Plunging Into Other Cultures

Actor John Lurie's band `Lounge Lizards' taps ethnic sounds. MUSIC: INTERVIEW

You may have seen him as the sourpussed Hungarian drifter in Jim Jarmusch's film ``Stranger than Paradise,'' or as the jailbird in Jarmusch's ``Down By Law.'' Or you might have caught a glimpse of him in Martin Scorcese's ``The Last Temptation of Christ.'' John Lurie is known here mostly as an actor, but to himself, he is a Lounge Lizard first and an actor second.

The Lounge Lizards are Lurie's eight-piece band, and he's the brains and saxophonist of the group. It has been around for about a decade, playing some pretty strange and original music - more or less influenced by jazz, rock, classical music, show tunes, music from Bali, Java, and Africa, all with a slightly avant-garde edge.

``I'm very, very serious about music, and even though I want to direct a movie, music is basically what I'm doing,'' said the gaunt and lanky Lurie in an interview at his Manhattan apartment. ``People tend to know me, especially in this country, from movies more than from music, and people who are serious about music tend to think, `Oh this is the Don Johnson or Bruce Willis of the underground!'

All to Lurie's unending dismay. Nevertheless, the Lounge Lizards have managed to record five albums since 1981. The latest of them, ``Voice of Chunk,'' is a musical breakthrough for the band - one that has consolidated their somewhat scattered influences into a whole.

``It's the first time I've felt that the band really sounded what I imagined the band was supposed to sound like, you know?'' said Lurie. ``It's not so eclectic as the other records, where you have a sort of African tune and then a tango and then a blues; I think [the Lounge Lizards] has found its musical voice over the years.''

On ``Voice of Chunk,'' Lurie's ethnic influences come to the fore. Although he's always spent time exploring the music of other cultures, on this album he was particularly influenced by the gnawa music of Morocco. He ran across it while filming ``The Last Temptation of Christ'' and spending some time jamming with local musicians in his hotel room.

When Lurie started working on ``Voice of Chunk,'' he tried to get a more primordial sound.

``I sort of forced the band to stick with the oddness and the primitiveness of what I was doing, rather than everybody throwing in all their musical training. I can't stand that kind of stuff, so it was like just getting them to throw their technique out the window and make it simpler, simpler, simpler. I was just fed up with these jazz musicians ... Who cares? It's not a race,'' said Lurie, pursing his lips into the now famous Lurie deadpan pout.

Not only did things get simpler, they got prettier.

``I was always sort of thinking like this, but I never had the guts to try and do something beautiful before. If we wrote something beautiful, we'd always destroy it.''

He agreed that they were afraid of sounding corny, but now Lurie doesn't seem to be afraid of much of anything - especially the music machine in the United States.

``I'm just going more and more far away from the institution of what American music sounds like.... This really slick veneer with nothing inside of it. I'm looking for the heart of things. I think because the music we have coming out of this country is so soulless, you have to turn somewhere else for inspiration.

``Everybody is just playing music for their career - they copy what last month's hit was, when last month's hit was already a copy of the month before, so there's no vision happening at all. And if you do happen to have a vision, then the record companies won't go near you because you can't be put in a box and be marketed like this month's soap product.''

TO avoid this kind of pigeon holing, Lurie has taken a brave step with ``Voice of Chunk.'' You won't find it in your local record store. Instead, he has created two 30-second television spots promoting the album, with an 800 telephone number to place an order. It's his way of saying ``I'll do it myself'' to the record industry. The spots are quirky, humorous, and weird enough to attract attention. One shows Lurie reclining on a bed, surrounded by all sorts of junk he supposedly ordered by mail, commenting, ``If you're like me, you like to get things through the mail. I don't know why, but maybe it makes me feel less lonely.''

If you don't see the TV spots in your area and want a copy of ``Voice of Chunk,'' call 800-44CHUNK, or write to: The Lounge Lizards, PO Box 1740, New York, NY 10009.

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