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Jukebox Jury: Lydia Lunch on No Wave, Thurston Moore, Nicolas Jaar, and More

Forty years after moving to New York City as a teenager and leaving an indelible bruise on the gut of rock history with her classic noise rock band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Lydia Lunch now lives in a spacious Brooklyn apartment, painted white and filled with black and crimson furniture. One evening last week, she was adhering to her own color scheme, whether consciously or not: wearing all black, sipping chilled white wine, going to town on a pack of Marlboro reds.

Lunch now lives on a placid block far from her old downtown haunts (they’re all gone anyway), and she says she doesn’t listen to very much music these days, but it wouldn’t be quite right to say she lives a quiet life. There’s Retrovirus, her current band of sludgy “sonic brutarians,” as she lovingly refers to them; Pissed Jeans’ excellent fifth album Why Love Now, which she co-produced; spoken word performance and bracing noise blasts with her frequent collaborator Weasel Walter; and a forthcoming covers album with selections from such unlikely icons as Tom Petty and Bon Jovi. Counter to her reputation as a fearsome interviewee, she is a fountain of erudite and exceedingly pleasant conversation, enthusing about the writings of Marquis de Sade in one breath and records by Scarface and Mobb Deep in the next.

SPIN met with Lunch during the lead-up to the release of Venus Flytrapa satirical webseries about women in rock, in which she co-stars with Margaret Cho. We talked about the weird old days of NYC music and listened to songs by younger artists who have in some way taken up the torch of no wave, the violently deconstructed brand of punk rock of which Lunch is a kind of avatar. (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks didn’t play punk, she likes to say, but “punch rock,” with a relentless rhythm she compares to that of a “fuck machine.”) Like her music, Lunch’s commentary on her progeny was unsparing.

1. Pissed Jeans – “Waiting on My Horrible Warning”

SPIN: We’re gonna start with something you’ll definitely recognize. 

Lunch: Hah. Don’t assume. But wait. It’s not TAD, but it’s so close, in that vein. I don’t recognize it, but I know it.

It’s the first track on that Pissed Jeans album you worked on.

Good for stumping me on something I had a part in. If the chorus would have come I would have gotten it. Such a tricky little scoundrel. You could play me some of my own songs and I might not recognize them. Because I’ve only written about 300—you can’t expect me to remember them all.

I decided to work with Pissed Jeans because they reminded me of the Jesus Lizard, TAD, and that period of rock, that nobody does anymore. I love it. So dirty and simple. No fat. And bizarrely vulgar, in the best way possible. Pissed Jeans approached me, and I’d heard of them, but I didn’t know anything about them. I had such a good time working with them. I’m like, “You’ve already got your sound. You don’t really need me.”

It was more of a spiritual guidance sort of thing?

Basically, I would just tell them raunchy stories and threaten them if they didn’t do a good job. There was nothing to threaten, because it was perfect. This is so good, what do you have to do to it? Threaten to spank them if they’re not doing it, but they’re already doing it. What a false threat.

I think they just—maybe Matt [Korvette, Pissed Jeans singer] especially—felt freer because I was there. Which is weird. You’d think most people would get uptight. Here comes the fucking witch, bitch. They have no idea what I’m about. I’m like the cheerleader of the underground, my friend. Why do you think I’ve worked with so many people? I am a big cheerleader for people to do exactly what they want to do at all times. Get out the pompoms and wave them in their face, or tell them the baton’s going up their ass. We’ve got two situations here: we can go with the pompoms or the baton. I think that works. Rah rah rah!

2. Palm – “Walkie Talkie”

This is a newer band that I thought might be up your alley.

Bands like this, I know what their record collection is. I can hear some early Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd, that period of music. Even prog rock.

They’re accomplished. I guess for people who don’t have a musical knowledge of what has come before, this is pretty cool. It even has a bit of—and I really hate these two bands—Yes and ELO. But they’ve refined it down to not being as annoying. I heard the song “Roundabout,” recently, by Yes. And I was just like, “This is gonna make me fucking vomit. This is why I like the New York Dolls.”

So who is it?

They’re called Palm, like the palm of your hand.

Well, maybe because it’s kind of masturbatory. Maybe they’re called palm because they’re jerking themselves off to their record collection. No offense, gents.

That song was short. I could imagine it going on for 15 minutes, because that’s the style of what came before. There’s something groovy about it. My problem with some of the more out stuff that I like is that I do like a dirty rhythm. I like a groove. And this has some kind of boppability. But I’d give it a C+.

3. Nicolas Jaar – “The Governor”

Is this Nicolas Jaar? How did I know that in two seconds or less?

I know you guys have worked together.

Thank you Nicolas Jaar. He played me this album before it was out, and said that him going back to writing lyrics was inspired by me. A few years ago, I didn’t even know who who Nicolas Jaar was. Some guy writes me, going, I really like this album Conspiracy of Women, which came out 25 years ago, and it’s spoken word. I’m like, OK, thanks, cool. Then he comes back to me six months later, like, no, I really like this record. And I go, OK. “I’ve been playing some of it in my sets.” OK–who are you?

