"I'm Mainly Preaching to the Perverted" — Lydia Lunch

Lydia Lunch speaks with Andrew Burton about documentaries, collaboration, and nostalgia for late '70s NYC.

Photos of Lydia Lunch © Tom Garretson

“We survived the deluge” were the first words out of Lydia Lunch’s mouth when we spoke the day after Hurricane Ida hit New York City. She had landed that night from Florida, where she was on tour so to speak promoting The War Is Never Over, a documentary directed by longtime friend Beth B about her artistic endeavors to date.

Starting her career in the late 1970s fronting the seminal no wave group Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Lunch is primarily known for her music, but frequently works across other mediums. Punchy, provocative, and confrontational, she has collaborated with rock artists like Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Michael Gira of Swans, filmmakers like Richard Kern and Nick Zedd, and authors like Hubert Selby Jr.. Writing for Rolling Stone, Lester Bangs said her 1980 studio album Queen of Siam “covers all the bases so well that it’s beyond words.”

I spoke with Lunch about the documentary, nostalgia for late 70s NYC, provocation, collaboration, sex, and her new podcast, The Lydian Spin. We spoke just a few hours after the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to block Texas’ malevolently violent abortion law, which came up, too.

— Andrew Burton

Andrew Burton:

Your artistry is often associated with New York City, but you’ve lived all over North America and Europe. Where are you based out of right now?

Lydia Lunch:

Brooklyn right now, but I just feel like a nomad anyway. I’m here for now, I can’t say for how long. Every day I wake up I want to move somewhere, but where I don’t know. We’ll see where I go next, not sure.

AB: Do you think of yourself as a New York artist? Does that label mean anything to you?

LL: Not really, but I guess I’m more akin to what New York once was than what it has been since. I’ve lived here less time than I’ve lived everywhere else. I guess it’s more of an attitude.

AB: I find there is a lot of nostalgia for New York in the late 70s and early 80s. I think it’s become a powerful image that attracts artists to the city, and many still think in those terms even though the city has completely changed.

LL: There’s been a lot of different cycles artistically in history. That’s just one of the more recent ones. I think everything was cyclical until the internet. We had the ‘20s in Paris — maybe even the ‘30s — and Berlin. In the ‘40s and ‘50s maybe it was Memphis or even Hollywood when things were just starting to be banned. The ‘60s were San Francisco in Haight Ashbury. The ‘70s were London, New York, LA, but after the ‘80s it started disintegrating and spreading out, and then with the internet there is no one specific geographical location. It’s kind of bizarre, but that seems to me when a geographical location being a magnet for people petered out.

AB: You’ve been labeled a goth, punk, and no wave artist, but do you ever see yourself evoking a strong sense of Americana? In The War Is Never Over, you read spoken word passages that mention baseball, Bible salesmen, and a kid getting shot by a Smith & Wesson. Is there a distinctly American quality to your work?

LL: Absolutely. I’m always kind of the anti-American because I call up mostly the worst of what we are because we present to be the best at everything. Really we are pretty shitty in most things, it’s just we present this incredible Hollywood image to the rest of the world. We have more violence, more incarceration, more teenage pregnancy, more poverty, more homelessness — we’re number one in a lot of shitty things. It’s always been my target to call up the lie and the fraudulence of how great we pretend to be.

Look, there’s a lot of great things, no fucking doubt. But it’s just getting dumber all the time, and I think part of that is the education is so awful here. No wonder I dropped out in 10th grade. People don’t know anything about history, they’re patriotic or nationalistic to a fault because they don’t know what the rest of the world knows. Certainly there’s a lot of shitty places on this planet — no doubt — I just can’t believe we haven’t progressed as a society further than what we have. Especially with what just happened in the past five fucking years or yesterday in Texas. What the fuck is going on? It’s ridiculous.

AB: I thought one of the most insightful lines in the documentary was when [electronic artist, fan, and collaborator] Nicolas Jaar described you as having “an energy of pure opposition, of resistance. If you are going to say something to provoke, you are saying it because it needs to be provoked in that moment.” What right now would you say to provoke? I can’t help but think about the new Texas anti-abortion law.

LL: I am screaming, trust me. There’s so many steps backwards in the last five years — voting rights, abolishing abortion — what the fuck are these? I said this in one of my spoken word speeches like thirty or more years ago: how dare the same assholes that invented endless war, gun violence, schoolyard shootings, poverty and homelessness — especially vet homelessness — now want to abolish the right to a frickin’ abortion?

First of all, are they so fearful that this country is getting less white that they’d rather have inbred victims of incest born, when these [politicians] — especially the Republicans are the fucking death cult — are killing their own constituents. I look at it like, “why are drug dealers putting fentanyl in their drugs to kill their clients?” The Republicans are the same way. They’re killing their own constituents by not wanting masks, by not believing in the vaccine, but it’s alright for everyone to have a gun and incels to shoot up Walmart and schools, but don’t dare not have another person in this world.

I think anybody that has a child now, it is child abuse. You have a baby now, it’s child abuse. Into this world, are you shitting me? Don’t even get me started.

