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Lydia Lunch is the liver of America

Jul 22, 2016

The notorious no wave 'apocalyptician' talks Trump, Clinton, and 40 years of American greed.

Photo: Lydia Lunch and Weasel Walter

Lydia Lunch has returned home to the United States, and she’s not impressed. “Oh, I can’t stand it here, but I’m here nonetheless,” she sighs over Skype from downtown New York. But of course, that’s just scratching the surface.

“America is responsible for most of the wars, the globalization, the bad trade deals, the povertization of most of America, an incarceration rate that’s greater than any other country on the planet, militarization which is greater than the next 20 countries combined,” Lunch goes on. She counts these off as some of her reasons for leaving the country in 2004 after George W. Bush “stole” his second term as the 43rd President of the United States. “The politics here are so skewered and so ass-backwards and no different than feudal times.”

They’re also partially responsible for her return. After eight years living in Barcelona, she tells AUX she’s come back to be “the cheerleader of the underdog” in the midst of tension surrounding November’s presidential election (she tags it “the circus of fools”).

“I don’t care which way it goes – it’s gonna be a disaster,” Lunch says about the ongoing political battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. “If Trump gets in it’s almost better because then we will probably be totally isolated and can’t carry on in our homicidal and genocidal ways all around the planet. Where, if the war whore gets in, well, we’re as screwed as we always have been, if not worse.”

Describing herself as an “apocalyptician,” this is where she thrives. “There has to be some relief from the burden of reality,” Lunch says. “Hence why art and rock music are still important.”

And she should know. When Lunch arrived in Manhattan and helped launch the no wave movement providing vocals and an explosive slide guitar to Teenage Jesus and the Jerks in the late ’70s, she assaulted unsuspecting concertgoers that were still waking up to the bad hangover left in the wake of burnt out ’60s idealism with nihilistic lyrics, jagged, avant-garde freak outs and gleeful, atonal rhythm. Like a mess of razor wire and broken beer bottles at the centre of a lit pool of kerosene, no wave exploded with ferocity in the short time before it frittered out, but all it needed was a moment to reflect the corroded world that birthed it.

Since then, Lunch has increasingly found new ways to bring her sensibilities to younger generations. She’s collaborated with musicians as varied as Sonic Youth and Wilco; performed box sets upon box sets-worth of spoken word; taught lectures and self-empowerment workshops at post-secondary institutions like the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Boulder, Colorado arts college Naropa University; in 2013 she formed a career-spanning retrospective project called RetroVirus; and last year she hit New York with a massive photographic exhibition.

She’s currently logging hours producing a new album for Sub Pop noise-punks Pissed Jeans while also helming an artist’s residency at the Roxy Hotel’s basement lounge. Dubbed “The Underground Salon: Sexy Stories from New York’s Torrid Underground”, Lunch calls the Roxy residency an attempt to return a spirit of radical art to a Manhattan that was once defined by it.

Here she pairs readings from herself, Warhol superstar Bibbe Hansen (The Whippets, Black Fag), and former heroin addict/sex worker/brothel owner Zoe Hansen (no relation to Bibbe) with out-jazz stylings from Chris Pitsiokos and RetroVirus bandmates Tim Dahl and Weasel Walter.

Lunch will travel north of the border with Walter on July 30th for a special drums and vocals gig at the Electric Eclectics experimental music and art festival in Meaford, ON). Like no wave in the ’70s, Lunch says their music “speaks another language to the frustration of these times.”

And when it comes down to it, she says, that’s always been her MO. “I felt like from the age of nine or 10 that I had some bizarre calling to birth the word out. I’ve always considered myself a journalist and a hysterian, even if I’m using music or even photography to comment.”

That inevitably means indulging some politics, a reality Lunch herself has some reservations about.

“My whole life does not revolve around politics, but I do feel like, in a sense, I’m the liver of America. Why is it my duty to continue to harangue about this crap which basically as a hedonistic utopian, independent, who basically has been a nomad – literally a nomad for 40 years? I’m stateless, I’m homeless… does it even really affect me?”

“I don’t know why my conscience insists that I still even in rock songs find a way to insert my politics. It befuddles me every day, trust me.”

