Straight from the volcano’s mouth: A conversation with Lydia Lunch

Lydia Lunch. Photo by Jasmine Hirst.

By Ashley Naftule

Lydia Lunch isn’t just the voice of her generation — She’s also its eyes, its ears, its memory. The spoken word artist, author, and musician is, in her own words, “a historical skull Rolodex film strip of so much history that I couldn’t even see it all in two seconds.” From her rise in New York City’s No Wave scene to decades spent working as an artistic nomad across multiple countries and disciplines, Lunch has seen and done just about everything. Whereas so many of her fellow No-Wave peers have retired, passed on, or sanded their edges down, she’s as scabrous and fierce as ever.

In many ways, Lunch embodies and interweaves the patriarchy’s dueling conceptions of women: either as mothers or whores. She’s a self-avowed den mother of the underground, who got her stage name based on her habit of keeping punk band The Dead Boys fed (hey, someone had to keep the Sonic Reducer boys from starving to death). She’s been a vocal proponent and supporter of other artists, helping to nurture their own voices and careers alongside her own. And in her work as a musician and writer, she isn’t afraid to poke around in the darkest corners of sexuality, trauma, and human depravity: in Lunch’s version of history, the whore is a Medea-esque figure of retribution who happily feeds her pain back to her enemies threefold.

While Lunch got her start fronting the seminal (yet short-lived) Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, she really made her musical mark with future musical projects like her solo album debut Queen of Siam and her work with groups like 8-Eyed Spy and Big Sexy Noise. She’s also collaborated with a long list of underground luminaries, including Sonic Youth, Einsturzende Neubauten, Alan Vega, Michael Gira, Nick Cave, Rowland S. Howard, Marc Almond, Robert Quine, and J.G. Thirlwell.

Lunch has also distinguished herself as a poet, essayist, and spoken word. Her most recent book, So Real It Hurts, is a collection of essays Lunch has written over the years. Rejected 26 times by American publishers (a number Lunch flashes as a badge of honor), it came out to rave reviews earlier this year. She’s also been keeping herself busy with her latest band project, Retrovirus, and with a podcast called The Lydian Spin she recently launched with musician Tim Dahl.

We got a chance to talk to Lunch before she heads out on tour (with a stop in Phoenix on Thursday, August 8). An animated and eloquent talker, Lunch was happy to hold forth on topics ranging from psychics to podcasts to The War is Never Over, an upcoming documentary about her life and work.

Echo: Let’s start by talking about The War is Never Over. How did the documentary come about?

Lydia Lunch: People have been asking me for years: “Where’s the documentary?” And I’m like, “Please—I’m not dead and I’m not done.”  But I’ve been working with Beth B. since ‘79 on various films and projects. So when she suggested it, I just thought it was the right time and she was the right person to do it.

Echo: You’ve seen the doc — do you feel it does a good job of portraying your life and work?

Lunch: She did an amazing job. It focuses a lot on the spoken word and, of course, on some of the music. And there’s an interesting array of people she’s interviewed, which is important to me because I’ve worked with a lot of people and that connective tissue is very important. It’s not just, you know, about me, it’s about what I’ve dealt with and who I’ve dealt with while dealing with this stuff. I realize that either I’m the most insane person on the planet or I’m the most hyper-sane, I have yet to figure that one out.

Echo: Is there any aspect of your life & career that you wished the documentary focused more on or got passed over entirely?

Lunch:No. What’s most important to me about it is that because of the interview she did with me, which runs throughout the documentary, and because she understands the philosophy of why I do what I do, it doesn’t matter what format it takes or who I’m doing it with. The point has always been that somebody, especially from a female perspective, has to address the universal wounds that we’ve all been traumatized with in one way or another. If we’ve been victimized, there’s no reason to be a victim: I’ve always turned the knife outward, not inward… Are you still there?

Echo: Yes.

Lunch:Okay. Cause I’m in Greenpoint — but I call it Green Acres — and the phone cuts out a lot here. You know, the subjects of my attack have always been the father, of the family — the nuclear fascism; the father of our country; and God. The father has always been the imbalance of power. And being subjected to the cancer of birth and how you go beyond that. Not just to survive, but to thrive. So that’s been my priority since they woke me up and I let out my first infant child scream from the womb, I guess … I came out screaming. We all did. We all come up crying for a reason.

Echo: You’ve recently started doing your own podcast, The Lydian Spin.  As someone who’s spent so much time on the other end of the interviewing table, having to talk about your life and your process: Do you find that experience informs how you run your podcast and talk to your subjects?

Lunch:What’s interesting about the podcast, which we already have like 26 episodes recorded—The Lydian Spin with Tim Dahl, who’s a musician I’ve been playing with in Retrovirus and he’s played with a number of people and he knows everything. And it’s this bizarre connective tissue: I know most of those people that we’re talking to. We go from an 80-year old Russ Meyer superstar to the producer of The Virgin Suicides and American Psycho to a psychic to a  filmmaker who concentrates on Santa Muerte to Donita Sparks. The list of people is quite incredible. And it’s this kind of community that is connected, basically, just by their stubbornness and persistence to keep doing what they do. The creativity while still being outside of everything. We all occupy our own different ghettos, but there’s a thing that connects us somehow.

I just find it very interesting — to highlight other people in what they’re doing. It’s why I do the musical collaborations, it’s why I’ve curated spoken word for years. I’m kind of the queen of the coven, den mother to the misfits; it’s just one of the things I do.

