Originally published in Zombie Creeping Flesh fanzine.
When she was only 14, Lydia Lunch ran away from her suburban Rochester home to hang out in the early New York City punk scene. Amateur footage filmed at the CBGB club in 1976 reveals her as an early Dead Boys groupie as well as a keen self-promoter eager to get her name out at a very early age.
Soon she fronted an incredibly abrasive outfit called Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, who with their noisy assault spearheaded the New York No Wave movement. 1980 saw the release of her first solo album, a radical departure from Teenage Jesus: instead of shrill guitar noise, Queen of Siam offered lazy Lolita-vocals breathing a lascivious urban ennui over big band inflected, jagged grooves. Along with her 8-Eyed Spy project, where she indulged in an experimental brand of swampabilly, this has remained Lydia Lunch’s most universally acclaimed work in a fickle music world.
But unlike many of her contemporaries from the New York underground who seemed creatively burnt out after one or two releases, Lydia has remained active and her work relevant right until the present day. Since the 1980s, she has been involved in countless projects, collaborating with artists such as Einsturzende Neubauten, Rowland S. Howard of The Birthday Party, and Sonic Youth. Every one of her projects – be it music, photography, film, writing or spoken word – is radical and uncompromising in its own way. And having preserved her ability to surprise rather than rehash her former glories, Lydia’s work remains challenging and innovative.
“Like a wine that gets better with age” may be an over-used analogy, but it fits Lydia Lunch like her pointed heels: more than twenty years into her career as a recording artist she released her most emotionally captivating masterpiece Matrikamantra, conjuring up a subtle ambience through what frequently appeared like a sensual silent film music.
The post-millennium years saw Lydia veer towards an even more cinematic, jazzy direction, topping all her previous work yet again with Smoke In The Shadows, which evoked a film noir atmosphere of seedy bars and disillusioned souls. Lucky were those who caught one of the live appearances around that time, such as for example her intense London performance at 93 Feet East. Unlike many other avant-garde artists, Lydia Lunch understands perfectly well that in order to stimulate the audience’s intellect, one needs to emotionally involve them first.
This interview was conducted when Lydia toured Europe performing songs from Matrikamantra.
ZZ: Teenage Jesus and the Jerks kicked off your career as an artist in the late 70s. What were your goals and ideas at that point?
LL: The goal of Teenage Jesus was to destroy rock music as I knew it, to resolve the influences that had moved me to create music in the first place: Richard Hell, Patti Smith… to abolish their music and replace it with something far more untraditional.
ZZ: You weren’t happy with what the late 70s New York punk scene were doing?
LL: Oh no, I liked it very much. But I thought it was my duty to try and have a rebellion against that. They influenced me to run away and go to New York, but at some point I felt they were too traditional, so Teenage Jesus was formed. I formed Beirut Slump around the same time, who sounded exactly the opposite of Teenage Jesus.
Every band, in the beginning, was a rebellion against what I had already created. Later I decided to form 8-Eyed Spy: rock music, which I hate. To me, they were what rock music should be, but also an insult against everything I had done. It was not only to rebel against everything else, but also to rebel against myself. I do it all the time, hahaha.
ZZ: Do you think the No Wave movement had any lasting effect on music?
LL: Oh definitely. It had a bigger influence on avant jazz, on people like John Zorn, not on rock music. Of course Sonic Youth, which was the second or third wave, had a very big influence, but their original influences were the bands from the No Wave. So in essence, it’s a ripple effect. I don’t know if No Wave changed anything, I just think that every period where people make extremes of musical culture is going to be an influence somehow, it’s gonna start an effect. It’s going to educate the next movement. But of course in the last 15 years or so everything is going backwards, which is dangerous. It’s not going forward from what already existed.
ZZ: What do you mean specifically?
LL: MTV, the Rolling Stones on tour, Spin Magazine, mainstream alternative.
ZZ: What are your thoughts on today’s “alternative” music?
