A funny, introspective, and altogether charming show driven by the inventive and confessional artistry of its creator, John Lurie, Painting with John is a balm for the soul. The celebrated leader of the Lounge Lizards jazz ensemble, the star of Jim Jarmusch’s seminal ’80s indies Stranger than Paradise and Down by Law, and the host of the cult small-screen hit Fishing with John, the 70-year-old Lurie is a raconteur with few equals.
The multi-hyphenate once again provides a unique peek into his world—and his idiosyncratic paintings—with his acclaimed HBO series, whose perfect Rotten Tomatoes score (a point of pride to Lurie, who even mentions it in a new episode) is unlikely to waver following the June 2 debut of its masterful third season.
Recounting anecdotes and musing on absurdities in to-the-camera interviews as he puts paint and brush to canvas, Lurie is a born storyteller, and the tales that make up Painting with John’s third go-round are some of his finest, including a second-episode yarn about a childhood summer-camp odyssey that’s brilliantly animated by Lurie himself. That Lurie knows how to build to a sly punchline or moving denouement is by now well established.
More unexpected, however, is that two of this season’s six installments boast almost no painting, opting instead to take detours to a prison cell that Lurie shares with Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, and to a New York City studio, where he collaborates with some of his favorite musicians on the 40 new compositions featured on the soundtrack.
If those outliers lend Painting with John an amusing unpredictability, so too do the various comedic interludes that mark its chapters, be they genre-stylized parodies of “Previously on…” recap intros or trips to the kitchen to gaze in wonder at revelatory pieces of toast. Structured with free-form grace and punctuated by moments of tenderness, depression and humor, the series is a true original, and the fact that, from the premiere to the finale, Lurie’s demeanor shifts from despairing to joyful is emblematic of the effect its episodes have on one’s own disposition.
Thus, it was our supreme honor to speak with Lurie about departing from formula, filming the act of creativity, his disdain for young people’s music, and the perils of binge-watching—albeit not, of course, with regards to his own show.
In the new season, you discuss the hazards of binge-watching. I assume this means you’re happy Painting with John runs weekly on HBO, and therefore is not instantly binge-able?
It’s not that kind of show, really. But I have had that thing where I’ve fallen into binge-watching, and I suppose everybody has [laughs]. I just watched the whole zillion The West Wings in a row, you know, and it’s not healthy.
So The West Wing was to blame for your binge-watching critique?
That was just the last one. I can’t even think of them all. And sometimes you’ll start watching something and go, fuck, I’ve already seen this, or have I already seen this? I’m not even sure. Yeah, I’ve watched a bunch of this nonsense.
In one episode, you advise viewers to “boycott everything," and yet here you are, making this show, which you obviously don’t want boycotted. Is making Painting with John in your own unique way the key to making it less boycott-able?
Look, if I were to say something now in this interview, and then they go, “Oh, John Lurie said this,” and I get canceled, the show would get so much more attention than if I don’t. But it was more like, when COVID was happening and everything was shut down, and I was in Manhattan—the air was cleaner, and there were birds. You could hear birds outside my house, and you could never hear birds outside my house.
Then I saw this Attenborough thing about this family in India who live close to the Himalayas, but they could never see the Himalayas because of the smog. Then the son comes in saying, “Dad, dad!” He’d never seen the Himalayas his whole life, but it’s right there, 40 miles away. So it’s kind of a good thing to point us in this direction.
If everything stops for a minute, things will start to grow again. The air will get cleaner, the birds will come back, the fish will come back, the insects. Maybe even bees will come back.
It was more like that. It wasn’t whether you boycott my show or not. Boycott everything but my show.
That should be the tagline.
In the premiere episode, you discuss being in a grim period. Was that also due to COVID? And did making Season 3 help get you out of it?
The thing I was grim about is the world and how little empathy and compassion there is. And not just between individuals, but like, how many refugees there are, or what’s happening in Yemen. If you start paying too much attention to it, you become paralyzed.
I’ve been around a while, and you kind of watched how racism and things got a little better, or the acceptance of gay people—that really came far. You think, if things can come far, that they should be further. Because on the other hand, we’re going backwards just as fast as we’re going forward. Especially when you look at the Trump followers. Just people who hate other people for no real reason, you know?
Does living in the Caribbean, and thus at a remove from the States, give you a different perspective on all these issues?
I’m back in New York now, but things are not great down there either. People are struggling and suffering. I think wherever you look, it’s kind of rough for a lot of people. Not for everybody, and sometimes it hits me and sometimes it doesn’t. I have to stop myself at a certain point, when you start to read about what’s happening in such and such and you just become paralyzed. But it had been getting to me, and getting me down. I don’t know what we have to look forward to at this point.
