Arto Lindsay speaks as he plays: in tense, measured silences and dense bursts of sound, with a subliminal flourish to each sentence, even each clause: “YouknowwhatImean?” His early guitar stylings earned him the moniker “king of skronk”—experimental primitivism taken unto sheer noise. He was godfather to No Wave, the influential art-punk of downtown New York, and became a prime mover in the improvisation world, lending guitar, vocals and lyrics to John Zorn, Bill Frisell, the Lounge Lizards, Bill Laswell and Laurie Anderson, just to scratch the list. Reared near Recife, northeast Brazil, Lindsay began incorporating samba into the music of his band Ambitious Lovers in the 1980s. He met Caetano Veloso, the dean of Brazilian song, when he was asked to translate. He went on to produce Veloso’s acclaimed O Estrangeiro and records by Gal Costa, Marisa Monte, Vinicius Cantuária, David Byrne and Waldemar Bastos. Finally, Lindsay set out to meet Brazil’s rigorous standards for songwriting and performing on his own terms. O Corpo Sutil/The Subtle Body was released in 1995; Mundo Civilizado, Noon Chill and, in 1999, Prize followed. They are the four most perfect American pop records ever created in succession. He still cannot play, per se, the guitar.
David Krasnow As the collage method—digital samples, turntables, and just jumbling genres—becomes more and more ingrained in our way of building songs, it starts to blur the boundary between an artist and a producer. Traditionally, the “sonic environment” of a song was more the producer’s role, now it’s a central part of what many musicians do. The role of producer is really intertwined with your own music. You’ve made records with some of the giants of Brazilian music as well as younger ones like Marisa Monte and Carlinhos Brown. And your records, going back to the Ambitious Lovers group in the ’80s, have been really influenced by Brazilian music. Do you ever feel compromised in that role, that you don’t want to give up a good idea for someone else’s record?
Arto Lindsay You can’t live that way. What’s the point? If it’s that great an idea, anyway, I’ll just use it again myself. In a different context, it’ll sound different. And you can only produce what’s there. The idea is to help whoever’s record you’re making be as good as possible; to bring it out of them. The producer is somebody for the artist to bounce off, somebody to give the artist a hard time, who helps set standards. Think of the great “wall of sound” producers of the past. You can tell the difference between a Phil Spector/John Lennon record and a non-Phil Spector/John Lennon record. But without the artist there . . . I’m not the kind of producer interested in putting a stamp on people. The lack of certain skills aids me in that; I can’t play a million instruments. I don’t like to work with artists who don’t know what they want, who want me because I did this or that; those are incredibly painful situations.
DK How do you pick an artist you want to work with?
AL Basically, they pick me. Occasionally, I go out and approach someone and say, “Hey, you want to do something together?” I just did two songs with Kahimi Karie. Actually, she approached me, but it kind of faded, and I didn’t let it fade. I kept saying, “Hey, come on, when are we going to do something?” And we ended up doing two songs for her new album. She’s working with a lot of different producers—Momus, Olivia Tremor Control, Add N to X, several other things that she’s still working on.
DK Which is a pretty far cry from the traditional relationship of the singer to the “artistic” producer, like Phil Spector, who was a controlling auteur. Although I should interject that when you and I say pop here, we’re talking about very sophisticated artists who use pop song form. I don’t think Britney Spears has much say in who produces her.
AL Back in the day, when I used to work at this studio called Skyline, the assistant engineers and the interns referred to singers as the actors, behind their backs of course. There’s a line there, you know. It’s an interesting thing to talk about, singing. Andres Levin and I approached UA, who’s the other independent, voice-of-her-own Japanese pop singer. Kahimi’s great, but she’s a song stylist. This UA is a singer’s singer, where just the sound of her voice gets you going, as opposed to the words, or the hook-up, or the idea, or the attitude. I’m used to working with singers. In Brazil singers have a different set of standards.
DK Higher, I’m guessing.
AL Higher than rock and roll, for sure. There are high standards for singing and song writing. It’s a little bit like old-school R and B, very musical. I love singing.
DK Your singing has changed enormously over the years. I first heard you on the first Golden Palaminos record—I came to it sooner than DNA, which had broken up just when I started buying records—and it was shocking. The falsetto howl of AC/DC didn’t prepare me for your performance, which was guttural, almost animalistic—kind of barking, choking. That record was one of two or three things that really impacted me. It completely derailed my taste for good. From that, how did you come to singing?
