Q Magazine

John Lurie on the Soundtrack to 'Painting With John,' Selling the Lounge Lizards on Late-Night TV, and His Friendship With Flea

'I got all these f--king guys in there recording, and everybody's just in it. They're not aware of anything else in the world but this groove that's happening. That made me happy.'

wills q template
Source: Eric Mockus

John Lurie in the midst of recording the soundtrack for 'Painting with John.'

Link to FacebookShare to XShare to Email

John Lurie has been a writer, a director, a producer, an actor, an author and a late-night pitchman (more on that shortly), but these days he's splitting the majority of his time between two professions: painter and musician. Indeed, his latest burst of fame has come from the three-season run of his HBO/MAX series Painting with John, and although the series may have come to an end, that hasn't stopped Lurie from releasing the soundtrack to the series, a sprawling affair that provides listeners with what's arguably some of the best music of Lurie's long and illustrious career as a recording artist.

Understandably wanting to do everything possible to get the word out about the release of this soundtrack, Lurie hopped on a Zoom call with Q to discuss the album and the process of putting it together, and although Q was prone to steering the conversation in various other directions, providing Lurie with the opportunity to tell stories about everyone from Roger Ebert to Flea, he regularly found his way back to the topic at hand. As such, it behooves us to underline once more that the Painting with John soundtrack is a must-hear, a must-own, and - per his instructions - a must-listen-to-as-one-piece-of-music. That last bit might be a bit hard, given its intimidating length, but do your best, as it's well worth the effort.

Article continues below advertisement
wills q template
Source: Tim Lee

John Lurie, proving that only true music legends are capable of smoking a cigarette whilst waving.

I'm so glad that the soundtrack for Painting with John is finally coming out.

Thanks. I am, too. I had so many people saying, "Oh, you have to put out the music!" So many people. And I was, like, "Do you know what's going to be involved in doing that? And you can't make any money, and it's so much work..." And then I got into it. [Laughs.] And I'm really happy I did it. I don't quite recognize how music is purchased or listened to these days, but I really put it together with the idea of listening to the whole thing in sequence. It's an hour and 49 minutes long. Nobody's gonna do that these days! But that was the idea. And the segueways work, the volume. I put a lot of work into it.

A lot of stuff got taken out. Like, rejected. Because with the show, we used my whole catalog, because I own the recording and the publishing for a ton of my work. So we had a lot of music to go through. And we'd use five seconds of something for a little scene, but then I'd put the whole song on the album if it worked. The last cut, "Invention of Animals," which is, like, a 17- or 18-minute cut... We only used about four seconds of that in the show! It was in season one, episode one, where Ann Marie and Nesrin are putting this plastic fish back together, and you hear... [Briefly emulates the music.] And that's it! So I probably broke the record for ratio of actual music used and the amount on the record.

Article continues below advertisement

On Get Shorty, I worked really hard on the music, I thought it was really good, and then there's all these deals that go on with the music supervisor and all, so they buy these songs because this company wants this band promoted and whatever. And all these songs got rejected from the movie that really were good and worked! So I found out when the mastering was going to be for the record, and then I went down there, and I talked the guy into putting these songs on there. I played 'em. "Listen to this! This is great!" And he put all these songs on there that aren't in the movie. There's about eight songs on the soundtrack record. But then the soundtrack record got nominated for a Grammy...but not the music from the movie. So it proved that, at least in terms of Grammy standards, which I don't put much faith in, but the music that they rejected for the film won the award! I haven't let you ask a question yet...

Well, no, but I made an observation, and you followed up with a comment, so that's close enough.

[Laughs.] All right, then.

So where do you keep your Grammy?

Oh, no, I'm sorry, I said it won, I meant it was nominated. Who did I lose to? That movie Independence Day, where Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum save the world from the aliens. I lost to them. I sat next to Hillary Clinton, though.

That's not a bad deal.

Eh, I never liked her.

Article continues below advertisement

Fair enough, then. Well, right before I hopped on the phone with you, I re-watched episode five of season three, so I got to watch the recording of the soundtrack. You guys really get into a groove during the course of the recording. I just enjoyed...basking in it, I guess is the best phrase.

