October 6th, 2009 | Interviews

carolyn pennypacker riggs

Teenage Jesus and the Jerks were arguably one of the most feralized bands on the No New York compilation and Lydia Lunch would only penetrate deeper and deeper from there. A one-shot reunion show in New York last year has become a mini-tour that will visit L.A., but after that, says Lunch, it’s done and buried. Brutalization follows. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

When Teenage Jesus and the Jerks played in New York City last year, it was always set up as a one-shot deal. Yet here we are.
Lydia Lunch (vocals/guitar): I never thought I would have done reunions—it’s ridiculous to me. It’s Thurston Moore that’s to be blamed with his no wave book that he put out last year. A few months before it was coming out he was actually in Barcelona on my couch and he turned to me and said, ‘Well, what about a Teenage Jesus reunion?’ I said, ‘What about the fact that they’re all dead except for Sclavunos? Are you ready to take the wrath of the wire coat hanger and play bass?’ And he jumped up and down and said, ‘Yes!’ So that’s how Teenage Jesus got together in the beginning. He decided he’d go under the coat hanger so we did the New York show and then we developed All Tomorrow’s Parties. I guess the final nail in the coffin for the next couple of shows was based in the fact that in Montreal there’s something called a Pop Symposium—they invited me last year with my multimedia thing and then they got the snifter of Teenage Jesus and they were so kind and I said, ‘Well, I’m not going all the way to the States for one fucking show—I don’t even want to come there for five shows!’ Also the fact that I knew Thurston couldn’t do it and so my favorite bass player in the world must be Algis Kizys from the Swans and he’s doing it. This is what you get in L.A.—Jim Sclavunos, the original bass player, now on drums and Algis Kizys from Swans on bass—how could I say no? Mostly to me, it’s kind of ridiculous. It’s absurdist and I’ve always been absurd anyway. I’ve always considered myself a Dadaist and it’s the most Dada fucking music, and it must be the most Dada idea that 30 years later we’re doing this. One of the reasons is there is still not enough women playing ugly fucking music as a counter to all these pop princesses.
Who litter the streets of Los Angeles?
Lydia Lunch: Exactly. Somebody’s got to be bold enough to go, ‘This is fucking ugly. Deal. Deal.’ And it feels good. So that’s it—there’s five more shows and it’s buried. It’s done.
What is that ugliness in music? How do you identify it and how do you respond to it?
Lydia Lunch: With Teenage Jesus it’s just brutality. The music is brutal. The lyrics are brutal. It makes me feel very brutal. When I did the first shows at the Knitting Factory with Thurston I was amazed that I felt so fucking angry—‘Hang on a second, haven’t I had half a century to deal with my fucking anger issues?’ But the music just inspired … maybe it’s because people were so happy to see it.
Happy to be brutalized?
Lydia Lunch: Yeah, and that kind of grated on me. But then when we did All Tomorrow’s Parties I was a little bit gentler. I guess I was used to the bobblehead effect of people bouncing to the beat. I don’t know. To me, it’s personally mandatory to play music that’s this minimal and so uncompromising and to pick up the fucking guitar which is a grand assaultive weapon and then it’s done. Get it out of my system—it’s done.
The Beefheart guitar commandments say don’t point a guitar at someone unless you’re willing to use it.
Lydia Lunch: Oh baby, please! Bend over, I’ll drive it home! [Grunts brutally]
What’s been your most energizing interaction with the crowd at one of these shows?
Lydia Lunch: When they started singing along with the lyrics I just started changing them. I don’t even remember the fucking lyrics. Stop it. Whatever, it’s just hilarious and it’s hilarious that it riles me up.
You said that when you watched the old footage of yourself on Video Hysterie, it was like watching your daughter. So what’s it like to perform this?
Lydia Lunch: Oh God, it’s so primal. It’s almost like watching a bacterial version of myself. That’s why I call it the retrovirus—when people want to talk, I call it the retrovirus. ‘One more dose of the retrovirus.’
