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Lydia Lunch's Noir Seductions

By Jennifer Kelly

In 1976, a 16-year-old Lydia Lunch began her provocative musical career with Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, a band that, along with the Contortions (whose James Chance was an original Teenage Jesus member), Mars and DNA, defined the nihilist dance aesthetic of no wave.

Short-lived as they were influential, Teenage Jesus disbanded in 1979, and Lunch moved on to projects including Beirut Slump and Eight Eyed Spy, plus collaborations with Nick Cave and the Birthday Party, Einstürzende Neubauten, Die Haut, Swans' Michael Gira, Foetus' Jim Thirlwell, Marc Almond and Thurston Moore. Noise rocker, spoken word artist, lounge musician and subversive chanteuse, Lunch brought a fierce intelligence and sly, up-ending perversity to everything she touched. In 1980, she defined a twisted cabaret style in her landmark solo album, Queen of Siam, which featured the Ver Plank Orchestra and Robert Quine — a style she is still, with 2004's Smoke in the Shadows, refining and extending.

Lunch has never confined herself to music. She has acted, working most notably with Richard Kern in sex-themed short films including Right Side of My Brain and Fingered. She has published prose and poetry, authoring the highly regarded Paradoxia: A Predator's Diary in 1997 and collaborating with artists including Ted McKeever, Mike Matthews and Bob Fingerman on graphic novels during the 1990s. She has exhibited photography, taught at universities, published poetry and created performance art.

She also supports other artists. Lunch's Widows Peak organization (the Web site is currently under construction), established in 1984, issues her many spoken word performances on disc, and she also promotes other literary and musical artists through it.

Her latest album, Smoke in the Shadows, draws together the many threads of Lydia Lunch's creative endeavors — music, spoken word, sexual politics and theater — in a jazzy, late-night style that evokes film noir. I recently spoke to Lydia by telephone about her new album, her collaboration with Nels Cline, the L.A. Smoke in the Shadows inhabits, and the extremes of love and obsession that have been her lifelong subject matter.

Exploring the Hidden Side of L.A.

Jennifer Kelly: Your new album has a very film noir feel to it. Are you influenced by film?

Lydia Lunch: I definitely was influenced by film for this music. It was influenced by Los Angeles, which I think this is pretty evocative of, this record.

I've lived in Los Angeles for a few years, and I think people have a big misunderstanding of L.A. and a prejudice. I'm not a defender of it. I think a lot of what people think, from the outside, is definitely true. I mean, Hollywood, Los Angeles, is a crock of shit. But this is the other side of it. There's so much mystery here, and so many broken hearts and so much disappointment. The view that they promote from the outside of Hollywood is just not the reality. The underbelly is just fascinating.

Kelly: It doesn't really feel like current L.A. to me, on this record. It feels more like the Sam Spade era.

Lunch: Absolutely. It's got really not that much to do with now. Other than just culling from the influences out here, and what makes this place more interesting than it seems.

Kelly: It also seems stylized... and I'm guessing that, to some extent, it's tongue-in-cheek for you. That you're sending up the style as well as doing it straight. How much of this is you, and how much is you playing a role?

Lunch: Yeah, certainly it's a role. Of course. It's very thematic. It is dealing with archetypes, things that are absent right now with the pornofication and the emptiness, the portrayal of women in pop or rock music.

Of course, this has nothing to do with pop or rock music at all. The images which become ever more fake and ridiculous, you know, the culture of celebrities. It's so hard about music, now, too, that it's so limited. It's such a handful of people that are getting the attention. I feel dreadful for teenagers at this point, because there are so few alternatives represented. I think that this album is an attempt to take it somewhere else. Take it sideways. Show more aggression, but in a different way.

Kelly: Is it a continuation of the kind of music you were making with your first solo album, Queen of Siam?

Lunch: Very much so. It originally started with just a few songs I had done with Nels Cline, which came out of a session to do a Tom Waits cover song for a tribute record. So we started with that. And then fortunately at that time, in reference to Queen of Siam, I wanted to get back to something that was jazzy and seductive, also. Something that was seductive in a different way.