LL: I think there must be one, but it’s not on MTV, and it’s not covered by mainstream press. I think it’s far more difficult now to find out about our extreme musical visionaries, because everybody has this cheap MTV overnight success dream. There has to be a rebellion against that, and I’m sure there is. MTV is really what spoils people. Everybody thinks they too can be a big success, which is a ridiculous reason to create anything.
ZZ: You once said that you were afraid of becoming to popular with 8-Eyed Spy, is that correct?
LL: I quit the band because I didn’t like the [infatuated] look in people’s eyes, it was disgusting. On the most popular night of our existence I quit the band because I thought people were coming for the wrong reason. I hated it.
ZZ: But if you’ve got a particular message that you want to get out…
LL: … (interrupts) yeah, but that’s why I had another band after and after. I’m not constantly changing what I do to keep success away, but I have to create at my own pace, which is much faster than what the media or the public can keep up with. This is only the second time in my entire career that I’ve put out an album and gone on tour to promote it, the other time was Shotgun Wedding. Usually I put out a record and then the project is over.
In this format at the moment it’s easier to evolve. I’m only working with one or two other people. I can change the concept with one person as it goes along, instead of saying “this band was good for that feeling, now it’s time to get another one”.
ZZ: But generally speaking, don’t you think if your message is so important, you could put it out to more people by making music that’s more accessible, catchier?
LL: Yeah, but my job is to speak to the sexual, intellectual and political minority, not to the majority. I know my message is important, but I refuse to play the games you have to play in order to get the message out to more people. Like most visionaries, I think it will be in my death that I will be recognised. Like the Marquis de Sade, like many great painters, like many great writers: when they die, then there’s success. And that’s fine, I can wait
I’m successful because I can do anything I want, with everyone I want, when I want. I can support myself as an artist because I don’t have a ridiculous lifestyle, and I don’t like expensive things or drugs. Therefore I’m the most successful living artist I know.
ZZ: Have you never been into drugs?
LL: I was never into heroin, so that saved me. It’s because I’m fickle: today I like this, tomorrow I like that. That’s why it was never one drug that intoxicated me so much… and they stopped doing the drugs that I liked in the early 80s, so that was good. I did a lot of drugs, I drank a lot, but I never had an addiction to anything. I’m addicted to adrenaline. Insanity is my addiction. Insane men are my addiction, pretending I’m a psychiatrist for all their problems, hahaha.
ZZ: In the course of you career, you used very explicit sexual imagery, which some called pornographic.
LL: Oh yeah, say the word: pornographic. It’s not an insult, hahaha.
ZZ: What did you want to express by that. Did you want to depict sexuality as limitless pleasure and ecstasy, or did you set out to shock and offend?
LL: Very good question. Okay, first of all, with all my films with Richard Kern in the early 80s…
ZZ: …’Fingered’ and so on?
LL: … ‘Fingered’ and so on, exactly. First of all, when I saw Fingered, I was very disappointed. I thought it wasn’t hard or sexual enough, it wasn’t violent enough. But I lived this, so to me these 20 minutes [of violent hardcore sex] were nothing. Other people did not feel the same way, hahaha. They were very shocked that I could show that, like if I am different to any other woman, actress, human being. But because I was Lydia Lunch they asked: ‘How could you show that?’
My duty is to show what everyone else wants to ignore, hide, or consider taboo. My job is to get to the root of obsession.
ZZ: Pornography’s only goal is to get you off, and I don’t think a lot of people got turned on by ‘Fingered’. Most would probably find it violent and unpleasant.
LL: Exactly. First of all they are not erotic films, pornographers do not like them. You can ‘t show in pornography what we showed in ‘Fingered’. To me, pornography has only one goal, and this is where I defend it: pornography’s only goal is to relieve frustration. But my goal is often to stimulate frustration, to express frustration, to articulate frustration. So in a sense, pornography and I are worlds apart.