So this is your new infection vector?
Lydia Lunch: Exactly. Great title for the article. There is no inoculation against the retrovirus. The disease is the cure because it fucking kills you. Oh, if only …
You’ve talked about how you try and reverse the anarchist saying that ‘Whoever creates, demands destruction.’ So whoever destroys demands creation?
Lydia Lunch: I think whoever’s been destroyed demands a self-mandatory survival—it’s a need to create. A lot of the stuff that I do now—multimedia psycho-ambient soundscapes which I create myself with one or two other live improv collaborators—a lot of the montage stuff that I’m doing is taking a small close-up of a piece of destroyed building, especially this one from the Spanish Civil War time which was destroyed in 1933.
The first city bombed by its own country, right?
Lydia Lunch: Right—Belchite. Taking just a corner of that and montaging it and mirroring it so it becomes almost like this beautiful jewel box—this piece of jewelry. That’s just how I maintain my sanity at this point. I go back and look at all the shit I started saying under Reagan when I first got really political—dot fucking dot dot, man. I could go back and hear those speeches and go, ‘We’re right back to where we fucking were.’ And if I don’t take another route to express that, I would just be literally in the rubber room by now pounding my head against my own .357.
Do you still have that .357?
Lydia Lunch: In Spain we don’t need a .357. It is a credit to the country, it’s so safe. You have to have your guns at the shooting range here because everybody else does—it’s kind of a letdown. But I would just be completely insane at this point because of the round circle of hypocrisy that America has become. It’s so outrageous to me what’s going on with this false prophet of false hope who’s so entrenched in the network of grand corporate thieves creating a more advanced planet of slaves. That’s why I have to fucking rock. That’s why I have a rock band called Big Sexy Noise—we just finished an album. I was literally just listening to the master. The entire thing was just mastered and the album comes out November 2 and I’ll be touring Europe with that band but it’s like—I just can’t say anymore because it’s all the same fucking thing so now I’m just gonna fucking rock. Fuck off!
You’ve said that your moral imperative was to ‘tell the truth about injustices to the individual and scream into the void.’
Lydia Lunch: At the time it was just natural. It wasn’t even really that politically aware because there wasn’t that much information out about the truth that we knew which was only assumed. The truth was the opposite of everything they told us and instinctively a lot of us knew that. And I go back and it’s like, ‘Yeah, duh, of course!’ And how far back do you want to go? Because I can only go as far back as my own lifetime because otherwise I just get completely insane because we could go back to the cave—it’s the same fucking story.
What’s your favorite tomb, crypt or cave?
Lydia Lunch: It’s probably the caves that I have yet to visit, like the caves in Libya that I would love to go to. They just have these incredible mile-long caves that you can take a boat down. Gaddafi’s opening [them] up, let’s hope.
Is it easier for you to travel into Libya than America?
Lydia Lunch: America does kind of scare me. The direction it’s going in and—you’re there, you know it. England is much worse although since I don’t live there I don’t feel it as much. But in England now they’re going to shut off your Internet if you download. It’s so 1984 and that’s where America is going and it’s pretty much there. They just don’t advertise it as much. It’s worrisome.
Why do you think this is all happening?
Lydia Lunch: I think that so much has gotten done in the decades covertly and it’s so widespread. The conspiracies are all true. The corporate global slave traders are fucking the planet and charging you for the inconvenience and to me one of the reasons I live in Spain is because—and no place is perfect—but the quality of life is so much different. People are not in fear of either violence or living on the streets or losing their fucking mind. They’re only 30 years out from fascism and it’s really a big difference. It’s a big difference in the day-to-day quality of your life when you don’t feel the rent or the government or censorship or any of that shit from oppression breathing down your neck. I’ve been living here for almost five years and I have to live in Europe to perform—I can’t support myself in the States. I just can’t. I can do so many other things here. Spain to me at this moment, it’s not perfect but it feels the sanest because people are not fucking miserable. They’re not neurotic, they’re not psychotic, and that’s a recent thing.
