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Lydia Lunch Speaks In The Enemy’s Tongue

12 February 2024
Lydia Lunch is a self-proclaimed ‘confrontationalist’. It is this characterisation that reverberates in my ears during the first five minutes of our Zoom call. I can hear Lydia Lunch but she cannot hear me.
It’s the end of November. Australia’s La Nina summer has barely hit its stride. As Lunch and I engage in a nauseously unbalanced dialogue—her responding, ‘I-can’t-hear-you’ about one every four times I ask, ‘can you hear me?’—I am lucky to use the weather as an excuse for my increasingly sweaty brow.
Finally, a breakthrough! The sound issue is rectified. But I experienced no relief. I still feel confronted by the 'confrontational' herself and more vulnerable than ever, now that she can finally hear me and my fawning questions about her long and lustrous careers in punk and spoken word
Lydia Lunch began her residency on the world’s stage at just 16, when she first moved to New York City. She instantly gravitated towards Max’s Kanas City, a venue that served as a breeding ground for American artists in the mid-1960s. There, she fell in with protopunks Alan Vega and Martin Rev of the band Suicide and established herself as a stalwart of the burgeoning punk movement as the lead singer of the seminal no-wave band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks.
Despite Teenage Jesus and Jerks's continued influence, their greatest gift to music was in fact their short life span, for it was their breakup in 1979 that unlocked Lunch’s extraordinary potential for collaboration. Since then, Lunch has collaborated with pioneering musicians of all generic persuasions, from Brian Eno, who produced the compilation album No New York on which Teenage Jesus appears, to Sonic Youth, with whom she recorded ‘Death Valley ‘69’ or, as Kerrang! Magazine calls it, one of “The 50 Most Evil Songs Ever!”
To Australian fans, she is best known for her prolific musical partnership with cult figure and former member of The Birthday Party, Rowland S. Howard. In 1982, she and Howard recorded a cover of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s classic ‘Some Velvet Morning’. Using atonal piano notes to recall the creepy dissonance of a horror film’s theme, their version brings the song’s lyrical themes of death and sexual deviance to the fore in a way the original would never have dared. In 1991, Lunch and Howard released their album Shotgun Wedding, which is broadly considered to be one of the greatest achievements of Lunch’s forty-year career.
Alongside her musical ventures, Lunch has somehow found time for a number of other projects: she has made over two hundred episodes of The Lydian Spin, the podcast she co-hosts with fellow musician Tim Dahl; she has run her own recording and publishing label, Widowspeak; she has made and been the subject of several documentaries, including Artists: Depression Anxiety and Rage and The War Is Never Over; and she has even released a cookbook, The Need to Feed.
It is her tandem career as a spoken word performer that brings Lunch back to Australia in March 2024. Joined by the genre-defying artist Joseph Keckler—who will open the night with a set of comedy songs in operatic style—Lunch will bring her show ‘Tales of Lust and Madness’ to Melbourne Recital Centre for a night of the blackest humour imaginable.
Once the sweat on my brow subsides, Lunch and I settle into an amusing conversation about some pretty heavy topics. We discussed the common thread of mental illness that links artists of all mediums, the positive emotional numbness she experiences watching herself onscreen and the recent ending of her band Retrovirus. It is also worth noting that our conversation took place in November 2023, a time of blissful ignorance regarding the 2024 Iowa caucus and other such events, which have come to clarify the likelihood of Donald Trump’s return to office…

AS Lydia, the band you’ve been fronting for the last decade, Retrovirus, played its last show recently. How does it feel to be closing that chapter?

LL Yeah, well, you know, we’ve done as much as we could. I mean, we’ve gone everywhere! It’s kind of the Lydian jukebox so, I mean, I’m certainly not done with music; I have many things in the works. But I am coming to Australia with spoken word.

AS Yes, that show is coming up in March 2024 and will feature you and Joseph Keckler. Am I right in thinking the two of you won’t be onstage at the same time?

