In the mid-1980s, John Lurie had a career choice to make. Three choices, really. Painter? Actor? Musician? In the end, thankfully for music lovers, he chose his saxophone.
As a Grammy-nominated film score composer ( Get Shorty ), bandleader, record label founder, and non-existent bluesman, Lurie found his highest moments of creative collaboration and adulation. His Lounge Lizards, with pianist and brother Evan, required new hyphenates for description; no-wave, punk-jazz. His writing graduated from Monk-inspired, warp-speed atonal bursts complemented by the scattershot guitar of masters like Marc Ribot to tightly composed sections of contrapuntal tension that gave way to improvised release, often with a sly sense of humor implicit in the notes or explicit in song titles and stage banter.
Ironically, it is in his third act, in which he fights a daily battle with Advanced Lyme disease, no longer acts, no longer makes music, and devotes all of his creative energy to his painting, that Lurie is ever more fascinating.
What had become a life restricted, with little activity outside of his home for six years due to his illness, morphed into surreal in 2008. That is when a onetime friend of Lurie’s turned into his stalker; a man with, according to an August 2010 article in the New Yorker, an admitted history of violence, arrest record, and tendency toward predatory behavior began a series of threatening emails and phone calls. Coupled with his tenuous health, Lurie faced the unimaginable- leaving his home and going into hiding. Moving in and out of the country, and concerned for his safety, Lurie tried to remain positive. A few weeks after his 58th birthday, Lurie conducted the following interview via email, still under significant duress.
The Lounge Lizards music of the mid ’90s seemed built around tightly composed sections that led into sections of solos and improvisations. How strict were you with each player adhering to the composition and how much freedom did you offer the band during the improvised moments?
The composed sections were pretty strict. One or two players could possibly stray from what was written depending on the section. I would try to give each of them a chance to stretch out in a solo at some point live. Freedom was there but then it wasn’t. If someone did a solo that was perfect for that piece in Brussels, three weeks before, I would play it for them and try to get them back to it. Also, on recordings, the nature of the CDs should really not have been waiting 12 minutes for the musician to find it. So in some ways the solo had to be structured.
Did you feel the Queen of All Ears record accurately captured the strength of the band at the time or were you better represented in a live setting?
We were far better live than in the recording studio. Just hearing what is going on is difficult with that many players. There are bits on Queen of All Ears – like ‘First and Royal Queen,’ ‘Scary Children,’ the softer, more composed ones that work, but that thing we could get live- that ecstatic roar- just was never there.
Miles Davis and Frank Zappa were two terrific players, but were perhaps equally as renown for their ability to recruit top-flight talent for their bands. You also fit that description, with your bands having included John Medeski, Steven Bernstein, Michael Blake, Marc Ribot, David Tronzo, Billy Martin, Jane Scarpantoni, and the list goes on and on. What are you listening or looking for when you select your musicians?
How they fit together is important. For example, if the drummer is macho, then the bass player has to be a little lenient. There is a big masculine/feminine thing in who I hire. Not male/female but just a sense of who is sensitive and who is strong. It is best to have both in the same person, but if you don’t, then you need to balance it out. I have hired some musicians without even hearing them play; just seeing how they pack up their instrument after talking to them can be enough.
A favorite of jamband audiences is Medeski, Martin, and Wood. At one point in the ’90s, Billy Martin and John Medeski were Lounge Lizards. Can you talk about how Medeski came to be in the band and what he brought to the band’s sound?
Billy Martin (percussion/drums) was in the band for a long time. He kept talking about Medeski. He kind of ending up filling the void that happened when (David) Tronzo and Evan (Lurie, John’s brother) left the band. Medeski can really, really play. And he is real and spontaneous. This is actually rare – you often meet people who can play but they just are a little phony in a way because of how much they studied. So the music is not really coming from them. John was a delight. I really got to use him more on the Get Shorty soundtrack than in the band.
In the chronology of the band, 1998 seems to be one of the higher points; you’re playing sold-out shows here in the U.S. and in Europe and Asia, Queen of All Ears is released, you’re appearing on Conan O’Brien’s show, and yet a year later there seems to be a collision of interests with your Fishing with John television series and the Marvin Pontiac release. Subsequently the Lounge Lizards fades away completely, save for a few anniversary shows. What happened?
No, it wasn’t really a collision of interests. There was a horrible fiasco with the Knitting Factory for our 20th anniversary that really put a damper on things for the band. My health was really getting strange and I had to pull back on stuff. I had started my own label to put out the Lounge Lizards music, but then had to do Hollywood film scores to keep it going financially. It was just becoming too much business and not enough music. But the release of the fishing show was just a coincidence. Marvin [Pontiac, the name of his next studio project] came a year or two later.