AL Right before I started Ambitious Lovers, mid-80s, I felt like, You’re going to learn how to play an instrument or you’re going to learn how to sing. And I sat at home and listened to these samba records and sang along with them for a year or so: Noel Rosa, who’s the Cole Porter of Brazil, and Cartola, from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s. They weren’t the best singers, but I liked their records. And really, that’s how I started to change. But I still feel that I have a long way to go in singing. I have a couple of people I really admire who just got better and better as singers throughout their lives. I think that’s part of the nature of singing. Caetano Veloso, for instance, one of the reigning singers of the planet. He is a brilliant songwriter, and he was always a good singer—but he’s infinitely better, now—incredible. João Gilberto, by the standards of his time, wasn’t much of a singer at all, and just completely imposed another set of standards: about attention to detail, about awesome pitch, about fucking Martian breath control—if you try to match his breathing, you just don’t . . . it’s astonishing. He’s the guy. Nobody comes close to him.
DK And we had our standards reset by Dylan, in a totally different direction of individualism.
AL Equally important. Dylan is like a great jazz musician. A different development of the blues—as opposed to R and B, which was athletic, virtuostic, gospel-inspired. Dylan is an incredible improviser. He had a massive set list. His bass player is an old friend of mine. They never know what song he’s going to sing. They never know what key he’s going to sing it in. Whatever key he happens to feel that it’s in. You know the twelve-bar blues, it’s rarely twelve bars when it’s really blues.
DK Were jazz and blues influences in your singing?
AL I listen to all this stuff and I sing all these songs, but I don’t really know. In a way, a lot of my impulse to make music comes out of poetry or art as much as out of music—ideas about spontaneity, ideas about the unconscious, mixed with more formal music concepts. That coupled, like I said before, with a lack of certain musical skill. I think it’s very pretentious for people to cite influences. It implies that, therefore, you’re carrying this on or taking this farther. Everybody’s always, “I’m influenced by this, I’m influenced by that.” What do you mean “influenced by”? You love that. You imitate that. But who knows whether what you do has anything to do with it.
DK If we’re going to slag off the idea of influence, let’s talk about your guitar, which is as close to sui generis as we get. You didn’t play before you came to New York in the ’70s. The band Television was big then. Tom Verlaine was New York’s latter-day guitar hero.
AL Yeah, that was my big inspiration. I figured there had to be free jazz guitar playing. There had to be. There was free jazz, there had to be a guitar player. But I had never heard it.
DK Verlaine and Richard Lloyd were obsessed with playing Coltrane-styled solos in rock songs, and the effort to pull that off without any jazz technique makes their stuff so intense, but poignant.
AL And after I started playing, I got compared in the press to Fred Frith and Sonny Sharrock. I checked them out and said, Yeah there’s something there. But when I started to play guitar, I had a really clear idea of what I wanted to do.
DK You did?
AL Yeah. Make it percussive; like a giant percussion instrument. Deal with the feedback and the sound of the amp—not feedback so literally, but this verge of feedback. Deal with the wires and the amp. To play free, not the notes of the harmony. It was very clear cut.
DK Being from Brazil, you took percussion as a reference point for a harmony instrument. Were you imitating a particular instrument?
AL Not any one exactly. Sometimes the berimbau, which is like a bowed piece of wood with a single, long wire and a calabasa, what do you call it, a gourd, a resonator that you hold against your stomach. You play it with a stick and then you hold a stone against the wire, and you move the gourd on and off your stomach. The berimbau has a very metallic sound, like a guitar anyway. More than that instrument, though, just the impact of a samba group hitting it together.
DK When did you start playing guitar?
AL A month before my first gig.
AL I had friends that were in this band called Mars. I had roomed with Mark Cunningham in college. I was really close to all of those guys; I almost played drums in Mars, but I said, I don’t want to be a drummer in somebody else’s band. When I got a chance to play a gig, Terry Ork, who was Television’s manager, said, “You got a band, right?”—because I was always around. “Yeah!” And I had no band. And he said, “Do you want to play next week or next month?” I said, (nervous chuckle) “Next month!” I put a band together, deliberately structuring the thing so that it was the opposite of Mars. Mars was wall of sound, the Velvets, which eventually led to bands like Sonic Youth. Mars was halfway there: coming out of rock and roll and going into another level of sound. Sumner Crane studied with Morton Feldman.
