Life Imitating Arto
Hearsay #20 / 1999 / Interview with Pete

"You can write what you want about me, but I'll charm your mother if you give me a chance"

The phone rings in the morning and it's never good news. So when I get a call to say, 'Pete! Can you meet Arto Lindsay [Ambitious Lover, Golden Palomino and credit on CD sleeves from Dawn Upshaw to Laurie Anderson] at the Chelsea Hotel?', my first assumption is that I'm still asleep. 'No, the Chelsea Hotel in SW3 !' Back to earth with a bump, I slip on my Bossa Nova shoes, pause to grow a jazz goatee, write the History of Sex and ponder why words like 'libretto' and 'bilingual' sound vaguely pornographic. All together now: 'I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel, you were talking so brave and so sweet...'

HEARSAY: Has there been a musical father figure in your life?
Caetano Veloso is definitely somebody who has played that role in my life. His work not only got me going as a teenager, but I got the chance to collaborate with him. We've written songs together, I've produced some of his records and been around him a lot. We've become friends and now I've seen the whole operation from the inside. Caetano has a book coming out in English in the fall. It's a memoir, a very intimate, Proustian, ruminative book about the 60s, the Tropicalismo movement and his involvement in that.

The Bossa Nova boom in the USA was immediately prior to Beatlemania... I mean, maybe it was more of a marketing phenomenon than it was about music... the Bossa haircuts, Bossa shoes...
I think that's true. It's odd because what most non-Brazilians identify as Bossa Nova is more of a mood, an intimacy. Maybe a sophistication in chords, similar to jazz: in other words, real musicianship in a pop context. It obviously meant something really different in
Brazil. It was a way of reassessing the past, setting up a different evolutionary path for music. Bossa Nova and jazz were both influenced by the same European music: Stravinsky, Chopin, and especially Debussy; both Gil Evans and Jobim drew a lot from that. It was one of the emblematic styles of the early 60s: Modernism, jet travel, fashion, pop art...

I heard that your parents were missionaries.
They're from the South. My father's from South Carolina, my mother's from Florida. I grew up in the Northeast of Brazil, near Recife, which at the time was the third biggest city. The Northeast is the poorest, most backward part of the country. It was almost like growing up in the 19th century, almost a feudal society.

How did you wind up in NYC?
I went to college in Florida. I tried to stop college in the middle but I had a really high number in the draft lottery, so I went back to college in order not to go into the army. I moved to New York as soon as I graduated, which was 1974. I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do, write or dance or act or be a conceptual artist, but the energy was really around the music and that was what I fell into.

You've done a lot of those things. Did you just fall into them?
Some things, like the acting, for sure. I did a little bit of that but I quickly decided it wasn't for me. It was appealing as a discipline, a different way to work on yourself as a performer. I really enjoy working in groups, and I like that about movies and theatre. But it's even worse than the music business as far as the crassness and the humiliation involved. Either you're being humiliated or you're expected to humiliate somebody else. I still love to write.

When did you discover your idiosyncratic method of tuning?
When I started playing guitar, I had this idea to play it percussively. I was aware of John Cage and people like that... I hadn't really heard too much of that music, but I was aware of all those ideas. Later I started to listen more to what I was doing and make a little melody up on the guitar, which is what I still do. I don't tune it conventionally... but I listen. That just kind of happened from zero. I find one of the defining things about artists in general is what they assign to their rational side and what they assign to their unconscious side. What areas do you refuse to think about, like in a sense, my guitar playing. It's like, I will not learn to play guitar. I don't need to. Give me a guitar, give me an audience, I'll do fine. And you can write what you want about me, but I'll charm your fucking mother if you give me a chance.

Were you writing before that, specifically song lyrics?
My thesis in college was a book of poems. Song lyrics in
Brazil are really important, more important than they are in the States. In all of popular music, it's not just exceptional figures like Bob Dylan or Caetano in Brazil; lyrics in general are on a much higher level in Portuguese. There's an Iberian tradition of conflation poetry and music, and there's the fact that Brazil's an oral culture – less and less so, but still overwhelmingly so compared to Europe and the States. In a sense it's more like England, with its whole tradition of rhyming slang. People are much wittier here than they are in America; your normal everyday person is funnier and more playful with language.

I'm interested in the way that in speaking two languages, understanding of the one affects the other. What translates as gibberish can often be remarkably poetic.
I've thought a lot about this and used that as a starting point for songs. I've written a few in both languages, but I usually just write. I don't have a habit of deciding beforehand what something will be about or choosing a particular method. I'd like to try that more. On one level it just makes for a clumsiness in both languages at times, when you're tired. You hear echoes of construction and syntax, more than sound. The sounds of English and Portuguese are very different.

Do you ever strive for an automatic quality in your writing?
I prefer lyrics that sound spoken, and maybe on closer examination there's a nonsensical or absurd element. Occasionally you can deliberately insert something like a really high-falutin' word, just to jar things a little bit. The music that I grew up listening to was all really naturalistic, blues and Brazilian music. There's a feeling that somebody is speaking to someone. I don't like political lyrics; I like the contrast between the lightness of lyrics and the heaviness of philosophy. I like to play those things off against each other and try to do things you're not supposed to do. In that sense I do sometimes have an idea before I start a lyric. Sometimes I take phrases that are idioms from one language and put 'em in the other, and they sound so unnatural, or they sound really obscene.