So he sent me some stuff, and I was like, so you’re a DJ. I know nothing about him. You went from a dance party to a funeral parlor, playing my shit. Are people just leaving? He says “They’re not leaving, they’re applauding.” What? The album that he was sampling came out the year of his birth. How did you even find out about me or no wave? And he said “I think I found out at 10.” Usually boys say at 14 they found out about me, and I’m always really happy. 14? Come to big mama Lunch. But 10? Well, he grew up in New York.

And then we kept hanging out. And then he was doing this album. I think he just fluked into the DJ thing. He is a composer, and the DJ thing hit. And he does it differently, and he has an aesthetic and all of this, the music is different, the way he mixes it is different. And then he played this from me and I’m like, “Exactly. This is what you need to do.”

He’s channeling Alan Vega on this song, which is great.

For sure, which is why I thought it would be a particularly good one to talk to you about. It sounds like Suicide.

Suicide were my first friends when I came to New York. What an intro. I just arrived, picked up some guy, lived in Chelsea. Went to his loft, and Suicide were playing two nights later. I’m like “This is why I’m here.” Martin Rev would give me vitamins. I was younger than his son at the time.

Giving you vitamins because he wanted to take care of you?

Yeah! I’m 16 or 17. Somebody’s gotta take care of the orphan. It was pretty awesome. He was actually on tour with my band Big Sexy Noise in Europe a few years ago. By this time I’m like, over 50. And at the end of the tour, the last thing Martin Rev says to me is “Take good care of my little doll,” like I’m still 17. I’m like “Martin, I know I don’t look much older, but I’m not 17 anymore!” It was so cute. Thank you, grandpa.

4. Liars – “There’s Always Room on the Broom”

No idea what it is.

It’s this band Liars, their second album.

Oh yeah, they’re diverse. Even within this song they’re diverse.

This is from earlier in their career, and this stuff always struck me as having a no wave sound. Could even be Teenage Jesus influenced in a way.

Oh really? I don’t see the connective tissue, but go ahead. The attitude, maybe?

And the willingness to…

To be irritating? Well I’m glad somebody got the vibe. I have not seen the influence of Teenage Jesus anywhere. Other people think they see it, I don’t. I just don’t.

I’d like to know more about Liars. I’ve read some articles about them, heard some isolated tracks. I’ve never heard a whole album. But I’ve always liked what I read about them. I have a fondness for Australians.

I think they’re a pretty great band. They’ve managed to cut their own path.

So rare. I would never listen to this, but I’m glad it exists.

A solid endorsement. 

5. Thurston Moore – “Cease Fire”

Is this Sonic Youth?

It’s Thurston, yeah. 

Sounding a little exotic, there, T-Bone! I love Thurston Moore. He’s one of my favorite people on the planet, has been ever since I met him. Before we knew each other, we lived like a block away and would always see each other on the subway and just eyeball each other—like I’m 5’4? with black hair, he’s like 6’7? and blonde. It took awhile, we were very shy.

I saw him play two nights ago. What I love about Thurston is that he is still the eternal, perpetual teenager. This music is really like perfect teenage boy bedroom music. It’s sexy—which, he just can’t help it—it’s groovy, but when he gets to those guitar tornadoes… I saw a lot of Sonic Youth shows and I have to say that what him and Lee [Ranaldo] would do, even mid-point with Sonic Youth, I was just like, “This is really what I wanna hear.” So even the other night, he would do his classic teenage boy pop songs, but when it goes into the fucking hurricane, I’m like, “This is what cleans my blood.” It just does, I’m just getting goosebumps.

He has a sex appeal that few other people have, and it’s unconscious, he can’t help it. His enthusiasm–his music is always kind of the same, but then it reaches those peaks.

Yeah, he can keeping hitting that ecstatic high over and over again.

Yes! That’s what counts! I mean I don’t need to hear any other teenage boy pop bedroom songs, like he writes beautifully, but I do want to hear what he brings them into. For me it’s been so much better live, because for me, that’s when the sound really goes into that zone. It’s bizarre, but for me, I find those guitar escalations really…not frustrated, nor accomplished, nor orgasmic release, something in between. For me, it’s like a frantic, sexual want. It satisfies me when I hear it. And it goes back to that teenage thing, it’s really the sound of a teenage boy in his bedroom just wanting more, nothing’s going fast enough. More, here, as in M-O-O-R-E. And to me, that’s just fascinating and really fucking beautiful, and when it reaches those peaks, it’s something intoxicating and there’s something really cleansing about it.

And this music, their influence is bigger than their record sales. You can be influenced by it, but you can’t do it like them. And we both know what the best song was, it was “Death Valley 69,” which Thurston and I wrote on a bus on our way to Spanish Harlem.