DK Hard to imagine anyone from that dissonant, abrasive No Wave scene sitting in a room with Feldman.
AL He lectured a lot at that art school on 8th Street. I actually was a nude model at that art school. That was one of my early jobs. Anyway, I tried to come up with a really clear structure against which to contrast the bursts and more calligraphic phrases. And I wanted to deal with a lot of silence, a lot of stop and start and changes. Because I had to do the opposite of what my friends were doing.
DK Did you seek out other people who were self-taught, or non-taught, I should say?
AL I wanted to put together the weirdest band in the world. I thought that that would make me this instant hit. I think influences of those immediately around you give a lot of energy that people don’t account for. There’s a healthy competitive thing, almost like sports.
DK That’s so New York. In other places bands develop more in tune with one another—Seattle, or Chicago right now.
AL I was trying to do something different to stand out. But I certainly saw it as being related to Mars and Lydia Lunch who was then in Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and Pat Place of the Contortions, even though she was technically more schooled than any of us. And once we started playing for a while, then we fell in with jazz players like Jamaaladeen Tacuma and James Blood Ulmer.
DK And that was No Wave. You broke up DNA pretty early on, which has nurtured a certain myth.
AL I thought we weren’t going to get any better. And we had been getting better and better. I also thought we had had an impact, even though it wasn’t apparent at the time. And I think I’ve been proved right. Not just DNA, but the whole moment really had an impact. Some of it quick and obvious, the way noise music in Japan got revitalized for younger kids. That was a lot to do with No New York.
DK The four-band compilation Brian Eno put together.
AL Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth came out of that moment.
DK Your records from that time, on LP, go for startling prices downtown.
AL There’s one live CD, on Japan’s Avant label. There’s a guy now who’s trying to gather all DNA’s records into one CD. Our single, “You and You,” nobody even knows where the guy is who released it. Charles Ball, he put out Lydia Lunch’s records, too. His label was called Lust/Unlust, which came from Jacques Lacan—this was ’77, ’78. I just read a great biography of Lacan.
DK Are you inspired by psychology or theory?
AL I’m more interested in the way Lacan states ideas than in what the ideas are. He takes a word completely out of context and attaches it to his idea. It’s ridiculously abstract. DNA was into music of possession. We were into Burroughs kind of ideas, touching those buttons: could you write a paragraph that would make somebody jump out of a window? Well, could you make a song that would make somebody do something specific? For us it was about trying to get enough of an audience so that CBGB’s would let us play on the weekend. And it was all about wresting control of the evening as opposed to rapt attention—a bunch of people sitting on the floor at The Kitchen.
DK You wanted Ramones fans to show up and hurl stuff? You wanted to get your ass kicked, like Alan Vega of Suicide?
AL He did not want to get his ass kicked. That was James Chance who wanted to get his ass kicked. Alan wanted to win them over by sheer force of will, and we shared that with Suicide: to wow them by display of authority; just to nail that thing so hard, so that before the brain can think, the hips react. You know what I mean?
DK Did people dance?
AL People moved. We played this club in Detroit, then at midnight, it turned into a disco—all these black people, all these gay people, amazing-looking girls. A really great crowd showed up early for the dance club and they went nuts.
DK They were responding to the element of funk in DNA?
AL Yeah. Musicians did, too. We made friends with tons of musicians—jazz musicians, punk. Everybody liked DNA. And we liked them.
DK How did musicians respond to you, having learned to play a month earlier?
AL Nobody knew. We didn’t do a ton of interviews. Many people still think that I’ve studied for years and then took it to this higher level.
DK You transcended playing. But you don’t formally play guitar, still.
AL No. I’ve kind of formalized what I do. It’s formal itself, in a way.
DK It functions as a kind of chaotic polyrhythm, in DNA, or on Aggregates 1-26 from ’95. You’ve brought it more within a rhythm on Prize, like on the title cut for instance. But you didn’t play guitar at all on Mundo Civilizado, the most bossa nova of those records. That was a conscious choice?
