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Things I Have Learned

Lydia Lunch: My Life As A Work In Progress
Alex Ogg , October 7th, 2008 13:41

Alex Ogg sets the tape running and stands back in awed silence as New York no wave shit-kicker Lydia Lunch reflects on life as a work in progress.

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Lydia Lunch

Where other wannabe left-fielders may rest on their laurels, the fearless Lunch remains wedded to her vocation as artist-provocateur, working in any medium that fits purpose to push the boundaries of personal expression.

Having relocated to Barcelona a few years ago, Lunch recently published a book of her photographs (The Gun Is Loaded, via Black Dog) while revisiting her first recordings with Teenage Jesus and The Jerks. The release of Shut Up And Bleed follows the Jerks’ reformation gigs at New York’s Knitting Factory in June. Those original confrontational late 70s performances were characterised as ‘aural terror’ by Lunch, and she was in no mood to offer anyone sanitised nostalgia second time around. The back to back shows featured Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore on bass (concurrently launching his No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980 book) and by all accounts perplexed and horrified anew her audience.

As noteworthy as Lunch’s pedigree as no wave scourge might be, it is but one strand of a journey that has encompassed music, spoken word, photography and film. She also swears both prodigiously and magnificently. Here are some insights from 30 years on the margins.

1. Modern music is too pretty

A lot of people who were there back in the day returned for this night at the Knitting Factory. They were quite shocked. I’m like, why was it so shocking? It’s exactly as it was! I guess that’s what was shocking to them. It’s tough, it’s ugly, it’s angry – and so much music nowadays is prettified, over-produced, made nice. We have some angry music, but is it angry and ugly?

2. The younger self can serve as inspiration

I was an angry young beast! There was a lot to be fucking angry about. There still is. The 30-year trajectory of my so-called career has been trying to finesse and sophisticate different ways, because my anger has not left me. But when you begin with such a shrill, shrieking, hammer-headed type of butchery, there’s no way up – you have to go sideways. The anger doesn’t go away. I’m still pissed about the same things – it’s just that I have to find other ways to articulate it.

3. Find the right collaborators

I’m a conceptualist. From the get-go, it was - conceive a project, find the collaborators, document it, do some shows, go on. If the document is made, that’s the most important thing. It’s like a musical diary – and once the diary is complete, next!

4. Don’t blame me for your shit records

Musically I really don’t see my influence that much. I never did punk rock, no matter what generation or years I was functioning. Teenage Jesus was not punk rock, it was no wave. It was always very tight. It was more jazz influenced. The only thing I think was co-opted was my attitude, and you can’t patent a fucking attitude. I don’t take any responsibility for anyone else’s artistic crimes. Whatever influence I’ve had, fucking fantastic, go and do something. I don’t care what it is, or how it sounds, and I certainly don’t give a shit if I like it. As long as you’re doing something, that’s fucking great.

5. I prefer iri-tainment to enter-tainment

There has to be something irritating within the music, no matter how much late night jazz I might want to spin on it.

6. Music is just part of the picture

Photography is a different world. So I need that vehicle. It’s the same with film, it’s the same with spoken word. Spoken word is to me the most important medium, even though there’s less call for it now. Now I’m back to doing what I call illustrated word performances. The kind of stuff I’ve been touring recently, in front of video backdrops, more language-based pieces that might be cut into song-sized chunks, or might not, and are part-improvisational. I definitely need each element that I create in to add relief or to offset the other. I can’t say that one is more satisfying, or frustrating – it’s all necessary to the whole picture.

7. Keep moving.

My giant need since the beginning was, I need mobility. I will move to collaborate, I will move to just be away from everything and everyone I know. I will move for the atmosphere, for the architect, for the geography. I need to move every few years. It’s an internal agitation if I don’t. Now I’m really obsessed with this village called Belchite, which is between Barcelona and Madrid. Everyone knows Guernica because Picasso painted it. But Belchite was bombed in ’33, and remains as if Germany had never rebuilt Dresden. It remains this devastated landscape of a ghost town. I use a lot of that as my visual backdrops. It speaks visually a lot about my speeches about the war, or songs about the war, or songs about ghosts. Another reason I’m in Barcelona is I had to leave America before the lie of the last election, which I knew was going to happen. I had done my time in Los Angeles. There was nowhere else in America I wanted to go, especially under the circumstances. Barcelona was an interesting place to be in that it’s 30 plus years out of fascism, while America was falling into it.

8. Don’t confuse the art with the artist.

Even though my art might not appear beautiful or positive, I try to make something beautiful and positive. I don’t feel I’m a negative person, I’m a very positive person, I’m very up, I love to kid around, I’m a fucking joker. However, that’s the balance. If people were more fucking honest, they would be absolutely as angry and pissed off as I get on stage when I get a microphone in my hand. If they were really fucking honest and their eyes were open. In Europe people are not frightened of me, it’s not such a shock that I could actually be a reasonable individual who has not just that one side, but many fucking sides.

9. Art = Duty

Especially as a woman. We need more articulate female voices that are not towing the corporate suck-off line. That are not just there to capitalise on whatever cute fucking hairstyle is going – I think there are fewer now than there were. To me, it’s not a losing battle. I will battle until the day I die. It’s not about winning or losing. I have to say what I have to say. I don’t care how many people do not want to fucking hear it, or how many records I do not sell. There are some people, I am not alone, that need to have a voice, and you can call it reason or insanity, that speaks directly about these fucking deep issues. That’s it. I don’t care who likes it or who fucking doesn’t.

10. Know your audience.

I’m no more popular than I ever was, I don’t plan on being more popular, I don’t plan on selling more records. The coven works for me, the salon works for me. That’s where it belongs. That goes back to an anarchist history, it goes back to a Dadaist history, it goes back to Situationist history. It goes back to the real radical, philosophical art performers, thinkers and poets. That’s where I see what I do. It’s not about popular culture, it’s not about fucking record sales. It’s about doing and saying what needs to be said. Carry the fuck on! Love me or loathe me, it doesn’t matter my friend! It’s a calling. Yes, it’s a lot of fucking work. But the calling is not the work, it’s kind of the blessing. I know when I read certain books, or hear certain things or hear certain poets – that gives me just one more breath to take. One breath of relief, and that’s all. Be glad I can sound and appear this brutal and this harsh, so you don’t have to. I’m just ugly for you, pretty little things.

Teenage Jesus & The Jerks’ Shut Up And Bleed is out now through Cherry Red.