So what’s it like visiting America? Stepping into the blast furnace?
Lydia Lunch: I’ll have to tell you in October. I’m just gonna be there for a hit-and-run, but the thing is America has so many great people—so much great music, so many great artists, so many great fucking cities and what are we gonna do? You think you see change in your life? We thought there was change under Clinton, but he was just a bit more sneaky than everyone else. He was still a corporate whore-lord and basically got America into a lot of the problems that it’s in now. They’re Clinton policies. To me, it’s strange because Ted Kennedy dies and I’m like, ‘Ted Kennedy was at least fighting.’ I mean I love the controversy of his whole personal life anyway, but he was the last man really fighting for the right things.
What are the right things?
Lydia Lunch: Education first and foremost. America is fucking stupid. Education is terrible and they’re instituting all these charter schools which is just another way to make people pay to be elite and fuck all the others. Education is the most important thing. The criminalization of a lot of crap—America still leads by now a half a million more prisoners than when I stopped speaking about prison. Decriminalize a lot of shit. The three strikes, you’re out bullshit, man. You’re setting up a prison planet by not educating people, by having minimum wage so low and then by forcing people for petty crimes into a prison environment where once you’re flagged as that, what’s the fucking choice? Start there. Pretend you fucking care. Obama pretends he cares—work on that shit. That’s it right there—raise the minimum wage, improve schools and decriminalize a lot of this bullshit.
Those three sentences are going to terrify half the people who read this.
Lydia Lunch: It’s so basic.
You said something once like, ‘I don’t do fiction—I don’t know why people fictionalize when there’s plenty in reality.’
Lydia Lunch: Well, yeah—how much more outrageous does it get than the reality we’re living in right now? This is Philip K. Dick territory. This is George Orwell. We’re there. The bottom line of all of this is to find whatever it is that can give you the energy, the strength and the stamina to not fall victim to the chronic depression that this leads to if you get buried under the bullshit. That’s the most difficult and the most interesting thing that anybody has to do. No wonder so many Americans are addicted to prescription drugs. First of all they want to call you sick and claim that any of your problems need immediate pill recourse. They want to make sure you’re sick—either mentally or physically. They’ve done everything to ensure that by driving you crazy and making you unhealthy so that they can incarcerate you in hospitals that you can’t afford and bankrupt you. So what are you gonna do? It is truly a fight to find what it is that can give you the energy, the stamina and not only that because that’s just survival. The ability to fucking laugh in the face of it and on top of that have some fucking fun—that’s where I want to win. That’s the game I want to play and I want to win. I’m so compartmentalized anyway, it’s just a matter of not letting the more negative aspects dominate. The more negative aspects of personality have so many more vehicles in which to musically express themselves. It’s like, ‘Shut up and go away—go back into the closet. Let’s bring out the fucking clowns because what are you gonna do?’
Joan Miró said if he didn’t paint he got ‘black thoughts.’ Are you the same way?
Lydia Lunch: I really enjoy having an empty head. That’s the difference between me and a lot of people is they always have to fill up the silence. I love being alone and silent staring into nowhere, emptying out the hard drive. That gives me great balance because when I have to work that gives me a lot of energy that I can muster because I got a lot of shit that I have to do. So I think a place like Barcelona—because the architecture, the atmosphere, walking around—you don’t have to talk to anybody. You can just look at the buildings and leave me alone. It’s not like you have to fill your brain with ceaseless sound waves and cathode rays or the fucking computer. Go outside. Go outside.
Have you been to the Sagrada Familia?
Lydia Lunch: Yeah. I live one block from the Sagrada Familia. I’ve been to the very top of some of the towers. They’re still building it—they’re never finished. I don’t go out of my house every day if I can avoid it, but when I go out of my house I see it.
You’ve mentioned ‘the devastating effect architecture has on me when its murdered ghosts leak into my bloodstream.’ What is the relationship between architecture and the human soul?