LL Right. It’s interesting because I was exposed to Joseph Keckler through my podcast; somebody recommended that I have him on. And from the minute we started talking, that was it! A lot of my friends had seen his performance, but I had never seen him because of my touring schedule.

And we had very different disciplines. He is also a great storyteller, whether it is a song or a story. He does both ballads and strange opera. I’m a musical schizophrenic, and we just came together and very diversely combined. We’ve been doing quite a few shows together.

AS Joseph has been on your podcast a couple of times. The first time was in 2021, which was the same year that he also appeared in your documentary, Artists: Depression, Anxiety and Rage. Which of those encounters happened first?

LL Actually, that documentary just debuted in Italy for four shows.

AS How did it go?

LL Oh, it was fantastic! It's mandatory right now. I don’t have depression or anxiety. My rage I’ve paid for...

AS [laughs]

LL … All my wonderful friends, those miserable cunts [laughs] seem to have it. So, I thought now was a mandatory time to do a film about this. I'm very happy that it's complete. I mean, we had 70 hours of interviews down to 65 minutes.

That was with Jasmine Hirsch, who is Australian. She directs. She ran up to me, I think, on the streets of Sydney—this is maybe fifteen or twenty years ago—and said to me, “I have a gift for you," and it was a T-shirt that she had designed of her holding a gun saying, “So many men so few bullets.”

And at the time, she was doing a documentary on Aileen Wuornos, the female serial killer who had gone to death row. She interviewed me for that, and then she eventually came to America and we hooked up—all, I guess, maybe eight or more years ago.

And it just came time to do this [documentary]. The best comment I had from someone was that, not only was it good for people who suffer from this, but it’s good for people who have loved ones that do, and they don't quite understand it. So many of the stories are very similar, even though the details are different. And, of course, in our music and literature, there’s been so many historically people who have had depression and committed suicide. There were a few studies that said like 73% of musicians have some form of depression.

AS So Joseph was someone that you met through your podcast and then realised he was able to speak to these issues?

LL Right. I also found out that his family house burnt down when he was 3. I thought he had some issues that needed to be covered in a documentary [laughs].

AS Fair enough!

LL He’s someone who decided at 14 to be an opera singer and he’s also coming from an alternative reality. That’s what's so unique about him. I’ve worked with very alternative, very accomplished musicians, artists, and writers, but I had never worked with anybody whose main field was opera. And that’s just one of his fields.

AS: You can tell when you read articles about Joseph that people don't quite know how to treat his unique brand of performance. But I think the common thread between your work and his is quite clear. Even as you mentioned before, while the two of you have very different performance styles, you are bound together by a really black sense of humour. Is that fair to say?

LL Thank you!

AS [laughs]

LL Yes, we both have a very dark sense of humour. I mean, I know I just stand up to tragedy. I’m whistling past the graveyard, laughing. We’re chucklefuckers. Thank you for recognising that in my work.

AS Of course!

LL I don't know why people are nervous to laugh at my shows. They're more likely to cry. Maybe because I don’t allow for the punchline. You know, the word ‘punch’, it’s a physical thing... That’s a joke.

AS [laughs] Well, perhaps you weren’t allowing space for the punchline, and I fell into the trap.

LL Yeah I don’t allow for it! I love it when people laugh at my work because reality is absurd. We’re in the most absurd of all times right now so somebody has to come in and slice through the bullshit.

AS Well, speaking of ‘slicing through the bullshit’, that’s definitely another thing that you share with Joseph. I think it comes from the strange combination in both of your works between the high and the lowbrow. I hope that’s not an insensitive thing to say.

LL That’s great!

AS I’ve heard you speak before about how there’s something inherently elitist about spoken word. And surely the same could be said of opera in Joseph’s case. The themes that you tend to explore in your poetry—sexuality, sexual fantasy, violence—I expect people are often shocked to be confronted by them in the environment of spoken word. Is that something that you strive for?

LL Well you know, the French get it! [laughs] The French aren’t afraid of sex, death, reality, etc.

AS It’s true. But maybe we are?

