Lydia Lunch is a performance artist, writer, actress, and in my definition a rock star. She was part of the No-Wave movement in the 80s in the company of Swans, Sonic Youth, Richard Kern and countless other creative folks. She then became part of an early underground scene that included The Birthday Party, Foetus and X and has since become her own amazing entity.
I count her records Honeymoon in Red, 13.13, Shotgun Wedding, and Drowning in Limbo as classic and permanent fixtures in my rotation.
To call her an influence would be an understatement. From her DIY and fearless approach to her use of trash iconography and her choice of collaborators she is a touchstone in everything I do. I count her among John Waters, Robert Rauschenberg, Cornell Woolrich, Lenny Bruce and Pee-Wee Herman as the people who speak to my work in every form.
I am especially proud that this interview is included on her wikipedia page.
What follows is the actual interview as it appeared online, complete with the two photos she gave me permission to use at the time.
Since she nearly single-handedly spearheaded the No-Wave movement in 1976 by forming Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Lydia Lunch has been a performance artist stunning in her creativity, confrontational vision, and longevity. In the 80’s she collaborated with such underground legends as Richard Kern, Nick Cave, Foetus and Die Haut, and recording some classic solo work such as Queen of Siam and In Limbo. The 90’s found her continuing her collaborations with such luminaries as Exene Cervenka and Kim Gordon as well as kicking her spoken word assault on the world into high gear. This new century finds her working on installations, illustrated word and a new record Smoke in the Shadows featuring Nels Cline, now of Wilco. I spoke to Lydia Lunch this past spring from LA and she had quite a bit to say.
Greg Trout: I want to start by telling you that your 1992 release Shotgun Wedding is one of my all-time favorite recordings.
Well Rowland Howard is just unbeatable.
Greg Trout: I agree. I wish he worked more.
He's just such a slow worker. When I did Shotgun Wedding I had to import him and it's just so hard to pull music out of him but when it does its just beautiful. He's truly one of the best guitar players in the whole world. I wish he could crawl out of whatever funk he's in down in Australia and do more work.
Greg Trout: In the reviews for Smoke in the Shadows a lot of mention is made that is a sort of return to Queen of Siam. Do you think this is true or is Queen of Siam just an easy reference?
I don't know why people think Queen of Siam is such a landmark. Maybe it was the time in their life that they heard it but if you go back and listen to it, all of side one is basically childish, perverse sort of Edward Gorey-esque nursery rhymes. The other side is this jazz influenced big band kind of a thing, but people always think of the big band stuff. Its very duplicitous to me and now with Smoke in the Shadows, its very noir, I am using a lot of Jazz instruments but I don't think it's a jazz album and I don't even know where the jazz comparisons come from, I think every song Is very different. I don't know I just think people are fuckin' lazy. I don't think Queen of Siam is an easy listening record, I think the first side is very perverse. Maybe they are just in awe of the mastery of Robert Quine. It takes a diehard to know what I have done for the past 28 years and each record really does try to contradict what has come before. I think that if anyone didn't know what I did than they would think every record I did sounded like the Agony is the Ecstasy, which I am not even sure you are familiar with, it was my first illustrated word, spontaneous, on the spot performance which was atrocious to more ears.
Greg Trout: The other side is Drunk on the Pope's Blood, right?
That performance was supposed to be 13.13, which is one of my favorite recordings, but the band was so neurotic and irritating that I had to drop them before the European tour. That was the first illustrated word work of my career and I can assure you, Nick Cave could not believe his ears and hated it. He never understood what I did, you know Rowland and I would do these spontaneous experimental performances opening for the Birthday Party and other than Tracy Pew the rest of the band couldn't even understand what it was all about. But, and this contradicts Smoke in the Shadows, I have never been one to work with a safety net and if you are going to go out and spontaneously combust in front of the audience you will either come up with the best fucking thing anyone has ever heard or the worst fucking piece of shit anyone including yourself has ever been subject to. To me its another notch in my fearlessness and it opened the door for me to do much more illustrated word in a very spontaneous way. The live set for Smoke in the Shadows which the U.S. wont get to see, while we play about 5 songs from the record, we then go into some really harsh, threatening illustrated word. I mean to seduce is fine and I consider Smoke in the Shadows seduction and instead of bludgeoning them over the head you are poisoning them slowly.
Greg Trout: I think the key to the success to a lot of your work is that no matter what genre you work in you always sound very much at home.
Well what ever I have done I try to contradict what has come before or I at least try to build on it. Although I am not very limited at all in a sense I am still very limited because I can only speak from my frame of reference and I am very intuitive about the collaborators I am going to choose and that's what happens. I can only be true to the way I feel so whatever genre I am creating at the moment is what I need to inhabit.
Greg Trout: I think that is especially true on the track "Trick Baby".