"I'm writing the history of sex" – am I quoting you directly or is this the voice of a narrator?
That's first person. That's pop music, I think. I wanted to call the first Ambitious Lovers record The History Of Sex and have these vignettes between each song that would tell the story of somebody's life from their sexual life. A little kid hearing his parents fucking and hearing all this moaning and groaning and not understanding that it's pleasure. Then masturbating, then sexual initiation, blahblahblahblahblah. I never got around to it, and then somebody else recently did something called The History of Sex. I saw it somewhere. It's amazing that sex should be one of those experiences that's complete in and of itself, it's supposed to be the be all and end all, right? But it's just all anybody talks about day and night, y'know what I'm saying? An interesting paradox. One of the shows earlier on this tour, we've been doing these sit-down venues, there were these kids in the front these two young girls. And we start into
Erotic City, and it's, ‘Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck’ ...and there was no reaction, but there was this little boy there with his father. Whenever the word came up, he was nudging him, and after a few times of this, the father was, like 'I heard it! I heard it! I heard it!'

I was most taken by the fetishy (rubbery, ridged) CD boxes for Mundo Civilizado and Hyper Civilizado...
The guy that designed those is a really good friend of mine called Diego Cortez. I haven't had a band for a while. I'm forming this group into a band, even though it's still going under my name. Andres Levin, Melvin Gibbs and Vinicius [Cantudria], we've been working together, producing and writing songs together. I like bands, I think they're a great thing. Diego has been a member of that too, a kind of advisor. He's responsible completely for the covers; sometimes he gives me suggestions for titles. There's a lot of funny things about those covers, like those kids on The Subtle Body and Mundo Civilizado, and the painting on the back of Noon Chill by their father, Francesco Clemente. In one of the other booklets there's a picture of me with his father. This little fiction just kind of evolved about inserting me into this family. Those boxes... basically those three records (but not the one we're working on now) were paid for by a Japanese company, so they had beautiful covers. Then I had to take a lesser royalty in other territories because those are expensive other places.

One comment levelled at the Lounge Lizards is: 'A cocktail lounge version of free jazz.' I don't personally subscribe to that...
I don't see what's cocktaily about the Lizards... Showbizzy, yeah, but show me something that isn't. Fucking Robert Johnson is showbiz. John [Lurie] got stung, I think, by all of these descriptions of the music. He wanted it to be taken more seriously, and to his credit he's managed that. Pat [Dillett] works with him a lot too, they just did this record I'm dying to hear: John's song record, where he sings. I think John's one of the funniest people on the face of the earth. He'd be a billionaire if he was a comedian.

The Jarmusch film Down By Law has three comic geniuses: John Lurie, Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni. People only recognize one of them as a comedian... Lurie is incredibly funny, and Tom Waits is too. Tom Waits is a great interview. Thank God he put a record out because at least we get to read these goofy interviews. The Beastie Boys won't put out a record for a few years, so we don't get to enjoy them. I think they're the other great interview in recent memory.

Do you aspire to collaborate with any specific musicians?
Not really. I don't daydream about working with a particular musician as a collaborator or as a producer. There are people that I wish I could write songs with sometimes, except they're usually writers, and that's what I do. I love Elmore Leonard and Haruki Murakami. Ondaatje writes really beautifully; it might be nice to write a song with him and cut through the glaze a little bit!

What are you reading on tour? I'm stuck in Don DeLillo's Underworld...
Oh, I love that book. I think he's definitely one of the best American writers. I just bought Remembrance Of Things Past... I'd never read the whole thing. I'm reading Ka by Roberto Colaso; I actually stole a lot of lines and images from his book The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. Arundhati Roy.

I wanted to ask you about David Byrne's eponymous album, which is one of my favourites...
That was a very intense record for him to make, because he had done all those latin records and they had gotten zero response. It was produced by David and Susan Rogers and myself, and she's really good, but we were just kind of thrown together. He called me and he called Susan and said, 'you guys are gonna do it together' and we're like, 'hello!' As a producer, I can be vague sometimes and wait for things to happen. We do a lot of stuff together, we're friends, but our styles are really different. I get there and I wanna read the paper, have a cup of coffee in the studio and gradually get into it. He's the kind of guy who wants you working from minute one because we're spending money. If you work that way you generally have to do things over and over, it's much more painful. I think that if you wait for the right moment and catch it, it ends up being cheaper in the long run. As a producer, you try to keep an overview of the whole thing, you try to help somebody be the best they can be, you try not to be too overt in your psychological manipulation of anybody. At the same time you're responsible to a company. In David's case he can do what he wants, but they sometimes conceive of that as 'let him hang himself'. It's fairly Byzantine; it's as sleazy as we all imagine. But his A&R guy was a really good friend of mine too, it wasn't an unfriendly situation at all. Everybody involved was smart. It's not always like that... David's an interesting artist. He's a great guitar player, uniquely his own thing. Nobody else does that, but it's kind of amazing what he does.

It's quite polyrhythmic guitar playing, multicultural even...
it is, but it's amazingly Scottish too. I don't wanna use the wrong word here, but it doesn't really swing in the sense that latin music I'm accustomed to does. It is polyrhythmic and it is multiculturally informed for sure, and he writes unbelievable songs, but you can't say that it's loose.
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