Q&A: JOHN LURIE (Unabridged)
Highlights from 20 Interviews (2009)
Courtesy of powerHouse
Sunday, March 01, 2009
The following piece originally appeared in the third-annual 20 Interviews issue. Here we present the full unabridged interview. Click here for more on 20 Interviews
Q&A: JOHN LURIE
By Alan Ortiz
John Lurie has wandered into various artistic endeavors over the decades, refining his craft with each step. He grew up thinking about becoming a writer, but ended up in New York playing jazz in the Lounge Lizards, a band he formed in 1978 and played music with for over 20 years. During this productive period, his artistic reach becomes exhausting: He began to act in various leading and supporting film roles, eventually falling into writing, producing and directing, all while composing original music for over 20 films. In 1999 he released a solo album under the pseudonym Marvin Pontiac. But he is arguably best known for his acting roles in the Jim Jarmusch films Down by Law and Stranger Than Paradise, and for the cult classic TV show he wrote, directed and starred in, Fishing With John. With his successes in both the underground and the mainstream, he has effectively cemented himself as a cultural icon from the New York art scene of the early Eighties.
Recently, however, John has become tragically ill. After countless visits to countless doctors who were unable to properly diagnose his neurological disorder, he has come to believe he might have Lyme disease. His condition leaves him unable to listen to or compose music, and he is rarely able to leave his home. To satisfy his existence, he began to seriously work on painting. His art has been shown in major galleries around the world, including the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, which hosted his solo exhibition, John Lurie: Works on Paper.
I spoke with John soon after the release of his latest art book, A Fine Example Of Art (powerHouse). Although ill, his charm and humor kept him fresh and talkative.
Stop Smiling: How is painting like making music?
John Lurie: It unfolds the same way as writing music. It’s not the same as playing music, but it’s the same as writing it, with that little bubble in your brain that unfolds. It’s not like you’re making it, it’s like something is making it for you. That’s the best part.
SS: How did art help you with your sickness?
JL: It helped me immensely. It created a window for me. I was stuck in here and I wasn’t doing anything. I had no Law and Order’s left to watch.
SS: Did it help explain anything to you?
JL: Oh yeah, all the time. Because it’s almost like the way I worked it was self-hypnosis or something. And so I would have no idea what I was doing and then it would just present itself to me. I don’t know if I learned anything, but I went on a little journey.
SS: Do you listen to anything while you’re making art?
JL: No, I have trouble listening to music, because the rhythm hits my nervous system and causes problems. It’s the hardest thing for me. I can go into a restaurant, but I can’t if they’re playing music or if it’s busy and there’s a lot of commotion. If there’s a piece of music I know very well, I can listen to it. I don’t listen to music though, which is painful for me to live with because I can’t play anymore. I’m a little bitter about my position, and where I am with what I thought I could have done in music and didn’t get to do.
Imagine hitting your funny bone, but it’s going all over your body. Or someone following you around scraping their fingernails on a blackboard. That is often the effect music has on me now.
SS: Glen O’Brien says [in the intro to AFEOA] that you have a “naturally multitasking random-access brain.” Is that how your art comes together?
JL: How a lot of the paintings would work was there would be 10 of them lying out, then it was just like, Bing! I would jump up and I would fix all of them. “That one just needs a little red spark.” Or, “Oh, that one needs, oh, I know" — and then you write words on that one. Just jumping from one to one and fix them all.
SS: That’s interesting that you’re able to do that, but you can’t have music.
JL: Yeah, but I could do it in a moment. I mean, I have some moments where I could probably pick up the saxophone. I don’t know, I haven’t picked up the saxophone in years now. But I can pick up the harmonica from time to time and play it pretty well.
SS: I remember you talking about your show Fishing With John. You were composing a score for one of the episodes and there are these frogs in it and you were slaving over getting these frogs to hit the right note.
