Don’t count on Google to translate a foreign language accurately each time. When the search engine translated “Vão Queimar Ou Botando Pra Dançar,” a song on Arto Lindsay’s latest album, Ciudado Madame, from Portuguese to English, it arrived at “Are You Going to Burn or Start Dancing?” This great question could allude to a great lyrical metaphor wrapped around a Brazilian groove.
“Thank you, Google. It’s not quite that! That’s pretty great though,” Lindsay says with a laugh. He takes a long pause. “It’s, ‘They’re going to dance, or setting things on fire.’ Botando vao queimar is ‘setting things on fire,’ but it sounds like an expression which means ‘going all out.’ Going for it. And then dance has a double meaning in Portuguese. In slang, when something goes wrong, we say, ‘It danced.’”
“Actually, I have to work it around myself,” he says, finally. “It’s not such a simple thing to translate because both of the phrases are so idiomatic.”
Arto Lindsay’s musical career also present challenges when attempting to ascribe an easy overview to it. His name became synonymous with the New York’s No Wave scene in the late ’70s, the noisy backlash to the budding “new wave” music. As one-third of the trio DNA, he skronked on a 12-string guitar that evoked a losing battle between guitar and a lawnmower, while he delivered lyrics which were often indecipherably slurred. His fretwork also added a sharp tension to the fake jazz of the Lounge Lizards and projects by John Zorn, Laurie Anderson and Tom Waits.
But along the way, another side of Lindsay came to the surface. Growing up in Brazil as the son of missionary parents, he was familiar with that country’s sensual, melodic music. The voice that could bark and wail in DNA could also croon smoothly. Albums released with the Ambitious Lovers and under his own name found him combining Portuguese vocals with styles like drum and bass, although his trademark guitar sound is always close at hand. Cuidado Madame, released last spring, reveals a sound where sensual and skronk work together.
To Lindsay, all of his music, be it noisy or lush, is part of one bigger thing. “There are obviously different styles, music from different places, different time periods, but it’s all music,” he says, on the phone from his home in Rio. “If you make it yourself you tend to see the similarities as opposed to the differences. I’ve always particularly been disappointed [when people] don’t really seem to listen to music and then … they just kind of describe the elements that go into it.” He feels exasperated when people are surprised that the former member of DNA, which evoked the sound of New York subways, also has a lyrical, Brazilian side. “I know it helps people to place you, but I’ve always been frustrated with that aspect of discussing music and selling music too,” he says. “In a way there’s more music available now than ever before, but it’s actually even more ghettoized.”
For Cuidado Madame, Lindsay wanted to utilize candomble, spiritual rhythms used to get into a trance. “Even in DNA, we were kind of interested in that kind of effect that music can have on people,” he explains, thoughtfully. “At some point, I thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be interesting to combine that stuff with gospel, even though it’s really different.’ And it’s kind of difficult because those [candomble] rhythms are not simple 4/4, or 2/4 rhythms. They’re more complex time signatures. And gospel is pretty straight-ahead 4/4. But I was interested in trying to combine them.”
He wasn’t able to bring his band to Brazil or bring the players of atabaques, the ritual drums, to America. Instead he took drum recordings to New York, where he and his band wrote songs around them. “We tried different approaches. We tried playing a different rhythm on top of those rhythms, chopping those up and making them fit with a more American vibe. Or just simply layering one on top of another and letting the chips fall where they may. That’s kind of the underlying structure of the record in a way. Structure is probably the wrong word, but that’s what’s under the record.”
While the gospel influence didn’t stick, he and the band came up with an idiosyncratic mix of ideas. “Ilha Dos Prazeres” is framed by a 5/4 groove with polyrhythmic drums beneath it. After a sensual first verse, Lindsay’s guitar rears its head, adding a metallic skronk that acts percussively. The enigmatic “Vão Queimar Ou Botando Pra Dançar” contains a layer of atabaques along with a drum machine that has the strong punch of dub music. Anyone yearning for more of Lindsay’s DNA days will enjoy “Arto Vs. Arto,” where loops of his guitar and voice fly from out of both speakers.
Regardless of the language, Lindsay’s lyrics are rich with metaphor, casting relationships in situations that come off with poetic insight. He fondly recalls reading The New York Times’ Tuesday science section, which fueled songs for him over the years. “Physics is a readymade metaphor,” he says. “They keep discovering things and then changing their minds. It’s pretty easy to get all excited about all this stuff.”
While it takes him a moment to translate the title of “Vão Queimar Ou Botando Pra Dançar,” the lyrical explanation comes easier, inspired by an aspect of the Big Bang Theory, when matter was one uniform thing and spreading. “Then these pockets are formed like bubbles. Things could cool inside these bubbles. That was the beginning of matter as such. It’s just a place to start,” he says.