Kelly: Queen of Siam was a pretty sharp break from what you had been doing before that.

Lunch: Every record I do is a break from what I've done before. I must say that I love that with this style of music ... it's an illustrated word. I can still do something that's spoken word. It's illustrated word. I don't have to do sessions of singing, but I can also get melody in there when I feel the urge. It's a contradiction. It's the lack of melody ... I usually revolt against.

Kelly: It's true that the vocal line is often not melodic, but the album itself has a lot of melody in it.

Lunch: Yes, well, I wanted to do something, too, that was late-night listening. Something that you could put on and ... that's the only time I have to listen to music is very late at night, and I need something that's going to be groovy and be seductive, but it's going to be threatening in some way. It doesn't have to be threatening with the music, but with the atmosphere or the melody.

Collaboration and Control

Kelly: You worked with these guys from the Anubian Lights on this record.

Lunch: I'd done an EP with them a few years ago.

Kelly: How did you meet them?

Lunch: They were also friends with Nels Cline and Carla Bozulich. It just seemed natural. They had done a few albums on their own, but it was more like Middle Eastern-inspired dance music, which I really wasn't interested in doing.

The stuff with Nels came first. We had that as a jumping off point. So I wanted to go in that direction, almost an Ida Lupino style. We can name a lot of ... the noir crime writers were all men, but really Ida Lupino was a big influence, as well as the film Touch of Evil, which I reinterpreted as "Touch My Evil." Those were two very important things, Ida Lupino and Orson Welles.

Kelly: Why Orson Welles?

Lunch: Because Touch of Evil was one of the best films ever made. Citizen Kane is the one that gets all the attention. But I think Touch of Evil is just poetry itself. It's so beautiful, so threatening, so perverse, so weird, such juxtapositions. The styles of music within that movie are very ... I don't want to go so far as a really upbeat, rock 'n' roll, a twisted rock 'n' roll, but I wanted to do juxtaposition of music that had a thematic continuation. Usually when I do an album, they're always conceptual. And this was unusual because the music was kind of done in different blocks with different people. It seemed to hang together.

Kelly: How much control do you have over the music? Do you have an idea of exactly how it's going to sound?

Lunch: Sometimes it starts with the words, sometimes with the atmosphere. Really, because collaborating with so many different people at so many different times, there's no set pattern to how a song develops. So it was the music... I'm very picky about what music goes on the album. For this one, we had recorded three or four more tracks, and they had a sound that just prevented me...they just weren't in keeping with the way I wanted the album to develop.

Kelly: But you have always collaborated with really strong musical talents and personalities. It's hard to imagine anyone telling Nels Cline how to play guitar.

Lunch: I didn't have to tell Nels Cline anything. You know, that's the thing about working with people who are more intuitive about what I want. At the same time, the reason I want to collaborate with different people is to try to get something else out of them. If you've got the right collaborator, it's about the atmosphere and vibe. I wouldn't tell someone how to play the guitar. I might suggest how to do it. Or I might say try this or try that. But with Nels Cline, he came to me with the first songs. I didn't have to tell him anything, except that's perfect and thank you.

Kelly: So tell me about the vibe, and this sort of atmosphere that you were working in when you were recording. Is it possible to describe?

Lunch: Well, the recording process — for the most part, most of the vocals were done in a closet, one of the smallest closets you've ever seen. It was done in a home studio. [She laughs, a wonderful, husky smoker's laugh.] To create an intimate vibe, that's the best thing to do. Just stick someone in a closet. That's about as intimate as it gets.

Kelly: I guess so.

The Power of Obsession

Lunch: I just wanted to do something that dealt with certain themes that I had always dealt [with] — obsession, addiction, sex. But I wanted to come at them from a different perspective. I was going through a lot of revenge fantasies at the time. Also, it's not just an angry album. It's more of a ravager romantic. The way that romance can turn all-consuming. And sometimes, when you're just too involved, you're going to do desperate things... in desperate times, and that's what this record deals with.

Kelly: They're all stories where the characters put love and sex above almost everything else?