You know, that wasn't even going to be an episode. We just thought, "We should film the music." But we didn't really prepare to film the music, and Eric Marcus, he really did a pretty f--king good job, where we'd work on a piece of music in my house... He was also my recording engineer, but he was filming it, so we'd record something to Garage Band in my house, and...he just really made it work. Because he didn't have that much footage to go by. But it's really nice what's happening with Tony Scherr and Calvin Weston and Kenny Wollesen and Smokey Hormel... Everybody just sort of fits together really nicely, and the grooves, they just settle there. And you can see, there's one thing... There's a clip of it where everybody's just nodding their heads. [Laughs] And that made me feel the best. It was, like, "I created this situation!" That's what really made me feel the best. I got all these f--king guys in there, and everybody's just in it. They're not aware of anything else in the world but this groove that's happening. That made me happy. And I'm not letting you talk. I guess I shouldn't have had coffee. I might let you talk if I hadn't just had coffee...

I subscribe to something Roger Ebert once said about interviews: "If you let people talk, they are apt to say just about anything." So that's what I do: I let people talk.

I'll tell you my Roger Ebert story.

I'm ready.

When Stranger Than Paradise came out, y'know, it was Siskel & Ebert back then, and...it was so weird, because it was only three channels back then, and I'm working on this thing on the piano, and my little black-and-white TV is on top of the piano, and I've got the sound off while I'm trying to figure this thing out. And I see myself from Stranger Than Paradise, but it's a scene outside on the train tracks, and my back is to the camera. And there's something really strange about just seeing yourself filmed from behind anyway, because it's not something you're used to. But I recognized it as me. I'm on TV, and I'm backwards, which was really completely disorienting. But I turned the sound on just in time to hear, "That was John Lurie from Stranger Than Paradise. I'm sure we're going to be hearing a lot more from him in the days to come."

And then a couple of years later, when Down by Luck came out, I went to Cannes, and...I'd quit heroin by then, but I was with this young woman, this Egyptian model, who kept saying, "Let's get some heroin!" I said, "Okay, here's 500." And she comes back with this envelope, and I taste it with my tongue, and I'm, like, "This doesn't taste like heroin, but..." "Oh, no, it's really good!" So I snorted a little tiny line. And then I went to this fancy, fancy, fancy dinner with all these rich people and celebrities, and I'm, like, "I'm not used to this whole thing..." But this thing I've snorted turns out to be a sleeping powder and not heroin at all. And I'm seated next to Roger Ebert...and I wake up with my head on his shoulder. I don't know if you can use that. [Pauses.] Well, it's in my book, I think, so I don't care.

Article continues below advertisement

I know you wanted to focus on the music, but since we're talking about the music for your TV series, I did want to at least ask briefly about your previous TV series, Fishing with John. The idea of going fishing with Tom Waits...

Oh, that was awkward, that whole thing. He didn't want to do it, so he was grouchy the whole time.

Did you enjoy doing that series in general?

It was so much work, and there were these legal problems in the middle, and... I mean, if I'd gotten to do a season two, that would've been something. But we sort of were figuring out everything as we went along. We finally had Victoria McGarry as my assistant director on the last two episodes, and she made it so much better, but before that, it was rough. Because you need good people, y'know? And even though it's this sort of junky throwaway thing, which makes it even harder to do it correctly... Anyway, finally I had good people by the end. But then the crew would fight! We had this really good guy, John Huntington, and video didn't look very good then. You wanted to do everything on film back then. But he did this thing where he put nylon stockings on the lenses of the camera and...he just did these things, and it made it look gorgeous! Except nobody on the crew could stand the guy. It was, like, "You can fire everybody else and keep John Huntington, or the other way around." There were a lot of things like that.

As far as the soundtrack of Painting with John goes, you incorporated some of your Marvin Pontiac stuff. I've always been curious about the origins of how that material came to pass in the first place.

