Appetite for destruction

Lydia Lunch has been provoking audiences with her anger-fuelled songs and spoken-word performances since the Seventies. But as the punk icon tells Fiona Sturges, no pain, no gain
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The Independent Culture

Lydia Lunch - musician, writer, actor, provocatrice - is holding forth on the horror that is the human condition. "We're born into trauma, for goodness' sake," she thunders. "Birth is one of the most violent experiences we will ever have. We're wrenched from the womb covered in blood, and then slapped in the face and made to scream. That's the first thing we know." She stops, takes a deep draw on her cigarette, and adds: "For some of us, it only gets worse."

Lydia Lunch - musician, writer, actor, provocatrice - is holding forth on the horror that is the human condition. "We're born into trauma, for goodness' sake," she thunders. "Birth is one of the most violent experiences we will ever have. We're wrenched from the womb covered in blood, and then slapped in the face and made to scream. That's the first thing we know." She stops, takes a deep draw on her cigarette, and adds: "For some of us, it only gets worse."

Where Lunch is concerned, conversation - and I use the term loosely - is at once inspiring, unsettling and infuriating. It's not often during an interview that you wish your subject would shut the hell up and let you get a word in, but then Lunch is hardly your regular interviewee. I've already listened to her diatribe on religion ("a false morality that they try to scare us with"), death ("as long as you don't fear it, you can conquer anything") and pornography ("it doesn't exploit women; it exploits men. They're the ones that pay for it, the fools"), and it's clear that she's only just got started. By the time her publicist appears to wind things up, I realise I've only managed to get three questions in, and even they were largely ignored.

Over the past 25 years Lunch's singular vision has led to a multitude of creative endeavours, encompassing music, literature, photography, film and spoken-word performance. Among the words most frequently used to describe her are "agitator", "aggravator" and "confrontationalist", terms of which she clearly approves. "There is a person who's insecure to begin with, and to whom I'm the worst affront," she says, her eyes gleaming with delight. "In my personal life I don't feel I'm antagonistic. I'm very accepting of people and it takes a lot to piss me off. But in a political and public sense, sure I'm antagonistic and aggressive and provocative. How can I not be? I'm dealing with matters that mean a lot to me, whether they're political, personal, sexual or intellectual. I don't know insecurity. I don't understand guilt or self-loathing or fear or embarrassment. I've been in chronic pain in so many circumstances in my life - both physical and emotional - that pain no longer terrifies me. I think that as a result of the trauma my life is based on, at an early age I instinctively turned it outwards instead of inwards. I think that divides me from a lot of people."

The trauma to which Lunch refers is the sexual abuse she says she suffered during her childhood in Rochester, New York. It's an experience that has both informed her outlook on the world and galvanised her creativity. Her work is an incisive, often ugly mix of political persuasion and extreme introspection. Age may have mellowed many an angry young musician, but at 45, Lunch writes lyrics that, in both sung and spoken form, are as impassioned and grimly evocative as ever. Even now, she wants it to be known that she is no more complacent than she was at the start of her career.

If her diatribe can seem relentless, there are moments when she can be amusingly self-deprecating. Lunch grimaces as she talks about some of her more "experimental" moments in front of a live audience. "There were nights where I heard this hideously atrocious din, and realised it was coming from me. I've produced some of the worst sounds that anyone could possibly create in a public space, stuff that, if there were an art police, would have seen me executed on the spot. My early spoken-word shows were like a verbal boxing match. People hated me. But I didn't scare, and from that came the ability to carry on. I always feel I outnumber the crowd. I'm just expressing my frustrations here that I know a minority of other people have. The fact that I haven't got this dead-set, writ-in-stone dogma gives me power. We need to hear someone, especially a woman, on stage saying these things. So you don't like it? I must be doing something right."

With her dark hair, creamy-white skin and S&M aesthetic, Lunch's look is part Siouxsie Sioux, part Madam Whiplash. And where her mid-Seventies contemporary Sioux unwittingly gave rise to a generation of crushed-velvet-wearing, pathologically depressed Goths, Lunch helped to spawn an early-Nineties scene that became known as Riot Grrrl, a sub-genre featuring all-female bands such as L7, Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland and Bratmobile. Lunch's status as an icon among underground female artists began in the late Seventies, when she was still in her teens. She is credited with founding the pivotal "No Wave" New York music scene with her band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. Their songs rarely lasted more than a minute, but they were packed with nihilistic attitude and the group became an emblem for disaffected youth everywhere.

Lunch's first solo album, 1980's Queen of Siam, was one of her most acclaimed efforts and influenced a new generation of underground groups and artists. Imbued with a big-band cabaret sound provided by The Billy Ver Plank Orchestra and an appearance by the noted guitarist Robert Quine, the album was as confident as it was uncompromising. In 1984 she founded Widowspeak Productions as an outlet for her work and that of like-minded musical renegades. Throughout the Eighties, Lunch went on to collaborate with a series of artists and bands, among them the post-punk film-maker and artist Richard Kern, the author of Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream, Hubert Selby Jr, Sonic Youth's bass-player Kim Gordon (with whom Lunch briefly formed Harry Crews, an all-girl rock band), Einstürzende Neubauten, Marc Almond, Henry Rollins and Nick Cave's post-punk reprobates The Birthday Party.

"Nick Cave never understood what I did," Lunch remarks. "Part of it was the pleasure divide. Men like him are not used to women who are aggressively seeking their own pleasure and make no bones about it. It scared and horrified him. The weird thing is that I can get on fine with straight rock'n'roll guys because they can relate to my male nature - that rude and vulgar side of me. I'm like their buddy. But guys who think they're in touch with their feminine side - they just don't get me."

Lunch is reluctant to pin herself down to a single medium for long, and her creative urges soon spilled over into acting, writing, film-making and the spoken word. Her most powerful achievements have been through her bitingly personal writings and spoken-word performances, which address her childhood abuse and subsequent feelings of rage toward humanity. Throughout the Nineties she devoted most of her time to writing and performing, as well lecturing at colleges and universities on everything from photography to performance art. Yet over the decades she has continued to put out records. Next week she releases Smoke in the Shadows, her first full-length album in five years, which echoes her Queen of Siam debut with its blend of jazz atmospherics and rhythmic, expletive-riddled spoken-word tracks.

"To me, the word is the most important thing," Lunch insists. "Even in song form, the lyrics are more important than anything. The music is there to back up the words, to seduce in spite of the words, to assault along with the words. Spoken word to me is the most potent art form because you haven't got the safety net of music behind it. Through the images you create with your words, you can make a direct connection with your audience."

But does she really believe art has the power to bring about change? "In the masses, no; but certainly in the individual," she replies. "My hope is that those in need come to me for my words, because they see that I have an understanding about their pain or dilemma. If it just gives them encouragement to go on, if they see that I've survived in spite what has been inflicted upon me, from my family to social and political situations, then I've achieved something. My recurring theme is for the individual to escape the imprisonment of the human condition and to find some peace and pleasure in rebellion. I don't think that's asking too much; do you?"

'Smoke in the Shadows' is out now on Breakin Beats

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