Echo: Since you’ve mentioned that one of your guests was a psychic. What’s your take on that? Do you think there’s something to extrasensory perception? To the occult?

Lunch:I’m going to start sideways from that. It’s like reincarnation — though I don’t really like that word. I think some of us have access to a reading of our DNA on which all of our history’s agonies have been recorded. So I think that our bloodline is a library, but some of us can read those codes and others can’t. And why most people can’t is that we’d be too horrified to know the amount of blood our blood has spilled throughout history.

I work with another person: Jasmine Hirst. We do a lot of videos together and she does a lot of photography for me. She just has this ability to literally pull things out of the ether that relate to people when we’re talking to them — and I have the ability to bring it back to the here and now.

So it’s not so much voodoo. I think it’s a different language that some people can speak and others can’t. Which is not to say that all people who are involved in psychic readings are legitimate. But I think there are some people that are.

Echo: I’ve never heard of the paranormal described as a different kind of language. That’s really interesting.

Lunch:There’s also understanding the corrosion of bloodlines and what’s passed on. I think that I started understanding this when I had to deal with my father’s insanity and realizing it didn’t start with my father. It doesn’t start with your specific parents. Anybody’s that neglected or abused or traumatized, it’s a part of our human genetics, this trauma in our blood that cannot be erased.  It’s a lot of what I talk about in my work. Like when I say I’m feeling murderous again, it’s not just a fucking poem.

What reason do I have to be violent? Well, the reason I have to be violent is I see what’s going on everywhere else. I have violent tendencies, which I translate into language because I see the global violence and I can’t resist trying to find a way to articulate it. That was pretty good. That was pretty astute, considering I’m sweating and surrounded by a tornado of my possessions as I pack to leave for six weeks and a few days.

Echo: That was good.

Lunch:I’m glad you’re laughing. I think that’s one thing people don’t understand about me unless they talk to me personally. My work is extremely heavy: It’s dense, it’s aggressive, it’s not pretty. There’s not much glamour or romance there. But underneath it, I am laughing hysterically: As the mouth of the volcano, I have to. I have to find some kind of lunacy in this never-ending apocalypse because otherwise I’d be crying a river or jumping offstage.

Echo: Yeah, it’d be hard to imagine anyone living their whole life all the time with the kind of heavy energy you bring to the stage.

Lunch:When darkness falls, I become carefree. I leave all that crap onstage. One of my mantras for years for is that pleasure is the ultimate rebellion. It’s because we’ve become catatonic, especially now under this campaign of idiocy and pathological lies that they — that is to say, the enemy, the politicians and the like — win. So we have to find our pleasure where we will, we have to have community, we have to talk to each other. We have to have intimate experiences. That’s what refreshes the blood in the breast; that’s what refreshes the fucking soul. And it’s not done on the internet. It’s done one by one.

Echo: Speaking of collaborations, I’m really curious to hear how the collaboration between you and Nicolas Jaar came about. How did Jaar’s remix of Conspiracy of Women happen?

Lunch:Four years ago, I received an email from Nicolas — somebody I didn’t really know at the time — who said they really liked my album, Conspiracy of Women, which was one of my early spoken word releases. I’m like, that’s great. Then six months later I get another email from him going, “No, I really like this record. And I’ve been mixing it into my live show.”

It was interesting because when he wrote to me six months later, he just had his tonsils removed and couldn’t talk. I’m like, well, I’d like to talk to you. And he goes, “Well, I can’t talk right now.” But we eventually meet. I looked him up and I’m like, oh my god, who is this guy? How does he have more hits on YouTube than collectively everyone I know? And so we talked and it was interesting because that album came out the year of his birth. And Nicolas Jaar is a Chilean-Palestinian artist who got into No-Wave at the age of 10. He said he thought my spoken word was incredibly musical, so he started mixing in some of my word stuff with his electronic ambient music. And I said, so you’re going from a dance party to a funeral party live? And he goes, oh no, people are applauding it! 

He’s in the documentary, too. He just really understood my work, especially the political aspects and what I was saying about war. And he’s just a beautiful human being.

Echo: In past interviews, you’ve mentioned that you’re trying to find a home for your personal archives. Had any luck placing them?

Lunch:NYU is buying my archives. It’s this incredible body of work that I can’t wait for people to access — a digital museum where people could go, “Oh, spoken word, 1984, what was going on?” So I’m very happy about that. They’re going to open their new library next September — I think a year from September.

Echo: And so your archive will be available to the public?

Lunch: Oh, absolutely! Yeah. I mean, there’s so much stuff in there. There are so many live performances that people haven’t seen, and manuscripts, personal correspondences. And I’ve been doing photography since 1990 — there are boxes and boxes here of photos that nobody’s ever seen. And there are about 800 emails I put in there — messages to specific people that have a lot of poetry in those emails. Posters, handbills, photos people have taken of me. Recordings and my books.

I opened the hard drive to see what’s in there and I just shut it and ran out of the room. It’s insane. It’s a good thing I have eight arms and at least two sides of my brain.

Lydia Lunch presents: So Real It Hurts [A Spoken Word Performance] at Valley Bar in downtown Phoenix on Thursday, August 8. With Mishka Shubaly and DJ Kid Congo Powers. Tickets are available via Eventbrite.