Sonic Barbarism

Avant-garde cult hero Lydia Lunch hits the road with a live retrospective of her provocative music career

Jun 25, 2014 at 8:50 am
Lydia Lunch
Lydia Lunch


ere’s a clear sign the apocalypse is coming: Lydia Lunch is touring North America, especially the Midwest, with her Retrovirus band and show.

Lunch is featuring music from throughout her long, still-busy and controversial career, which started in the late ’70s with New York’s classic Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and has moved on to collaborations in various experimental styles. Teenage Jesus was labeled “No Wave” because its assaultive overall sound, shaped by her singing and guitar playing, was so dissonantly contrarian that the band defied categorization.

Finding a relationship between the Midwest shows by Lunch and her “sonic barbarians” (as she calls her band) and any upcoming apocalypse is not in any way meant as a dis on her or her music. It’s simply a reference to what she’s been observing when touring the country. A native of Rochester, N.Y., who moved to the squalid but exciting Big Apple of the late 1970s as a teenager, she left for Barcelona, Spain eight years ago. (She lately has also been residing in Louisville, Ky., to work on U.S. projects.)

“I find this country really beat up,” Lunch says. “I left when George Bush stole the second election, and what has become of this country is horrifying to me. I do believe it’s a police state. I do believe we’re all under surveillance. I think it’s the abolition of the individual. It’s the zombie apocalypse, and I’m fuckin’ horrified.

“Hence, if there needs to be a band for the end of this country as we know it, let it be Retrovirus — the party that ends all parties.”

Lunch is touring with drummer Bob Bert, guitarist Weasel Walter and bassist Tim Dahl, all stalwart supporters/purveyors of Rock-tinged experimental music. Retrovirus has been doing shows for a couple years now. The clever name is a nod to both the “retro” nature and the possibly scary effect of the sounds emanating from this Lunch bunch.

“It’s infectious, let’s put it that way,” Lunch says. “I’ve always felt my work is like the poison that cures you. At least that’s what we hope for. It’s fun to revisit songs, a lot of which I’ve never played live in the first place. And this group of musicians is just so incredible. So Cincinnati, get ready to kick some ass.”

One could fill up the rest of this story with just a partial list of the 55-year-old Lunch’s work — albums she has released and other projects, such as films, photography shows, plays, books (including a 2012 cookbook called The Need to Feed: Recipes for Developing a Healthy Obsession for Deeply Satisfying Foods), a screenplay and much more. She’s also in demand as a curator of arts events and programming and she has a record label, Widowspeak.

Some of her work can be brutally frank and graphic about sex and violence (such as her book Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary). She’s not light entertainment. Nor does she have a commercial-radio-friendly singing voice. She doesn’t even fit in with “Alternative music,” as it has come to be known. Given her limitations as a conventional singer, her longevity and productivity is impressive.

Yet she does have a melodic side. On one of her best-known projects, the 1980 album Queen of Siam, there are several songs arranged by Jazz musician J. Billy VerPlanck. And in 1982, working with Birthday Party’s Roland S. Howard, she memorably covered Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s “Some Velvet Morning.”

At Lunch’s local stop, there will be a Queen of Siam song in the roughly one-hour set, as well as numbers from her late-’70s band 8 Eyed Spy. Other material may well come from, she says, her 1983 solo album 13.13; her 1991 Shotgun Wedding album with Howard (possibly their cover of Alice Cooper’s “Black Juju”); the Naked in Garden Hills album by Harry Crews, her late-1980s band inspired by the outré novelist that also included Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon; and from her recent group Big Sexy Noise. While there will be no formal spoken-word interludes, she does plan to talk between songs. One never knows where that will lead.

But it’s important that the show offers something from the now-legendary (and still-infamous) Teenage Jesus.

“(It) was defiant against all other music,” Lunch says of the band. “It was probably some of the most brutal music ever created by a 17-year-old female teen terrorist who wrote the music and conducted the band. It was a primal scream, a tantrum of hate and malignancy and I think on that alone it stands pretty much in its own terrain. I don’t think too much has touched it in terms of how hateful it was.”

“I loved it,” she adds. “It was what was needed to be done at the time. I always feel I’m the voice for those who have the mouth but feel they can’t unleash the scream. Art is the salve to the universal wound, which is pain. We bring the pain, but in order to relieve the pain. I will scream for you.”

Lunch thinks her long history of and ongoing love for collaborative projects was formed by the time and place — late-’70s New York — where she began her career.

“People had flocked to a city that was bankrupt and dangerous — there was purposeful arson forcing people out of rent-controlled apartments, there was the Blackout of 1977, Son of Sam,” she says. “It was a trying time that forced you to create because you were living on a knife’s edge and didn’t know if you’d be around next week. So people created at a furious pace and with furious passion.

“It was a collaborative time as well because we felt we were all in it together. I collaborated with a lot of filmmakers and a lot of other people. I had a band called Beirut Slump at the same time (as Teenage Jesus). We all felt like rats on a sinking ship and if we were all going to go down, we would have the best time we possibly could and make as much noise as possible.”

And Lunch is still doing that. ©

Lydia Lunch’s RETROVIRUS appears Wednesday at Northside’s Mayday (4227 Spring Grove Ave.). Tickets: