Interview by Jason Gross (November 1997)
For a good two decades, Arto Lindsay has been a fixture and a mainstay in the New York music scene. Starting as a mastermind behind the amazing, mysterious DNA and then partaking in the first Lounge Lizards with John Lurie, moving on to the original Golden Palominos with Anton Fier before starting his own group, Ambitious Lovers with Peter Scherer, the man has BEEN AROUND in a big way. What's more impressive than the groups he's been in has been the range of music he's covered. He's credited with the noisy barrage of guitar and voice called 'skronk' but is also as well-known for popularizing Latin rhythms through his own work as well as series of CD's he's worked on with David Byrne for his Luaka Bop label. His own recent solo CD's have been something of a culmination of this work with shades of jazz, soul, pop and techno found in his work but at his best, he makes hash of these kind of distinctions. He's just a lovably ecletic artist who follows a unique muse along in his work and we're all the richer for it.
Supreme thanks to T. Sasscer and Steve Cohen.
PSF: What was some of the first music you heard in Brazil when you were young that had an effect on you?
My parents were missionaries- I was born in the States but I grew up in Brazil. As a young kid, my mom loved music and played piano. She liked Nat King Cole and Dorival Cayimmi, a Brazilian singer. There was a lot of music on TV too. I used to listen to all the pop music in Brazil at the time that was really exciting like Jorge Ben and Caetano Veloso and Roberto Carlos (a kind of rocker then now a kind of Julio Iglesias). Then the Beatles arrived and the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. We got all that stuff down there too. Stevie Wonder later. I was ready for it. I wanted to hear it and change and find out about the world at large.
PSF: What about when you come back to the States?
I came back to college in 1970 and then I moved to New York four years later. It was great here- it was bleak. I wasn't such a media saturated environment. There was a generation of people who moved here to make something of themselves. They had to really struggle and created really something on their own apart from a lot of attention. It was a really exciting time here. The period right before punk rock where people like Lou Reed and Iggy Pop were really strong. Then the early punk rock period with Television and the Ramones. That's what I loved- that's what I was listening to immediately prior to when I started to play.
PSF: So that music was a big influence on you?
Yeah but it's hard to say what actually influences you though- what you love isn't always what influences you. There was a real confrontational quality and I was really interested in early performance and conceptual art. People like Vito Acconci and Chris Burden whose works were very confrontational. This stuff really turned me on. I thought I felt something simliar in those bands.
PSF: How did you decide to make your own band (DNA)?
I had friends in this band called Mars and they used to play a lot. Television's manager, Terry Ork, also booked at Max's Kansas City. I was always there with Mars, helping them with equipment. He asked me if I had a band. 'Oh sure, I said even though I didn't have a band. He asked me if I wanted to play the next week and I said 'how about next month.' True story. I just went out and got a band, cobbled one together. Ikue Mori was living here with a guy named Rick, who now leads a great Japanese punk band called Friction. She never played an instrument but I liked her and I invited her to play drums. There was a guy called Robin Crutchfield who was a performance artist- very strange looking and striking looking. I thought it would make a great outfit. I wanted to do something really extreme. I thought that was the root to success, which didn't turn out to be true. Though we did have some influence on a lot of other bands, we were never what you'd call successful. I just had this notion that I wanted to do the most extreme thing I could and I also very consciously wanted to do something that was very different from Mars because we were all very close. They were my best friends. They were more of a Velvets/Roxy sounding band so I wanted to do something that was very angular, involving a lot of starting and stopping. I deliberately tried to something that was the opposite of what they did.
While DNA was going on, I did a lot of playing on the side (not even in public) with a bunch of artist friends and with John Lurie. That turned into the Lounge Lizards. I played with them for a couple of years and then I left them six months to a year before we called DNA off.
PSF: What happened with DNA?