But with Lydia Lunch, maybe that’s a good thing. “The more ridiculous it gets, the more I enjoy it. I’ve been saying the same thing since under Ronald Reagan. We’re only more aware of the stupidity and absurdity, the greed and fear. I’m an apocalyptician. Bring it on.”

AUX: Hi Lydia. Where are you speaking from today?
Lydia Lunch: I’m in New York.

New York, OK. How are things in New York?
Oh, I can’t stand it here, but I’m here nonetheless.

You’ve been vocal in previous interviews about prioritizing the future and the present over the past, so I want to focus on that. How do you feel about the world we’re living in right now?
Oh please, really? You have all day? Globally? Let me quote myself, “Same as it ever was.” The fools are controlling everything. The patriarchy is killing the planet. God was the first cop. All war is men’s foolishness and greed. The American political system is a disaster. Do we need to know anything more about the here and now? Ha, ha. Hence why art and rock music are still important. There has to be some relief from the burden of reality.

I take it you’ve been paying attention to the current conversation happening around the election in the U.S.
The circus of fools? It’s outrageous. What’s amazing to me is America, finally, is the laughing stock of the world. I don’t care which way it goes – it’s gonna be a disaster. If Trump gets in it’s almost better because then we will probably be totally isolated and can’t carry on in our homicidal and genocidal ways all around the planet. Where, if the war whore gets in, well, we’re as screwed as we always have been, if not worse. Neither choice is really an option.

It’s one reason why I lived in Spain for eight years. I left the country after Bush stole the second election. That was going into fascism, which is where we are, to a country that was 30 years out of fascism. And then I started coming back to New York a few years ago to work on RetroVirus and a few other things. And because so many people I knew here were so distraught over not only the political climate, but how it has affected their personal lives as well. So I came back to kind of be the cheerleader of the underdog, which is basically how I’ve always viewed myself anyway.

But this is ridiculous. The more ridiculous it gets, the more I enjoy it. I’ve been saying the same thing since under Ronald Reagan. We’re only more aware of the stupidity and absurdity, the greed and fear. I’m an apocalyptician. Bring it on. It’s here! Ha, ha, ha. Apocalypse forever. Get used to it people.

So you’re back in the States now?
Well, I’m in and out. I still do most of my performing in Europe, you know, where fashion, aggression and politics are still to some degree respected. That’s where I still do most of my stuff.

You’ve said before that you can only do what you do as an artist living in Europe, but that that’s changing and it’s part of the reason why you’ve been coming back to North America more frequently.
Exactly. Now I have a residency at the Roxy Hotel in downtown New York, which is trying to bring back a spirit of kind of radical art, a lot of which has been marginalized to deep Brooklyn. So I’m doing a series of readings with out-jazz here with Weasel Walter, who I’ll be coming to [Electric Eclectics] with.

I’m just stubborn. I just keep doing what I do and I have to continually find places to do it in. I’ve been focusing on South America a lot as well, because they understand exactly politically what I’m talking about, and they know what’s going on in the world. I just do what I do, and I look for places to do it.

I have one group, Medusa’s Bed, which is the three-piece female improv group [with Mia Zabelka and Zahra Mani] that only plays east of Berlin because that’s where it makes sense. But Weasel and I will be going and doing 20 drum and vocal shows in Europe in October that we’re [also] bringing to the festival, to you. There’s no way we could find 20 shows in America. It’s ridiculous. It’s drums and vocals. It’s drums and poetry.

Forget trying to book a full band like RetroVirus. We tour Europe twice a year; if we can get five shows in this country we’re lucky. It’s just impossible. For me it’s a little easier… and I harangue everyone, “Go to Europe! Go to Europe!” but it’s only after almost 40 years of doing it is it easy for me. But that I started going in ’77 and would just go year after year after year and forcing, whether they liked it or not, until they grew used to me and then started inviting me on their own reconnaissance. I just know that that’s where I have to go mainly to do what I do and in the meantime try to find places in the states to do it also.

Earlier you mentioned how if Trump wins this election the country will become siloed off from the rest of the world.
What a relief the rest of the world would feel as they laugh at the comic tragedy that we have become.