JL: My God, I went nuts and everyone thought I was crazy. I wanted the pitch to completely work, and everything wasn’t digital back then. It’s like you got these frogs, you go the pitch on the frogs, and you kind of know that it’s about four or five notes they’re making, and you want to write the string quartet to go with the frogs. But every time you transfer the tape of the frogs to video and then it goes back to this [other format] in the studio, and you’re trying to make it all end on the same pitch — it was just hell.
These are the times when you watch something and you can think, "Oh, that’s enjoyable” and know that somebody slaved over it. You can tell within seven seconds if a movie is bad. It’s like, "Well, that car horn is too loud and the light on the side of her face is wrong. She just delivered that line like she’s thinking about what she wanted for dinner. " You know immediately and it takes a lot of work to make things right.
SS: Do you find any compulsion when you are drawing or painting?
JL: I often will be compelled to get up and do something. It is usually the idea of a combination of colors. Then I will jump up and make a mess. Or not. Sometimes I will have something right away. If it isn’t right somehow, I will work on it. The more you work on it without making it labored, the better it is. You can’t think about the blobs too much. And you know when you kind of have it. You know when your mind lies to you on some days. You get better as you get old at knowing when it is lying to you.
SS: I’ve read a few interviews with you about how you got your first saxophone, and I almost don’t believe any of your stories.
JL: That’s true though. I was really depressed that I was going to have to go to Vietnam. I played the harmonica with my sister’s boyfriend’s band from Boston. It went terribly and I was humiliated. I was just so depressed that my dad had just died and I’m just walking around at night. Then I ran into this weird guy with a wheelbarrow full of dirt at four in the morning in western Massachusettes, and he says he’s seen a statue turn into an angel and fly away, which is exactly what I’m looking for. I go home with him and he gives me a saxophone and a bicycle.
SS: And you just learned to play it on your own?
JL: Yeah. I played harmonica first, then I switched to guitar because I thought the harmonica’s kind of limited. I was studying classical guitar, then I got this saxophone and I thought I’d do it on my own.
SS: Your book has been well received. Though there are so many celebrities who come out with these art books.
JL: But they should be stopped. I think most people in most creative endeavors should be stopped. There should be some kind of test, some sort of license given out. No more bands.
SS: Another thing I wanted to talk about was whether you wanted to shed some light on the sexuality of your paintings?
JL: [Laughs] I don’t know how to do that. Do you want me to speak about a specific one?
SS: Learn To Draw [Lurie's first art book] had a lot of penises in it.
JL: Well, you know what? There was a period there where I was having no sex. I was told I had a year to live and my girlfriend left. So there was about a year there during that Learn To Draw period where I wasn’t having sex at all. And it’s not like I was going to meet somebody unless they were a receptionist at a doctor’s office or a delivery person. It was just kind of, like, there were penises everywhere.
SS: There are a few of them in A Fine Example Of Art.
JL: There are less.
SS: I can’t imagine being an artist who’s a musician and has been in movies, and just putting everything — your entire soul — into something, and then just put it out there for people to scrutinize. It sounds horrible.
JL: I don’t mind that part. I mind when somebody who hasn’t earned it [chimes in]. You put everything into something and someone is like, “I think there should be some bongos on there.” It’s like, “You haven’t earned that. Earn the right to say that.” In the art world, the gallery owner is 9,000 times more important than any artist painting today. In the movie world, the producers and the agents are way more important than the directors or the actors. In the music world, for sure, it’s the executives — and they’re gaining more and more power.
SS: What is one of the happiest moments in your career?
JL: I don’t know. There are odd moments. One moment was in Get Shorty. I hired all the musicians, from Art Barron to Tony Garniey, along with a million guys who have played with me. I was doing the score to Get Shorty and I needed hand claps on one song, so I had them all standing in a row doing hand claps: Art Barron, Tony Garniey, Billy Martin, John Medeski, Calvin Weston were all there in a line doing hand claps — and quite badly, which kind of shocked me. Just clap on the one! I got nominated for a Grammy, but just that moment of seeing all those musicians, and I’m in the recording booth looking out at them and they’re all smiling back at me fucking this thing up. It makes my heart burst.