I felt that we had done what we could do. I felt 'this is so great and this is just going to calcify and not going to be as great as it is if we kept doing it.' Occasionally I listen to it today and it sounds great. It's still great music. Really strong. I can hear the ideas clearly even today. It was a very conceptual band in a way. We were really interested in music from all over the world. We realized that what we were doing was very close to contemporary classical music because of the lack of tonality in the guitar- the fact that I play guitar the way I play. We deliberately used elements from Brazilian music and from African and Asian music. Now people can hear that but then it sounded so abstract, they couldn't hear it. They thought we were improvising when it was meticulously rehearsed. We were interested in this notion of compression- a lot of the songs were really short so that you'd absorb them in memory rather than when you're actually hearing them. Very fragmented approach to the lyrics. Kind of a rush-em-on approach with five or six sentences about the same subject, all from different angles. We also deliberately wanted to be a pop band and we avoided situations where we would have an audience more easily. We didn't play at the Kitchen until they begged us to do it and offered us (at the time) good money. We wanted to play to PEOPLE at places like CBGB's and Max's.
PSF: It's interesting that you bring up modern classical music. How did you see that as part of DNA's music?
It's more like we realized that what we were doing had something to do with that stuff. I hadn't heard that much of Cage or Stockhausen but I knew what it must be. The same way that when I started playing guitar, I knew there must be a precedent for this even though I've never heard it. Sure enough when we played, some people compared the guitar playing to Sonny Sharrock. So I started listening to this stuff and sure enough, there was a relationship there but I didn't know this when I started. But it's so logical- there's free jazz so there must be guitar players in that context.
PSF: What about your stint in the Lounge Lizards? That was at the same time you said?
Yeah, it was at the same time as DNA. There was some conflict there over Saturday nights because we were all really broke in those days- all the money you had in the world was in your pockets. Nowadays when you're say you're broke, it's not the same thing. The Lounge Lizards had a lot to do with these jams we did. When I saw that it was going to evolve into JOHN LURIE and the Lounge Lizards, I bailed. I wasn't really interested in playing in that situation. I just thought 'I don't need this.' The first album was really a group effort. John wrote most of the stuff but it was all hashed out. I think the Lizards were a great band and they still are. They have been several great editions of the Lounge Lizards. The first one was really, really great. The one with Dougie Browne, Marc Ribot and Roy Nathanson was also a great band. The last one I saw a year ago was really kicking.
PSF: What were John's idea about the group? Did he want a straight-jazz band?
No, he never wanted that, for musical reasons. It was very interesting for me because DNA made music without much technical knowledge at all. Even though Tim Wright was a very musical bass player, a self-created musician. The Lounge Lizards were relating with a tradition and it was like I was playing within a musical context. The guitar playing stood out as being different in some way. That was a real education for me.
PSF: With the whole no-wave movement, did you think it was a real scene there? What did you think of the other bands?
I used to LOVE the other bands. It was amazing. Contortions were a great band. It was a scene in the sense that we were all close and we all knew each other before the different bands had really formed. We used to rehearse in the same place. We very deliberately kept the No New York record to just those bands. We thought it would make sense and it was a little bit of a turf thing- we convinced Eno that Glenn Branca's band shouldn't be on the record. Last year, I found out from an interview from him that he knew that and I thought 'Oh God!' But he certainly had his moments like anybody else.
PSF: Lydia Lunch (who was in Teenage Jesus) was saying that she didn't want her band to go on for a long time and get stale. That meant that the whole no-wave movement didn't last long. You think that was a good or a bad thing?
It was what it was. Certainly since then many people have taken a lot of those ideas and ridden them for years and years and made careers out of them. Part of that is willingness to do the kind of work that I wasn't willing to do. Get into a van and cover the country. With Sonic Youth, some of them were in Branca's band, they did it. They got into a van and played all over America and they built a constituency and a whole career in the way that you have to do it as a rock band.
PSF: You like their music?
They're OK. I don't listen to their records. They're great live. They're interesting and very dedicated. To say that they blow me away is not really true, but I do respect them.
PSF: What were you doing after DNA and the Lounge Lizards?
There was the Golden Palominos, the band that Anton Fier started. We wanted to call the Lounge Lizards that but we were out-voted. We had a terrible time working together though and I was in that band for the length of the first record. There's some good songs on there though I haven't listened to it in a while. It was trying other things for me- it's hard to judge progress. We did that around the same time as when both of us were becoming involved in the improv scene, which is something that DNA really shunned. The whole kind of Derek Bailey-influenced New York scene. To some extent at that time, we injected rock and roll into that scene- we played loud and that was a huge turning point for that scene. We were involved in playing with all those people.
