John Lurie re-emerges with 'Invention of Animals'

Looking back from the fragmented media landscape of 2014, it's hard to imagine someone like John Lurie was ever possible.

An immediately recognizable character actor who appeared in landmark indie films including Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law" and "Stranger Than Paradise," Lurie was also a brilliant saxophonist who helped push the boundaries of jazz in the '80s and '90s with his band, the Lounge Lizards.


But Lurie was forced to give up music and acting after being stricken with advanced Lyme disease and has since switched to painting (his work has been exhibited numerous times and was collected in a 2007 book, "A Fine Example of Art").

Lurie's low profile in recent years is also because of significant trouble with a stalker — a situation that was examined in a 2010 New Yorker profile (the facts of which Lurie has vigorously disputed).

Still, he recently ventured back into the public eye with "The Invention of Animals," a new set of live tracks and rarities by the John Lurie National Orchestra, his trio with drummers Calvin Weston and Billy Martin of Medeski Martin and Wood. Here, The Times catches up with Lurie with an email exchange.

You were diagnosed with advanced Lyme disease in 2004 and have fought health problems relating to it as far back as 2000. How's your health these days?

My health is pretty good these days, but then out of nowhere I get whacked with it from time to time. For an hour or a day or for three weeks. But I am so much better than I was. When it comes back, I am astonished at how hideous it is and that I lived with it for years. There is always something going on with it, and it is nuts because the symptoms migrate, but I am pretty adept at living with it now.

I swim and paint every day, which I never thought would be possible 10 years ago.

Does it still prevent you from playing any music at all? Is there any chance of improvement?

I can play the guitar. I can play the harmonica. But I don't so much. All of my creative energy goes to painting now.

If I play, I start to get ideas. Then I want to actualize the ideas. But then I would need to ... [do] all that other unpleasant stuff that goes around making a musical idea into something people can listen to — this I am not prepared to deal with. So ideas have to be stopped at all costs.

Given the breadth of your recordings, this trio is an interesting choice to revisit with "The Invention of Animals." What inspired you to come back to that project?

My hero assistant Nesrin wanted to hear music of mine she hadn't heard yet. I remembered that trio concert in Thessaloniki [Greece] to be something special and I put on the tape for her. I was shocked by the power of it. It was like standing inside a waterfall. So when Billy wanted to rerelease the "Men With Sticks" record on his label, I thought — no, let's put this other stuff out instead.


I read where Billy Martin talked about an idea you guys shared that this music is like "a field recording from a lost civilization." I hear a lot of African and tribal-sounding rhythms there — was this band put together to delve deeper into that style?

I don't hear this as so African sounding. To me it seems to fall somewhere between Ravi Shankar and Coltrane. And please, I don't need 9,000 angry bloggers saying, "John Lurie thinks he is Coltrane" — I am just saying stylistically that is the terrain that it falls in for me. Though that wasn't the intention when we did it, I am just hearing that now on revisiting it.

It seems strange now, but a lot of pains were taken by some in the '80s and '90s to place your music outside jazz (the terms "punk-jazz," "no-wave" and whatnot). Did that bother you? Or did you appreciate that divide?

You know, partly I think it was the humor. And partly it was that I was in movies. And we did start out as a punk jazz band and, almost unfortunately, we got a lot of attention. As the music became more serious and more elegant, more beautiful, I think those people you speak of refused to look at it. They thought they already knew what it was and it was no good. At the time, it did bother me because it would have opened some doors for us.

Being a percussion and saxophone trio, this project is a real showcase for your playing, which to me still sounds like nobody else. As you guys were coming together, was there a sense of finding something new here?

It allowed me to play and concentrate on the playing without all the headaches that go with running a nine-piece band. ("What do you mean you forgot your passport?")

Is there an archive of material from the Lounge Lizards or Marvin Pontiac that could also see release?

Yes, that is possible.

To broach an uncomfortable subject, your safety seemed very much in doubt years ago. Given you're a bit more in the public eye of late, has that situation improved?

The situation is in no way resolved. It still is altering my life. I am kind of used to it at this point.

You — and many who know you —- were very vocal about being misrepresented in that New Yorker piece, to the point where I'm a bit surprised you're willing to do any press at all. Is there anything you've never gotten a chance to clarify from that time that you'd like to now?

I would very much like to address the horrors of that New Yorker article and the incredible damage that it needlessly did to my life but can't imagine you have room for that here.

What one would hope is that the beauty in the music and in the paintings can somehow transcend and invalidate the kind of sickness that led to the article being written as it was and the kind of irresponsibility that allowed it to be published.