Well, I was writing music all day long, all the time, and I'd write stuff mostly for the Lounge Lizards, or if I was doing a film score, but if you come up with a vocal line... I'd have nowhere to put it! So I just kind of put all this stuff aside...and then I started to work on it. And when we started our own record company to put out Queen of All Ears and re-release Voice of Chunk, so we released the Marvin Pontiac thing when we started the record company. My singing...has gotten much better since. [Laughs.]

There's something about saxophone players who can't sing. Normally saxophone players can't sing. There's a pitch thing that goes weird. I don't know why that is, but I've found that to be true. And once I quit playing the saxophone, I was able to sing much better. On the second Marvin record, The Asylum Tapes, my singing's much better than on the first one. When we did the first one and left the studio, the Magic Shop, which was right down the street from where I used to live, the assistant studio guy had written on the tape, "Vocal Attempt." [Laughs.] It was that bad. So I redid all the vocals here, and that's why I called it Marvin Pontiac, partly just because I had to hide behind something. It couldn't be a John Lurie record!

Article continues below advertisement

You mentioned Voice of Chunk, and that reminded me that one of my friends wanted me to ask you about the whole late-night commercial campaign you did to sell that album.

What was that, 1989 maybe? My uncle died, who I loved very much, and he left... Well, he had substantial money, and it was divided between me and my brother Evan and my sister Liz. About $200K each, I think it was. And Evan and Liz bought their apartments. And I took that money and recorded Voice of Chunk, because the material was just ready. The band, we toured Europe and Japan all the time, all year round, but we couldn't get a record deal. So it was, like, "F--- it, who needs a record deal? We'll just go and play!" Except that music... It was ripe. It was ready to go. And we knew if we kept playing it, it was gonna get stale, and then it would get off the set list.

So I took the money I inherited and brought us into the studio to record it. And it came out... Well, I think it's completely beautiful and original. But we couldn't get a deal! We could not get a record deal, even though we're selling out places in Europe. One night in Milan, we sold out this 3,000-seat theater. There were lines outside. And on the same block, Wynton Marsalis and Patti Smith were both playing, and their shows were half-full. So there were people in Europe who wanted to hear us, but we could not get a record deal.

So I was doing the David Lynch movie, Wild at Heart, and I'm in LA, and I'm real depressed, because we couldn't get a deal, and the band broke up after that. It was really a painful period for me. So I'm depressed, I've got the TV on, and there's an ad for Boxcar Willie...and you're old enough to remember Boxcar Willie.

Absolutely I am.

Yeah, so I just said, "Why the f--k don't I do this?" And then all the rest of my money was gone. And I lost all my money. I went broke!

Well, for what it's worth, I watched the commercial on YouTube, and it's great.

There's two of them, actually. There's one with me lying in bed saying, "If you're like me, you like to get things through the mail, maybe because it makes me feel less lonely. Now you can get the new Lounge Lizards album!" But it didn't work. Once I had the idea and we shot the commercial and stuff, I lost interest. Because, really, what you've got to do is pay attention to the mail order s--t. You've got to pay attention to a million things, because you can get robbed in a million ways doing this stuff. And every time somebody called my 800 number, it'd cost me 90 cents! And people would be like... [In a nasally voice.] "So what kind of music is this?" I lost a lot of money. I really did lose a lot of money.

Article continues below advertisement

I know you spent at least a portion of your career on Island Records. Was that not a pleasant experience? Or did they at least do their best for you?

No. Oh, God, no. I mean, right at the beginning, Chris Blackwell... I think they produced Down by Law, but he was, like, this rich kid who finds some new thing, and he's excited about it for a week, and then the toy is left broken in the corner...and I was that toy. We went on tour, and they got involved in the tour, and they changed our venues, and we lost a lot of money, and the promoter was pissed off. For example, we were supposed to play at Hammersmith in London, we were gonna play one night, we had hotels for one night, and then leave. But they get it changed because they think it's a prestigious gig to play at the ICA. Well, I knew the ICA, it wasn't bad, but it's like the Kitchen in New York. So we play three nights there, which means we have to get hotels for three nights, and for less money than we would've gotten at the Hammersmith...and the record wasn't even in the stores yet! So they cost me $5K by changing things, and they threatened me! They said, "If you don't take these gigs instead..." No, they weren't nice. But I did get them to get me $500 to make the "Big Heart" video. We actually made it for $500. [Laughs.]

