DNA on DNA
Arto Lindsay picked up the guitar a month before he played out with his first band, DNA, in 1978. He was helping his friends in Mars load in for a gig at Max’s Kansas City in New York when booker Terry Ork (who also managed Television) asked him if he had his own group. “‘Oh sure,’ I said, even though I didn’t have a band,” Lindsay told Billy Bob Hargus of Perfect Sound Forever in 1997. “He asked me if I wanted to play the next week and I said, ‘How about next month?'” Lindsay threw together a trio with performance artist Robin Crutchfield on keyboards and Ikue Mori, another musical novice, on drums. A month later they played their first show.
Most people who listen to a DNA record can tell at once that Lindsay had no training or experience on the guitar, and many critics have assumed that the band was simply flailing–or, to put it more politely, improvising. The trio actually rehearsed rigorously, and its compressed pieces–most between one and two minutes–were meticulously charted. Even so, Lindsay’s shards of noise and acidic splatter rarely sounded the same on two takes of a given song; since he didn’t know chords and couldn’t read music, the best he could do was try to duplicate the expressionistic mess he’d made the time before. And he used his voice as recklessly as his guitar: his singing was all wild whoops, strangulated phrases, and throaty growls.
Within the year DNA had contributed four tracks to the New York no-wave scene’s defining record, No New York, a four-band compilation produced by Brian Eno. (The others were Mars, the Contortions, and Teenage Jesus & the Jerks.) No-wave bands–which also included the Theoretical Girls, featuring Glenn Branca, and Red Transistor, with Rudolph Grey and Von Lmo–were noisy and chaotic, abandoning even the stripped-down pop sensibility that had distinguished first-wave punks and blurring the line between punk subculture and the world of avant-garde art. But though DNA were ugly, abrasive, and confrontational, like most of their no-wave peers, their experimentation seemed to arise from a love of sound–sometimes they were even playful.
A new compilation called DNA on DNA collects the core of the trio’s commercially released studio output–a single, an EP called A Taste of DNA, and the four No New York tracks, for a total of 12 tunes and about 23 minutes, all of them out of print for years–and adds a handful of pieces composed for a play and a slew of live recordings, many previously unreleased. The comp makes clear what an enormous influence DNA had on the next generation of noisy New York bands: the guitar techniques on “New New” sound like a prototype for much of Sonic Youth’s early experimentation.
Crutchfield’s tinny, sputtering keyboard provided DNA’s music with a tonal center, but Lindsay’s guitar playing–choked bursts, resonant rumbles, scraped-string screams–only ever occupied that center by accident. Sometimes he played stop-and-start bombs, giving the tunes a twisted, out-of-whack funkiness; sometimes he slathered color and texture onto Crutchfield’s bare-bones stabs and Mori’s cycling, tom-heavy drum parts. Lindsay’s lyrics likewise privileged sound over sense, mixing imagistic abstraction, nonsense, and tangled wordplay. Each song was like a haiku, saying as much as possible with the fewest gestures. When former Pere Ubu bassist Tim Wright replaced Crutchfield, he gave Lindsay a much more stable musical foundation to run roughshod over, but the trio’s basic formula didn’t change. By the time they disbanded in 1982, they’d outlasted all of their no-wave kin.
Twenty-six years after starting DNA, Lindsay still can’t play chords, but on his new solo album, Salt, he carries pretty vocal melodies with a gentle, almost jazzy grace. The grooves, most of them built from Brazilian rhythms, are danceable and sexy, and the mix of keyboards, guitars, and horns delivers cool-breeze harmonies with cosmopolitan sophistication.
This might sound like the work of a completely different personality, but it didn’t come out of nowhere: Lindsay has been working Brazilian elements into his music since the mid-80s, and some of his DNA lyrics were in Portuguese. The son of missionaries, Lindsay was born in the States in 1953, but grew up in the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco and attended high school in Recife. After arriving in New York in 1974 he quickly learned to straddle the divides between the city’s improvised-music scene, its avant-garde pop crowd, and its international immigrant communities. Rather than compartmentalizing these interests, he found ways to fold them together. Despite his lack of training, Lindsay, a former art student, seems to have had a firm grasp on the formulas of pop music from the beginning. In the past few years electronic technology–samplers, Pro Tools, pitch-correction software–has allowed nonmusicians like DJ Shadow to make stunning records, but Lindsay has pulled it off by listening, trusting his intuition, and collaborating with people who could help him realize his ideas.