AL I don’t think I forgot to play. But I can’t remember exactly the logic. I laid off on Subtle Body, and I didn’t start letting it back in until Noon Chill. That’s also a result of playing these things live—I always play guitar live—and then try to fit it back into the record deal.
DK After DNA, you start making overt use of Brazilian music in the Ambitious Lovers.
AL We recorded with some of the old, great samba players in Rio.
DK Those records alternate, almost, Brazilian numbers with more funk or R and B songs.
AL On Greed, there’s one pop song that we recorded like bass and drums here, then took it down to Rio and overdubbed it. And everybody in the studio said, “It’s not going to work. These guys aren’t used to playing this kind of music.” They played over it and it was incredibly kicking. And after we got that take, we had a huge meal at the studio. These guys were old. Some of them were really old. A bunch of them are dead already. Then we said, “Let’s try something different. Let’s try it really, really, really slow.” That was more difficult without a backing track. One of the guys actually fell asleep—after a big meal, you know. And when he was supposed to come in, we’re whispering into the microphone: “Wake up, this is a good take, come on, man.”
DK And he got it?
AL He woke up playing.
DK Would have made a nice outtake from the Buena Vista Social Club movie. Those guys must need naps. Ambitious Lovers was working with samba, but you started gravitating in your songwriting toward bossa nova.
AL This series of records started because Ryuichi Sakamoto asked me to make a bossa nova record.
DK Why you?
AL A long time ago, DNA and Yellow Magic Orchestra were playing at the same time, and SoHo Weekly News asked the groups what they thought of one another. DNA said “Yech!” The guys from Yellow Magic Orchestra, two of them say, “Never heard of them,” but Ryuichi says, “I love his guitar sound.” And we worked together a lot. And he’d gotten a deal with a label in Japan. I thought, I can’t really make a bossa nova record, but I can make a record that’s about bossa nova.
Remember, bossa nova means something completely different to Brazilians. It’s a radical music. It was a serious break from what came before it—the singing changed, the beat changed. It was an abstraction of a samba beat. And harmonically, Jobim was getting influences from Debussy and classical impressionism—some of the same influences that Miles Davis and Gil Evans had in the States with cool jazz. Bossa nova is also about a different notion of improvising, within time rather than harmony. If you listen to a João Gilberto record, the melody is way ahead or way behind the chords. Gilberto often reduces the chords to two or three notes. So a lot of it is by implication. And also if you know samba at all, you hear samba even though nobody’s playing it.
DK Americans hear modern furniture, cocktails.
AL A kind of mood or vibe, a quiet thing, a particular beat that doesn’t square off immediately. Brazilian music has a shorter rhythmic cycle, it’s 2/4 instead of the 4/4 in American music. That generates a different kind of rhythmic improvising: you can go further because the cycle repeats more often. And there’s no stated clavé, as in Cuban music.
In American music the bottom is usually even and the top is where all the variation is—the high-hat and the upbeat snare stuff. In Brazilian music, the bottom, the bass part, is the part that’s asymmetrical, trying to knock the other drums off their perch. If you think of Airto Moreira, the percussionist who played in some of the great Miles Davis bands, it was all coloristic and all counterpoint, a different time signature on top of what the drummer was playing. That music, like On the Corner—there isn’t much that’s beyond it.
DK And bossa nova smoothed out that kind of polyrhythm?
AL No, it’s not smooth. If you listen to it, it’s constantly shifting. It’s swinging like crazy. It sounds smooth because it’s even, as far as the dynamics go. But the rhythm is not smooth at all.
DK Is that why you called the first of those records The Subtle Body?
AL My friend, Diego Cortez, who has done all the covers with me, also helps me with the titles. That’s a Buddhist term. It’s equivalent to the nervous system. There’s the gross body, which is the physical body; there’s the subtle body, which is the nervous system, and then there’s the spiritual level. It’s a nice title. It implies lightness, grace. I also like the idea that it’s this middle level—not quite nirvana.
DK So it was working on a Japanese composer’s bossa nova record that got you working in an overtly Brazilian vein again.
