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Personalities

Personagem: Talking With Arto Lindsay

After 30 years of making some of the Western Hemisphere’s most adventurous music, you’d think a guy could take some time off. Patrick Ambrose talks with the ex-DNA leader about art, music, and the origins of his unique guitar style.

After growing up in Brazil during the turbulent ‘60s, under the country’s military government and in the midst of the tropicália phenomenon—the Brazilian artists’ response to government repression—musician, songwriter, and producer Arto Lindsay moved to New York in the mid-’70s and carved a niche in the city’s art-club scene with his unique percussive guitar style. He has been a cultural force ever since. His first band, DNA, appeared on Brian Eno’s No New York compilation, an innovative reaction to the new-wave status quo that gave birth to the fusion of free-jazz and punk. Lindsay went on to work with an early incarnation of the Lounge Lizards and co-wrote most of the compositions on the first Golden Palominos album. Once established as a pioneer among New York City’s avant-garde, he formed the Ambitious Lovers with Peter Scherer, and began incorporating funk-dance elements and Brazilian textures into catchy pop tunes. The Ambitious Lovers released three albums that achieved mild commercial success, and during the late ‘80s Lindsay began producing records, most notably Brazilian superstar Caetano Veloso’s Estrangeiro. Since 1995, he has released seven solo albums that run the gamut from free-jazz improvisation to eclectic blends of vocal crooning, bossa-nova rhythms, and electronic instrumentation.

After spending a year away in Brazil, Lindsay returned to New York in May of this year to work on saxophonist Micah Gaugh’s first solo project. I recently sat down to talk with Lindsay at Kampo Studios in New York.

Arto Lindsay’s latest album is Salt, on Righteous Babe Records.



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Patrick Ambrose: Here in a studio, what is your role as the producer?

Arto Lindsay: Producing a record is really helping an artist make the best record that they can make—looking at their whole career and figuring out where they should go.

PA: When you’re in the studio with someone like Caetano Veloso, how do you ensure that you get the best possible vocal performance out of him?

AL: Well, Caetano is a unique artist and he’s by far the most professional singer I’ve worked with, as well as one of the best singers. So I just try to keep him comfortable and help him choose takes, give him hints. It doesn’t take much. It’s more like you’re discussing the performances so that he can hone in on stylistic points.

PA: He’s bouncing ideas off of you throughout the process?

AL: Sometimes he comes in with a concept of the arrangement and I just try to help him realize this. I worked with him at a particular moment in his career and I tried to instill real musical confidence in him because he had ideas but he didn’t always get good musicians he was playing with to fulfill them. It’s funny, you wouldn’t think Caetano would need any help with his confidence. [laughs] But yeah, it was part of the role that I saw myself playing. When I landed all of the Brazilian records I was pretty conscious of the Brazilian context—the fact that the main audience was in Brazil and that’s where [the artists] had to sell a lot of records and where they wouldn’t be easily forgotten, and at the same time, opening them up to making records that people from all over the place could appreciate. There’s so many contradictions. This is changing now but for a long time [Americans and Europeans] would only accept Brazilian music if it sounded like what they thought Brazilian music should sound like. In other words, nothing like American [or European] music. They weren’t interested at all in Brazilian rock or Brazilian pop, and that’s slowly changing.

PA: When the tropicália musicians incorporated American and European influences, was it mainly to cater to a Brazilian audience who loved the Beatles?

AL: No, not at all. They did it because it was natural. They enjoyed that type of music. Basically, they were taking a stand and opposing the orthodox idea at that time that foreign music was imperialist or cheap or whatever. Serious music had to be Brazilian and Brazilian only. The leftists, who were all middle-class kids, idolized the samba singers and composers, who were poor. And they hated all music from outside. There was already Brazilian rock and roll based on what was going on everywhere else and Caetano, [Gilberto] Gil and Tom Zé, and other guys who weren’t musicians that were part of this brain trust that was tropicalismo—which wasn’t very many people—loved the Beatles and were aware of what the Beatles meant, all the extra-musical messages embedded in the music. They didn’t see anything wrong with being open to that stuff. And they also deliberately broke down barriers of taste, picking really kitschy songs to do. And they were also interested in music from Latin America, which was considered really bad taste in Brazil. Anything in Spanish was considered bad taste. And [the tropicalistas] incorporated regional music from all over Brazil. They wanted to bust open this restrained idea of what Brazilian popular music should be. The ‘60s in Brazil were an incredibly hopeful time. People thought that a lot of the really deep historical and structural problems could be solved. It was an optimistic time and it came right after bossa-nova, which was popular all over the world. The Brazilian soccer team was beginning to do really well. There was a lot of talk about land reform and the left was really strong. And then the army came in and squelched all that. Tropicalismo took place in that atmosphere. Eventually Caetano and Gil were thrown into jail and went into exile.

