John Lurie’s Invention of Animals
What was it about Calvin and Billy that made them ideal for a project like this?
I had been blown away by pygmy tapes from this guy Louis Sarno. How they were singing and hitting logs with sticks in different time signatures, in this very organic real way. A way that we have had smashed out of our heads, 1-2-3-4, by the time we are six-years-old and just a general pattern of Western thought that must put everything into safe, clean brackets and life be damned. And just things like the rhythm of cicadas in the tropics – how it is so incredibly and perfectly rhythmic yet you could never play like that unless you threw everything you had learned out the window. So Calvin, whose playing is incredible, but as Erik Sanko used to say, ‘Playing with Calvin was like trying to roller-skate with a Rottweiler on a leash.’ Calvin had that thing, that ferocious innate thing, and then Billy, who is also a very muscular player, would play off of him in other rhythms. It created the thing I had been looking for forever.
Was there something in their respective personalities that allowed them to grasp it?
Well, they are both incredibly musical. But beyond that, Calvin and I had some kind of weird psychic connection that I don’t even know how to begin to explain. When Calvin had joined the Lounge Lizards, everyone in the band wanted me to fire him, so instead I fired the band and kept Calvin. Though having Calvin as your key figure is kind of like a pro basketball team having Earl Mannigault as their centerpiece.
And I wanted that thing with the odd time signatures. So I had hired this guy Pete Zeldman. You can find his stuff on YouTube I think. Zeldman is a freak of nature. He can play 17/8 with one hand and 23/8 with the other while playing 4/4 on the kick and God knows what on the hi-hat. But musically it doesn’t quite work. After I hired him, we would be in rehearsal and the groove would go funny. I would stop the song and say, ‘What the fuck is going on?’ And everyone’s eyes would silently go to Zeldman.
And Pete would say, ‘No it’s great! See? I am doing 31/8 against the 5/4 feel.’ But the overall thing in the music was that someone had just dumped a garbage bin in the midst of it. Poor Zeldman. He was so unbelievable and so impossible at the same time. So everyone said, ‘Get Billy Martin.’
If I could have been patient with Pete it may have worked but there was no time. We were about to go on tour to support the Voice of Chunk CD.
And Billy entered it knowing what had happened before him and really made the best of it. With a solid groove feel, he is really basically a drummer and not a percussionist. He also is a tough guy and, at the same time, he is malleable. So he gave up no power in meshing with what Calvin was doing together. Listen to the two of them playing together without me – is that normal? It seems shocking to me.
Did you take anything from the experience in the trio back to the Lounge Lizards or any of your other projects?
No, I wish it had, or really I wish it was able to. It was so much easier to play in that situation. The Lounge Lizards had terrible problems with sound on stage, because of the instrumentation and the number of people. The piano and cello could rarely be heard and the horns had to play harder than they should have had to play. It often led to the saxophones, well, me anyway, being a little sharp and the tone a little shrill. Plus, the amazing luxury of just going out on tour with three musicians was that I could afford to travel with our own monitor person, someone who knew the music and what each musician needed. We had that a couple of times with the Lizards but not so often and it made it so much more pleasant.
You have been away from music for a long time. What was your level of involvement on this record with regards to mixing, production, sequencing? And how did it feel to get back to music?
Billy was really helpful and great. Just one person. The record business, as a lot of business surrounding the arts, seems to be filled with people who want to make your life miserable. And make the simplest things very, very difficult. ‘Fill out these forms in billionicate and go and stand in that corner until you are called.’ I don’t know why. Maybe because you get to do this wonderful thing and they don’t.
This (project) was Billy and Nesrin, my assistant, who did the coordinating. Heung Heung Chin, who I worked with before, did the cover, and Billy’s mastering guy Mike Fossenkemper took care with it. I couldn’t be there to oversee it but they sent stuff to me. Everyone worked together to get it done. It was a little hard but basically just a nice experience all the way around. Also, what is important is that I know Billy and I know he is honest. A lot of time when you enter a project, a lot of it is figuring out the myriad ways that they might try to screw you and avoiding that. I didn’t have to go through that here.
There was no mixing to be done. Sequencing took a bit of time and figuring out where to fade the songs we faded. But there was no painful, horrible wall of mess at any point, which is unusual.
It’s been 20 years since the first and only John Lurie National Orchestra release. Do you think, especially with the Internet and the freedom of the creative marketplace it encourages, that the reception to the trio will be better than the first go around? That it can find its audience better?
Better is a hard thing to assess. There are so many wonderful and horrible things about the Internet. But it certainly makes it more available and for people who might be interested to know it exists.
Is there more in your ‘vault’ for possible future releases?
Yeah, there is a ton of stuff. A lot of it on DATs though and the shelf life isn’t long. But you know my situation isn’t so good for getting things like that together. This was possible because of Billy Martin being the record company and Nesrin’s excitement to get a new record out. This was work to get it out, of course, but to put more stuff out, the road would have to be set up nicely in front of me, like it was on this one.