great. Galleries…free, theaters…free. There's more opportunity to do multimedia stuff. What I've been doing for the last few years—Big Sexy Noise, Cypress Grove and RetroVirus, and my solo stuff—is word-based, but with psycho-ambient music that I've created with visuals, that makes it easier to a non-English (speaking audience). Sometimes, I have backup singers—women who do Spanish, French, and Italian—which is nice to have another female entity on stage, and is totally a different energy. Sometimes, I do it with other musicians playing saxophone and drums. I'm going to bring Weasel in on a show called Sick with Desire. It's word-based but with music visuals. It just makes it easier for the European audience. But I can't even do what I naturally do; I can't think of a place I can do that in this country. I can't do what I fuckin' do. Where am I supposed to do it? It's better in a theater where you can just…sit down.
You collaborate with many different musicians in Europe.
This is an important thing: I'm a great paddle-prodder, a great encourager, and I just think that where you create is a sacred space because what leads you to create has been painful to inspire you to get there. Then the process—especially with collaboration—should be as pleasant and pleasurable as fuckin' humanly possible because that's the rebellion against reality—that's the retaliation. Even though the act of creation once is completed may be a machine gun in the audience's fuckin' head, when I'm creating that, it's like a bassinet of bliss. As a completely fuckin' infantile 50-something-year-old, you nurture them to try to land on a plain that they didn't know existed. It's a fuckin' beautiful thing.
What about when you step into a place like Death by Audio in Williamsburg?
Well, it depends what's on stage. I love doing that, come on. I went and saw Cellular Chaos and it was fuckin' amazing.
It was so hilarious. They make so fucking sense whatsoever; it makes perfect sense. Look, I'm glad places like that still exist, that's all. It's not like I'm highbrow and I've graduated. I perform in Barcelona often in a bar that's yay-big or I'll perform at a museum. It's the range where someone like myself can go between. Here, you're condemned by Death by Audio and MoMA. Try to cross that divide. I was very smart because, in '77, I went to Europe with Teenage Jesus. I saved my money—don't ask me how [hilariously motions a blow job], whatever it took to get the band to the U.K. and then stubbornly—paving the way for myself, I guess, I just kept going back and finding ways to go back. Once I went with Teenage Jesus, 8-Eyed Spy and Devil Dogs went. A lot of people from the East or West Coast didn't go. I went because I knew I had to go there.
Would you consider writing a straight, life-encompassing autobiography or memoir like Richard Hell just had published?
Everything I do is a memoir; it's based on what I've lived and trying to get to that kernel of truth underneath the boulder of fuckin' pain that threatens to crush us every moment that we are are alive. I guess recognizing as I did at a very early age—and this is why I was never an addict or a junkie or an alcoholic—is my pain isn't unique. Pain is universal. That's what reading Selby and Miller and Genet at 12 and 13 taught me: that pain is the universal condition and if you can find a way to speak from that, you are speaking to many people. Anyone that thinks that pain is fuckin' unique, they're the ones who are gonna fall into the rabbit hole. I always knew nobody really, truly underfuckingstood me because I don't want them to or I'm speaking in tri-lingual, three-prong anyway, or fourth tongue. Do I mean what I just said; am I being sarcastic, do I mean the opposite of what I just fuckin' said? Sometimes all three at once. Try to decode. There's no philosophy or dogma. "Life is pain/I am insane." "My war/you're one of them."
You've talked about how America is contaminated, and you wrote a cookbook, but you smoke.
I didn't start smoking until I was over 30. I love to smoke. I love it.
But do you think….
Of course! Am I nuts?! Am I stupid?! But I love it. It's filthy. Denis Leary. No Cure for Cancer. You gotta have some fuckin' vice! What magazine is this for?! Come on. How many vices do I not have left?! Come on. What's interesting about nicotine is that it's the only drug that can read your mind going up or down. It can pick you up; it can bring you down. That's why it's so tricky. I love to smoke. I'm healthier than I've ever been. I can out-fight, out-fuck, out-perform, outlast most of the fuckin' namby-pamby white motherfuckers reading this right now. VICE?! You want fuckin' VICE? You've come to the right fuckin' place, bitch.
RETROVIRUS is out now via ugEXPLODE, and will perform at Bowery Electric in New York on May 29; The Need To Feed is available via Rizzoli; Lydia Lunch curates Post Catastrophe Collaborative Workshop: Artist's Workshop By And For Women May 24-27 in Ojai, California