Lunch: Well, they're only characters dealing with subject matter. That's why I do spoken word and political rant, and then when I'm going to do a record like this, the only politics involved are sexual politics, which I still don't think we've discussed enough in public forums.

Kelly: I wanted to ask you about the title track, because that's just a really obsessive, violent love story, even by the standards of this album. Can you talk about why that subject is so fascinating?

Lunch: I don't think there's enough discussion about female stalkers. In the media, so much of the crime that we are ... look, I'm a forensics junkie, a crime TV junkie, a true crime junkie. That's one part of me. But it's always dealing with the male side of crime. With this record, I wanted to show female crime.

Women are just as prone to violence as men, if they are pushed in the wrong direction. A certain type of woman. I wanted to talk about the psychology, the push and pull. When you go to the extreme of passion and it turns sour, sometimes violence is going to be the repercussion. Fantasies of violence or the reality of violence. Even just empowering women with a fantastical, possible threat. Who hasn't felt — like "Trick Baby" has very harsh lyrics, it's a "fuck you, fuck off" song. It's housed in a different way, but I was looking for different methods of expressing that.

Kelly: So, you see these as female fantasies, from the female perspective?

Lunch: Yes, of course.

Kelly: Because it seems to me that a certain kind of male might listen to these in a voyeuristic way.

Lunch: Sure. I hope so. But it's not done for that. I think most men would cower with their hands clutching between their legs. I'm sure that there are men that have fantasies of women stalking them violently... but for the most part, they fear that possibility, not to mention the reality.

Kelly: Now, "Sway" has a really different feel from the rest of the album. It's softer and it's got a reggae beat. Were you in a different space, mentally and artistically, when you wrote that song?

Lunch: Well, it's a song about masturbation. It's about "show me," it's basically inviting someone... almost turning the lap dance table around. In a sense.

What I enjoy about this is that it's based on a Martin Denny Exotica type of vibe. But I wanted to sing it in such a way that the lyrics are so slow that unless you're reading them, you wouldn't know exactly what I was talking about. But perhaps you'd be stimulated nonetheless. It's sneaky, I think.

But again, it's just turning the tables around. When you have a TV and every time you turn on a rap or a pop video, there are these women gyrating for you. In every one of these videos. It just becomes ridiculous. Where's the other side of that coin? I don't know if I even want it, but where is it?

Kelly: That's one of the things that you do. You take these sort of male-dominated, pornographic languages, and turn them around from the woman's side.

Lunch: That's all I'm attempting to do with this record. As well, as you know, get my own kinks out there.

Kelly: I remember reading another interview, where you talked about your obsessions and how this idea that there's a mainstream where people aren't into these things, and there are extreme people who are. That it's really false, that almost everybody has elements of obsession.

Lunch: Well, exactly. It's all about how far you allow yourself to go. My take on it is that no obsession is negative, as long as it's not ruining your life... eroding your life or controlling your life. I don't think there's a problem with being fetishistic as long as it's not ruining your lifestyle.

There's nothing wrong with being extremely passionate about certain things, but you have to ... if you're an extremist by nature, which I am, there comes a point when you just question whether you're running your fantasies. Who's running the movie projector? Is it running itself or are you in control of what's happening to you? I think anything consensual could be encouraged. The difficult part is finding someone consensual.

Kelly: Do you personally feel like you're in control of your obsessions?

Lunch: Absolutely. I've survived, I've thrived and I get more work done than just about anybody I know. I think I'm running the movie projector.

Kelly: Good.

Mainstream vs. Minority

Lunch: I've found ways to utilize them. Art is a way to take that next step further. To learn from them and to exercise — not exorcise, by the way — them even further. I just feel that everything I touch on are universal themes. Even if it's universal within a minority.

Kelly: What does that mean, universal within a minority?

Lunch: I think that no matter how extreme anyone's obsessions are, there are hundreds or thousands of people that share them. Not that I'm reaching out my hands to all of them to try to find them. I just feel that whoever's coming to my work, no matter what the number of the minority is, they're probably looking for a connective tissue that they're related to.

Kelly: You're doing this primarily for yourself or for these people out there that may need validation?