One of my favorites. The only music I have really been interested in in the past 10 years…when Rap music really hit hard with the Geto Boys and Scarface and then later Rigor Mortis, Facemob and even Mystikal and even up to Eminem who I think is the most punk thing out there, that's really the only music based on the production and the atmosphere that has given me any sort of perverse pleasure. Certainly "Trick Baby" is not a rap song, it's not R&B it creates its own genre but is very influenced by the only music I put on when I want to listen to something, other than instrumental quiet world music like Muslimgauze. I have no idea how rappers do it, although I am one of the most verbose artists out there, someone like Biggie Smalls would go into a studio with nothing written down, I cant fucking comprehend it, I have my lyrics in front of me no matter how many times I have sung them. It's a grand fucking mystery to me and I am someone who has 25 page speeches to deal with that sound like they are rolling off my tongue but I assure you every line is on the fucking page. The respect I have had for music in the past 10 years has all gone into murder rap or very dark gangster rap, thematically, production-wise, the samples they use etc. "Trick Baby" being kind of a tribute and even using Iceberg Slim quotes at the end. So its not rap music in the same way as when I am referencing jazz, it's not jazz music. "Trick Baby" is one of my favorite songs on there and I have been searching for 5 years for someone to make that kind of music for me. No one I guess could understand what I was talking about until Tommy Grenas threw that one at me and I was like "Exactly". The vocals where all done in one take, I was just there what can I say?
Greg Trout: This is your first music offering in 6 years, correct?
Yes it started with the Nels Cline stuff, Nels Cline being a genius, after we covered "Heartattack & Vine" for a Tom Waits tribute record we still had some time so I asked Nels to come up with some music so he went into his closet and 2 days later he had four songs so that's when Smoke in the Shadows was really started. I had already worked with the Nubian Lights so it was a natural but it still took quite a while. One of the longest procedures was the recording because it was recorded in blocks and fits and starts, but what really took me a long time was the order of the material and what was going to go on this record. It's a very coherent record and that was more difficult than actually recording the music. I know, the easiest thing. The order of the fucking songs. I have never obsessed like that with any other record; they always seem to have a natural order. Also getting the artwork together took quite a long time.
Greg Trout: What are you concentrating on next?
Well I am living in Barcelona now, have been for about a year. Most of my collaborators are in England. Terry Edwards and Ian White, both who have played with Gallon Drunk and some other people. I don't know, I have a few concepts in mind, one is a slight dig at the Christianity of Nick Cave, which I scoff at, I'd like to a religious album that is almost an anti-religious album if you know what I mean-I'm not talking Marilyn Manson here, I'm talking about songs built around very perverse religious fairy tales and utilizing world religious music and then perverting it. Like I have used jazz and perverted it and rock and perverted it in the past. In Spain villages have three day drum marathons, which are the most incredible things you have ever heard. So that would be a jumping off point. One story that really caught my ear is a saint in Spain called Saint Eulalia who was a thirteen year old girl who under the Romans would not renounce her God so she was tortured in thirteen different ways ala her own station of the cross. They beat her, they tortured her, they raped her, they cut her breasts, they poured gasoline on her, they finally ended up dragging her naked through town on the back of an ox. A story like this set to Spanish Easter drumming music seems quite provocative and interesting to me.
Greg Trout: Sounds like living in Spain is working for you and the rest of us.
(laughs) well, who could resist? Last year I took a tour of rohas, which are these beautiful monuments in the center of small villages where they would tie the heretics. They would beat them and torture them, pour honey on them and let the bees sting them or in the winter tie them there naked. You see I move for inspiration, I move for collaborators. There is so much wealth of history in Spain, not so much the horror and brutality of it but also it happens to be one of the most progressive countries right now in the world. Its only 35 years from under the fist of fascism, where America is currently slipping under, which gave me a great reason to relocate.
Greg Trout: History always seems to associate you with New York.
And I haven't lived there in fifteen years. It's horrifying to me to think how long it's been since I lived there, and also horrifying to think how much time I spent there as well. I'm glad I was there when I was there but now I have a twenty-four hour time limit and cant fucking stand what it has become.
Greg Trout: What motivated you to move to Spain?
I've been going there for fifteen years, I have friends there . It's one of the hottest cities in Europe right now, not for music but for visual art. I love the atmosphere, the history, and the beauty of the architecture. Something drew me there and I would keep going there whenever I could. I was in Los Angeles for four years, wanting to leave for two, I even investigated Louisville, Kentucky, just sort of tired of America. I wasn't interested in Berlin, a lot of artists are moving there now because its so cheap because the economy is so bad, England is far too expensive although there are many artists and collaborators there. Spain is still reasonable, and it's just the daily quality of life that is so different. I find that when I am in the U.S., especially in the last few years and under this fascist so called "presidency", I find myself so brutally obsessed, and not even angry, more gloating about how predictable this cycle is, but yet obsessed with it. I speak about political issues enough in my work, I don't need to live it, and I already feel like a spy when I am in the U.S. I might as well live elsewhere. Its self-preservation, I need to live somewhere where the day-to-day reality is not so contaminated with lies.