His long string of fruitful collaborations began very early in his career: In 1979, while Lindsay was still leading DNA, he and saxophonist John Lurie formed the Lounge Lizards, a “fake jazz” group that approached the genre with an ironic, noirish slant. (Lindsay’s involvement was brief: he appears only on the Lizards’ 1981 debut.) In the early 80s he fronted drummer Anton Fier’s avant-rock juggernaut, the Golden Palominos (again sticking around just long enough to record one album), and started experimenting in the downtown free-improv scene. In 1983 he and Fier participated in John Zorn’s Locus Solus project, the saxophonist’s attempt at “improvised song form”–in practice, succinct free improv shot through with slivers of familiar pop licks.
Envy, a 1984 album billed to Arto Lindsay & the Ambitious Lovers, marks the beginning of the trajectory that’s brought him to Salt. Working with keyboardist Peter Scherer, he slammed together electro-funk, Brazilian rhythms, screaming guitar noise, and quiet balladry. Lindsay’s singing had begun to evolve–he was still using outsize whoops and whinnies, but he’d started crooning a bit too. The Ambitious Lovers went on to release two more albums in an ill-fated bid for mainstream success, adopting a slick cosmopolitan dance sound that diluted the Brazilian flavor; the band called it quits after 1991’s Lust, but by then Lindsay had become a figure in his own right in Brazilian music. In the late 80s and early 90s he produced albums for Brazilian pop stars Caetano Veloso and Marisa Monte, and he’d go on to work with the likes of Gal Costa and Carlinhos Brown.
In 1996 this involvement bore fruit with the solo album O Corpo Sutil (Bar/None), which introduced the Brazilian-rooted pop amalgam that Lindsay has been developing ever since. On this unabashedly quiet disc, his English and Portuguese lyrics accompany spare, samba-dominated arrangements; his coconspirators include Veloso, bossa nova guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria, and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. “I have written the melodies I sing since DNA,” Lindsay told me in a brief e-mail interview. “But when I started making these records under my own name I began to collaborate more on the melodies in order to understand better how they fit with the harmony.”
With O Corpo Sutil Lindsay also came into his own as a singer, employing the gentle vocal style of bossa nova–he actually sounded something like jazz-pop warbler Michael Franks, if you can imagine a Michael Franks who doesn’t sound cloying and flaccid. But Lindsay’s next album, 1997’s Mundo Civilizado (Bar/None), was his first bona fide masterpiece. He wrote the songs with Cantuaria, Veloso, and Monte and brought in an impressive array of forward-looking musicians to play on them: DJ Spooky and Mutamassik from New York’s emerging illbient scene, percussionists from Carlinhos Brown’s band, and eclectic New Yorkers like bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer Dougie Bowne (a former Lounge Lizard). The wildness from his DNA days was gone, replaced by a sensual calm.
On subsequent albums Lindsay has continued to forge new alliances: his collaborators have included electronic artist I-Sound, former Anti-Pop Consortium MC Beans, experimental violinist Eyvind Kang, fierce Brazilian funk-rock band Nacao Zumbi, and Avey Tare and Panda Bear of the Animal Collective, to name just a few. Salt was produced principally by Melvin Gibbs with the hot Brazilian team of Berna Ceppas and Alexandre Kassin (who also plays bass in Moreno Veloso’s excellent trio). Lindsay’s writing has never been stronger: His songs are chockablock with the sort of complex harmonies that characterize Brazilian music, even when he isn’t using Brazilian forms. And though he employs electronic elements all over the album–something he’s often done in his solo work–they’re less conspicuous here than ever before. Drum programs anchor both the jazzy, sashaying ballad “Kamo (Dark Stripe)” and the jacked-up samba “Personagem” (which features some excellent cavaquinho-like guitar playing by Davi Moraes), but the real-live Brazilian percussion laid over the top all but totally camouflages them.
For these quiet, lyrical solo albums, Lindsay originally put his guitar aside–he uses it on only one track of O Corpo Sutil, and his playing is nothing like the harrowing clatter of his DNA style. But it’s begun to creep back in: Three tunes on Salt feature it clanking, roaring, and scraping alongside the seductive Brazilian and club grooves. It squalls over the drum breaks of “Twins” and bubbles in corrosive washes amid the stuttery, low-end rumble of “De Lama Lamina.”
Lindsay can still raise a ruckus with his guitar (as well as his voice), and he proved it last year with Locus Solus, which reunited at Tonic in September as part of John Zorn’s monthlong 50th birthday celebration. The set was recorded and released by Zorn’s label, Tzadik, and throughout the disc you can hear how many musical ideas Lindsay has absorbed since the group first convened. In the quiet after several of the group’s improvisations you can hear him laughing–perhaps because he’s unburdened by technical know-how, he continues to seem totally comfortable in every skin.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Moemi Elias.