What first attracted me to John Lurie as an artist was a passionate sense of nonchalance. A contradiction, yes, but as a wildly talented man who focused on his varying artistic endeavors, he seemed to exude a sense of ease and agility, weaving his way between mediums while creating something idiosyncratic and bizarrely unique. Since the early 1970s, the prolific man of talents has become a cultural icon, transcending movements and finding new ways to reinvent himself as an artist. Starting out as the frontman for illustrious jazz band The Lounge Lizards, Lurie played a mean sax before pursuing acting, starring in some of Jim Jarmusch’s best films—Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, among others. But it was the 1990s television show he conceived and directed which really catapulted him into a cult obsession: the strange, wonderful, and hilarious Fishing With John.
The concept of the show was simple: each episode, Lurie would take one of his pals to a certain locale around the world and fish. Just real men doing real things. Those pals also just happened to be Jim Jarmusch, Tom Waits, Willem Dafoe, Dennis Hopper, and Matt Dillon. From Maine, Jamacia, and Thailand, Lurie would travel with his guest of honor and set out to brave the elements, search new territory, and, of course, catch some fish. The result was a fantastic exploration of finding the comedy in the mundane—the pleasure of watching two men sit on a boat in the heat or freezing to death on a frozen lake heightened to the surreal, with a narrated voiceover that could double you over. Tom Waits gets cranky, Jim Jarmusch is bored, Willem Dafoe dies, Dennis Hopper is…well, Dennis Hopper, and naturally a bit of disaster ensues.
Fishing With John is currently streaming on Netflix, but has also been released by the Criterion Collection, and tonight, Lurie is headed to Nitehawk Cinema for the second time. After a screening and Q&A back in November, he will be returning to show three episodes of the Fishing With John, in addition to his 1979 film Men in Orbit and two of his short films .
Personally, I had seen the series a while ago and loved it. But recently, my friend and I spent a Friday night sitting in my bed watching all six episodes, rediscovering just how enjoyable it truly is, and coming to the conclusion that I’d have to get the chance to talk with Lurie myself. Thankfully, he agreed to carry on an email interview with me to talk more about his early jazz days, the late-night inception of Fishing With John, and his more recent work as a highly acclaimed painter.
Can you tell me a little about the beginning of your career in the late ’70s and the beginnings of The Lounge Lizards? New York was obviously a very different place then; did that breed a certain kind of creative energy for you? You’ve always had a very idiosyncratic sound but how was the music scene for jazz at that time? That is kind of a book of a first question. I came to New York as a saxophone player and was interested in the jazz scene. But the jazz scene was pretty thin. The musicians I admired could barely get gigs and were struggling to make ends meet. I was shocked actually because they were heroes of mine and I thought of them as stars. But what was happening around that time and was very alive; it was a scene that bubbled out of the punk movement. Everything was wild and irreverent. I had come from London when things like the Sex Pistols were happening but found it kind of silly—not the Sex Pistols, but the attitude, the nihilism and the spitting. Everyone was doing things they didn’t know how to do. And through Eric Mitchell, I started making Super 8 movies. I almost had to hide the fact that I made sure to practice the saxophone every day because that was sneered at. And I most certainly did not think of anything in terms of a career at that time.
And how did you meet Jim Jarmusch and begin working together—as an actor and musician. I met Jim on Eric Mitchell’s movie Red Italy. He was the bar tender and I danced around like a freak. He was a film student which made us all go, ick. Being a film student to that crowd was like being an accountant, not cool at all. And if my accountant reads this, I don’t mean you PJ. Although PJ did once show me the music on his playlist and I said, See, there are no accountants with taste. He didn’t smile. But the first thing I did with Jim was play the saxophone on the street in Permanent Vacation. I gave him some music for that.
