text by Adam Lehrer
Of all the great unions of underground music, rock and otherwise; Bowie and Eno, Nick Cave and Blixa Bargeld, Justin Broadrick and Kevin Martin, John Cale and Terry Riley, Sonny Sharrock and Peter Brotzzman, and so on; the union between No Wave icon, transgressive artist, and spoken word warrior Lydia Lunch and free jazz, noise, and no wave musician Weasel Walter is perhaps the most harmonious and unquestionably the unholiest. When considering their respective biographies, both full of moments of sticking the middle finger in the faces of conventional standards of taste and decency, it’s difficult to believe that these revolutionaries didn’t find each other sooner.
Lydia Lunch is the closest thing that American transgressive art has to an icon. Lydia finds herself a symbol of everything that society doesn’t want her to be: loud, intelligent, brash, lewd, angry, righteous. First moving to New York in the late ‘70s to take on spoken word, she ended up the lead singer and guitar player for seminal no wave band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (and appeared on Brian Eno’s No New York compilation alongside contemporaries Mars, DNA, and James Chance & The Contortions). The band was short-lived but influenced countless bands that would use rock instrumentation to explore chaos, atonality, and cacophony: Sonic Youth, Harry Pussy, and Magik Markers among many others. After the band split, Lydia continued making music solo and in collaboration with artists including Nick Cave, Blixa Bargeld, Michael Gira, J.G. Thirwell, Oxbow, and all manner of sonic agitators. Her band 8-Eyed Spy followed and brought in a sense of funk to the dischord. All while these projects were happening, Lydia found herself a pivotal figure in the ‘80s New York cinematic movement, The Cinema of Transgression, that would use extreme shock value and black humor to shatter societal taboos. Lydia directed, wrote and starred in films alongside the likes of Nick Zedd and Richard Kern. Photography, collage, painting (Lydia had an exhibition last year at HOWL! Arts that surveyed her multi-media output), Lydia has engaged in all manner of media throughout her career but defines herself primarily as a poet. Her spoken word is raw and confrontational, often inciting violence, uncontrollable tears or both.
While Weasel Walter is not a poet or a visual artist, his music shares characteristics with Lydia’s output. He has employed a multitude of musical styles throughout his career but has consistently maintained a brazen disregard for the rock n’ roll and cultural status quo. Weasel started his first band The Flying Luttenbachers in Chicago in 1991. He drew upon elements of free jazz, noise, extreme metal, modern composition, and prog rock for an angular approach to dissonant sound. In the process, Weasel re-popularized the term no wave reignited interest in the ‘70s no wave bands throughout the ‘90s with his record label, UGexplode. Weasel is interested in the extremity of sound in whatever style it may come in: modern composer Iannis Xenakis, free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, death metal band Obituary, art rock luminaries The Residents, French conceptual prog rockers Magma and Black Flag all make sense in his diverse but aesthetically unified sonic tastes. He’s played in metal bands like Burmese and Lair of the Minotaur while drumming for jazz and improv gigs. He’s neither a free jazz drummer or a metal drummer, but applies his own peculiar approach to both equally and plays his ass off. Recently, Weasel has been playing in Cellular Chaos, a New York-based no wave revival band with Admiral Grey, Ceci Moss and Marc Edwards and the band’s second LP, Diamond Teeth Clench, came out over the summer. Also this summer, Weasel released Curses, a solo LP of electro-acoustic strangeness and warped beauty. Weasel’s tireless work should embarrass the herd of underachieving underground rock musicians.
Lydia and Weasel, both pivotal figures during their respective no wave eras, had been in each other’s orbits since the ‘90s, but Weasel had to hustle to gain the attention of his hero. “No, we’d run into each other over the years but she runs into hundreds of thousands of people and I was just some skinny twerp,” says Weasel.
In 2009, Weasel landed his noise metal band Burmese onto a reunion bill for Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. He made an impression on Lydia. “They were amazing, they were absolutely great. And so, I took notice,” says Lydia. “You know, he was smiley and cute...I was like, “OK, buddy.” He “weaseled” his way into my existence.” Lydia had an opening for a guitar player for a one-off gig playing old music and Weasel stepped up. “What started as a one-off turned into a multi-national conglomerate,” says Weasel.
Weasel and Lydia formed the band Retrovirus along with bass player and band leader of New York noise mongers Child Abuse Tim Dahl and former Sonic Youth and Pussy Galore drummer Bob Bert. The band plays modernized numbers from Lydia’s archives: Teenage Jesus, 8-Eyed Spy, Queen of Siam, and more. Lydia also uses Weasel for spoken word projects: their project Brutal Measures finds Weasel drumming in unison with Lydia’s rhythmic verbal gymnastics.
