From the Crates is a new series in which Talkhouse contributors nominate and appreciate pieces by other musicians that they’ve enjoyed on our site. Here’s the first, from Sadie Dupuis, the genius behind Sad13 and frontperson of Speedy Ortiz, on an essay about Arto Lindsay written by the iconic Beauty Pill’s frontperson, Chad Clark.
—Amy Rose Spiegel, Editor-in-Chief, Talkhouse Music
Meeting your idols is a crapshoot—not only because, as Chad Clark says, “Geniuses aren’t always nice people,” but because you may become more starstruck than you anticipated. I remember meeting Corin Tucker and Sara Lund in the same night, both of whom I idolize. Saying hi to Corin Tucker was somehow easy-breezy, but it took me about a thousand minutes to stutter out to Sara, “I, uh, I really love your drumming.”
I’m thankful that I first met Chad on the internet, because I would’ve nerded out at him in an unprecedentedly dorky way otherwise. Thankfully, this particular genius happens to be very, very nice. Though he hates the term “underappreciated,” it’s baffling to me that his bands Beauty Pill and Smart Went Crazy aren’t as well-known as my other contemporary rock and electronic heroes (hopefully, this year’s reissue of Smart Went Crazy’s Con Art will change that somewhat—you should buy it, but it’s probably already sold out). In his roles as writer, performer, producer and artist, Chad’s thoughtfulness, attention to detail and commitment to creating really interesting things always inspire me.
Meeting your heroes can be nerve-wracking, but when your heroes collaborate with their own heroes? That’s hella charming! I loved hearing Dolly Parton duet with Ke$ha this year. Cher and Future together almost made me forgive him for Ciara (almost). And reading Chad’s piece about meeting Arto Lindsay, and their subsequent touring plans, was so delightful.
Like I said, Chad is a fastidious, boundary-pushing artist. He’s had a long and varied career. Knowing that he nervously Skyped his own hero to ask questions about process is such a nice reminder that even the folks we view as having all the answers come to their own artistic practices with wonderment. I’m tempted to quote The Last Jedi here, but instead I’ll just say: it’s always too early to be jaded, as Chad’s essay shows.
I am talking to Arto Lindsay about his new album, Cuidado Madame. We’re speaking via Skype, from my living room in Washington, D.C., to Arto’s kitchen in Brazil. He is very nice. He is not at all an asshole.
To be clear, I had no indication he would be an asshole, necessarily, but I do think he is a genius, and I’m aware geniuses aren’t always nice people. So I was a little nervous to meet him. But Arto turns out to be the kind of genius who is warm and charming. This is a relief, ’cause we’re about to spend a fair amount of time together. We’re going to tour this year, Arto and I. This is a wild honor for me.
I have loved the breadth of Arto Lindsay’s music since I discovered him when I was in college in the ’90s—I was introduced on a date with a cool girl who played Arto’s Mundo Civilizado while we made out in her apartment. And, while Arto may not have the platinum-selling ubiquity of, say, Sade, I’d be willing to bet Mundo Civilizado has been the soundtrack to a fair amount of good sex. His albums are suffused with a dulcet Brazilian electronica/tropicalia vibe—they’re seductive and cool and innovative.
I was intrigued, so I researched his history by reading everything I could about him. In the process, I discovered his earlier band, DNA, the art-punk avatar of the ’80s No Wave scene. For many, this period is still considered what Arto is best known for. The music is noisy and angular — almost violent. The contrast between these two aesthetics — the savage noise-punk and the lilting bossa nova — was initially shocking, but ultimately inspiring. If Arto can master such disparate genres in his lifetime, it says a lot about the human ability to reinvent and self-renew.
Cuidado Madame is yet another subtle reinvention. It has many of the seductive characteristics of past solo albums, but it also has more…danger. (This is reflected deftly in the title of the album, which translates to “Be careful, madam.”) The album is built around metrically dense rhythms that, as Arto explains to me on Skype, are based on candomblé, a ritualistic Brazilian religion. The rhythms are tricky and complex, and sometimes feel “off kilter.” Along with an increased integration of jagged guitar noise, This sense of peril mitigates Cuidado Madame’s function as a simple Makeout Album, but Arto seems comfortable with that choice. It’s a fascinating and eccentric work, this record. He’s a fascinating artist.
And holy shit, did I mention I’m going to tour with him?! How did this happen?
In 2015, my band Beauty Pill released its first album in a decade, Beauty Pill Describes Things As They Are. Track seven is called “The Prize,” a cover of a 1999 Arto Lindsay song. One reason we recorded it was simply that we were intrigued by the song and wanted to study it from the inside. At another level, we saw it as a tribute to someone we regard as a direct influence.
At yet another level, we hoped listeners unfamiliar with Arto’s original would hear “The Prize” as a natural, unforced extension of the BP canon. We wanted to make it ours. Though Beauty Pill’s cover is fairly faithful (Arto’s voice is lighter and sexier than mine, but I think we have a similar vocal range), we do take some liberties. The drums have a different feel and the noise-guitar solo on his original is supplanted by electronically treated horns and strings on our version.
“The Prize” seems to be about oblivion or erotic delirium, which is a topic that interests me. The first thing that drew me to the song was the ontological mystery of its opening line: “When did I empty my empty mind?” I see the song as shadowy and surreal. I don’t claim to understand it, but I feel it.
There are many layers of semiotic communication when you interpret a song. You are vivifying the song itself while sometimes also commenting on (perhaps flattering, perhaps expanding upon, perhaps rebuking) the original or best-known version. Art is a series of decisions. The audience receives (consciously or subconsciously) all of these layers of communication.
Shortly after the release of Describes Things, we received an effusively kind email from Arto’s label, Northern Spy, telling us they loved our version of “The Prize.” It was a very encouraging surprise. They expressed a desire to connect us with Arto, and we engaged at first with Arto’s manager, a man named Ryu Takahashi. And soon we were planning to tour together —an outcome I couldn’t have foreseen.
So here I am, video-Skyping with the actual Arto Lindsay. My dad says, “Approach every situation like a student.” It’s good advice, and it certainly feels apt now. I don’t know what I hope to learn, exactly, but I’m not gonna miss the heuristic opportunity.
I tell Arto that I suspect that, from the DNA years forward, he has probably cultivated a refined, nuanced relationship with distortion and noise. You can hear it on the 2014 anthology Encyclopedia Of Arto, and you can certainly hear it on Cuidado Madame. Arto has essentially invented — and mastered — his own guitar language. He tells me he revels in the paradoxes. “I’ve let it become what it is. It changes over time and it changes with context. It can be violent, but it doesn’t have to be violent. It keeps me focused and engaged.”
On the one hand, he’s aware of a rich rainbow array of musical information within noise guitar. You can hear a whole orchestra in it. If you think about it, distortion is essentially just harmonic saturation. “You can hear all these complex overtones,” he says. But on the other hand, “There’s kind of an irreducible stupidity to it. It’s kind of always just the same blunt tool.”
At our conversation’s close, I decide to try to get some insight into “The Prize” from the author’s point of view. Stammering because of the nature of the topic, I tell Arto I sense eroticism laced throughout his work, and I find it in “The Prize” as well, but I’m not sure to what extent. He interrupts me, saying, “Yes, it’s about sex.” And so my education begins.