Lydia Lunch: I remember when I first decided to move here. I had been coming to Spain since the late ’80s. I was here five summers ago and I was standing on the balcony just looking into this empty window across the street and stories started to write themselves in my head. I couldn’t see anything inside—I could just see the black window—but it was like how many souls and how much emotion has gone through that portal? And how much remains behind? And how much does the stone, the brick, the terracotta, absorb? It’s just part of my sensitivity. I just published a bilingual book called Amnesia and it’s about abandoned space. It’s about amnesia in love and in war. Spain has great amnesia about their own civil war. It’s called ‘the condition’ here because they still haven’t dug up all the graves from the civil war. And when they got rid of Franco they said they had an amnesia now. It’s part of the reason why the people are happy too, but I’m here to remind them—I haven’t forgotten the dead. Even if they aren’t related to me, I haven’t forgotten those who died. I can’t forget and that’s part of why architecture haunts me because it’s part of a hundred different stories in every window and if you wanted to you could listen to them and they would write themselves. That’s just how it affects me. America doesn’t really have that because it’s not old enough. Some towns do. Look at Los Angeles—Hollywood Boulevard at night and Santa Monica Boulevard at night. The strips between La Brea and Vine after dark are some of the most haunted boulevards in the world to me.
Have you ever walked there at midnight?
Lydia Lunch: Of course. And it just screams of wounded ghosts.
What’s the other side of that? When you’re driving through the American West and you find a place where nobody’s ever been before?
Lydia Lunch: That’s why people have more psychedelic and spiritual experiences in those places because they’re tapping into a different type of energy force field. I just saw something last night about the electromagnetic force field of the earth, that it’s changed about 18,000 times. A lava specialist decoded this because all the top lava, the elements of it are all pointing north, but we’ve dug under to more ancient lava and all the elements in it are pointing in another direction. The lava when it’s hardening is going in the same direction of the electromagnetic field in the same way that whales do. When there was a solar flare-up from the sun, it caused blackouts in the Northeast like a couple years ago. So 2012—they said that 2012 is the next time for solar flare-ups and storms, so maybe the Mayans did know more than we know. But when whales suddenly beach themselves for no obvious reason it could be because of a solar flare-up—the electromagnetic pulse of the earth is off for a short while. I think there’s a lot more out there that we can’t see than what we do see.
What do you think is something that people are just completely willfully ignorant about?
Lydia Lunch: I think all of the electromagnetic poisoning that we have going on. From the cell phone, from the computer, from trains, from everything that we get bombarded with. I think it’s what causes cancer.
What do you think is the next big revelation that people are going to be officially surprised about in the next five years even though it’s basically common knowledge?
Lydia Lunch: I don’t know if anything happens that quickly because if you look at the history of the world, I mean, things happen. If you drop a bomb, it happens immediately. But I just think that it’s gonna dawn a bit slower than that. But time is going much faster now than it used to, so I don’t know what’s finally going to make a universal awareness. There was just a great article in Newsweek saying that people can convince themselves with lies even when presented with the actual truth.
Confirmation bias?
Lydia Lunch: They are so ingrained and frightened that even when confronted with the truth they are going to choose the lie if it’s embedded. That’s most of the population, so who knows? Who knows?
Is there a way to combat that?
Lydia Lunch: You just try to not associate with the fucking liars. They know who we are, we know who they are.
I have another Miró quote for you. He said that what he wanted to do was assassinate painting. Is that what you do with your work?
Lydia Lunch: Absolutely—I mean, in a sense. It’s not even assassinating. It’s just carving out a completely separate channel of my space. It’s not even a niche, it’s my own pulse. So that’s what I continue to carry. It’s my own electricity. I have a lot of electricity and it’s not dimming by any means.
Do you walk under streetlights and they flicker?
Lydia Lunch: Oh yeah, of course.
You said before that the word poetry disgusts you. What else disgusts you?
