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Label Watch: Luaka Bop and John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards

John Lurie

“I have no interest in running a record company. That’s the last thing I want to do,” moans John Lurie, cult movie star, fashion plate, saxophonist and founder of the Lounge Lizards. “I just wanted to get my own stuff out, you know?”

Granted, the Lounge Lizards’ music is neither radio-friendly nor easy to categorize, which Lurie believes has rendered the band as an outcast in today’s tight-fisted industry. Yet, this hip, genre-hopping band of downtown renegade jazzbos has built up a healthy fan base over the past two decades, both Stateside and abroad. So Lurie has established Strange & Beautiful Music to service the outre needs of those fans.

After disappointing experiences with labels like Editions EG and Island, Lurie tried marketing the Lounge Lizards’ 1989 album Voice of Chunk strictly mail order via the band’s 800 number. His savvy placement of tv ads for the album during popular late night shows helped net over 25,000 in sales; a relative smash hit, considering the huge percentage of profits going to the artist (as opposed to the miniscule share that artists are generally granted by record companies).

His parting with Island had been less than amicable. “They still haven’t sent statements for the first three years we were with them (for 1986’s Big Heart: Live in Tokyo and 1987’s No Pain for Cakes ),” he complains. “But I guess that’s par for the course.”

Following another failed marriage with a record company, this time with the German Intuition label, which released two volumes of Live in Berlin (’93 and ’95, respectively), Lurie was about to abandon hope of ever recording again. “Nobody else wanted this stuff,” he says. “And quite honestly, I feel like I have a gift, you know? And the gift doesn’t end if I just play this music in my apartment. I feel obligated to get it out there. I feel like even if I write the best music in the world I’m a failure if it doesn’t have any effect on the universe. So I feel obligated to get it out.”

That’s when David Byrne and Luaka Bop came along. A Warner Bros. imprint that specializes in world music exotica, Luaka Bop seemed like the perfect refuge for the Lounge Lizards in 1996. “We had just done a three-week run at the Knitting Factory, which was sold out every night,”recalls Lurie. “The band was sounding incredible. And then David Byrne came to me and said, ‘Can you make us a record of this material you’re doing?’ At the time I just felt that Luaka Bop was exactly where we should be. So we made this record for them. But then everything turned ugly. It would take 20 minutes to tell the whole story. It amounts to Yale Evelev, who runs the label, and David Byrne saying things were going to go one way but having no business promising that because all the decisions were ultimately up to Warner Bros. It was disgusting.”

The next much-anticipated Lounge Lizards release, Queen of All Ears, sat on the shelf for over a year before Lurie was able to get out of his deal with Luaka Bop and put the record out on his own Strange & Beautiful Music, which he formed in January of 1997. The album is a typically enigmatic and sophisticated blend of styles. Traces of Monk, Trane, and Ornette bump up against klezmer and cartoon music. Add in elements of Gershwin-like swing, burundi tribal beats, African juju and gnawan music from Morocco and it’s a little easier to understand why Lurie considers the band unsignable in today’s conservative climate.

Lurie’s total disdain for an industry that he perceives to be rampant with hacks, morons, and incompetents eventually forced him to gain complete control over his music, including the packaging and marketing of it. “To have some nitwit like David Byrne telling you what should be on the album cover…it’s just appalling, you know?” Lurie says. “But it’s not even David Byrne in most cases. Usually it’s like…god knows who…Mr. White Man With Small Penis telling you what he thinks should be on your album cover. It’s absurd! (The cover of Queen of All Ears is a disturbing/intriguing painting by Lurie himself.)

“And the really appalling thing,” he continues ranting, “is that these record company guys are complete losers. Not only are they jealous of musicians but they’re inept at their job. They’re inept at selling things; they’re inept at figuring out what will work. In the record business, people move to the level that they can’t handle, you know? Maybe it’s like this with the aluminum siding industry, but I don’t think so.”

Lurie says he has no intention of signing artists and building a roster. “I think for now it’s going to be a vanity label,” he says of Strange & Beautiful Music, which is being distributed in North America by Koch and by several independent distributors overseas.

Aside from the recently releasing Queen of All Ears and the soundtrack to Fishing with John (his mock travelogue tv series aired on the Independent Film Channel and Bravo network), Lurie will re-release Voice of Chunk along with soundtracks to Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, African Swim, and Manny and Lo . He also plans to record new material later this year with the current edition of the Lounge Lizards (Tony Scherr on bass, Mauro Refonsco on percussion, Doug Weiselman on clarinet and guitar, Jane Scarpantoni on cello, Michael Blake on tenor sax, Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Calvin Weston on drums, Evan Lurie on piano, and John Lurie on saxes).

“This band is probably the best I ever had and the most kind of love, kind of unified vibe,” says the head Lizard. “I’m really pleased with it. Basically, I’m pretty lucky. I’m making a living doing creative stuff, you know?”

Lurie’s come a long way from his “fake jazz” days with the first edition of the Lounge Lizards. He’s evolved into a fine player, an accomplished composer, charismatic bandleader, and record company exec to boot.

Originally Published