Greg Trout: In the United States you can get work doing Spoken Word…
Greg Trout: …While in Europe you seem to be able to tour with music annually.
At least once or twice a year with music and I have. I don't know how I got the wherewithal with Teenage Jesus to raise the money and take them to Europe but I did. A lot of people at the time in the states just didn't do that. I just decided to raise the money, and play in England and Germany. It was very effective. People like Blixa Bargeld were very involved in the promoting of the no-wave scene, and were very influenced by it. I then took Eight Eyed Spy to Europe. I just kept going back with different projects, and that set the stage for me to continue to perform there. I think because they draw less of a divide as to what they accept as art or culture. They are more accepting, they understand art a little better, having you know, thousands of years of history. I just have more opportunities to do more things, including spoken word. I can do far more spoken word shows there in spite of the language barrier. I can do exhibitions, installations and here, it's as hard as it's ever been. I can't even afford to go on tour in the states.
Greg Trout: You've collaborated with a lot of interesting people. Exene Cervenka, Rowland Howard, R. Kern, Die Haut, yet your style is rather confrontational and your persona is rather larger-than-life which doesn't seem like it would lend itself to collaboration.
Well that just goes to show how wrong public opinion can be. My ego is secure enough that it doesn't have to impede on anyone else's. For the most part I am very encouraging to people and people are comfortable with me. I taught a semester at the San Francisco Art Institute and there was no criticism allowed in my classroom, only encouragement. That's how I view my collaborations, if another artist has an element that we can mutually encourage, well that's what I am going in to stimulate. I am encouraging people to do something else, to step outside of themselves or get more into themselves. I am very easy to deal with, I'm not judgmental. I just want people to do what they do. People also love to collaborate with me because I'm in charge of everything! I find the money to do it, I find a way to get it out, I find someone to book the show, and all they have to do is show up and create. I have collaborated with alcoholics, pill poppers, heroin addicts and having never been an addict myself you're considered the outsider because you are not on their level, its ridiculous. I don't want to call myself sober because then I sound NA/AA and I'll do whatever drinking or drugs I want, its just that I never had a fucking problem with it. Now consider a scenario were people would consider me strange because I'm not fucked up enough, its bizarre. Unfortunately a lot of the people I have worked with, their art has not suffered under the worst of their behavior. Some of them have come out on the other side, everyone is entitled to their junkie adolescent period, it seems to be part of the procedure, and it never impinged upon their work. Someone like Foetus who was at the height of their alcohol fueled dementia, which luckily he has been out from under for the past seven years, but you know how do you tell them anything when its not impeding on their work, you just have to put up with it. you have to extend some positivity and also some tough love. People don't understand that when they are doing these chemicals because of the great pain they feel they don't understand the emotional tsunami they but everyone around them through. That's difficult. You just have to hold their hands. I don't regret any situation I have been put through because of someone else's fucked up nature I don't regret any experience I have ever had because the end result is going to be the creative output which is going to outlast the moment. That's part of what feeds my stamina and what has helped me survive.
Greg Trout: So basically the project creates itself with the exchange of ideas between you and the collaborator.
Well I told Nels I wanted something sexy or jazzy and I wanted him to pull upon some of his elements that don't often get showcased like with Mike Watt or whoever. When I worked with the Anubian Lights and Tommy Grenas I wanted something that was more groove based, sexy and sinister. Or like in 'Touch My Evil' , which was based on the movie "Touch of Evil" which then has the latin midsection. So it would be song by song or they would come to me with songs and I would say yes or no. That's basically how this record came together. They knew the lyrical content and vibe I was going for. It was pretty intuitive. Very exciting.
Greg Trout: Who are you listening to these days?
Face Mob which is a Houston based band led by Scarface. I was listening actually to the Stooges yesterday. Also this Turkish group called Babalusa which is sort of Middle eastern trip-hop/belly dance. I was in Istanbul and I met these characters who are friends of Alexander Hacke of Neubauten. They were very groovy and otherworldly yet world music enough to be interesting.
Greg Trout: Anything else you would like the world to know that it doesn't know yet?
I think they are getting more than an earful with this interview. They should really look inside themselves and ask what they need to know about themselves that they don't know yet. That's my whole goal in the process of creation is to furthur understand what drives me to do what I do and to step off the wheel and not become an automaton of reaction but to be proactive so I think its up to the individual reader to question themselves and not to question me.