PA: Didn’t the military coup occur in 1964?

AL: It occurred in ‘64, but the so-called Institutional Act no. 5, which was when the government got really repressive, came about in 1968.

PA: And you were living down there at the time.

AL: I was down there. I was a teenager. And I used to enjoy a lot of the tropicalistas without being aware of all these subtexts. I enjoyed them in the same way that I enjoyed the Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin.

PA: You were a teenager under martial law.

AL: I was in a privileged position. My family was American. They weren’t rich, but I was free to wander through the class system. I was accepted everywhere. I went to high school in Recife [a city in the state of Percambuco, on Brazil’s northeastern Atlantic coast] and I began to frequent a group that was led by a leftist priest. We’d get involved in long political discussions, but I didn’t have any friends who were thrown into jail. But friends of friends were “disappeared.”

“We really didn’t try to figure out what the audience wanted and try to give it to them. That wasn’t the point at all. It was more like we wanted to give them something that they really needed. We didn’t see much point in being another Iggy Pop or Bruce Springsteen.” PA: You just returned from Brazil this past week. Were you working on something while you were there?

AL: I had been working some, but mainly just living there for the past year. I’m trying to get a bunch of record projects going.

PA: With anyone in particular?

AL: A woman named Mariella Santiago. A really great singer. We’re doing some demos so that we can look for a record company. And there’s a really great Carnival group from Bahia [south of Recife] called Ilê Aiyê. I produced their last record and I’m trying to help them make another. And there’s a young rock band I’ll probably do some producing with called Mombojó. I just played with them at a big rock festival and I’ll probably produce half of their record. And I’ve got a lot of stuff in progress—a soundtrack to a biopic that I’m going to mix and do some instill music for, but most of the music has already been recorded. It’s a biopic of this musician named Noel Rosa, one of the great samba songwriters.

PA: You also recently toured South America to promote Salt, your latest release.

AL: There was a little Salt tour. We did four shows in Brazil, and we played in Argentina and Chile.

PA: And you played some dates in Europe, too.

AL: Last fall we did a long tour in Europe and went to Japan in November and December.

PA: You and your bass player Melvin Gibbs co-wrote most of the songs on Salt. What was the collaboration like?

AL: Well, there’s several parts of the process, and sometimes they’re not so distinct. One is writing the songs and the other is producing the record. Melvin was really the main producer on the record, along with this guy named Kassin, who is a friend of ours from Rio. So Melvin came down to Rio and we wrote the bulk of the songs, the three of us, in Rio. And started a lot of the recording and then we came to the States and finished it. And then, in January of 2004, I did this Carnival parade collaboration with Matthew Barney.

PA: The visual artist.

AL: Yeah. And so I had to rush back down there before the record was done. I actually sang in Brazil and uploaded the stuff and sent it back to the States. My engineer worked here and I was there, so we kind of mixed over the internet. He would send me mp3s and I would comment, and we would go back and forth like that. Which is kind of amazing technologically, but also kind of frustrating in the end, musically. I don’t want to do anything at a distance like that again.

PA: Could we go back to DNA, New York City, and the mid-’70s? I had read somewhere that you were listening to Television and the Ramones when you arrived in New York. And then I listened to the DNA material, and your guitar style is unlike anything I had ever heard before. I can’t think of anything even remotely close to it. Where did it come from?

AL: If there’s anything that it came out of, I loved Hendrix, not just the playing and the loose feel, but the noise and explosions and all that. And I also loved all the bands that Miles Davis had in the ‘70s with all the really wild guitarists—Pete Cosey and other people. And when I started to play, I just tried to come up with something different. There were a lot of ideas thrown in there—a lot of John Cage, William Burroughs. There was a lot of concentration on rhythm and different ideas of what music could do, how it could cause you to be possessed by a particular spirit. I was interested in the Afro-Brazilian religious stuff and I found that Burroughs was really interested in Moroccan music and how that was supposed to drive out evil spirits. People were always astonished by DNA. They were like: “You don’t care about the audience.” But we really didn’t try to figure out what the audience wanted and try to give it to them. That wasn’t the point at all. It was more like we wanted to give them something that they really needed. We were definitely dealing with the audience and very aware, but we didn’t see much point in being another Iggy Pop or Bruce Springsteen.

PA: The first Golden Palominos album followed the work with DNA. What was it like working with Bill Laswell, John Zorn, Fred Frith, and Anton Fier?

