Arto Lindsay got his start as a member of the seminal No Wave outfit DNA, a group that--like the other bands captured on the Brian Eno-produced 1978 compilation No New York--embraced the primitivism of punk but added a confrontational element of random noise. Lindsay, whose nontraditional guitar work encouraged one critic to invent "skronk" as a descriptive term, went on to play in several bands that came out of New York's Downtown scene, including the Lounge Lizards, Golden Palominos, and Ambitious Lovers. Yet Lindsay, who was born in America but raised in Brazil, also began to explore his roots, translating Portuguese lyrics and producing such legendary Brazilian songwriters as Caetano Veloso, as well as relative newcomers Marisa Monte and Vinicius Cantuaria. These albums expressed a quieter side of Lindsay's music, and he soon began releasing a series of records steeped in bossa nova, samba, and other Brazilian music. O Corpo Sutil/The Subtle Body, Mondo Civilizado, Noon Chill, and the recent Prize are gorgeous records that incorporate the sounds of contemporary New York--noise, hip-hop, electronics--into what he has borrowed from Brazil's rich tradition. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Lindsay about the reassessment of the Brazilian Tropicalistas, hip-hop, and pop crossover.
The Onion: I imagine the last four albums you've put out have sold more than, say, the [noisy and abrasive] Aggregates 126 record.
Arto Lindsay: Right, but the Aggregates record actually came out with the first record in the series [O Corpo Sutil/The Subtle Body]. I've just done so much over the years, and been in so many bands, that I guess after several records in a row that were consistent in terms of ideas, people began to get it a little bit. Or, "are beginning to get it" is probably a better way to put it. [Laughs.]
O: Why do you think that, 30 years after the fact, people have begun to appreciate the Tropicalia records [the late-'60s works of Brazilian artists like Caetano Veloso, Os Mutantes, Gilberto Gil, and Tom Zé], either through the original albums or through your solo work and the records you've produced?
AL: Oh, I think there's a natural kind of fit between what the Tropicalistas did in Brazil in the '60s and what was going on here in the '90s. At this point, we're kind of after the fact, even for that. I think that's why people picked up on it. It has to do with really deliberately mixing and matching all kinds of things, with those choices providing the message, if you will, of what's being done. It has to do with the whole thing of DJ culture, and the Internet: the availability of information from all over the world no matter where you live. Also, there's been a gradual opening of America to music from other places. Which, in a sense, is American music coming back to America from outside, kind of like in the '80s. The Beatles and The Stones sold American R&B back to the Americans. The main reason is that there's so much good music around the world, and it just can't be denied after a while. There's so much depth and so many places. The music of Brazil, in particular, is similar to American music. It's very deep, and it takes on many, many kinds of styles. It's based on the same roots, African music and European music, in a variety of combinations. Channel surfing, Internet surfing, running across all sorts of stuff. I think that opens people to different things.
O: You covered that Carlinhos Brown song ["Amantes Cinzas"]. His album [Omelete Man] is great, and when you compare it to what, say, Beck is doing, they actually have a lot in common. I think it might be something as simple as the language barrier that keeps it from taking off.
AL: I think that will eventually be broken. I don't know how. It's a strange moment in the record business right now, when this phenomenon of opening the rest of the world is obvious to everybody. It's not just The Onion and The Village Voice, and so on. It's not just this sort of "world music" community that's about being interested in music from around the world. It's more widespread. The same time that this is happening, the big record companies are consolidating. Everyone is wondering what the Internet will mean, and what format music will be sold in in the next few years. There are all these competing ways of that working out, and the dust has not settled. It's a very unsettled moment on the business end of it. Which doesn't necessarily impact that much on music, but it definitely impacts what people get to hear.
O: I think people are becoming more receptive to other kinds of music in general. Look what happened with all that Cuban music.
AL: Yeah. People who like Beck will probably like Brown. People who like Beck will obviously love bands like Os Mutantes from the '60s, a Brazilian band that was sort of a Tropicalia house band that everyone is so deep into. They had a wild sense of humor. It was very beautiful but also very psychedelic. They wrote songs, but it's also experimental. The '60s themselves were very wild. If you think about it now, Jimi Hendrix was a huge star, and his music was very wild. We've just been through a long dry period where the pop music has been really safe. I guess we go in and out of these periods.
O: People are excited to explore something new, even if it's 30 years later.
AL: It's interesting, the two types of music that are really being picked up. One is this interest in the Tropicalistas. One characteristic of that group, that moment, is that it was very self-conscious. It was very intelligent. Things were done for a reason, and the reasons were very obvious to the Brazilian audience. If there's a discourse involved, that makes it easier for outsiders to understand, because it's already articulated: It's music that has something to say that realizes it's communicating with an audience and tries to communicate in a lot of different ways. If you look at the Cuban thing, the thing that exploded and sold so many copies was Buena Vista Social Club, which is very nostalgic. People aren't listening to the music that's being made in Cuba now nearly as much as they are listening to something comfortable and old-fashioned and romantic that's preserved in Cuba but doesn't exist here anymoreand didn't even exist there until it just kind of fell together for that record. That's not what the kids listen to in Cuba. [Laughs.]
O: Your own music has been incorporating more hip-hop over the last four albums. Was the progression natural or intentional?
AL: I just sort of go with what I'm enjoying, or what the guys I work with are listening to. [Lindsay's bandmates include bassist Melvin Gibbs and Brazilian guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria. ed.] Everyone just feeds off what they love, and there are so many kinds of music that I love, you know? All different kinds of Brazilian music, as well as hip-hop, contemporary classical music, Cole Porter, standards. All kinds of stuff that you listen to seeps in. Sometimes when we start a record, we think, "Well, let's make it a little more this way, or a little more that way," but it isn't that conscious. It's not like there's a blueprint. We all are eager to show each other stuff. We keep an eye on what's going on because it's what we do, but it's also what we enjoy. We've spent a lot of time in Brazil in the last four years, we've gone down to Carnival almost every year, and I thought it was important for those guys to soak that up. When I make a record, I know that it'll be heard all over the place, especially in the States and Brazil. If it's going to be heard here, it's got to be as funky as what's going on here. If it's going to be heard there, it's got to have as much swingas we say in Portuguese, swingeas Brazilian music. So it's really important to understand the local accent and not just do this kind of... It's got to sound real, no matter what you're hearing.
O: Do you think there will ever be a time when the kind of music you're making will be pop music in America?
AL: Yeah. Don't ask me when or how. I hope I'm still around. [Laughs.] I've always been interested in things rubbing up against each other, and I think that's becoming sort of a pop element itself. We want to reach a lot of people, but we want to reach a lot of people with our music. If we had wanted to try to make music that sounded like the pop music at any particular moment, we could have done that a long time ago. You just don't get much satisfaction doing that.