Since arriving in New York City’s downtown rock scene in the 1970s, Arto Lindsay charted an inimitable course through underground and popular music. His early work as a member of DNA was anthologized by musician/producer Brian Eno on the No New York compilation, the definitive document of a movement dubbed No Wave. In the ’80s, Lindsay scored a couple of minor dance hits in his group Ambitious Lovers; in the ’90s, he produced commercially successful records for a number of Brazilian stars.
He also embarked on a solo career during this period with a series of idiosyncratic, distinctive records. He released Cuidado Madame, his first new solo album since 2004, on April 21, and he’ll follow that with a short American tour (see dates below). Before the new LP hit shelves, Lindsay spoke with Billboard about his wide-ranging career and the inspiration behind his latest work.
Lindsay’s first band, DNA, appeared on the famous compilation No New York, which was put together by Brian Eno.
I moved to New York from college in Florida. I was interested in a lot of different things — conceptual art, intense, confrontational performances, dance, writing, music… different things. I just fell into music: it seemed to be a place where everything fell in together. My college roommate, Mark Cunningham and I, moved there together, and he started the band Mars with his girlfriend right before I started DNA.
Our first gigs were at Max’s Kansas City. Television’s manager was booking Max’s, and he saw I was always hanging around with my friends from Mars. He said, “what about your band, when are you gonna play? Next week? Next month?” So I put a band together because I had a gig. He just thought I was on the scene or whatever.
DNA was deliberately formed to be extreme in some way. I thought that was the quickest way to the top — to come up with the newest thing, the most intense thing. Obviously I miscalculated there. But so many things in the ’60s that I listened to as a teen were so extreme and so popular at the same time. The music business was kind of closing in, getting more conservative, right when I started.
When we did the No New York recordings, it was very emotional for me to record the music. I actually got really pissed at Eno because he was reading some studio magazine or something during one of our takes. I wanted him to pay absolute attention.
It took me a while and DNA as a group a while to understand the recording process, and I don’t think we were together long enough as a group to really understand it. We spent hours on our sound check and really worked on our live sound, which was really different than most bands. Even on No New York, I think DNA was the only band that instead on being with Brian when he mixed the tracks. But it took me a while to really get my head around recording.
Lindsay’s band put out three records between 1984-1991.
I had this idea that I wanted to put together soul music and samba. I felt a kinship there, and I wanted to do something that mixed those things. I didn’t want to make music as a third way. I didn’t want to make a blend. I wanted to have both of them there with their roots exposed. But find a way to make them fit together and both be present. That was my first instinct, and I still operate that way. I like juxtaposition, going back and forth. And I think that’s more pleasurable to the dancing body.
I put a band together deliberately to do that. The first record I made, I realized I needed a songwriting partner. So I went looking and I found Peter Scherer. He’s the opposite in many ways of me — an amazing musician, super trained. It really worked well for a while. The high point of that band was when we were on Night Music, that show. [A short-lived program on NBC in the late ’80s.] That was the high point of our visibility. We had bad business luck and didn’t have coherent management to take advantage of the position we were in. But the records actually sound really good today.
I learned so much from Peter. Peter wanted to be a producer because he was an all-around musician who had studied. He worked for Nile Rodgers and ended up in Kashif‘s band. Peter had all that experience. He knew he could produce. I never even considered it.
Producing became an increasingly successful sideline for Lindsay.
We used to work at a studio called Skyline in Manhattan on 37th street. I got to be around great engineers in great studios and started to pick up a lot of things, hearing how recordings work together — how it’s important to have a lot of little stuff happening in the background, so every time you hear it, you can hear something different.
Keep things interesting. On the new Drake record, there will be songs that sound amazing at the beginning and then nothing changes. They just set up a bunch of stuff and let it roll to the end of the song. And Drake doesn’t change much emotionally. He’s not like an old-style singer who will stretch out or vary. It becomes boring. If you listen to records that were made in a different way with a lot of people together, different musicians are adding different touches, musical phrases, or subtle rhythmic things, tiny things that keep you interested and keep pulling you along.
A producer is really there to help the artist do better than he thinks he can do, or to push him. Or to get the artist to stand up to what he believes in. Keep saying no, and if the artist really wants to do something, they’ll overrule you.