Do you imagine a Brexit-type situation?
Well, I think that’s a kind of different situation. And I can’t speak for British politics. I mean, I think that America is completely responsible for the devastation that has happened in the last – I’ll say 20 to be generous, but I really mean 40 years, globally. America is responsible for most of the wars, the globalization, the bad trade deals, the povertization of most of America, the incarceration rate that’s greater than any other country on the planet, the militarization which is greater than the next 20 countries combined… The politics here are so skewered and so ass-backwards and no different than feudal times. It’s just how it is, and I don’t know if there is a solution.

There have been a lot of protests – and of course Spain does a lot of protesting. When a million people protest in the streets about something, and still nothing changes, it’s because no one is getting to the corporate kleptomats who are in positions of power. Politicians are not, politicians are just the puppets. So I mean, how do you get to the head of a corporation to make them care about anything the individual is suffering? It’s nearly impossible, and it was the failure of the ’60s which we hoped would change something.

And you know, my whole life does not revolve around politics, but I do feel like, in a sense, I’m the liver of America. Why is it my duty to continue to harangue about this crap which basically as a hedonistic utopian, independent, who basically has been a nomad – literally a nomad for 40 years? I’m stateless, I’m homeless… does it even really affect me? I don’t know why my conscience insists that I still even in rock songs find a way to insert my politics. It befuddles me every day, trust me. I could just be la-di-dah, doing my rock shows and doing my records on GarageBand and being as I’ve always been – I won’t even call it underground, I’ll call it the subterranean and carry on. I can only think that it’s a genetic calling that someone has to be the person on the hill with the bullhorn. And I guess that’s me.

There are a lot of great Internet sites with really great writers like Chris Hedges and CounterPunch and Truth-Out and Truthdig and any number of media formats that know exactly what’s going on, but at this point really it’s down to… if the consumer would hold on to every dollar they had and not buy into the corporations that run everything (which means we have to go back to the commune to become completely self-sufficient) and if each country was self-sufficient, most of the world wouldn’t be in the position that it’s in now with all these bad slave trade deals that America has fostered since under Bill Clinton. And now the war whore, his wife will probably get in, and then there we go again. Screwed in another orifice.

You said you think it’s in your genetics to respond to this kind of activity. How does that impulse compare to the way you responded to the world around you when you started pursuing art and making music in the ’70s?
I think it’s exactly the same. I felt like from the age of nine or 10 that I had some bizarre calling to birth the word out. I always considered myself a journalist and a hysterian, even if I’m using music or even photography to comment. It just feels like some form of poetic circle.

Spoken word is like one of the original art formats, and it just feels that it’s in my blood that I have to do it. And if it wasn’t so deeply rooted in my blood and DNA, perhaps I would’ve found something else to do a while ago. But I just really have no choice but to keep barking at the same dogs that are continuing to try to chew our very fucking bones into dust.

All that said, are there any new questions you find yourself asking about art or music or culture?
Well, no. But are there any new answers? I think that the proliferation in New York especially of out-jazz musicians that is ghettoized into deep Brooklyn, that Weasel Walter and Tim Dahl and Chris Pitsiokos are a part of speaks another language to the frustration of these times. And I can’t answer for anyone else, but I try to keep my ears and eyes open, I always want to know what’s going on out there, but I still feel that I’m outside of everything, even most of the people I work with for years because I’m poisoned by politics in some kind of way.

In recent years you’ve taught workshops at a number of universities. As someone who rejected a formal education early on in your life, what does it feel like to have this kind of a relationship with these institutions now?
Hilarious. I mean, at the Naropa Institute, which is Jack Kerouac’s School of Disembodied Poetics, it’s not exactly a normal university, it’s a poetic-based, kind of Buddhism-based university. And then I’ve orchestrated other workshops mostly for women writers – since we don’t have sports or war as an activity – to give women a creative and comfortable place to create and define their voice[s]. And that’s very satisfying because it’s a great place for women to come back to the coven and get word out. I just think it’s a very important part of what I do.