That's not bad. Did you enjoy the experience of making videos? I can imagine you'd enjoy the artistry, just not necessarily the whole aspect of "you have to make a video."

Oh, we didn't have to make it. But that was a creative endeavor. [Hesitates.] Have you ever seen it?

I haven't.

I'm sure that's on YouTube. Go look at it. I'm really pleased with it! Stephen Torton shot it, and Robert Burden edited the whole thing in, like, an hour and a half. He was a genius. Do you know the performance artist Chris Burden? He has himself shot out of a cannon or has electric wires all over the floor with buckets of water, and the audience can come in and throw the water.

Well, you've certainly given me something else to Google...

Yeah, Chris Burden was amazing. But Robert was his brother, who was an absolute genius. He died of AIDS way back then. But he saved the first couple of Fishing with John shows, and he also did that video. Go look at it. It's really good! I think it's really good, anyway.

Article continues below advertisement

In the last season of Painting with John, Flea pops up. I knew that you'd known him at least since the '90s, because you two were in an indie movie together: Just Your Luck.

Yeah, f--k him, he made me do that movie. I was gonna kill him. I'm still mad at him about that! [Laughs.] They changed the name of it. It was called Whiskey Down, and they changed it, and for years I managed to not know the name of it. But now I do. Yeah, I didn't want to do it. We were supposed to go on vacation to Mexico, and we were gonna fly to LA, but he had to do this movie, so he said, "Do it with me! Do it with me! They want you!" "Oh, God, really?" So I agreed to do the movie. And then he f---ed up, and we never went to Mexico, and I'm still mad at him. I still bring it up, 30 years later!

You'd known him for some time before that, right?

Oh, yeah, we were good friends! I met him... '81? '82? I was doing the music for this movie and I needed a funky bass player, and I called Matt Dike from Delicious Vinyl and said, "Matt, I need a funky bass player out here." "Get the Flea! Get this kid, the Flea!" And there was stuff in 5-4 and 7-8, and I had to make sure he could play it. So he came by, and he f---ing nailed it. So then I was going to try and do something called Dr. Hammerhead, which was very similar to the Marvin Pontiac thing some years later. It never came out. But I was gonna use Cliff Martinez, Flea, and Hillel Slovak to play on it and then I'd sing over it. But anyway, for the film thing, Flea showed up three hours later, and I had all these Hollywood executive types, who were, like, "Where are they?" So I couldn't use him. But I've been his friend since then. We've been friends a long time.

[If you want to see Flea and Lurie in action together, fast-forward to 48:44 in the video below.]

Article continues below advertisement

As a TV critic, I'm curious what you remember about the Are You Comfortable? experience. I'm obsessed with pilots that didn't go anywhere, and I guess that was going to be a talk show?

Yeah, I got Lyme disease, and I got really, really sick back in around 2000, and I couldn't do anything...but I could lie there. So I invented a show where I could just lie down and do it and interview another person lying down. We did a pilot with Eddie Izzard, and...I think it could've been great. I could still do it. Maybe I still can do it. Fishing with John was on IFC, and I had good relations with the people there, but then they brought in this woman who was just a nightmare, and it fell apart because of that. I mean, they make you do the pilot, and it takes nine months to get the whole thing together, and they say, "Oh, we love it, we want to do it, but for half the budget that's in the contract." I said, "Well, what did we do this for if you're just gonna..." [Shrugs.] Anyway, we just said, "Nah, forget it." But mostly because I didn't like the woman. She was so awful.

There's nothing more damaging to a pilot than a new regime.