We also played with Kip Hanrahan, which was really interesting. Kip was really the first guy who combined all these different kinds of music. You had great jazz saxophonists like David Murray and people from the noise-rock scene like Anton and myself and great Latin percussionists like Daniel Ponce. This was around the time that Fidel emptied out all the prisons and put them on a boat- lot of those guys, who were unbelievable musicians, came to New York. Kip also used different arrangers like Brazilian or Argentenian arrangers and jazz guys like Steve Swallow and Carlos Ward along with Jack Bruce. He mixed all these amazing guys together. I met and got a chance to play with unbelievable people- people took me seriously. I never had any problem with musicians being interested in what I did or any people once they heard me though we did get some pretty drastic reactions in the beginning with DNA. The press, the media and the record companies shunned us but the audiences seemed to get it just fine.
PSF: You think it was a turning point for you also when you got into the improv scene?
It was a turning point in the sense that as a scene, we can up with a lot of new ideas. As far as I was concerned, I think I adapted a lot of the ideas from DNA to that scene- the stop and start, the short pieces. We had the idea to improvise songs as opposed to pieces or music undefined in that sense. So there was an idea of form that came up with at the time. They were mine but they were other peoples' too. I don't think it really changed that much about the way I played. I probably learned as much and showed a different side of what I could do. Playing with Kip I definitely learned a lot playing with these incredible guys and hearing them.
PSF: How did the Ambitious Lovers start after that?
I put together the group to do some gigs. The first record is Arto Lindsay and the Ambition Lovers. I got a record deal and played a couple of times. I went looking for somebody to help make the record. I heard about Peter (Scherer) thorough Kip. He worked on that first record (Envy) and then we decided to work as a duo. We did two more records as a band and lot of other stuff like ballet scores, commercials, production work.
PSF: How was this group different from the work you did before?
I had this idea for a while to do mix this Al Green vibe with a samba thing. I tried to do that in many different ways. Peter added his own modern notion of funk and his own deep background in classical music. We had a lot of the same interests and different ways of achieving things. We complemented each other really well for a while. We did some stuff that I still think is great. I think the Ambitious Lovers never got their due- we had terrible management and at that point, we were on major labels and we didn't have any music business savvy which we could have used. We made a series of hilarious mistakes not in terms of music but in terms of making it happen.
At the end of that, we started producing. I never really considered producing but I discovered I could do it. After we stopped working together for a few years, I pretty much concentrated on that. I still played a lot with this trio with Melvin Gibbs and Dougie Browne at that time. That trio started played together even during the Ambitious Lovers- we'd play at the old Knitting Factory about once a month. I tried to put together a band with Marc Ribot and Bernie Worrell and some percussionists. None of those bands really panned out. We didn't get a record contract.
PSF: I caught that trio at CGBG's and it sounded like some of your earlier work.
We recorded that trio and it's out on the Knitting Factory label. I've got another record in the can with that group and Marc, which I'll hopefully finish some time before next summer. Dougie can't play now- he had something like a stroke. I still play with Melvin- I played with him longer than anyone before Peter. I did these gigs with a lot of Brazilian percussionists who played on Envy. Melvin's in the band now with me and we've done a lot of gigs so it's just a matter of the right drummer coming along. I'd love to play more stuff like that and now I do it in a solo gigs with me on guitar and Andres Levine on sampler. I'm also thinking of doing a solo guitar record, with maybe a little singing but just guitar. Something I've never done before. I do ballet scores for Amanda Miller, a friend of mine, who has a company in Germany. Peter and I worked with her before. Some of those scores are much more in the DNA vein. The one I'm doing for her now is a little more cinematic.
PSF: What made you want to do production work?
Years ago when DNA was going on, I produced a record in Italy but I didn't think I'd do another one. Peter and I worked with Caetano Veloso and at that time, that's the first really serious record that I worked on as a producer. I realized that I could do it. Then Marisa Monte asked me to produce her record and it just kind of snowballed. I just figured out how I could do this then.
PSF: In the early '90s, you were putting out work under your own name. How did you feel about putting out solo work after all these years?