Lunch: Well, I do it for myself, first and foremost. I'm not trying to validate anyone else. I'm trying to lend a voice, an articulation about certain kinds of frustrations, whether political or sexual. I know other people have too.

Kelly: That's interesting, because I remember reading a quote from one of your other interviews, where you were talking about the difference between punk and no wave, and you said that you thought punk was more about social issues, whereas no wave was more inward looking.

Lunch: That's what I said... about that musical genre from that period of time. That is the basis or the root of what it means to me.

But even if you're talking inward, again dealing with personal traumatic experiences, I know I wasn't the only person that had them. Which is what gave me the power to speak about them in the first place. We know that no trauma is unique. It's more the details that make it so. Pain, frustration, desperation, obsession, urgency, passion, these are all universal no matter how you paint them.

Kelly: So it becomes social.

The Writing Process

Lunch: Yeah, and then it becomes social. There comes a point where ... I've even turned these things on their head. To get inside them and turn them upside down and spew my guts on the table, after I've shaken and thrown the cards down, what stuff am I learning from this?

So much of what I do is very automatic. It's not like everything is completely calculated. A lot of it, I understand in retrospect. It's only later that it makes sense to me. It makes more sense in retrospect. I'm a very automatic writer. My lyrics take half an hour to write.

Kelly: How long does it take for you to get that perspective?

Lunch: Sometimes six months or six years. Sometimes six minutes. You don't know. It's all different. Because what I'm always doing is natural, I don't edit my writing. I don't edit my speeches. I don't edit my lyrics. I trust the words as they come out, and then I get a better handle on what they are later.

Kelly: So, can you tell me a story about something like that, where you figured it out later?

Lunch: I think just the entire implication of it. I'm just spewing it out. I might be taking a more characterized view of it. Housing it in a film, a mini-movie type thematic. I might not be totally aware of the implications, especially how other people are going to perceive it until much later.

A lot of times, I think I'm at the Zen of just being very clever and sneaky. But I have such a higher capacity for a lot of things than other people. That's just the way it appears to me. I just think this is a seductive, jazzy, late-night record that's going to introduce people to a lot of extreme, romantic ideas.

'Swearing at God'

Kelly: Now, "Lost World" has this great line... it starts out "Everybody smokes in hell." There's a lot of religious imagery in the album. You're not religious, are you?

Lunch: No.

Kelly: Do you want to talk about how you use religious metaphors?

Lunch: Well, of course, metaphors are good. First of all, God is the first problem. God was the first cause. I complain about him all the time. I have for many years. It's a holy war.

That's the problem that we have now. Whether God is money or God is God, we need to get rid of God. We need to get back to the Goddess. But I'm just joking here, because I'll quote Dervish, who said, cut off your own fucking head.

Kelly: You've been involved in really a lot of different collaborations with different people. Starting with Teenage Jesus...

Lunch: See, there already I was swearing at God.

Kelly: Everybody swears at God at that age.

Lunch: I was taking his name in vain from the word go.

Kelly: What's the common thread for you in all these things you've done? Is there something you're always trying to accomplish? Regardless of who you've collaborated with or what style?

Lunch: I'm just trying to make as passionate a statement as I can about whatever's obsessing me at the time. Whether that's political or personal, I'm just trying to understand better about what drives me. I'm always trying to make sure that I step off the wheel of just being reactionary and trying to be proactive.

I mean, that's what so many of my lyrics are about, trying to decode. What are you doing? What's reactionary to what's been done to you? And what's active about it?

So in this album, it's ... doing this almost in reverse, because these are reactionary lyrics. I've been fucked over. This is what's going to happen to you. "Smoke in the Shadows," "Trick Baby," but then, I have a song like "Blame," which is just kind of romantic and vulnerable.

Kelly: Yeah, it's really a very interesting, very cool album, and I've been enjoying listening to it.

Lunch: Thank you so much.

Reflections on No Wave, Spoken Word, and New Voices

Kelly: There's been a lot of interest among younger bands recently in the no wave movement. What was it like being part of that movement?

Maybe it didn't even feel like a movement at the time. Maybe it was just stuff you were doing, I don't know. What was it like and what were some of the most important things to come out of that, in your view?