AL It took a certain amount of discipline. I shifted from the contrasts of the Ambitious Lovers records—ballad, noise, ballad, noise, R and B interspersed with noise. We separated into two records: Aggregates 1-26, with Melvin Gibbs and Dougie Bowne, and The Subtle Body. They were done at the same time.
DK Aggregates harkens back to Golden Palominos: funky, but with a lot of noise, diffuse pieces that aren’t really songs. But then you followed up the gentler, more crafted songs with Mundo Civilizado.
AL Then Noon Chill. I made three records three years in a row. I didn’t make one the next year but I played more. I think a big factor in the way Prize sounds is that I needed more songs at a certain time for the show.
DK What time?
AL Songs to shut people up when they’re talking in the back during the ballads. You have to hit them on the head.
DK It sounds to me as though this series of records cycles through the history of Brazilian pop—from the samba on Subtle Body, through bossa nova on Mundo Civilizado, into your own take on tropicalismo, combining Brazilian music with drum and bass, R and B.
AL It’s not a deliberate recapping. That would be completely pretentious on my part. We do a really old samba from the ’30s on Noon Chill, and on the first record we did a bossa nova, “Este Seu Olhar.” Jobim had just died. I felt like I should do it. We did Prince and Al Green on Mundo Civilizado. Listen to the Ambitious Lovers, the whole idea there was Al Green and samba. That against this; this against that; a blend, a juxtaposition, loud/soft. There’s no particular point in putting these things together. The point is in what comes out at the end. To me, it doesn’t make it interesting just to do something for the sake of doing it—like a disco beat with a Muslim singer on top. Does it sound great? Does it make me feel different? Is it a shock like a cold shower? Does it clean my ears out? We’re coming out of a period now in which juxtaposition has been an end in itself.
DK You’re coming to songwriting as the essential task of the musician?
AL Or just music making.
DK You have a great drum and bass part in “Unsure” that you build up through a slow, very spare lead-in. You experiment with electronica, but gingerly.
AL I love electronic music. I love Oval and Pansonic, they’re awesome. I loved Kraftwerk in their day. I also love these drum groups in Bahia, Olodum, Ilê Aiyê, the local aspect and the specificity of a milieu. The samba bands take a lot of people, they’re a social thing. You can’t do it on your computer, you know what I mean? We don’t have carnival in the States. We do have the church, and that’s the traditional ecstatic communal release for one community.
DK And it still produces amazing artists. D’Angelo started out playing organ, right?
AL His dad’s a preacher. That’s an interesting record. No songs. Everything is seven minutes long; it’s almost like a Marvin Gaye record. Marvin Gaye wasn’t much of a songwriter, either. I’ve been blasting that for a week.
DK Al Green, Prince—these are people who talk about desire. A lot of your songs, and I mean a lot, are about love and sex, the body and its needs.
AL That’s what songs are about. I’m interested too in songs that can be more philosophical but I’m wary of preaching, especially preaching to the converted. The organization of the music itself can be more politically meaningful than the lyrics. For instance, I hated the Clash, and I loved the Sex Pistols.
DK The Sex Pistols weren’t about anarchy, they were anarchy.
AL Theater of cruelty, or whatever. That tells me something. Live music is the audience. The thing between musicians and the audience is where it’s at. And to get back to sex, in any theatrical situation, any performing situation where a bunch of people sit and watch another person and invest them with this power, it’s about sex. Every play you go to, every movie you go to, you’re hoping that somebody will take their clothes off at some point.
DK I’m not sure if our reference point is Jacques Lacan or South Park.
AL It’s part of the package. It’s what you deserve for leaving your comfortable chair at home to go sit somewhere. The different styles of seducing in R and B and in samba, that’s something else I like to play around with. R and B leaves language behind; it goes into a cry, wordless. Samba is much more delicate, more like a natural conversation. It’s by implication—you don’t literally praise somebody’s ass, you talk about her dress. What they have in common is talking about dancing, describing what someone’s dancing expresses. People get together to feel that stuff enlarged. When you’re together with a bunch of people and listening to rhythmic music, everybody’s personal desire is scaled up. It’s magnificent, heroic, omnipotent. Everybody’s together. That’s carnival, that’s church in its American, disguised way. Today you have rap, which is incredibly specific as far as like, I can do this to you and I will do that to you. It’s complex, being mixed with all this misogynist stuff. And at the same time, it’s so beautiful and so true.