I guess. Actually, I don't quite know what happened with Painting with John and HBO and Max and stuff, but the vibe there changed dramatically. I loved the people at HBO. I felt bad for all of them, because you just feel like they had a foot on their neck all of a sudden. When this thing was going to HBO, I was, like, "Oh, they're gonna be a bunch of a--holes..." But they were the opposite of that. They were really good, talented, competent, responsible people who were also respectful wen you'd work on the trailer or the poster or whatever. It was just a nice working relationship. But then the last season was on Max, too, and you just felt this pressure from all of them. I used to go back and forth on the trailer with this guy... I've lost his name, but I loved working with him. But suddenly he wouldn't respond to my emails all of a sudden, and he'd been instructed, "Just one suggestion per trailer from the client," or whatever. But all these stories, we're going back 30 years, You're not gonna make people want to hear this new music. You're gonna have to write something in the first two paragraphs to make people want to hear it!

Well, let me ask you: I know you said you want people to listen to the soundtrack in its entirety...

Yeah, I really do.

But if you had to pick a gateway track into the thing...

Yeah, I couldn't figure that out. Because Kevin [the publicist handling the album] keeps asking me, "What's the best one?" And it's, like, they're all kind of equal, and they're all way different. There's no stunning exception. You know what I mean? They all kind of hover right in the same range. "Small Car," it's atypical to the rest of the thing, but that's a completed song. "Flutter," which is also a completed song that came out years ago. All those new ones... The banjo pieces I'm really proud of, but I wouldn't suggest somebody listen to one of the banjo pieces, because then they'll think, "Oh, it's gonna be all this?" But I think the banjo pieces are special. So I don't have one. Do you have to pick one for your online thing or something?

No, I don't have to. I just like to ask that question of people when discussing their albums.

Yeah, I don't have one. You figure it out. I don't know.

I'll figure out which track you guys are grooving on so hard in episode five.

I think that's "Emperor of Cameldom." Go with that! That's good.

Article continues below advertisement

So how much of your day is taken up with painting, realistically?

It depends on so much. It was all day. From 2010 to 2019, it was 10 hours a day. Wake up, paint, go to sleep, get up again and paint. Then I did the show, so it switched up a bit. And since the show ended... I've just started painting again. Just, like, a month ago. But I had stopped. And I wasn't playing music, either. And I was really confused, I guess, and just trying to figure out what I was doing next. There was awhile where I was playing music as much as I was painting, but then you do something for TV or a record, and then there's all these other things to do. So today, I've been up since 10, and I painted for an hour, and I played music for an hour, and now I'm doing this interview and I've done some emails. So that's where I am. I'm kind of bouncing.

Do you see yourself going back and doing more music for music's sake?

[Hesitates.] I keep getting all these ideas, but there's that one sacred, precious moment where the musical idea comes to you, and then you've got to take that thing and make it into a complete thing, and then you've got to get all these other people involved, and then either you're gonna record it or play it live. And all that stuff, setting everything up... I can't. So I don't know. But maybe. It keeps coming. So if it comes too hard, if I keep getting ideas, then I'll have to do it. I just discovered this scale that I never knew existed before, which is kind of like a Turkish scale. You know, the surfer bands used to play... [Imitates the riff.]

Dick Dale. "Miserlou.

[Raises eyebrows.] Good! I'd never played this scale before, and I started working with it and taking it apart and doing other kinds of things, and...I'm really kind of getting excited about it. So if that doesn't go away, then I guess I'll have to. I also have an idea for a string quartet that I was working on, but...I don't know. Like I said, I'm kind of bouncing at the moment. Until someone hooks in. We might also do another show. Or maybe it's a movie. But for now the title is I'm Old and Sick and You Are Horrible People. Basically, it's me and Nesrin and Erik Mockus. He's part of the team, part of the family now. We're very, very close. So we're gonna just set up a camera and decide what we're gonna do next. But it's really about the love between the three of us and all the teasing that goes on between the three of us. And I'm gonna make sort of a bucket list. I want to see a tornado before I die. I want to see a rattlesnake in the wild. Things like that. And then we're gonna go try and find them. Or, "Let's try to meet Werner Herzog, but without using a phone or the internet or a computer. We're just talking to people to find Werner Herzog."

Do you actually know Werner Herzog?