Lydia Lunch: Oh, Christ—you got a lifetime, kid?
Hopefully I do.
Lydia Lunch: At this moment with the window open and I wish I could say a cool but it’s quite a hot and clammy breeze blowing over my sweaty skin, sitting in a black slip with rhinestone stilettos, nothing could possibly disgust me at this moment. Because fuck it, I’m not going there. I know what disgusts me—it’s so huge. It’s a lexicon that I can’t begin.
A vocabulary of disgust?
Lydia Lunch: Exactly. Let’s focus on the positive.
What can you identify as components of the true vocabulary of reality?
Lydia Lunch: It’s very interesting to me because I don’t think it’s so much of a shared vocabulary as it is again some kind of magnetic channel. When people are hooked into that same level, on some intellectual or emotional level it doesn’t really matter what words you are using because they get you and that’s what’s important to me. And this is a strange example, but some of the people who have ‘gotten’ me the most have a lot less in common with me and my range of experience than you would think.
Who’s an example of that?
Lydia Lunch: It’s not anyone I can point out and name directly because you wouldn’t know who they fucking were, but it’s like sometimes it’s just people who are on your wave and locked into your groove and they just fucking get it. It’s just that way. It’s astonishing on another level that some people who should be in tune with what you do just have no fucking clue.
More Miró—he said that the more of an individual an artist can be, the more universal their appeal.
Lydia Lunch: Well, there you go I guess. I’m very happy appealing to the individual—one at a time is fine for me. I like to be able to look everyone in the eyes while I’m performing; that’s how I like to communicate.
What happens when you look somebody in the eyes?
Lydia Lunch: They freeze because it’s like a jolt of electricity. I want to go in there and I want to try to kill off some of their cancer or their insecurity or whatever. I want to go in there and make direct contact.
Have you ever been hit by lightning?
Lydia Lunch: No, but I have been thrown against the wall by invisible forces. I had a migraine and I went to get up and I thought I was gonna vomit and suddenly I was thrown from one wall to the other and thrown onto the ground in my house in Spain. And I got up off the floor and my headache was gone but both shoulders were bruised.
Was that a fair trade-off?
Lydia Lunch: Eh, I guess so.
So it was a therapeutic poltergeist?
Lydia Lunch: Oh yeah, of course. I’m friends with all the poltergeists now. I used to be haunted and now I’m the haunter.
How do you make that transition?
Lydia Lunch: You really have to protect yourself because you can really allow—back to force fields—you can be too open and too magnetizing to negative forces, negative thoughts, negative energies. You just have to learn, you have to find your own way. You have to find the way to delouse yourself and surround yourself with protective force fields.
Do you think music can do that—psychically delouse you?
Lydia Lunch: Of course. De-Loused in the Comatorium—one of my favorite groups, Mars Volta. I love Mars Volta.
A friend of mine is about to have a kid. What is your advice for a new mother in 2009 in America?
Lydia Lunch: Move as far away as possible. Raise them with wolves!
When’s the last time you bent down and picked a wildflower?
Lydia Lunch: Oh, I do it all the time. I steal flowers—bits of plants—all the time.
What were you doing when you lived in L.A.?
Lydia Lunch: I lived there twice: once in the early ’80s and I lived in Glendale for four years which I really liked at the time. I came back out there to spend a little time with Hubert Selby before he died and Jerry Stahl. Jerry Stahl is just fantastic. It was fine while I was there but it was enough. Pico Boulevard is one of my favorite streets in the world. Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles—honey, I’ll be there. Just channeling my inner Biggie Smalls. And believe me, he’s in there.
Who else is alive and active in your psyche?
Lydia Lunch: That’s a damn good question. There’s always a little Buñuel back there probably because I’m in Spain and there’s always a little bit of Genet because I’m always entertaining criminal thoughts and my whole career has a been a criminal activity.
What’s your favorite criminal act?
Lydia Lunch: My existence.