Hopefully Painting with John, for one.
Yeah [laughs], to make a tiny difference. I definitely hope to keep the show very positive, but I was not feeling well—kind of depressed and also ill. I got COVID in the middle of it, so I was kind of down. Then I don’t want to sit in front of the camera pretending to be all charming and delightful when I’m not feeling it. That’s the last thing I want it to be, is phony. So I didn’t really feel like doing the stories so much.
But the music episode’s great, the Flea episode’s great, and the potato [a sequence in Episode 2] I’m really proud of. “Potato” is really something special—there’s never been anything like it before. I’m hoping that when it airs, people start a network thing, where they start yelling “Potato!” out their windows. That would be the crowning glory of my life, if that could happen.
We’ll try to motivate people.
You get that going. That would be amazing.
You have two episodes that don’t feature any painting—one with Flea and the other with your fellow musicians in New York. Talking about “deviating from formula” with a show like this is probably misleading, but what was the motivation behind doing something different?
I think that’s a good thing. Who wants to see this old man just sitting at a table barking for hour after hour? It was good to go on these. HBO kept mentioning, maybe guests would be good. I didn’t know how to do guests. But Flea, we’re close enough where we could do this thing where the military comes and puts us in this prison. I thought that worked; I was proud of that idea. I think they should all be a departure from the thing. But what I like the most is the painting and the music. Telling the stories is kind of secondary for me, and I wasn’t up to being so charming at the moment. But I’m sure I’ll get it back.
How did Flea’s appearance come about? Did you reach out to him, or had he wanted to be on the show?
He’s been my friend since like ’82, so we’re pretty close. I really wanted to take him on Fishing with John, but they [the Red Hot Chili Peppers] weren’t so big then. But me and him had actually been fishing a few times. It just made sense, and it fell nicely into place. “You want to come and do this show?” “Sure.” He’s so easy to deal with; he’s really a sweetheart. He came, but that’s right when I got COVID. It’s such a shame! He’s arriving in 12 hours, and I’ve got two positive COVID tests, and it’s like, holy shit! I had to rise up and do it because he’s come all that way, and his schedule is ridiculous. He’d taken time out and I had to rise up and do it.
But since we filmed that thing, which was in November, we’ve had 10 phone conversations that were more interesting than anything that happened on the show [laughs]. We had one conversation where we’re talking about this basketball thing, and it wasn’t really for the show, but we were talking about a specific player, and that COVID thing happens and I suddenly don’t know who we’re talking about. So to bring these things together that were actually in the show, it was a struggle.
It felt like you were almost channeling Down by Law with that prison-set episode…
Oh, I didn’t think of that! I hope not, actually [laughs].
Had you been developing that idea, or was it something Flea suggested?
What happened was, we were in New York doing the music, and I knew he was coming in November. We’re doing the music in June, and we’re in the rehearsal, and we had this melody, and it just all came to me right at that moment—this should be the military march of the guys who come to arrest me and Flea and put us in a cell. Then we do the interview in a cell, and we’ll make it all forgivable. It all came to me while I was doing the music.
The music really directed where a lot of the show went. I bought this guitar that I love, and there’s this thing with the fancy old guitars where rich people buy them and put them on their walls, and the players don’t get to play them. I refused to let it go there. I started practicing, hours and hours a day, to get my playing legitimate, so it wasn’t a wrong thing that I own this beautiful guitar. Because I hadn’t written music in a really long time, the ideas wouldn’t stop. I wrote probably 80 pieces and we wound up using 40 in the show. The show really got made around the music, rather than the other way around.
One of the things I love about the fourth episode in particular is that it affords the opportunity to watch artists actually create (and not in a how-to sort of way). Was depicting that part of your motivation?
Even with Painting with John, when I do the actual, most inspired, best, and most unique stuff, I’m kind of in a hypnotic state. So maybe if Erik [Mockus, the series’ cinematographer/editor] snuck in there with the camera when I was doing it and I didn’t know… But that’s a magical place, and it’s hard to really capture. Every once in a while, I suppose, you capture it. But even for my show, which is supposed to be about painting, we only get me painting the leaves on a tree, rather than the big thing.
That’s why that music-centric episode works, though—it situates itself in that magical space and lets us see the alchemy that goes into creating art.
Good, I’m glad. I hope so.
You told me last year that if you got the opportunity to make a third season, you’d like to do operatic episodes in which you just talk about a given painting that you’re working on while 20-minute pieces of music play. Was that part of the reason you wrote so much new music?