And these shows I’m doing at the Roxy in New York over the summer with Bibbe Hansen who is the youngest Warhol superstar, and mother of Beck, the first time she ever gave a spoken word reading – although she had performed and was the youngest Warhol superstar and danced with the Velvet Underground – the first time she ever performed spoken word was in 2002 when I invited her to do it.

Then Zoe Hansen (not related) who is a New York raconteur ex-heroin addict-prostitute-brothel owner-madam who is now writing about what that life was, these are women that’ll be featured in the series I’m doing at the Roxy, then with out-jazz to offset it with Weasel and Tim… I just think that these are important stories of tri-generational women about how we survived those times.

Do you think the world is changing to open up to these kinds of voices now?
I don’t give a shit what the world does. It leaves you a fuckin’ minority – sexual, political and intellectual, I always have and I always will be and to me, the best crowd is 50 people, and any more than that, I… you know. I like to look in everybody’s eyes when I perform. I don’t care about the majority of what’s happening. I just think that there is a need for a collective minority of certain types of people that need a new place to come together to see stuff like what I’m presenting.

How has working with younger generations in contexts like these affected your perspective of them?
You know, there are certain people or energies or artists that… it’s a timeless thing, if you’re connected to a certain vibration, if it’s in your blood, I wanna know what you do. It’s always amazing to me when RetroVirus plays or with spoken word, is some people are bringing their 16- to 20-year-old daughters to the show, that know the lyrics, which is great to me. I’m amazed. I like working with different generations of people.

I’m producing the new Pissed Jeans album for Sub Pop next week. They came to me, which is great. It’s just very flattering that they think I have something to add to what they’ve already accomplished. Because they’re already their own thing. I’m just there to encourage them. They’re already there, but I’m mainly going to be there to work with them on the lyrics and the guitars, my forte, and just to encourage them. That’s fantastic to me. Chris Pitsiokos – who’s performing a lot with me on sax and plays with Weasel and Tim Dahl a lot – he’s 24 and he’s one of the best saxophonists out there and he’ll be on this Roxy Residency thing. To me it’s not about age, it’s about energy.

How long is the Roxy residency happening for?
It might go through the summer to the middle of September.

Can you talk a little bit about how you and Weasel Walter started working together?
Well, Weasel had known about my work since he was 14 years old. And again, he’s a different generation than I am. He knew about Teenage Jesus when he was very young. We had met over the years and I had seen him play and he had seen me play, and he basically volunteered for RetroVirus, which was amazing because it was very hard to — I mean I only approached one other person about playing guitar in it because you have to play like Bob Quine, myself, Rowland S. Howard, any number of other amazing guitar players.

It’s not an easy job, the guitar part for RetroVirus. It’s really the most difficult position in the band, and he completely understood my music and it was wonderful that he volunteered for it. And then I’d seen him do a lot of out jazz stuff playing drums so then I devised this “duolet” as I call it of drums and vocals. I mean, I can tour with spoken word or my illustrated word show – which is psychoambient music I’ve done and videos and spoken word – I’ve done that all over Europe and South America, but to add a live instrument to it and then take it somewhere else, it’s just what I do.

It seems to me very ritualistic. I mean, it’s drums and vocals, that’s it. Pretty primal. And he never knows what I’m gonna say and he can do whatever he wants. He’s improvisational and depending on my mood, depending on what’s gonna come out of my mouth.

So there’s room for improvisation from you, too.
Well I always have my text. I mean, there are things I definitely want to say, but it allows me, when I have the page in front of me it does allow me to improvise off of that, but I mean, there are points I wanna make, and it’s not just points, but there is some kind of brutarian poetry in what I write, you know, that’s an important part of what I do, whether people recognize that or not. It’s not random, what I’m saying. It’s pretty orchestrated. But yet room for improvisation also. Best of both worlds.

Weasel and I are going to record an album on Sunday. It’s a totally different format. And it’s something that neither of us [have done before]. I mean, he’s done a lot of improv drums and the out jazz thing but he hasn’t really worked with a vocalist, and I’ve done the spoken word with drums before but a very different kind of drumming and backing tapes and everything else. But yeah, I think it’s a good format for both of us.

Lydia Lunch and Weasel Walter play Electric Eclectics in Meaford, Ontario on Saturday, July 30th.

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