The Untuned Guitar Genius Of Arto Lindsay


Arto Lindsay is pretty good with math. In 1977, there was a zero where a band should have been.

“Terry Ork was booking Max’s Kansas City,” Lindsay said via Skype, from his home in Rio de Janeiro, before traveling to the United States for a tour that brings him to the Bell House on April 28. Max’s had been the local for Patti Smith and Warhol’s Factory cohort in the early ’70s; Terry Ork started a label that issued the first single by Television in 1975. But things were different in 1977. “It was the second coming of the club. It wasn’t really cool. It was just there. Terry saw me and figured I had a band. He said, ‘You wanna play next week, or next month?’ I put the band together because I had a gig. [Drummer] Ikue [Mori] and I had zero conventional musical training. She had never even played an instrument. We had a song called ‘Horse’ that was based on the cover of a comic book. A cowboy and Indian are fighting in the foreground, and in the background their two horses are fighting. We thought that was really good.”

If you’ve not yet heard DNA, and you imagine a recording studio created for and by horses, you’re on your way. What Lindsay, Mori, and bassist Tim Wright did with three instruments is still a challenge to other live bands: Think harder, take away more, and add better. Lindsay, in some sense, never learned how to play, even now. His playing traces the arc of two objects colliding, the signal created by a meeting of surfaces. That he uses a guitar — tuned only for tension, not to any particular notes — is less important than the fact that he is striking an amplified thing that allows him to be loud, to generate texture, and to be percussive.

“When Tim Wright joined the band, I was getting interested in the music of the Candomblé religion, which allows the listener to be possessed by deities — the Orishas,” he said. “Back then, nobody knew about that connection to Brazilian music.”

Candomblé is a Brazilian syncretic religious practice that fuses West African spirituality with Catholicism, much as Vodun did in Haiti. Lindsay grew up in Brazil, in the northeastern state of Pernambuco, with his missionary parents. After moving to Florida for college, Lindsay came to New York in 1974. His new solo album, Cuidado Madame, extends the calculations he began forty years ago, two worlds being summed and divided.

“With DNA, we were expanding the idea of what is and isn’t related. Two people playing at the same time is twice as complex, but three people playing together is more than three times as complex. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was a reference point. I was also obsessed with my own unschooled understanding of polyrhythms. ‘Why do I get tired of really straight rhythms? Why do I have more fun dancing to a more complicated rhythm?’ ”

One of the first people to take up this question along with Lindsay was bassist Melvin Gibbs.

“I met Arto at the Squat Theatre in New York, in 1979,” Gibbs told me. “I was playing with various incarnations of James Chance, and we had just started Defunkt. Because I was in the Squat all the time, I started leaving clothes there. One day, I went to go pick something up and I heard this crazy sound. It was DNA rehearsing. I kind of chilled and bathed in the noise. When they stopped, I went up and introduced myself. We fell into different circles for a while, and then I started working in the jazz department on the top floor of Tower Records, in 1984. The first day on the job, Arto walked in and said, ‘Hey, I’ve been looking for you. I want to do something.’ ”

That something was a body of work that seemed, in 1984, like a rejection of DNA’s mayhem. With keyboardist Peter Scherer, Lindsay formed the Ambitious Lovers, who combined his atonal guitar with the practices of samba and modern pop. And the Ambitious Lovers made Lindsay feel comfortable enough to start singing, though not often, in his first tongue, Portuguese.

In 1995, Lindsay began making solo albums. Ryuichi Sakamoto asked him to record a bossa nova record for his new label, For Life. Arto could only be Arto, so O Corpo Sutil/The Subtle Body is not bossa nova, though Lindsay sang even more songs in Portuguese. A template was emerging: an electronic grid, a band fighting that grid, and Lindsay starring as a crooner with roots in Brazilian song. Gibbs was part of the team on O Corpo Sutil, and still is, though the list of participants have changed.

In our conversation, Lindsay mentions a query he got on Facebook about that team: someone asking how many Afro-Brazilians are featured on Cuidado Madame. When I relate this to Gibbs, he laughs. The atabaques — the tall, Afro-Brazilian hand drums used in Candomblé ceremonies — were recorded in Brazil, he explains. “But the production team is mostly African American. It’s the right question, though. You got trap beats on this album, the gospel Hammond organ, and Candomblé rhythms. That’s a lot of cross talk in terms of functions that could go awry. People need to be uncomfortable in this conversation. The question is who’s on your team, and do the people on your team have a voice. Appropriation is when you have the team but that team doesn’t have a voice, or when you deploy a culture and don’t listen to the culture.”

Recorded in both Rio and Brooklyn, Cuidado Madame was built around the Candomblé patterns of the atabaques, which the band played and wrote to in Brooklyn. The atabaques were sometimes subtracted, to avoid making what Lindsay called “some kind of fancy time signature record.” Polyrhythms with yay much poly.

Lindsay has been a sensualist from the start. When he sang, “Those flanks/this moment/your face is a fleck/I like the way your mouth flex,” in DNA’s “New Fast,” the physicality of singing was part of the point, meaning those words did not sound as they read, if they sounded like words at all. Critics used descriptors like “strangled” and “yowling” to describe Lindsay’s relationship to singing, which was fair enough. Lindsay sings clearly now, at least with a band. (When playing solo with guitar, voice, and software, strangling returns.) On Cuidado Madame’s first song, “Grain by Grain,” Lindsay’s concern is still the body. He parcels out the introduction of each phrase, making a flip book of the erotic: “I/I love my handwriting/I love my hand writing your name/on your belly/till you forget your name.”

One of the densest songs on the album, “Unpair,” is loaded with all the fixings: atabaques recorded in Rio, Mike King leaning into his Hammond, a rattle of programmed drums, the foam of Lindsay’s guitar. Against this full complement of instruments, Lindsay’s lyric spins words taken from Emily Dickinson’s poem 861, “Split the Lark — and you’ll find the Music.” “Go on, split a lark/light up a nightingale/unmask mockingbirds/captives and their songs.” When he reprises Dickinson’s “scarlet experiment,” he adds his own translation: “Take steel to an owl.” It is Lindsay’s kind of math — rather than set Dickinson to music, he carries over two phrases and lets them multiply. In the same way he doesn’t play Brazilian music or noise music or pop, his lyrics aren’t failed poems or even successful poems. He’s been hiding in plain sight as a singer-songwriter all along.