When Stranger Than Paradise came out, there was this press conference. It was at Telluride, and we'd go up on top of this skiing mountain, and I'm sitting there with Jarmusch and whoever else. And Werner Herzog is there...and I don't know who he is, but I realized I'd seen [The Enigma of] Kaspar Hauser, but I didn't really know who he was. And he was wearing lederhosen. And I just thinking, "Werner Herzog is wearing lederhosen." And then in the middle of the press conference, where there were all very serious, "what's the meaning of life" kind of questions, suddenly this guy in lederhosen stands up and goes, "When Paul Newman and Robert Redford see John Lurie's acting, they're going to run into the Hollywood Hills and never come back, because this is real, natural acting!" And he just went on forever. So I'm, like, "Okay, he thinks I'm gonna be this thing."

And then a couple of years later I ran into him at this club, and he said, "Hi," and I said, "Hi," and...there's a great photograph, actually, of Werner staring at me like he wants to eat me. [Laughs.] And I said, "You know, I'd like to work more as an actor, but with good people, because I'm broke." And he said, "Money is going to come to you like fleas to a dog!" And then he walked away. And I've never talked to him since! I mean, one day he tells me that I'm the greatest actor of my generation, and then I never worked again! [Laughs.] Which was mostly by choice, but even so.

Yes, but when you walked away, you could say that you did so with a range that spanned SpongeBob SquarePants and Oz.

That's true. That is true! The SpongeBob thing was really weird. I was in my office - I go to my office once a week, and they throw all this stuff at me - and there's this new cartoon where they want to use a one-minute clip of Fishing with John. I didn't care. They put the contract down in front of me, and I signed it. Now, whenever it's on, the phone rings off the hook: "Oh, my God, you're on SpongeBob!" [Laughs.]

Article continues below advertisement

Conversely, how did you enjoy the Oz experience?

Well, I think by the time I was on it... You know, the first couple of seasons were really thought out and well-written and directed. By the time I was on it, they had a different director every week who usually didn't know the overarching story, and... It just didn't feel as together. There was one scene where they said, "Okay, well, your character does this." And I said, "Well, I don't know if I want to do this." "Oh, no, you have to!" And I get a call from Tom Fontana: "Well, we've written this incredible thing for your character that never got shot..." So I agreed to do it. But then he said, "Our set's been moved to Bayonne, New Jersey," "Okay. Are you sending a car for me?" No, you go to the corner of 7th Avenue and 14th Street, and a van will pick you and the other actors up at 5 am." So it was like being a day worker! And if they had, like, a cafeteria scene, they'd want everybody there, so you'd have to go out there all day and just do nothing. So it was just a major inconvenience and...it just wasn't that rewarding.

Well, when you look back over your discography, is there any particular album that leads out at you as one that you feel like was underrated or just didn't get enough ears on it?

All of them didn't get enough attention! [Laughs.] I'm hoping this will. But, yeah, a lot of stuff went by without much recognition. Voice of Chunk, Queen of All Ears, the first and second Marvin ones, I think they're the best. Oh, you know what else is great - but such a terrible movie - is the soundtrack. That's really good. Some record company put it out and never paid me a penny or sent a statement, so I don't want to advertise it too hard, but it's really good music. What else is good? [Pauses.] Those are the best for me, I think.

Article continues below advertisement

Lastly, you mentioned the potential title for your next series. How is your health these days?

Oh, that's so hard to answer.

I'm sure it changes daily.

Hourly! I mean, I've got all these 72-year-old "life's too hard" problems, and then I've got the Lyme disease, which is much less than it was, at least. But you get to this age... How old are you?


In about 10 years, it''ll just become all maintenance. [Laughs.] From the toes to the air, it's just all f---ing maintenance. I mean, I'm functioning on most days. If we do this show, it could be taxing, because we're traveling all the time. But...I'm okay. I'm doing okay.

Article continues below advertisement

Never miss a story — sign up for the Q newsletter for the latest music news on all your favorite artists, all in one place.


Subscribe to our newsletter

your info will be used in accordance with our privacy policy

Read More