Lunch: Well, I think the most important effect of that period was, people making very, very diverse music were encouraged by the fact that there were others doing it. And now, so much music is so generic. It's so produced. It's over-produced.

You know, nobody had any thoughts beyond the next month, beyond the next week. Nobody knew or cared how long their band would last. Often, many of us had more than one band at the time. We did what we had to do at that moment to express the anxieties or frustrations we felt at the time. It was just a primal scream. Whether it felt like a movement at the time, I don't know if it felt like a movement. It just felt right.

The beauty was that it was so diverse. Nothing was like anything else. And there was a lot of it.

Kelly: What were some of your favorite memories of that period — great shows you went to or anything like that?

Lunch: Suicide. They were one of the first bands that I saw when I hit New York. That was amazing. Richard Hell and the Voidoids' first show was fantastic. Robert Quine. Television. All of it so completely unrelated to the other, musically, but all of it, to me, except for Suicide, it was still very traditional music. No matter how far out it went. That's just what I had to rebel against. No matter how inspirational it was, I needed to make music that was further out of rock than that.

Kelly: What were some of your influences outside of rock?

Lunch: Literature is what influenced me. And Marcel Duchamp.

Kelly: Oh yeah, that's interesting... So, you have a label now for your spoken word?

Lunch: I've been releasing my own spoken word for a while now. I house a lot of things under the Widows Peak umbrella. Basically it's still distributed by Atavistic.

My spoken-word stuff I just distribute myself. I feel that if people want it — it's on my Web site and if I'm on tour, they can buy it there.

I put out too many things. If I want to do a spoken-word show and release it, I want to release it right after it's finished. I can't wait for a record company, no matter how independent, to necessarily schedule that in. So, I just have it on my Web site. It's like a donkey cart. You can get it here, and this is the only place you can get it.

Kelly: So that's just all you.

Lunch: That's all me. That's basically what I've been concentrating on, my own material.

I can't even...it's not that I can't be bothered. It's just that it works better for me to have what I do available through my Web site. Because I can't wait for record companies, even the smallest ones, to keep up with my output. That makes it even more difficult to get other people's material out. Which is why I started Widows Peak, which is a literary Web site that just showcases other people's writing.

Kelly: Who are some of the people that you think are doing good work now?

Lunch: In what field?

Kelly: Well, we were talking about literature, so we could start there, but if there are people in other fields, I'd be interested in that, too.

Lunch: I could name names, and you could check them out. Some of them you might have heard of and some you might not. One of my favorite writers is an L.A. writer called Steve Abee. He wrote this great book called On the Bus. Vanessa Skantze, who is basically a spoken word/dance/theater performer. And then in music, there's Carla Bozulich. It's more in her lyrics. She's still basing it in music and does great stuff. There are a lot of great people who are writing now. JT Leroy and any number of people.

Kelly: What about music? Are you hearing anything that you really like out there now?

Lunch: Actually, I went to see the Chuck Dukowski Sextet the other night, and they were amazing. Chuck Dukowski was the original bass player for Black Flag. But his wife is singing, and I don't know if you're familiar with Patty Waters? It was a cross between Patty Waters and Joan Baez and Diamanda Galas, if you can imagine, with the very hard improv, almost jazz music, and no guitar. It was fantastic.

Nels Cline. I love what he does. He wears so many hats. Carla Bozulich. I mean... there's a lot of people doing great stuff. — [Monday, August 1, 2005]

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Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs Highlight YES NEW YORK

Mark Romanek's 'Hurt' Revives Johnny Cash's Career

The Rapture's Post-Punk, Post-Dance Sound

R.E.M., Wilco, Modest Mouse Highlight Bumbershoot Fest

Set Fires To Flames' Sleep-Deprivation Sound

Southern Gothic Past Shadows Verbena's La Musica Negra

The Subtle Evolution Of Yo La Tengo

Spring Tour For Jolie Holland (Plus A Live Album)

Liz Phair Still Pushing The Limits

Gold Chains Wants You To Dance And Think

Young People's War Prayers On The Way

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