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Published: 2014/02/26
by Larson Sutton

John Lurie’s Invention of Animals

John Lurie has a penchant for balancing serious artistic endeavors with the infiltrations of his tilted humor. The mild absurdity expressed in his television show Fishing with John, his paintings (johnlurieart.com), and twitter entries (@lurie_john) is equally present in the name of his once and future trio, the John Lurie National Orchestra, and the song titles of the pieces offered on this year’s The Invention of Animals and its 1993 debut Men with Sticks. Featuring Calvin Weston and Billy Martin, the de facto drummers of Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, the music of the National Orchestra is bold, incendiary, even hypnotic, and anything but comical. The title track, a 20-minute opus of sonic combustion, is available now as a single for $1.98 at the Amulet Records shop With over 20 years between its two albums, the new release puts this downtown NYC unit back in the discussion. Lurie spoke about the history of the ensemble and its furious flights of improvisation.

How did the John Lurie National Orchestra come into existence?

It was 1991, over the holidays, and Calvin and Billy and I got together to just play. We were kind of hoping to come up with new Lounge Lizard material. What we had been working on a lot at that time was music with two or three odd time signatures on top of each other. So it made sense to look at that with the drummers. But very quickly, it began to seem like something that could be special.

So, did you roll tape on a writing session and this is what you got as a result, or are these pieces actually worked out as written pieces and recorded as such at a later time following that initial get-together?

No, we went into the studio immediately, with very little planned. This was a mistake. There were one or two things that came out pretty good, but what that music became later, after touring a few times was much better. Looser and stronger and more succinct. That was why we are putting this out, for the two live tracks on there which take up most of the record.

Did the studio cuts on the record come from the Men with Sticks session?

One. “Men with Sticks” is from Men with Sticks. Three or maybe four of the shorter ones are from a session we did and that music, I ended up using for Fishing with John because it worked so perfectly. But it was not originally intended for that.

Is this the same “Men with Sticks” piece as appeared on the Men with Sticks album?

Yeah, it is the same, but most of those previous studio pieces are faded out early because we wanted the album to be under 20 minutes. As I remember, sonically that would be better for an LP. And the pieces on there have said what they were meant to say. We put a good deal of work into figuring out when to fade them.

How much of these pieces are improvised?

With the trio it is 99% improvised. There is basically one phrase or melody per piece. There is a certain plan to the landscape of it as far as dynamics but that is kind of it.

Where was the starting and ending point for a piece of music? Was there any idea of structure ahead of time?

We would have different kind of sections, but nothing really worked out. It’s hard to explain. The three of us were very in tune with each other. I don’t even think he was aware of it until I asked him about it, but it got to the point over the years that I began to realize Calvin would slightly change something up by watching my feet. Or that Billy would hit some clanky piece of metal trash when I hit a certain multi-phonic section.

Let’s take “Men with Sticks” as an example. Those five minutes, what are you hearing in those particular five that says to you, ‘this is a piece of music that should stand as a song.’ Or am I misunderstanding the process? I’m under the impression that those five minutes were extracted from a larger piece of music, or am I wrong there?

Kind of wrong. Each was a little fragment of an idea that we started with. We found where we were and played on it. We faded two or three things on the album out early. What we cut out was not bad in any way, it could have stayed in. It is almost like the mind can imagine how it would be going forward, or at least my mind can. I suppose that is dumb of me to assume the listener will do that also. But it is kind of like when a flock of birds fly past- you could watch them for hours or you could watch them for 30 seconds.

The record industry in the early ‘90s was essentially pre-internet, and still somewhat closed to such unconventional approaches. How did you get it produced?

I paid for us to go into the studio. Then we sold it.

And when you performed as the John Lurie National Orchestra, was the approach the same? No real plan, just total improvisation?

There was very little discussion. On “Invention of Animals,” and who knows what the title of that song was at the time when we played it, it would start with Billy on the marimba with those metal bars placed on it and then I would play over it. Not the same melody but would normally be the same scale, the same key. The same kind of idea. Then the only discussion would be about when Calvin should come in because Calvin coming in would indicate that it was about to slowly change to another kind of thing. But it was really about how many minutes he should wait before he should come in. He had to pay attention to the idea that what Billy and I were doing alone might grow thin after a bit, but Calvin had a remarkable thing of being able to read my body – how my feet were, if I was leaning forward or back, or how I was rocking when I played. None of this was ever discussed but clearly Calvin was doing this whether he consciously realized it or not. There was so little discussion I think it would be shocking to you. But there was hardly anything that could be discussed really. There was no language to discuss it other than what we were actually doing while we were playing.

There was a short period where Calvin was supposed to come in on the opener – “The Invention of Animals,” after four minutes. So he would sit back there and look at his watch and come in at four minutes exactly like someone with a punch card coming to work. Because Calvin just wanted to play, no matter what. Sitting there not playing was hard for him and I sort of put him in musical time-out by saying, ‘Wait 4 minutes before you come in.’ But that didn’t work. I don’t know. Sometimes it worked.

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