Arto Lindsay might be the closest experimental noise has to a soul man. Sure, he doesn’t play actual soul jams. And his trademark guitar style is, on the face of it, kinda unsexy: rhythmic, atonal, full of discordant bursts and unseemly, metallic feels. But in a career that goes back nearly 40 years, the no-wave pioneer has put a high premium on feeling, expressing universal feelings of love and intimacy even while he’s bucking convention.
Lindsay, who’s 61 years-old this week and exudes vitality through his big, buggy eyes, is best known as the former singer and guitarist for DNA, a legendary New York trio that appeared on the classic No New York compilation in 1978. DNA specialized in a distinct style of primitive skronk, setting the stage for future noise-rockers like Sonic Youth. But after the band broke up in 1982, Lindsay branched out with subtler, more sensuous sounds, conjuring melodious vocal lines, heady synths, and Brazilian rhythms in the duo Ambitious Lovers and as a solo artist.
His two modes are represented on Encyclopedia of Arto, a new, two-disc compilation out on Northern Spy Records. The comp’s first disc is utterly lovely, devoted to Brazilian-tinged experimental pop from solo records released between 1996 and 2004. The second disc is more in tune with Lindsay’s no-wave roots, featuring recent live performances of distinct, tactile guitar excursions. But while the two discs are radically different, there’s some overlap: The song “Illuminated” appears on the collection twice—first as a subdued electro ballad, then as a mutation of detuned guitar strums and raspy yelps. And that’s Lindsay for you. One moment, he’s calm and reflective. The next, he’s a beast, ravishing his guitar like a mate in the jungle.
Sexual power has long played a role in Lindsay’s music, but he doesn’t see himself as some kind of avant-rock god, deserving of worship. In his solo material, his songs bloom with heady arrangements and deep samba and bossa-nova rhythms, native to Brazil, where he grew up. Onstage, Lindsay will let loose with dissonant guitar catharsis, but then he’ll deflate the vibe, handing control back to the audience.
“The thing about the sexual power is that you have it and you don’t have it. Let’s put it this way: You have it, but you only have it because people give it to you,” he says, speaking on Skype from his home in Rio de Janeiro. “I can completely take over and create this strong, musky mood, and then I can step back and laugh at it, or do something really goofy. I can go in and out of various kinds of states. That’s something I used to think about a lot when I first started, because I kind of hated that you had to act like a rock star to be a rock star.”
If there’s any musical movement that effectively laid waste to the rock star persona, it’s no-wave. Emerging in the mid-to-late ’70s in New York City, DNA compatriots like Mars and Teenage Jesus and The Jerks not only rejected the virtuosic techniques of guys like Jimmy Page and Peter Frampton, but also the stripped-down, three-chord structures of The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. But Lindsay says he wasn’t really reacting to rock ’n’ roll; he was more interested in soulful singers like James Brown and Al Green, who Lindsay reveres for his versatile, open style.
“I feel he’s very honest emotionally, without being sentimental. He’s a very deep singer. He really opens up and sings,” he says. “Al Green is up there with the greats in any area. He’s up there with whoever it was that invented the polio vaccine.”
DNA may have been exceptionally bizarre, but they also oozed with carnal energy, and Lindsay has built on that over the years with his distinct guitar style. On the second disc of Encyclopedia of Arto, he gets particularly steamy in a cover of Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful,” rubbing against his amplified strings and letting out an ecstatic yelp—“You’re simply beautiful!”—like he’s tangling with a lover between the sheets. It doesn’t matter that Lindsay strays from Green’s languorous melody, or does away with the original’s arrangement altogether; it’s still damn sexy.
Of course, Lindsay’s music doesn’t compare to Green’s own euphoric sound. But it does put a brighter light on no-wave. Though the movement has long been seen as fundamentally oppositional—rawer than rock, punker than punk, more fucked up than almost anything—Lindsay emphasizes that this was never the case with he and his bandmates.
“We thought we would go further, and we thought people would like it,” he says. “We didn’t realize that we would be perceived as so negative and so against stuff.”
Lindsay hasn’t released a solo album in years, but since moving back to Brazil from New York in 2004, he’s taken his experiments to new heights. In cities across the globe, he’s put on avant-garde carnival parades featuring live percussionists, peculiar audio-visual effects and amplified philosophical discussions. And in solo shows, he’s played with 5.1 surround sound, placing speakers around the room to hit the audience from different directions.
“I think surround is so interesting. It’s just been reduced to, like, bullets and rockets and Hollywood movies,” he says. “Nobody ever uses it. And I think they’re afraid. They don’t want you to lose focus on that story, on that screen. They’re trying to get you to feel that emotion.”
Needless to say, Lindsay’s work has never been so straightforward as that. And it shows through in his guitar style: Listening to him play live can be pretty jarring, even uncomfortable. Still, there’s a strong physicality to the way he plucks, smacks and detunes his strings. A lot of experimental music is all about ideas, sometimes to its own detriment. But some of Lindsay’s best music comes straight from the gut—and the groin.
Peter Holslin can’t play guitar for shit. He’s on Twitter -@peterholslin