Culture / Music

In conversation with Lydia Lunch: singer, poet and 90s No Wave icon

Jess Blanch wrote in her editor's letter, for the Life issue, a list of "thing(s) she now know(s)", and I can safely say that a thing that I now know is, that answering "How are you?" with, "I’m perfect" is a strong start to a conversation.

Although it is foolish of me to think American No Wave musician and poet Lydia Lunch would be anything other than an empowered force, the knowing simplicity of this answer really set the tone for our conversation. Ahead of her tour with Joseph Keckler, in which she is playing venues like Phoenix Central Park, The Great Club and a Rowland S. Howard tribute show (to name a few), I managed to get half an hour of her time to discuss, well, everything.

Lunch is an artistic institution, who is no stranger to spoken word, seems supremely energised by her shows with Keckler, saying: "It's fantastic because we're both extremely weird. We're very dark in different ways".

Lunch lets Keckler “soften the audience up for the hammer” before she performs her sexual revenge stories, which she says are "for the ladies". Spoken word is an intimidating choice for some; Lunch claims to be the first and last person to put people on stage in that format (like Vincent Gallo, for example), yet for her "it's the most empowering position to be in – naked, of course – but with a microphone". For Lunch, it’s a mandatory medium for her art, "even with music, the words are the bullets, and we have the machine guns fire in the music, but it's what I wanted to do in the beginning". As to whether or not it is entirely improvisational, it "depends how much you stimulate her (baby)", it’s unique every time, "you never know, I could be laughing before I begin and somebody else could be crying".

When discussing her work, Lunch has said in the past that she is using the enemy’s language and she is inspiringly fearless. If a frat boy heckles her and says to "suck his dick", she invites them up on stage and they become the one on their knees. And yet, she’s not a misandrist, and in fact pities men "because would you want to be responsible for all the devastation the world has ever experienced?" She feels that she is actually the protector of some of her shier male collaborators, like Jg Thirlwell and Rowland Howard, and even she "can be cute". However, she has only ever been nervous once, she tells me, during her second show with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Lunch quickly dissipated the "horrible feeling" by realising it was her job to make the audience nervous, not the other way around. Lunch, although intelligent, empathetic, erudite and hilarious, claims she doesn’t have "normal human emotions, per say".

I’m curious to know what advice Lunch would want to give to younger female artists, and it appears to be one of self defence, with a "wide range of extremisms". Essentially, Lunch feels that a woman needs to be able to "psychologically, verbally, physically and sexually defend herself. One of my mantras is, we have ten fingers, they have two eyes…".

Lunch’s matra’s are as much centred around humour as they are violence, growing up in a very different and dangerous New York, she couldn’t "box the entire lower east side" so her witty verbal comebacks became part of her female self-defence plan. Lunch admires the retort of the first female Asian-American newscaster Connie Chung who, when men gave her a hard time, would respond with, "you’re not attractive enough for me". Lunch feels "we have to learn better tactics for not being intimidated. I mean, you can't take on a pack of wild wolves dressed in, you know, frat boy clothes".

When deflecting intimidation, it seems that community and strength in numbers could be key, which leads us to talking about subcultures and one of Lunch’s first movements, COW: Conspiracy of Women. Lunch witnessed war, race riots and Reagan, which explains why she is an "apocalyptic Titan", who refuses to ignore her political world and even made a 'Dump Trump' commercial. ("It’s on YouTube. It's a good one!") Lunch needs to keep talking about it, because it’s not going to go away. By day, she is obsessed with her titanism, but by night she is a complete hedonist. "I think pleasure is the ultimate rebellion, especially for women. I think we need the covens, women have guts to have their collectives and we have to recognise our real power and our strength". Lunch feels safe everywhere, but advocates the three dollar screech alarm for women that don’t, or your own voice over something that could be "turned back on you".

Returning to Lunch’s voice, she has used it to reinterpret the work of a lot of other male writers, be that Suicide or Lee Hazlewood. She has made full records of cover songs that she hated as a teenager, reclaiming the lyrics and the intention as her own. And now when she performs the work of Alan Vega and Suicide (her friends), she enjoys the fact that a lot of the songs are about war, fitting for a titan or ‘Head Witch’.

When choosing who to collaborate with, for Lunch, it is always down to the person rather than where they are from. She is a self-professed conceptualist, always choosing the concept first, then the collaborator second. Unlike her combative daytime nature, Lunch says collaboration is a very comfortable, comforting zone "I just want them to do whatever they want to do. My ego is so secure, I don’t have to force it on people. I just pump them up, hoping they will be more like me in the end."

Lunch is riveting in conversation, and full of these amazing one-liners like "Every girl wants a serial killer boyfriend until they get one", or "I never met a man I couldn’t kill". She also threatens to compile her quips into a book of C*ntfucius – a book I would most certainly buy.

She has been an actor "without a mask" and is now a filmmaker in her own right. Formerly a muse of American filmmaker and writer Richard Kern (amongst others), Lunch has made a documentary called Artists Depression Anxiety and Rage, which she created during the pandemic and recorded largely on Zoom. She went through 70 hours of footage to investigate the way artists felt in response to depression, trauma and shame. However, shame is not something that plagues Lunch. She grew up in a world of riots and mania across the street and down the block; internalising negative things that happened to her doesn't come naturally. Trauma might be naturally occurring in the world, just not in her's, so why be isolated with shame? But the question remains, how does a self-professed 'Head Witch' avoid these feelings? "I guess being my own biggest fan. I think everybody should be their own biggest fan, because that's what you want to come into the world as – what you're gonna go out with – and if you don't like something about yourself, f*cking fix it. Get over it and fix it."


Lydia Lunch will be touring Australia for the rest of the month. Check out Press Play's website for tour dates and ticketing information.

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