Arto Lindsay steps onto the stage. In his late 40s, he still retains the gawkiness of an adolescent boy, all long arms and legs. The image of a geek is completed by large horn-rimmed glasses and a pale complexion.
But as Lindsay and his band begin to play, his eyes flutter, flirting with the audience and his mouth pulls back into a mischievous grin. His hips gently sway like a suburban white who hears Al Green for the first time.
Like the librarian that sheds her glasses and shapeless dress to reveal a sex kitten, Lindsay’s music proves that a simple pop song can transform the most unlikely of characters into a true Romeo.
As the band works its way through Lindsay’s oeuvre, including songs from his latest album, “Invoke,” the gorgeous, subtle melanges of electronica and bossa nova slink and Lindsay’s cool delivery smolders. And when he drops in a bit of Portuguese, he could be singing about mobile phones or refrigerators, and it would still sound naughty and exciting in a most delicious way.
“You are reading all that into it, but keep reading!” says the New York-based musician and producer.
As if to set the mood. Elvis is crooning “Love Me Tender” in the background of the Shibuya coffee shop where Lindsay took a break from his recent Japan tour for an interview. Wearing neatly pressed jeans and a button-down shirt, he looks more like a professor between classes than a musician between gigs.
Lindsay’s musical personality is as difficult to pin down as his fashion sense. At his Tokyo show, he came across as Maurice Chevalier channeling Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert with interference from Prince: discreetly charming, undoubtedly sexy but with the slightest touch of the perverse. On some songs, such as “Intimacy,” his direct, sincere delivery made him the lover pouring his feelings out in a small, smoky piano bar or the confines of his beloved’s bed. On others, like “Simply Are,” he morphed into a romantic hero worthy of Gershwin.
“I take advantage of the fact that I am so unprepossessing,” says Lindsay, “then I get up there and scream and moan and thrust and bang.”
The banging bit has long been a part of Lindsay’s repertoire, albeit in the very different guise of his noise-rock group DNA. A fixture of New York’s late ’70s experimental “no wave” scene, DNA was featured on the seminal “No New York” compilation produced by Brian Eno. No wave, in turn, would influence bands such as Sonic Youth and Nirvana in the ’80s.
The Brazilian vibe in Lindsay’s music goes back even further. Lindsay was raised in Brazil by missionary parents, only returning to the United States for college. In DNA, he occasionally dropped in Portuguese lyrics — though they were drowned out by the band’s chaotic din. His next group, Ambitious Lovers, mixed a bit of Brazil with an R&B vibe, but it wasn’t until pal Ryuichi Sakamoto suggested that Lindsay record a bossa nova album that Lindsay fully rediscovered his roots.
That record was 1995’s “O Corpo Sutil (The Subtle Body).” Since then, Lindsay has made four more albums of tenderly experimental bossa nova.
Despite his background, Lindsay is still seen by some as a white guy playing music that is not his own.
“It is an interesting question because I hold both views,” Lindsay says. “In other words, when I want to hear Brazilian music, I want to hear it played with the correct accent, with some knowledge of its lived, historical context.
“On the other hand, I think people should be able to play what they hear. But I’m really demanding of my own music. The Brazilian part should pass muster in Brazil, and the American part should pass muster in America.”
As for why he chooses to sing a particular song in one language, he says it’s difficult to quantify. “It’s not like English is more rational. In a funny way, most Brazilian poetry of the 20th century is more minimal and more rational than American poetry of the same time, maybe because the language is more emotional and poetry tries to get outside of this. I think the relationships between languages aren’t so easy to assign. There is a lot going on under the surface.”
Lindsay’s music is much the same. Fans of DNA could be forgiven for thinking — given his recent, more accessible work — that Lindsay suffers from musical amnesia. But live, as he injects chaotic bits of guitar into the otherwise smooth planes of his songs, it all makes sense. The noise is invasive, startling at points, but at other times there is a perfect dynamic between structure and chaos building to a dizzying, orgasmic climax.
“The connection with DNA is the interest in extreme states. These can include torpor or stupor in the context of connecting with the audience and providing a physical and an imaginative release by virtue of playing interesting music,” says Lindsay at his most cerebral.
“Another thing is the level of success that I have allows me to do what I want. In other words, I don’t have to play all the hits because I don’t have any hits,” he says, laughing.
Over the course of his career, Lindsay has jumped around to various labels, both major and indie, until Ani Di Franco, recognizing a kindred independent spirit, signed Lindsay to her indie imprint, Righteous Babe Records.
Outside the U.S., however, Lindsay has been considered a crucial artist since his days with DNA. He has won a Latin Grammy for producing Brazilian singer Marisa Monte, and in Japan, his eclectic music has landed him a major label deal and famous fans that range from avant-ambient artist Seigen Ono to pop diva UA (he has produced tracks for both of them). At his Tokyo show, the audience was thick with the city’s musical cognoscenti.
“I think the noise thing isn’t scary over here,” says Lindsay trying to explain, at least partially, his popularity in Japan.
“People in the U.S. always think that noise is aggressive or negative, but people over here . . . make a joyful noise.
“Japanese traditional music has these real guttural and startling elements in it, so people aren’t afraid of those things.”
The often-cited Japanese tendency to making unlikely combinations of music has been in Lindsay’s favor. “The Japanese relationship to the world has always been a little different because they have always considered themselves separate, so they could [musically] pick and choose,” says Lindsay. “They could mix and match based on feeling, while an American wouldn’t mix certain things because it seemed wrong.”
Brazil in the ’60s, when Lindsay was growing up, was much the same. The Tropicalia movement, a blend of Western and Brazilian styles, was in full swing. (It would later be a significant influence for artists such as Beck and Cornelius.)
“Brazil is always on the periphery in the way Japan is. Even though it is on the other side of the economic spectrum, there is a similar kind of freedom [with music].”
New York in the ’70s offered similar opportunities. “In my generation of [musicians], a lot of guys worked at record stores and listened to everything,” says Lindsay, citing producer/avant-garde musician John Zorn and former member of The Feelies and Lounge Lizards Anton Fier among them.
“I didn’t work at a record store,” he says, “but I used to steal a lot of records.”
Lindsay’s experimental tendencies have not been limited to pop music. He is also an established sound artist, most recently working with New York-based Japanese artist Noritoshi Hirakawa. Their latest endeavor is an empty white enclosure with one of Lindsay’s sound installations. The catch? Spectators are asked to check their underwear at the door.
“The idea is that when you are in [the room] you aren’t wearing any underwear, and everybody knows that you aren’t wearing any underwear and you know that everybody else is not wearing any underwear.”
Though organizers where the installation was originally shown (in Vienna) predicted that it would have limited appeal, it was packed. “People have made transcendental claims for the experience,” says Lindsay of the exhibition. “Everyone filled in the blank. We provide the most low-key charge, a very low level of titillation.
Which brings us back to sex.
“I think all my records are R&B and nobody notices,” he says explaining the latent sensuality of his music.
“R&B is very grown up, as opposed to rock ‘n’ roll which is very adolescent and frustrated sounding. The rock and roll thing is ‘I want to, and nobody will let me.’ R&B is like ‘I like to do it, and I know how.’ ” A large percentage of his female fans would agree.
And how does it feel to be the secret erotic crush for certain types of arty intellectual ladies?
“I feel like, who else would be their sex symbol?” says Lindsay with a grin. Indeed.