Jumping forward a decade, where did the idea for Fishing With John come from? What did you want the show to be exactly? Did you know who you wanted to bring along as guests on the episodes? The idea came from coming home late one night, or I guess morning really, and the only thing on any channel was a fishing show. And I thought, I want to do this. I had always had this thing since I was a kid where I would watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlon Perkins and he would always be telling you what the animals were thinking, and I just always wanted to do my own show where I would tell you what the animals were thinking. So I was talking about it, more like a joke, a threat—I am going to make a fishing show. And then it sort of fell into place.
Were there certain places you knew you wanted to travel or were they specific to each guest? It wasn’t so thought out who I would go with or where. Tom and Jim seemed obvious. Long Island was the first one, the pilot, and was the closest, cheapest thing to do. Dennis wanted to go to Thailand. Willem decided on the ice fishing in Maine, I thought he was nuts.
Ice fishing with Willem definitely seemed the most dangerous but that one is so good. Were you nervous about going into it? No, that wasn’t really dangerous. It wasn’t even unpleasant actually; that cold is so intense that it is kind of exciting. There is a thing that’s in the show where I get water in my glove and my hand is numb in seconds. I was actually in a bit of trouble then, but that was kind of it. There was a thing with the camera mounts on the snowmobiles, where the mount broke and the camera went flying into the air, then one of us ran over it. The sound is still going, but there’s no picture and you can hear the guy who installed the mounts screaming over the black screen, "Am I fucked now! I am so fucked now!"
And what Dennis, did you know him before going to Thailand? I met Dennis in Tokyo. We were doing this thing for Commes Des Garcon. We hit it off immediately. But I didn’t think he would actually do it. It was kind of amazed that he did.
So going into each epsiode, did you have an idea of how it would go or was it pretty much on the fly? It was mostly on the fly. And a lot was decided in the editing room.
How did you find Rob Webb to do the voice-over? How scripted was his narration? It’s pretty perfect. Of course it is scripted. I worked hard writing that, you think he just made it up on the spot? Damn.
No, no I didn’t think he made it up on the spot at all. Maybe I was thinking more along the lines of how you went about writing that narration because it really does make the show so entertaining. Did you anticipate the show gaining the cult following that’s gathered over the last decade? I don’t know what I anticipated. I didn’t really think about it.
Did you run into any major sort of disasters or problems while shooting? It was kind of all disasters really.
Was it difficult transitioning into the art world as someone who was known for your music and film work? Music was by far the most important thing to me, and then because I got so sick I couldn’t play anymore. I couldn’t even listen to music any more. Wasn’t really a career transition. I was stuck in my home for years and I made them, I don’t know why.
What are you drawn to as a painter or what inspires you? I have no idea what inspires me to paint, or even why I do it at all. I think I would probably do them even if I knew no one would ever see them—meaning, if not even another human were to ever see them. There is something that compels me to do it. And I feel cleaner when I do it.
I imagine painting is a lot like creating music in that it’s about intuition and requires a spontaneity but also the structure and skill there to back that up. Do those two interests—music and painting— play off each other? I never imagined that painting would be as real as the music was. But it is now. The best music I wrote and the best music I played, it was almost like John wasn’t there at all. The best paintings are like that now.
Something I love about a lot of your paintings is how alive they feel, in that, between the colors and the figures and the amalgamation of all the elements, you’re getting a lot of feeling from somewhere that feels very psychological. When you’re creating, is it sort of a subconscious effort? I often invent techniques as I go. I usually have a few paintings going at once. Sometimes if I haven’t worked on one in a while and start working on it again—let’s say I was doing the side of a building by using oil pastels and graphite, but now I don’t remember exactly how I was doing it—I go, how the fuck did I do that? I think I remember, and then start but it doesn’t look right at all.
You have some pretty great titles to your paintings—I especially love ones like "the skeleton in my closet has moved back to the garden" and "there is a caveman in my apartment examining the fur. i wish he would leave." How do you go about naming a piece? Man, I am baffled by questions like that.