LL Well, take a comedian for instance. In comedy, there might be some aggressive females, but in spoken word, there's just not enough. We need aggressive females to speak in the enemy’s language and express the dark, dirty obsessions that we, as women, do have. After reading Henry Miller, Hubert Selby, Genet, Foucault very early, I just thought, well, I need to get in there! That's my field of revelation and somebody from the female perspective has got to discuss it.

AS Given that there aren’t many aggressive women in the spoken word, am I to assume that there are a disproportionate number of aggressive men?

LL It’s interesting because a few people that I brought to the spoken word stage for the first time, like Nick Cave or Vincent Gallo, have found it kind of terrifying. I find being onstage with a microphone the most empowering and powerful thing. At one point when I lived in LA, I had an event called ‘The Unhappy Hour’ every Sunday, and I pushed a lot of people to the spoken word stage. I’m like, ‘You’ve got the stories; it’s just ten minutes. Just do it!’

AS You mentioned Nick Cave there, who is someone that Melbourne tends to be very proud of...

LL Well, I’m more pro-Rowland S. Howard.

AS That’s exactly what I was getting to. He’s also someone who means so much to the Melbourne music scene and who you've collaborated with so many times over the years. Is he part of the reason why you seem to be coming back to Melbourne?

LL Look, I'm a road dog. I've gotta go where I've gotta go. Yes, he’s one of the reasons, but I love the culture in Australia. I love the architecture, especially in Melbourne. I find it very unique, all these little boutique places. The people are great and very art-conscious. But yeah, I'm happy that in the time that I’m going to be there, there's another Pop Crimes [an album from Rowland S. Howard’s solo career] event that I’ll be on, singing some of the songs.

AS Oh really?

LL Yeah, I don't have the date in front of me.

AS That’s exciting!

LL Yeah, I did some shows in Europe with the Mick Harvey Orchestrated Tribute to Rowland a few years ago, which was fantastic. So many of his songs are in one place. Teenage Snuff Films is just one of my favourite records of all time. It’s so beautiful and having been able to work with Rowland (he was so sensitive, so funny, so talented) what I try to point out to other musicians is that his genius was the economy of sound. They want to play too many notes, but with him, every note matters. It’s the economy of sound, it’s so spacious, spatial and just so fantastic.

AS How did the two of you arrive at the idea of covering ‘Some Velvet Morning’?

LL The first time [The Birthday Party] played in New York, I went up to Rowland at the end of their gig, which had been fantastic. I was just sort of surprised that he knew Queen of Siam [Lunch’s 1980 album] and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. He said he’d like to do ‘Some Velvet Morning’ and I said ‘fine’. ‘Come to London; we’re gonna record it’. And off I went shortly after.

AS That's great! It’s such a perfect song.

LL It was just an immediate connection.

AS Yeah, and one that continued on for years after. About thirty years ago, you and Rowland were interviewed by Melbourne music icon, the Ghost on Triple R, and Rowland reflected, ‘Out of everyone, she knows what she wants to do and she does it.

LL Perfectly put.

AS Yeah, I thought you would like that. Rowland was just one of the many people you’ve collaborated with over the years. You’ve spoken before about how it's not necessarily a person that you identify and want to collaborate with. Generally, you first identify a musical concept or a genre that you want to approach. Has there been anything recently that’s got you thinking, ‘That’s a genre that needs Lydia’s attention’?

LL I do have an unreleased album that’s almost finished with this incredible musician, Sylvia Black. It’s very jazz-noir; it’s very forensic in lyrically and we do double-singing. She's an incredible chanteuse; she wrote the music It’s very much like Henri Mancini's film. It’s part singing, part spoken word, so that's about finished.

And just finishing up with Retrovirus. And then, I’ve been touring Europe with my tribute to the group Suicide, with Marc Hurtado. Suicide was one of my first friends in New York. And it’s just been really great to do that music. It’s much more violent than it was originally. But it’s great to keep that music alive, which was so important at the time.

AS Still important today! Are they quite emotional shows?