AL: That was pretty interesting because Fier and I had been together in the Lounge Lizards and we had actually wanted to call the Lounge Lizards the “Golden Palominos,” but we lost the vote. And then we left the band and wanted to do our own thing, but we just didn’t speak the same musical language. I really didn’t know how to play at all, and the way I thought about it was really in terms borrowed from other art forms. I had very basic ideas about structure and Anton and I tried to write songs and that was very difficult. Then we went into the studio and brought in all of these people. My relationship with Zorn was strong outside the Palominos. I had never had much of a working relationship with Laswell, except that we were on the same record and had played in the band together for awhile. Fred is somebody I’d had a glancing relationship with at that time, and only years later did I really get a chance to play with him and get to know him. So, it’s not exactly the way it appears. Anton sketched out most of the forms of these things and then we filled them in.

“I’ve always wanted at least a large enough audience to make an easier living on. But it has always been a struggle… So, you just have to relax and do what you do. And I try to make records that will last, that people can enjoy for a long time…” PA: In the studio? Was it improvised?

AL: Well, it was improvisation, but within a structure, which was the only way I understood improvising at that time. And I didn’t really understand the concept of free improvising and I wasn’t really interested in a lot of the improvising that was going on. But I started to play with Zorn and we started to do music that was close to DNA—that was really inspired by DNA. And he kind of tried to apply his rules for improvising—much louder, more rhythmic—it definitely had an influence on the improvising scene, encouraging [the musicians] to be louder. And they were like, “Oh, we can play loud? Oh, we can play rhythm?”—because people were involved in this search to play something that couldn’t be described at all rhythmically. It was all about textures and stuff, and I hated that kind of noodling sound. I was, of course, young and super-arrogant. We had managed to make a great band—DNA—then I just tossed it away because I thought I’d do something else with it.

PA: When you and Peter Scherer formed Ambitious Lovers, your vocal style completely changed.

AL: I tried to learn how to sing. I actually had the idea that I wanted to do a band after DNA and the Palominos that incorporated samba or Brazilian music in some way. And soul music. And I formed a few versions of the Ambitious Lovers before I met Peter. We got a record deal and then I went and found Peter. I’ll be honest, I needed somebody who understood the technical side of it to do that type of music. So we experimented with mixing all the different experimental and R&B stuff with the Brazilian stuff, which I’m still messing around with, and the whole thing about mixing programmed beats with live percussion or live instruments and how that works together rhythmically, sonically.

PA: Did the incorporation of the funk and dance elements, along with the fact that the Ambitious Lovers albums appeared on two major labels—Virgin and Elektra—expose you to a wider audience?

AL: To some extent, but we really didn’t understand the music business; we didn’t have very good management and never really got going. And we had a few hints of where we could have gone, but we didn’t know enough. So, I guess we were exposed to a wider audience, but quickly forgotten by a wider audience. We never reached a large audience, you know what I mean? And that’s kind of been a constant of my career, not really being able to grasp that.

PA: Is grasping a larger audience something that you’ve always wanted to do?

AL: Yeah, I’ve always wanted at least a large enough audience to make an easier living on. But it has always been a struggle. I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do, and I’ve wanted to be popular doing exactly what I wanted to do. But I chose not to take DNA on the road in America and try to build an American rock-and-roll base. I decided to travel all over the world and make money as an improviser and tried to get the Ambitious Lovers-style thing happening. And then that was always too pop for the esoteric music fans and too weird for the pop music fans, and too Brazilian for the Americans, and too American for the Brazilians. So, you just have to relax and do what you do. And I try to make records that will last, that people can enjoy for a long time, even though I enjoy the ephemeral, trivial-nature records as much as anybody—the latest sounding thing, you know? As a producer, I’m a huge fan of other producers.

PA: Who are some other producers you admire?

AL: I like the guys that everybody is now hip to, like Timbaland and the Neptunes. This guy Raphael Saadiq. A lot of great R&B producers, hip-hop producers.

PA: In 1995, following the Ambitious Lovers, you released two completely different albums: The Subtle Body, with primarily Brazilian-style songs, and Aggregates 1-26, where you return to your percussive guitar style and incorporate free-jazz elements with Melvin Gibbs and Dougie Bowne. Were the pieces on Aggregates sketched out before you went into the studio?

AL: No, we improvised those in the studio. I did have most of the lyrics written. And sometimes we would just start playing, identify something, and then record it. Of course, that was a group that I had been playing with for years as an improvising trio.

PA: You had played with Melvin before?

AL: Yeah, and Dougie, too. I had played with Melvin since ‘84 or ‘85, before the Ambitious Lovers were ever signed. He played on some of these gigs I did with Brazilian percussionists who lived in New York. And then he was the first bass player during the Ambitious Lovers.

PA: I remember Melvin played with Henry Rollins on the Weight album.

AL: There was a period where he didn’t play with me for several years because he was in the Rollins Band, and he was busy and always traveling. Then, eventually, he left the band.

PA: Was this about the same time that you met Vinicius Cantuária and Ryuichi Sakamoto?