Building on the Brutal Measures project, Weasel and Lydia will be collaborating with poetry icon and original Last Poets member Umar Bin Hassan on a project entitled No Wave Out. The project came into fruition when event producer Some Serious Business’s Susan Martin facilitated a meeting between her long-time client, Lydia, and UCLA. When UCLA skipped on the idea, Martin put NYU record engineer and subsequent Lydia Lunch fan Phil Painson in touch with Lydia. Painson had a direct line to Hassan, and eventually set up a meeting between the two poets. In No Wave Out, Weasel will be playing guitar along with Dahl, percussionist Don Babatunde, and drummer Shaun Kelly drawing upon no wave, funk, hip-hop, noise, and free jazz to create a chaotic swirl of sound all while Hassan and Lydia trade poetic philosophy and revolution. “[Lydia’s] a natural wordsmith,” says Hassan. “Once we got in the studio I knew there was something interesting there.” The No Wave Out performances will take place on November 2 and 3 at Joe’s Pub in New York.
I hung out with Lydia and Weasel at the Roxy Hotel in TriBeca to eat breakfast and talk about their various projects, art, music, and destroying society.
ADAM LEHRER: I hate this culture of nostalgia that we’re living in. Why are people ignoring the music of their own time despite not having been old enough to have experienced what they are nostalgic for in the first place?
Weasel Walter: The internet sort of put everything on an even keel and everyone’s too intimidated to make their way through the morass of stuff now.
LUNCH: To me it doesn’t matter, I’d rather see a fucking reunion of the Jesus Lizard than most bands now.
LEHRER: Yeah, I would too. I love David Yow. But my point is more that people are letting their lives slip by because they’re mad they’ll never see Cobain or something. It’s almost laziness to me. You can experience any music you want. It’s there for the taking.
WALTER: Most people are overwhelmed by the amount of options. I’m a music head and I have a hard time finding new shit I like.
LUNCH: That’s why I look to architecture. A lot of kids in their twenties come up and they’re like, “oh, there’s nobody in my generation.” I’m like, why don’t you look to fucking architects, chemistry or science. Why does it always have to be the lowest common denominator, which is music? But music is still the universal language, and it can be brilliant. But why does everybody have to revert to base elements? My favorite quote about architecture is that it’s “music frozen in space.”
WALTER: Your answer is: people like music.
LUNCH: Of course they do. But look, our band Retrovirus is a retrospective because nobody heard it the first fucking time. I wouldn’t call it nostalgic though because it’s still the most brutal shit going. Well, not the most brutal: there’s also Cellular Chaos and Child Abuse but, I mean, it’s still pretty fucking brutal. Everything Weasel and I do brings a sense of urgency and brutality to the stage.
WALTER: We don’t do any trigger warnings before we start.
LUNCH: Yeah, when there’s a trigger warning I’ve already shot you in the face. Warning, my fingers on the trigger. No warnings.
LEHRER: So, did you two meet when you moved to New York in 2009 or have you known each other longer?
LUNCH: He met me in his dreams when he was fourteen. I really noticed him was when he was in Burmese and forced their way onto a Teenage Jesus reunion. I was very impressed by that band.
WALTER: There was a job opening and I stepped forward.
LEHRER: And that evolved into all of these projects: Retrovirus, Brutal Measures, No Wave Out, and so forth?
LUNCH: We’ve gone to Colombia, Brazil, Australia and mainly Europe. I would like to do more shows in America but it’s different. I mean, it’s hard enough for me to just get solo spoken word shows. We don’t even have managers. I book most the shows. Weasel is so unappreciated, and underpaid. I want to show him off.
LEHRER: How did the No Wave Out project with Umar Hassan come into fruition?
LUNCH: I met this really straight looking black guy [Phil Painson] (and I don’t have many black fans, I don’t know why, being half black myself) and he’s like “hey, you’re Lydia, Teenage Jesus is the greatest band, I’m an engineer at NYU.” I just told him the concept and he goes, “I’ve got two unreleased albums by Umar Bin Hassan.” I thought he was fucking shitting me, I didn’t know that there were any Last Poets still alive. So, after many meetings with him, we set up a meeting with Umar. Now, imagine somebody goes to vet me...
LEHRER: Yeah, things will come up in the background check (laughs).
LUNCH: Who knows what they’re going to see. [the 1988 Richard Kern-directed film is a prime example of the New York cinematic movement entitled The Cinema of Transgression of which Lydia is often considered a muse to-ed] Fingered? But, I met with Umar and explained how influential he was to me. They were the first, and best, protest artists. How’s he going to fucking know what I do? It’s off his radar. I cracked a joke and won him over. We were just talking and he said, “yeah, I’ve been married three times and I got ten kids,” and I said, “well you did that wrong, son, didn’t you.” And he goes, “yeah, I did” and I said, “have you ever been with a white woman” and he said, “no,” and I said, “well you’re not going to be with none tonight ‘cause you’re looking at Biggie motherfucking Smalls” and he laughed and by then, he got me. I had to break down my ghetto into his. We started swapping stories. Then the day after my opening that you saw at HOWL! I had slept twelve hours. I usually sleep four so I was sick with sleep and Tim and Weasel had slept four hours after doing acid so we were on the reverse schedule and they were like, “you’re going into the studio with Umar.” It was an instantaneous, improvisational, spoken word throw-down.