I guess Eno was also a big influence. I did love Eno’s music before I knew him. And then I got a chance to work with him, and we became friends, and he contributed to several of my records, and we still stay in touch. He’s a great guy, a generous guy. His ideas are as important as the sounds of the records he produced. I don’t listen to a U2 record and go, “wow, I want that reverb!” It’s like John Cage. Cage had such a huge influence through his books and ideas as much as he did through his music.
After I made this Ambitious Lovers record Envy mixing Brazilian and American stuff, I came to Brazil and tried to get it released here. Nobody released it. I had already met Caetano [Veloso] in New York and I took him the record. He loved it and we started to hang out and talk. It was already a thing in the air, but it was Bob Hurwitz [Nonesuch Records] who wanted to do a record and suggested he work with us.
Once we worked with Caetano, everybody started to call us and me. For a long time Caetano had that position in Brazil — people would really follow whatever he did. Plus there was the New York avant garde charisma, as my friend always says to make fun of me. The New York factor, which is fading all over the world now. New York doesn’t have the same meaning as it did for 20, 25 years. Now it’s where Trump lives.
I ended up doing a lot of records. It was a different music business, and there was more room for more producers. And that made it possible to continue to do what I wanted with my own music without having to rely on it so much to make a living.
I had a very specific approach to Brazilian music, which was to strip it back down. A lot of Brazilian pop music at that point was really cheesy, with pre-set synthesizer sounds, it was imitating the wrong kind of American and British music. My approach was to take some of that stuff away. In a sense that was an outsider’s take, a non-Brazilian’s take, to emphasize what I felt was more Brazilian. Which in a sense is not so great. But it worked.
It was an interesting time because people were under the impression that maybe Brazilian music was going to be the next huge pop music. It didn’t really work out that way. Many Brazilian artists have great careers outside of Brazil, and things are super different now with the internet. But there was never a Beyoncé, a Britney Spears, a Justin Timberlake coming out of Brazil and going all over the world. That hasn’t happened yet.
Aside from the 2014 compilation Encyclopedia of Arto, Lindsay hadn’t put out a solo album since 2004.
I go in with an idea of a general direction, and then I try to write 2/3 of the songs beforehand. I can’t write by myself because I can’t play harmony. So I bang out these songs with these people. I try out at least a melody and a harmony and half the words before I go into the studio so I’m not wasting time in the studio. I can’t afford to waste time in the studio, Fleetwood Mac-style. I can’t even imagine that [way of working], but it must have been interesting.
We usually work out the arrangement in the studio with everybody sitting at their instruments. I like to have it written and then have it come together in the studio. It usually sounds best when it first sits together. If you play it again and again and again, people start to lose interest. The recording process becomes cold.
You have to get into the right head to record vocals. Recording vocals is the strangest part of recording. When you sing in front of people, it’s a back and forth thing — you get so much from the people, your body responds differently, it’s a different kind of adrenaline. Some people have amazing control and can just perform in a studio situation. But most people don’t. It’s delicate and difficult. I’m not a trained singer. I’m always learning about singing and trying to improve my singing. I started with very little background, so that’s always a long process for me.
This record, I had a concept beforehand, which was to take candomblé drums, these Brazilian ritual drums that play these beautiful, complicated patterns. Each one summons a different deity, and the deity will possess some of the people involved in the ceremony. You play one rhythm and sing one song that goes with it, and those people will get possessed by that. I wanted to mix that with gospel organ. I had this idea of mixing, kind of like what I was talking about before [with soul and samba].
But I couldn’t afford to have either the Brazilian guys come to the states or the organ guy and my band come down here. So I did some recordings here, took ’em to the states, and we recorded to those tracks. We wrote to those tracks. Sometimes we would take away the original, sometimes sample it and make it fit an American rhythm. But we always had that as a reference point. It’s very strong music.
Arto Lindsay Tour Dates
4.26 @ One Longfellow Square – Portland, ME
4.27 @ Once Sommerville – Sommerville, MA
4.28 @ The Bell House – Brooklyn, NY
4.29 @ Black Cat – Washington, DC
4.30 @ Boot & Saddle – Philadelphia, PA