If you speak any languages, you’ll understand. Say I’m going to Italy, so I’m trying to brush up on my Italian. Then every bit of every other language—Spanish, Japanese, French—they all come flying to my mind. When I started working on the guitar playing, it was just, oh, I got this African kind of beat. Oh, the tango. They just kept coming, they kept coming, they kept coming. I couldn’t stop them. So then I had to make this season around those, more than the other way around.
Between you talking about hiring older musicians, and about young people mocking their elders and having bad taste in music, and about your feelings toward kids, there’s a running theme throughout this season about growing older. Do you feel more comfortable at this age, even with (as you say) the additional pain?
It depends. I have periods where I do, and then in the last little bit, no. Less angst than when I was really young. But I really thought I would have a better idea of what this life was about by this age, and I don’t. I do think it’s about something! I just can’t quite get my finger on what that is.
Older people, they’ve been around and they know some stuff, and young people ignore that, and that’s a problem. And young people have all this energy, and I wish I had some of that. I probably jump 1 percent of what I used to be able to jump—the height of my jump—and I wish I had some of that back [laughs].
You say in Painting with John that most young people's music sucks. I'm not here to argue that point, but do you listen to new music?
Not much. When I got Lyme [disease], I couldn’t listen at all, because of what it did to me neurologically for a long time. I could not hear music; I couldn’t go to a restaurant that had music playing. That’s a while ago now, when it was that bad. But still.
I’ll sort of go on these little YouTube trips where I’ll listen to somebody I know and then see where the next thing takes me, but I get disappointed pretty quickly and then stop. I’m a snob, musically, really. I’m a snob.
I think snobbery in art, to some extent, has gotten a bad rap as of late.
There’s so much bad music, so much bad painting. People come up to me on the street all the time and go, I started painting because of your show! And I just go, oh my god, what have I done? [laughs]
And that’s with you not even actively teaching people how to paint.
I feel like it does, though. It does more than Bob Ross, who’s like: do this, do this, do this. It really sets you in motion, to have the motivation to try it. You see how somebody does it, and then you can figure out how you want to do it, rather than you being told, take Green 110 and put it on top of this yellow spot. I bet more people paint because of me than Bob Ross.
No, I’m taking it back! I got attacked on the Bob Ross stuff—I’m taking it back.
The Bob Ross fans are coming for you?
People are really staunch defenders of him. And I like Bob Ross! I was just being silly, saying Bob Ross was wrong. “How dare he come out against Bob Ross!” You know, he was in the military. Wasn’t he a tough guy?
And then his estate got stolen from him.
It’s a pretty interesting story. But I love Bob Ross, actually.
There’s even a Bob Ross docuseries (Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed) that could be your next binge-watch.
I have binged it. I’ve seen it already [laughs], where the son doesn’t get the inheritance because it’s stolen by the evil people.
Has the show impacted your painting in any way?
In a bad way, yeah! Especially in Season 2, where I realized, fuck, you asshole, your paintings. It’s one thing if you have the painting and you know it’s there and you know where it’s going and the magic is there or the magic is yet to come, and you paint for Erik things that look good on camera. But in Season 2, there were a couple that I knew, you’ve got this green background that’s still wet, and you put down a cobalt blue on top of it and it’ll explode in this beautiful way—but it wasn’t the right fucking thing to do for the overall painting. I was really angry at myself for that.
The painting’s got to be more important to me than the show. Probably HBO wouldn’t like the sound of that, but on a personal level, it’s really about the painting. I can’t let the painting be screwed up because the show has dictated what I’m doing.
I’ve started painting again after we finally finished putting the whole [new season] together, and the two new ones I’ve got going are really good. There’s one called This vine will kill that vine. Then his face disappeared in the mirror, which is a really good painting, but I finished it right after Season 2 was done. I need to get away from the show to really do the good paintings, it seems like.
Lastly, what happened to the holy toast that features so prominently in Season 3?
Erik wanted to save them! Erik is insane about not wasting any food. Any food that’s left over, Erik will eat it. I’m kind of bad like this, where I leave half the plate, and then Erik will have to handle it. I have a bag of those blue chip tortillas, and once it gets to the crumbly things at the bottom, we mark the bag, “Erik.”
He wanted to save the toast, and then he wanted to have this thing, “No toast was wasted during the filming of this scene,” and me, him, and Nesrin [Wolf] sit there eating this dry toast. I said, we’re not using that! [laughs] So we didn’t save the toast. We gave them to the birds. We could have covered them with epoxy and sold them on eBay or something.