LEHRER: I read that you are trying to boil everything down to the spoken word.
LUNCH: It began and will end with the spoken word. It’s not boiling down, it’s all spoken word to me.
LEHRER: It’s a volatile political and sociological era. Do you think that the spoken word is the most direct way to express yourself in that sort of time period?
LUNCH: Just go back and listen to (Lydia’s 1989 spoken word performance) Conspiracy of Women twenty-five years ago. I’ve been talking about this shit since I opened my mouth. My first big solo spoken word show, called The Gun is Loaded, which was under Reagan, would have been considered treason today. But the names remain the same, the fucking problem is the same. Hence, why Last Poets are still valid. Hence, why spoken word is valid.
LEHRER: I feel like people who criticized your work most likely were just uncomfortable with feeling emotion on some level.
LUNCH: Or intelligence.
LEHRER: Or intelligence. Your art is very raw and emotional.
LUNCH: It was never meant to be liked. Those that originally came or still come to the spoken word show didn’t know whether I was yelling at them or yelling for them. And it was only two years ago that Weasel and I did a show that I actually had to slap somebody in the face. Two guys actually, which hadn’t happened in decades. They were drunk as usual; it didn’t help that one was a Senator.
LEHRER: Weasel, your music has always been narrative but it’s wordless, usually. It approaches narrative through sonic intensity. How is it different for you composing music to be laid under spoken word poetry?
WALTER: I’ve worked in a lot of bands but the approach is almost always [musical approach conceived by late free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman] harmolodic. It’s about rhythm. It’s abstract music that has a pulse. I’m the un-funkiest white man in music but there’s a duality. For example, Tim Dahl, the bass player, is influenced by funk and R&B and it’s an intersection between the melodic section and these No Wave elements.
LUNCH: Also, I don’t like rhythm under my spoken word because my voice is rhythm. So, for instance, when we do our “duolet,” as I call it, or Brutal Measures, Weasel isn’t drumming under my spoken word because he doesn’t know what I’m going to say (not that it’s all improvising because a lot of it is orchestrated). I don’t need music under my solo spoken word. When I’m doing my spoken word, the less music under it the better because my rhythm drives itself.
WALTER: The No Wave Out thing, so far, has just been improvised. We’re all improvisors. I think there’s a unique tension you can achieve by really reacting to the moment.
LUNCH: I know, with my stuff, less is more. He’s a maximalist, I’m a minimalist. So, I like to surround my minimality with maximum impact. When we do Brutal Measures, a lot of my spoken word is much more on the down low. It’s quieter. He provides machine-gunning and I bathe your bruises with my tongue.
LEHRER: Will No Wave Out release music?
WALTER: [No Wave Out] was supposed to be a whole album but it doesn’t have a home yet…It’s sort of in production.
LUNCH: I would rather have an album recorded live. I think live is where it’s at. Do you have the Retrovirus stuff?
LEHRER: I have a few of the tracks on my computer. I have tons on my phone right here: 8-Eyed Spy, Teenage Jesus, that solo album you did with Marc Hurtado.
LUNCH: Oh, I’m glad you have that Hurtado, it only came out in Spain. I composed that whole album, people don’t realize I do some composition. Hurtado just dumped like a hundred industrial samples. It’s composition appropriate for the words that need to be said. He’s a compositional and mathematical genius. Photographs and compositions are the same. Some women knit, I make a fucking montage. I have no idea how I do it. But I do it really quickly...any of those tracks are composed in like an hour. And those photographs are composed in five or ten minutes. His shit is composed by an algebraic compositional mapping. I saw some of the sheet music and just wanted to tattoo my whole body in it so one day I could uncode it. This is what’s interesting about working with Weasel. We’re completely in synch together but we have such completely opposite methodologies.
LEHRER: That’s what I find so compelling. Teenage Jesus was one of the first no wave bands, or whatever they were calling no wave then, and then they labeled Weasel and The Flying Luttenbachers “new no wave” or “Chicago new wave.” But Teenage Jesus and the original no wave bands all sounded raw and falling apart almost, where as Weasel’s work with The Luttenbachers and other ‘90s no wave bands like U.S. Maple all sound quite composed and angular.
LUNCH: Last year, Weasel compiled the ultimate Teenage Jesus live LP, and Nicolas Jaar released it [on his label Other People]. It’s amazing. Weasel was sitting on his favorite Teenage Jesus compositions. Teenage Jesus was quite different because I didn’t compose much of the music in most of my bands. Other than Weasel, nobody can play that shit. A lot of guitarists have tried, but there’s basically no set tuning to Teenage Jesus so it’s difficult to try to figure out what I’m doing. We practiced every day for years but the only notes I knew were hand-written, the only chords I knew go around your fucking neck. And then we did one show last year, just to squeeze all the money out of the record label. Weasel played bass and he broke the bass string. Tim Dahl played drums and here’s a rhythm master and you’re trying to teach him beats that make no sense. It was very difficult for a really accomplished musician, like Tim, to understand. It’s not about music, it’s about brutality.