DK You take your cover of “Erotic City” to a different level of explicitness. ‘We can fuck until the dawn.’
AL Right. Prince never says fuck. He says funk, unnh. He’s just so coy. And the stories about Prince are unbelievable. The stories about girls that got picked up by Prince. The guy is a poet, he needs that level of abstraction to get his rocks off. He needs for these girls to be teenage, virgin/whore-looking. He’s a wild guy.
DK Are you teasing the teaser, putting that word in his mouth?
AL Yeah. I don’t think he ever heard that. But now that he just did that stuff with Ani DiFranco and I’m on her label, Righteous Babe, maybe eventually he’ll hear some of my stuff. I’m so far below those people’s radar.
DK You were almost popular in the ’80s, with the Ambitious Lovers.
AL We had miserable management. Bad luck and bad timing. But it’s also like writing a book: it’s not going anywhere; it’s going to be there for a long time and people can always find it and deal with it. Eventually somebody will come to it.
DK The long perspective is certainly not one the major labels encourage.
AL That’s one thing that you get out of the art world.
DK The sense that a career can build slowly? That’s still dicey in the art world.
AL That all people can do a great work and that things will be around. It’s worth doing something that takes a little attention to understand—every time people listen to it, they can hear different stuff. It requires a little concentration to get the full effect. It’s not just background. It’s not just a sexual facilitator—which of course it is, too.
DK Is it easier for art to demand the attention you want than music?
AL I wanted to make music you can understand the way you understand art, that will repay the effort. Sensual and really difficult. I’m attracted to extremes of expression. The Vienna Actionists, Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Yvonne Rainier . . .
DK Extreme for sure, but sensual?
AL Being shot at, masturbating under the floorboards?
DK Right, that’s my point.
AL It puts a spotlight on the plumbing.
DK The jacket of Prize has images of Matthew Barney’s works. His art shares the performance aspect, in a more formal way. The portrait of you in the fold is adjacent to a satyr from one of his films, reading the newspaper.
AL There’s a lot of references in his work I respond to—to body art, Mannerism, horror, masculinity, sports.
DK You like sports?
AL The competitive aspect. That’s very much a part of being in a band. And the sexuality at the heart of Barney’s work. And the absolute newness of his work. Even though his taste in music runs to death metal.
DK When you said calligraphic earlier, about your own lines, I was thinking of Brice Marden.
AL I like his work a lot. I like the way he stops and starts a line, how he fills the space with it. I was a huge fan of his early work too, the colored panels.
At the same time, you know, that idea of music repaying attention also comes from Brazil. There’s a tradition of high-quality lyrics, lyrics related to literature. Bossa nova lyrics develop an image so perfectly. People usually focus on “Oh, the lyric is about the sunset; the lyric is about a little boat.” It’s a light image, it’s not the bloody stump. But it’s so concisely stated, and resonant without recourse to overstatement. This is interesting: there’s no word for “understatement” in Portuguese. Which makes sense in a way—it’s kind of a baroque culture. Yet bossa nova is the most understated music possible. Theoreticians of bossa nova compare it to Anton Webern. Ultracomplicated, but really tiny pieces. I think you could also compare it to Morton Feldman, the kind of glossy surface that’s constantly changing and always moving.
DK Your records really show that kind of traditional craft.
AL At the same time, I’m feeling a little uncomfortable “going back to songwriting.” Do I want to stretch . . . see how far you can break something apart and still have it feel like a song? And for years I’ve thought about rhythm that way—how far can you take it apart and still retain that pulse? How far can you go from a beat before there is no beat? How much can you break it down, and it feels like you’re breaking it down as opposed to: you’re going to where there is no beat? Like we were talking about "Unsure"—coming from a very lazy, ad-lib, almost jazz singing thing, to a drum-and-bass thing. It’s one of the ideas that we talk about before every record and then don’t actualize. But it’s kind of in the consciousness of the record, to me.
—David Krasnow is an editor and a native of Brooklyn. His writing appears frequently in the Village Voice "Sound of the City" section, and has been published in the Forward, Metropolis and High Performance. His conversation with guitarist Marc Ribot, another legend of New York music, appeared in BOMB's Winter 1999 issue. He is a contributing editor in music for BOMB.