AL: I met Ryuichi much earlier. I actually met him back during the DNA days, and then, in ‘85, I think was the first time I went to Japan, I met him there and played on some of his records. There was a record he did called Beauty that I wrote a lot of the lyrics for, so I’ve been associated with him off and on for years. And I met Vinicius when he came here with Caetano to play in New York. I forget what year that was, 1991 or something. But he moved to New York and when I was working on Subtle Body, we started to write together.

“I had actually had lunch with Zorn a week before and tried to convince him to start his own place. Actually, I had tried to convince him to buy a sound system. I thought that would be totally cool and he could move it from place to place.” PA: In July of 1996, you, Caetano Veloso, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Vinicius Cantuária played a concert in Central Park. I distinctly remember a tribute you guys did to Antonio Carlos Jobim. That was around the same time that Mundo Civilizado came out?

AL: Right.

PA: That was an enormously prolific period for you. Four albums in three years?

AL: Yeah, actually, I wish I was putting out another record this year, but it didn’t work out. I like to make records and I was producing a lot, so I was always in the studio. I basically lived in the studio.

PA: You also played on Aterciopelados’s Caribe Atomico.

AL: That’s because Andres Levin, who produced that record, we were really close and he worked on a lot of my records, especially on Mundo Civilizado, Noon Chill, and Prize—very involved with those records. Now, he’s got his own band. We didn’t do anything for Salt, but we did do a lot of writing for Invoke together. He’s a great writer. I’d still like to write with him. He produced [Aterciopelados] and several other Latin bands. I played a solo on a couple of those records.

PA: About Tonic, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Is that your club?

AL: Not by a long shot. Tonic was like a coffee shop and hair salon, or something like that. And Zorn went by, and he was looking around for a place. I had actually had lunch with him a week before and had tried to convince him to start his own place. Actually, I had tried to convince him to buy a sound system. I thought that would be totally cool and he could move it from place to place. But he ended up convincing the people at Tonic to open a club there and then he made it kind of a musician-curator place, and I curated one of the first months there. But I am just like a member of the Tonic crowd or community, or whatever. Now, of course, Zorn has his own place—this new place called the Stone on Avenue C, which I haven’t even had a chance to visit yet.

PA: So a group of you opened Tonic?

AL: No, it wasn’t really a group. The people who owned the club—John talked with them about starting a music series and letting different musicians curate a month at a time, so Vernon did one and Elliott did one—

PA: Vernon Reid and—

AL: Vernon Reid, Elliott Sharp, Ikue Mori, Anthony Coleman, different people curated a month’s worth of stuff.

PA: Do you do a month on a regular basis?

AL: I haven’t done one in a while because I’ve been gone. I did a benefit concert a few months ago because the club had a lot of problems but apparently everything’s OK and they’re going to stay open.

PA: A real-estate problem?

AL: Yeah, it was a real-estate problem. The sewage pipes burst, but because the sewage pipes that burst were under the sidewalk, the landlord wasn’t responsible for paying for them according to New York City law. So they had to fix it and it was unbelievably expensive, and the guy was basically trying to force them out by not helping them. But it managed to work out.

PA: What do you have lined up after you finish Micah Gaugh’s album?

AL: I’m going to produce Melvin’s album, or help him finish it, not exactly produce it. I want to do another one of these Carnival parades like I did with Matthew [Barney]. It was a great experience. I love Carnival. I’m really involved with that in Bahia.

PA: It’s clear that you have a real interest in visual art with Kara Walker’s work featured on Salt and Matthew Barney’s work in Prize. But you’re also interested in sound art as well.

AL: I’ve done some installations.

PA: Where?

AL: I did one in London—an event that Laurie Anderson curated. I’m doing a piece for this tropicália show. I was real interested in that stuff for a while. But at this point I think the ideas have sort of filtered into the other things.

PA: Into the music?

AL: Yeah, into the music.

PA: When you work on new material, does it all come at once?

AL: Usually I work like that. I just write what I need to write to make a record.

PA: You put the lyrics down first?

AL: Usually I gather bits of lyrics, and then sit down and do it all around the same time.

PA: I may be way off base here, but in listening to the last three albums of yours—Prize, Invoke, and Salt—there seems to be a consistency in sound where the electronic and Brazilian textures are seamlessly entwined to the extent that as a listener, I’m completely unable to separate them from one another. There also seems to be more programming on those three albums. Is this the result of new technologies, new tools becoming available?

AL: Well, partly. It’s a combination of a lot of things: A fascination with different ways to record, a fascination with programmed beats. And also budget restrictions. [laughs] They all play a role. Actually, Prize has a lot of real drums on it. But I don’t think I’m going to make another record this year. I’m going to concentrate on getting Micah’s and Melvin’s records done. And then I’ll make a record to come out next year.

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TMN Contributing Writer Patrick Ambrose resides in North Carolina. His other work has appeared in Creative Loafing, Timber Creek Review, and Mysterical-e. More by Patrick Ambrose