LL Yeah. What’s great is that half the show is Alan Vega songs and half is Suicide. And the Alan Vega lyrics are so vague and simple, but I can say whatever I want so I’m just ranting the whole time. And a lot of it is about war and, you know, the war is never over in my eyes, obviously. Well, it’s too big a job for one woman.

AS But you’ll do your best.

LL I did make a commercial called ‘Dump Trump’. It’s on YouTube.

AS And success! I suppose…

LL Well, he’s not in the landfill I wanted him to end up in.

AS All in good time. Now, you said the phrase ‘the war is never over’, which is the title of the documentary that Beth B has just made about you. And I believe it’s going to be screened before your show in Castlemaine.

LL I love that place.

AS Oh, you’ve been before?

LL I’m just a travel tramp. I loved Castlemaine; it’s fantastic.

AS It's a real hub for creative practice. How did the documentary come about?

LL Yeah, originally, I’ve known Beth since ‘77 or ‘78. Teenage Jesus used to play every Monday in a residency at Max’s Kansas City, and so I asked her if she wanted to show films. But she decided to make films every week. We were already both relentless at that point.

But people have asked me over the years to make a documentary. I’m like, ‘How are you going to condense what I do?’ You’re going to follow me around every day, like a livestream!?

But when Beth approached me, I knew that she wanted to dig more into the philosophy of why it’s important for me to be verbalising the traumas that so many people have and that is in a lot of my music and spoken word. And at the same time, I'm not depressed. Although I may take a negative approach to the work I do, why am I gonna show you how fucking positive and funny I am!? You gotta pay extra for that.

AS [laughs]

LL Somebody’s gotta be there to express the darker things in an articulate way from a feminine point of view. But I think it was a hard job for her. From the beginning, I was like, ‘What about part two? How are you gonna get everything?’

AS What, you only got up to 1978 in the first part of the documentary?

LL No [laughs] we got up to Retrovirus. But still. You can only squeeze so much. She got a lot.

AS Do you think you’ll sit down and watch the documentary when it’s aired in Castlemaine?

LL I mean, it went to fifty film festivals. And I went with it.

AS And what’s it like to watch the film? You're probably used to seeing yourself on screen, but is it strange?

LL No. It’s like, ‘That’s what I do.’

AS It’s just part and parcel.

LL Yeah, basically. I feel more like, ‘the lighting should’ve been better there.’

AS [laughs] Okay.

LL ‘Oh, that video is so ugly.’ ‘Oh, I really liked that performance; I’m glad you got a clip of that.’ That sort of thing.

AS I just wanted to ask you one more question, Lydia.

LL Only one more?!

AS Yes, unfortunately. There’s an Australian band called Teen Jesus and the Jean Teasers. I wondered if you’d heard of them.

LL I didn’t know they were from Australia! Somebody pointed this out to me, but what are they? Pop punk?

As Yeah, it’s not quite your vibe. I’m not sure what you’d make of it.

LL Maybe they don’t even have any idea what they’re talking about. As I like to say, don't blame me for other people’s crimes; I’m not responsible. I think that you and I should give them an education: lock them in a room for 24 hours and play nothing but Teenage Jesus, then make them go wash their jeans after they’ve shat them.

AS [laughs] I’m not sure I’d want to see the state of their jean teasers after that.

LL Yeah, we’ll see what they’re talking about then.

Lydia Lunch & Joseph Keckler in Australia

Mar 7: OHM Festival - Brisbane - Tickets
Mar 8: OHM Festival - Brisbane - Tickets
Mar 9: Byron Theatre - Byron Bay - Tickets
Mar 14: Adelaide Town  Hall - Adelaide - Tickets
Mar 15: Melbourne Recital Centre - Melbourne - Tickets
Mar 16: Melbourne Recital Centre - Melbourne - Tickets
Mar 17: Theatre Royal - Castlemaine - Tickets
Mar 21: Phoenix Central Park - Sydney - Tickets
Mar 22: The Great Club - Sydney - Tickets
Mar 23: Mona, Nolan Gallery - Hobart - Tickets
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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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