Well, a record is like a movie. It's never a solo work unless you just sing your songs on your own. Even then though, somebody's got to record it and mix it and master it. It's a different kind of pressure. But I also think that when you work with people over a period of time, the relationship deepens and you can achieve a lot more musically. I definitely have a group of people that I've worked with over and over again for a few years. Hopefully for a little while longer, we'll keep building on what we're doing. That includes Melvin and Andres and Vinicius Cantuaria, who's a guitarist/songwriter/percussionist from Brazil. He moved here right when I started my first solo record(O Corpo Sutil - The Subtle Body). I actually recorded six songs with that band with Bernie, Marc and Dougie. I didn't like those songs so I tossed them out. I finished that record, mostly writing it with Vinicius. I can't play an instrument in the conventional sense- I can write words and melodies but I can't write chords so I have to collaborate to write a song. Maybe one day I'll sit down and write songs on my own but at this point, I still can't (or drive or type for that matter).
This group has kind of evolved as a playing group, a production group, a writing group. I've always been interested in collabortion and the idea of 'bands.' In a sense, we have kind of a band. We're not a bunch of kids so we can't get into a van and all. But it is a band in a sense. It has some of the strenghes of a band partly because of my technical limitations but also partly because it's more interesting. I've always been a collaborator and I still am. I've worked with all kinds of people over the years.
PSF: How would compare your last two solo records with what you've done before?
I've since made a third one which is coming out in February- it came out in Japan a few months ago. It's hard to tell. It hasn't been long enough. I can look back now at DNA and the Ambitious Lovers and say 'this part of it is great.' It's a little close for these.
PSF: What about Hyper Civilizado?
I like that record. I've had a really good relationship with this record company in Japan. I got the deal through Ryuichi Sakamoto, who I worked with before. He got a label as part of his contract and asked me to make a ballad record, a bossa nova record. I said I'd do the ballad record 'cause I couldn't do a straight bossa record. I approached the label with the idea of doing a remix album and they told me to go ahead. I had been getting involved with the DJ scene in New York, doing some playing with a lot of these guys, like DJ Spooky and Soul Slinger live a bunch of times. I thought it would be interesting to do a remix record that was kind of a snapshot of that scene. Get all those guys on one record. It's not just a remix of my work but it also captures what was happening in New York at a particular moment.
PSF: Would you do more of that in the future?
I don't know. I have to some extent.
PSF: What other ideas do you have about future projects?
I'm meeting different musicians at different times and getting excited about working with them. No grand plans. I came really late to real 'singing' so I'm really enjoying that, really working on improving that. I've had experience as a producer with some of the most amazing singers in the world so my standards are pretty high and I fall pretty short of what I think of as 'good singing.' I'll keep working on that. But no real grand scheme. Record by record, project by project. There is an advantage to not knowing what you're doing. It constantly keeps you on your toes. (laughs)
PSF: You play a lot of festivals in Europe but not here in the States. Any reasons?
I should do it more and I hope to do it more. I'm trying to get it together but in the past I've definitely played in Europe and Japan much more than here. I'd like to concentrate and play more here and in Brazil and get some of these records out there. It's more difficult economically to play in the States and it's not cheap to play. So far I've managed to do most of the playing with the same core group of guys. But in the next year or so, I'm sure that people are going to get so busy that I'm going to have to put together different kinds of bands that'll be easier to tour the States with. I'd really like to play in the States- I'd be curious to see what the audience is. I'm getting such a good response with this record. I'd like to be able to build on it.
PSF: What do you think about the scene in New York today?
There's nothing startlingly new going on. A lot of the stuff that's happening is deepening. That's something that people tend to forget- they're always looking for something new, a new scene. I don't hear anything THAT new. I think that a lot of people who have been around for a while are getting better and better. I've heard some incredibly heartening things in the last year or two. There was an orchestral piece that John Zorn did that I thought was amazing. It was on the level of his very best work. I'm a big fan/supporter of his early abstract work, the game pieces. I think those are really important. There's a young guy, a violinist named Evan Kang who's working with us- he plays in Bill Frissell's band. He's really great.
PSF: What about Brazilian music today?
Brazilian music is doing great right now. So much energy, so many different types of music. There's a whole generation of really exciting young kids who are about to make their records. They've been all these different bands that I've been following for some years. I think there's a great generation that's about to come of age in Brazil. The scene in Brazil is just as rich and deep as the scene here. It's amazing.
See Arto's favorite music
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