Millionaires and billionaires should not be in charge of the individual’s choices or what runs this country. They don’t fucking care. And it’s not to me getting any better. We make progress on one front and it gets taken away on every other front.

AB: It’s very telling that what you just told me is basically a mirror image of what you’ve been saying and what you feel has been needing to be said for your entire career.

LL: My entire frickin’ career, yes. One reason I can’t stop talking is nothing is going to change. I don’t have any solutions to this issue. Blow it up and start again, get rid of Congress, eliminate the presidency, I don’t know? But it’s not working, it’s working for the 1%. We just love to lollygag around, thinking how wonderful it is. And look, there are a lot of wonderful fuckin’ things, but that’s for all the pop stars to sing about, not for me to talk about.

I’m not miserable, I’m privileged in the sense that I do everything I want to do with anybody I want to do it with. I’ve documented everything I’ve ever done. I don’t have a high overhead, I don’t have a car, I don’t want an apartment, I’m not born to be a consumer — that spares me a lot of misery in thinking about what I don’t have. I don’t want things.

They breed consumers here, they bred people to have remote controlled imaginations by spoiling them with the immediate commodification of everything on the internet. I mean, the enemy is winning. That is exactly why the war is never over. But at the end of the day, I’m gonna have a good time because I’m not gonna let them ruin my entire fuckin’ life. They may spoil my days with the misery they propagate, but by nighttime, leave me the fuck alone, I’m gonna be laughing. I guess that’s my resistance.

AB: I was wondering about the documentary’s title, The War is Never Over. Did Beth come up with it or did you?

LL: I’ve been saying it forever. It’s just one line of a longer spiel.

AB: The subheading of The New York Times’s article about The War is Never Over began with a quote from you: “good luck figuring me out.” Do you think the documentary ‘figured you out?’ Was there anything you wish it covered more?

LL: I mean, come on. When you squeeze forty-three years into 70 minutes, good luck. What about part two, three, and four? I mean, there was a lot that couldn’t go in there. It had to have a thematic trajectory. But that’s why there’s YouTube and Google, that’s why I have Bandcamp. I mean, what more do you need to fuckin’ know really, come on? Maybe the more you know, the less you really understand? I’m not sure, that’s for you to decide.

I’m not sitting here thinking, “oh I’m so misunderstood,” or that I even want to be understood. You take from it what you take from it. There’s no dogma or philosophy at the end of it. I always find it interesting when people say, “oh I like your music.” I’m like, “which music?” It might tell me something about that person or when they found out about what it is they think I do. You know, whatever you take from it is what you take from it. And if you don’t, I don’t care. I’ve always been speaking for a minority: sexual, political, psychic, philosophical. I’m not preaching to the converted, I’m mainly preaching to the perverted. Good enough for me.

AB: One part of the doc that made me smile were the scenes where you were on tour with Retrovirus [Lunch’s newest band]. You guys seem to be having so much fun.

LL: Of course! Yeah, we have a good time.

AB: Was it always like that with other bands you played in?

LL: Oh it was certainly fun with Thurston Moore, with Jim Thirlwell, with Rowland S. Howard. Most of my bands didn’t tour, we’d do X amount of shows, you couldn’t tour in this country. I don’t do this to have a bad time. I’ve worked with very interesting, very cool people, I’ve been very lucky. I know how to pick them.

AB: You said “Nick Cave and I disagreed on everything and Rowland Howard and I agreed on everything.” [Cave and Howard were bandmates in The Birthday Party]

LL: Absolutely! I agree more with Rowland in his death than I do with Nick Cave alive. Trust me on that.

AB: Do you think Rowland is like a male version of you?

LL: Well, thank you very much. In one manner of speaking, I guess so. That’s great, you just gave me goosebumps about myself. Thanks!

I’ve worked with a lot of guys that are really sensitive: Rowland, Thurston, Thirlwell, Weasel [Walter], Tim Dahl [bass player in Retrovirus]. Most of these people are pretty sensitive. The women are always tougher: Exene Cervenka, Wanda Coleman.

The thing about Rowland is the economy of space — the economy of every note — nothing was wasted. There was no unnecessary noise or notes. This is a pretty spectacular thing especially because guitar players always want to overplay.

AB: Was the distinction between no wave and punk rock definitive at the time, or was it established more in hindsight?

LL: It was a very definitive thing. Take punk rock: mostly you know what punk rock sounds like. But then they also put groups like Magazine and Joy Division into the punk category. I really think they’re outside of it, they’re something else. No wave was not punk rock, it just happened at the same time. It’s got nothing to do with punk except in attitude. The music is not punk rock for the most part. It’s more akin to Dada and Surrealism. But none of it sounds the same.

You’ve heard one no wave band and you’ve not heard them all. With punk, or any other kind of music, you can tell what country music is, you can tell what opera is. With no wave, it doesn’t sound like itself, but it doesn’t sound like anything else. More like free jazz than anything.

