Caution, Madame! Back And Forth With Arto Lindsay

Clash sits down with a legend of the avant garde...

By the age of 30, Arto Lindsay had already created some of rock’s most distinctive music as part of no wave iconoclasts DNA. Having already forged a singular guitar style – spindly, aggressive, tightly controlled and wild all at once – he went on to play in a string of significant bands of the 80s: The Toy Killers, The Lounge Lizards, The Golden Palomino.

Lindsay achieved a degree of mainstream success as part of major label pop act Ambitious Lovers while extending his palette via numerous collaborations, guest appearances and one-off recordings.

His latest album under his own name, 'Cuidado Madame', is a significant recapitulation of his ability to blend sensuality, physicality, political instincts and cultural omnivorousness into a smooth, mellow, often danceable continuum.

On the phone from Rio De Janeiro, Lindsay’s wide-ranging creativity and passion were on full display in this interview coinciding with the album’s release.

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You’re currently living in Brazil: how rough are things there at the moment?

A few days ago a 12 year old girl was killed in her school classroom by bullets from a showdown between the police and drug dealers. The solution the mayor has come up with is special bullet-proof – he claims – coating for the walls of schools. It’s hard to believe! The very idea of spending money on that instead of security… It’s crazy.

We’re in the worst economic situation in as long as I can remember. We have an illegitimate president who’s taking apart the retirement laws, he’s put a cap on all spending which is an actual cut on spending for health and education. The state of Rio is broke. The state university hasn’t been in operation all year.

The security forces are still there but they’re often on some kind of stop-work. We have constant protests but the large-scale protests we had a few years ago haven’t kept going – the population hasn’t kept up the pressure on the politicians.

The best thing that’s happening now is this massive corruption investigation: people here have always said “all politicians are thieves.” Now we know their names and how much money they have, what they spent it on, who has the apartment full of jewels up to the ceiling…

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It’s absolutely a political title – but it’s also kind of intimate, it’s got shades of other meaning.

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And it seems your music is reacting to the heavy political background…?

Well, the name of this record is Cuidado Madame, which means ‘Caution, madame!’ it’s the title of a wonderful movie that a friend of mine, Julio Bressane, made in 1970. There’s a maid in the kitchen listening to the radio and her mistress comes in and says “would you make me a cup of coffee?” The maid goes “did you say cup of coffee?” She grabs a huge kitchen knife and slices the woman up. The first thirty minutes of this ninety minute movie is a series of these murders.

It’s absolutely a political title – but it’s also kind of intimate, it’s got shades of other meaning. Is it ‘watch out, the favelas are on the rise?’ Is it ‘don’t step in the puddle’ or ‘mind the gap’? It’s ambiguous.

All the white people have black maids: “oh but they’re like part of the family…” Yeah, right. Racism in Brazil is different: we never had legal segregation – people were always saying “we don’t have a race problem here, we have a class problem.” But if you ask any black person, that’s just not true. It’s different but it’s no better.

There are quite a few references to other art forms on this record aren’t there?

That’s what I tend to do when I’m making records, I draw on books and movies and stuff to get started. I’ll like a word or a line, then I’ll grab it and build on it. One title translates as ‘The Island Of Pleasure’ and that’s taken from a scene in an movie by another independent filmmaker from that period, a scene that I kind of describe in the song. Another title, years ago I wrote a song called ‘Cross Your Legs And Hope To Die’ so I thought of ‘Uncrossed’ as a title.

I enjoy words and titles on a record that conjure a mood of their own: they’re best when they have multiple meaning usually – and I kind of allow things to come together. For the cover art, Rirkrit Tiravanija is a friend and collaborator. We did a project in Mexico City where we had them build a 1:1 copy of my apartment in New York then we copied 2,000 books and 2,000 CDs then put them in there so you could listen to the CDs and read the books. It was like a portrait of me. So the album’s cover art was taken from that piece.

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Caution, Madame! Back And Forth With Arto Lindsay

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You always seem to have taken this multifaceted approach to your art: you’ve done everything from art installations, to floats for carnival, supporting performance artists…

I grew up in a time when people were comfortable doing different kinds of things. There’s a constant tug between concentration – the centre of an art form – then the edges where it touches other art forms and bleeds into them. Figuring out how different elements and making them work together is one of the ways of understanding any art.

Metaphors: you put two different words together and spark some meanings that you weren’t expecting. Something else useful is to see one form as another, to think about your record as if it’s a movie: that’s a commonplace stretch.

Or thinking about your record as if it’s a book with different chapters – this can be useful. It’s a breakthrough that, strangely, has to be repeated. It seems to me that once it has happened and been proven fruitful that it should happen more and more. Instead, it seems you have to keep breaking the same mould over and over again.

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We wanted to absorb everything, wanted to learn all about music.

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And this kind of instinct was particularly strong in New York in the late 70s?

Things were more fluid. In Manhattan everyone was living up each other’s nose. New York was so central and, at the same time, it was kinda depressed financially. You had all these college kids who decided to live in these areas that other people couldn’t leave – people who wanted to leave.

I went to college in Florida, studied literature and some theatre, then moved to New York to make something of myself: become an artist of some kind – and I ended up becoming a musician.

When we moved up there we were voracious. We wanted to absorb everything, wanted to learn all about music. We could barely eat, I don’t know how we managed to see so much stuff! There were a lot of disparate things that mixed.

DNA used to play and rehearse at a place called Squat Theater which was a theatre group from Hungary who moved to New York and all lived together. They rented a building, lived upstairs and put plays on downstairs. DNA played there, as did Sun Ra, as did the Lounge Lizards for a while, Kid Creole – it was a really diverse group of house bands.

It’s kinda like a jazz thing: maybe that permeated the New York music scene – in jazz they play in all kinds of permutations. I played in Don King, did Don Gavanti, played a gig with Alan Vega and Rudolph Grey, all while I was in DNA.

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We could barely eat, I don’t know how we managed to see so much stuff!

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Throughout your career you’ve never seemed to be a ‘bedroom musician’: collaboration has always been important to you?

For one thing, as I limited myself by not learning to play chords, if I want to write a song I need a co-writer. But I think music is really about collaborating: even if you write it someone else has to play it. More than other art forms, music is very clearly derived from other music. Some of the guys – Melvin Gibbs specifically – helped me make the sound of this album: it was such a pleasure to be in a really good studio with really good musicians.

We took these recordings I had made in Brazil and we wrote to them. Then we used some of the percussion that I recorded here, which is straight up ritual music: each of these rhythms is dedicated to a particular deity and, in the context of a ceremony, it causes the initiates of that deity to be possessed. It’s music that can cause you to go into a trance. We wrote to that, sometimes left it in, sometimes took it out. I don’t like the third way: I don’t like to subsume things, rhythmically at least.

Usually we have an American rhythm and a Brazilian rhythm and they just happen to play at the same time – your body has to fit them together. If my body can do it, you do it too. As opposed to coming up with a rhythm that’s half-Brazilian and half-American, I like to have the full version of each.

When I started making the records that are Brazilian-sounding, the live shows were always a lot harder. It was hard for me to make a record without the back-and-forth between the noise and the melody. It was an exercise for myself to make those records, and to make them good, how to get tension into the music without using that device: because that’s been a constant throughout going back-and-forth, stopping and starting, messing with the proportions.

There were certainly a lot of Brazilian elements at the beginning that people didn’t really grasp and I kept doing DNA type stuff all along even if it wasn’t always recorded.

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'Cuidado Madame' is out now.

Words: Nick Soulsby

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