But I cannot think of a woman who has shown the dark obsessions we have to deal with, for violence, for sado-masochism, for death ultimately. And why we arrive at this conclusion as women is often through early abuse, sister trauma [?], one becomes knocked, one feels nothing… the only thing one feels is an extreme. That’s the point of these films. With ‘Fingered’ I wanted to make a film that was like a drive-in trailer, like a ten minutes coming attraction: no point, no boring dialogue, action! To detail these obsessions in a drive-in trailer was what we wanted to do with these films.
It’s my social duty as a woman to express these dark obsessions because nobody else is expressing them for us. And also to eliminate tabloid sexuality. I was not interested in making erotic films. I may one day want to make a very beautiful, passionate, sexy, erotic film which’s only goal is masturbation, but that wasn’t the goal with these films.
Of course, everyone has a different reaction to them: some people are completely repulsed, some people have beer parties and think it’s great fun, some people cry, some people laugh. But I never think anything I do is shocking. Other people think that I’m a radical, extreme, shocking pornographer, which is a beautiful term by the way. But we did not set out to make shocking films. We set out to document psycho-sexual-insanity.
ZZ: So the task was to make realistic films?
LL: About my reality, yes. The whole thing about fingered is to show that if you are battered – consciously even, because often we know what we’re doing but we don’t know why – the goal is to figure out why. You are the first victim, then you become a victimiser. That’s the point of ‘Fingered: she’s taking all of this insanity, and in the end she turns it against another woman. That’s what so many people failed to realize, because I didn’t have a disclaimer with the moral written in. But why should I make it easy?
ZZ: But generally you are pro-pornography, even mainstream pornography?
LL: Yes I am. Because of the goal I told you, and also because I think that what one does in the privacy of their homes is perfectly fine. We should have every fetish that we want to satisfy, if we know why we driven by these obsessions. And also, pornography does not exploit women, it exploits men . Men always look ridiculous, they’re chasing pussy as if it’s the gold from the Mayan temples. Women look beautiful. So therefore I’m a great defender of pornography and I’ve had many debates with people that are anti-pornography.
ZZ: Feminists, I assume?
LL: With feminists too, and with lawyers, yes. To me, the Catholic church has the most pornographic iconographic image: the nude and bloody man tortured and bleeding to death. Now that’s pornography. To me, pornography is war, it’s poverty, it’s homelessness. That’s pornography in the true sense, not X-rated films showing people having sex like we all do. Or want to do, more often than we ever do.
ZZ: Can you tell me about your latest projects and how they’re different to what you were doing 15 or 20 years ago, how your objectives have changed?
LL: Well, I think my path is linear, I think I’m on this kind of road my words and music. I released Paradoxia, which is a full circle from the Richard Kern films. With the Richard Kern films I have really started to investigate in my own sexuality. With Paradoxia, it’s really about the accumulation of this insanity and also the end result, being that as women, first of all we have to demand pleasure, but that we also have to learn that we can’t be looking for someone else to fulfil us and to satisfy us. The ultimate goal is that women and men learn to not always look outside themselves to be fulfilled, they have to fulfil themselves.
And I have released the Matrikamantra CD. What we do is a kind of twisted lounge music, but only in parts. It’s a kind of psycho-ambient, but it’s still very dark, very heavy. I think that this music is an obvious progression for me. Music that is more seductive, yet the words and the passion are still very hard. I can’t say this music is totally sexual – it may have a seductive feeling, but still there’s heavier meanings. You’ll see tonight how it has changed from the recording.
ZZ: Is there anything else you ‘d like to tell the folks who read this, Lydia?
LL: I wanna say: heal yourself. Find a way to create, create in an alternative method. Don’t always look to pick up a stupid guitar to create. As a matter of fact, burn the guitars and drums immediately. Not that everybody should play electronic music, but what about a tuba, saxophones, washboards… Forget everything you’ve learned or consumed as a cultural consumer and try to create your own genre, whether it’s with painting, with photography, with music, with film. That’s all I can say.
(c) Zuri Zone