AB: Did people at the time want to be associated with no wave bands like Mars, DNA, or Teenage Jesus?

LL: No! Nobody was even at the concerts. Nobody wanted to be associated with it, hell no. Are you kidding me?

AB: It’s still talked about so much now for such a small band of people.

LL: Very small band of people. It’s all in retrospect. You don’t think that it’s a movement when you’re doing it.

AB: Why did you agree to do the documentary now? Was it the right time in your career? Did something about your career speak to the present moment?

LL: I’m always speaking to the present moment, it’s that I knew Beth could get it right. I didn’t have faith in anybody else who might have asked, I didn’t really have any interest. By the time it’s done I’ve already done ten other things, anyways. So what are you gonna do, have a continued series? You just have to find somebody who can get the basic essence of the point of what I’ve done since the beginning and why I continue. There was nobody else in the running even if other people may have asked me.

Beth is a multi-faceted creative person as well. She doesn’t do just film, she’s done installations, photography, artwork of all different sports. We’re going to go with somebody who is not only relentless but who gets it.

AB: You’ve described your work as anger against your father, against this country, against God the Father, against men and general authority figures. To confront these, you say you “turn the knife outwards,” dreaming of homicide, not suicide. With this attitude, have you ever thought of yourself as being part of a feminist movement, or have you always been outside them?

LL: No, I’ve never thought of myself in any movement. I always think of myself as having movement, which is why I’ve moved a lot. No. I mean, look, I consider myself a no wave artist. It says as much as it doesn’t, so, figure that one out. There is no defining this. I don’t feel part of any movement, even if I’ve started them or jumped into them. Nope.

AB: The intro scene in The War Is Never Over is a story of a man trying to abduct you. “It wasn’t about sex, it’s about power,” you said you learned. Is that the defining motif of your work?

LL: I don’t know if it’s the defining motif, but that story, specifically, is when at a very early age, I knew that I had the power and that was that. Since I had no fear, carry on. That’s basically it. In spite of the fact of all the millions of ways they try to kill us every day with the poison of everything — including a moral pollution — I’m just not going to buckle to it.

AB: Your Retrovirus bandmate Bob Bert said in the documentary that “Lydia’s greatest work of art is herself.” Do you think of your career or yourself as a piece of art?

LL: Fuck yeah! I do.

AB: I don’t know how many artists think like that.

LL: Well, they should, because they — well, this is the average person too — should put more import into what you are than what you do. And what you do should just be a reflection of who you are. You know what I mean? I’m thinking of quite a few musicians who are one thing on stage — and not that there isn’t some personification up there — but who are totally different offstage. This is more for the men. They might have a very exhibitionist stage persona, but then offstage they’re actually insecure, fearful, one step away from incel. My group likes to shoot off, not shoot people.

AB: You’ve brought up incels a number of times today. Are you fascinated with them?

LL: I feel sorry for them, but they’re just a reflection on a mini scale of what this country purports on a larger male scale. I think part of that problem is the sexual segregation of children: act like a man, be tough, smile, be pretty, don’t be mean. And then just parents not knowing how to parent. You know, people feel outside of everything because this country dangles the endless carrot of what you should want but probably can’t get. And I totally understand that they lose their mind. It’s too bad they always go after just another victim in life.

AB: Incels are interesting because it’s a new category, but the problems that have created them have existed in America for a while.

LL: Exactly.

AB: Do you think these problems have been ramped up recently?

LL: It’s hard to know if things have been ramped up or if we just have more eyewitness news accounts of things. You know what I mean? I just think this country was founded on mass murder and religious persecution, not religious freedom. The Puritans were not for religious freedom, they were for religious perversion. This country is founded on murdering those that already existed here. It’s not that anyone’s a real American, because we wiped them all out, but it’s still in the DNA of the American psyche. Fucking killers is what we export.

AB: Having worked in music, film, writing, poetry — so many different artistic mediums — you’ve recently started a podcast, The Lydian Spin, with Tim Dahl. Podcasting is a new medium usually done for younger people by younger people. As someone who has come into it later in life, how have you found it?

LL: Well there’s nothing to adjust. I’ve been collaborating with people my entire career, I consider podcasting a collaborative conversation. I’ve also been curating things my entire career, it’s just trying to expose people to other people they might not know about, or they might know about but not in an intimate way.

It was perfect that I started before the pandemic because it was a great thing to do while that was happening. I’m going to continue to do it. Also, it’s great because the intros are all what’s going on right now this week. So in lieu of the fact that there hasn’t been many public platforms to do spoken word, it’s a perfect place to put my complaints and then promote different kinds of artists. It’s free to everybody. You don’t have to pay, we haven’t found a way to monetize it, it doesn’t matter. It’s a public service, I consider it something like an audio museum. It’s just something that has to be done right now for the same reason you’re talking to me or whoever else you talk to: to get the point out that people have to make who are interesting and culturally important.

Andrew Burton

is a writer based in Lower Manhattan. Originally from Toronto, he writes broadly about arts, culture, and politics. Follow him on Twitter @fixin2die.

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