Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong are sifting through their voluminous archive of punk-era concert footage as it’s digitized for the Downtown Collection at NYU’s Fales Library. This week: a look back at DNA.
“How dare you play your guitar like that! Don’t you know that’s the same instrument that Eric Clapton plays?” Audience members were often quick to share their dissatisfaction with the screeching dissonance that Arto Lindsay wrung from his instrument during a feverish set. So whenever his no wave band DNA finished up, Lindsay was sure to pack up quickly.
“It was the music I liked to play,” Lindsay says. “I thought the more far out you were, the more likely you were to be hailed as the next Jimi Hendrix. I just wanted to see what music would do to people. “
The son of missionaries who moved to Brazil to spread The Word, Lindsay seemed an unlikely candidate to blaze through the Downtown scene as one of its most adventurous and experimental musicians. Fronting bands like DNA and Ambitious Lovers and collaborating with the original Lounge Lizards and the Golden Palominos, he had a quirky guitar style that was unlike anyone else. He punched a hole in the idea of what his instrument could do.
Lindsay rushed out and called his friend Ikue Mori. Neither of them could play, but he encouraged her to try percussion. Next to join was Robin Crutchfield, a performance artist whose work had impressed Lindsay. After only a few rehearsals, DNA debuted playing a confrontational set: lots of stops and starts, very loud, then very soft. “They were songs based on ideas,” Lindsay said. A scene began to coalesce around them as other musicians like Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, James Chance and Lydia Lunch all began pushing on the edges of what a song could be.
In 1978, a Soho gallery, Artist Space, hosted the legendary No Wave series: as the poster said, ten bands, five nights. DNA played along with other noise groups like Teenage Jesus, The Contortions and Mars. Brian Eno was so taken with their boundary-breaking verve that he convinced Island Records to let him record and produce the bands and the seminal no wave album No New York was the result. “Eno is a wonderful guy,” Lindsay said, but they had a rocky start: “He set us up in the studio and we started to play and he was sitting there reading a magazine. I was furious and started screaming at him, ‘This is our life, this is our music!’ I think he appreciated it. We were the only band who went to all the mixes and we’re still friends to this day.”
Robin Crutchfield left to form his own band Dark Day, and Tim Wright stepped in. The former bass player of Pere Ubu, he was a real musician. “We rehearsed relentlessly when Tim joined,” Lindsay said. “It really upped the ante. Ikue and I didn’t want to get overwhelmed. But there was a real competitive thing. Having a woman in the band, with Ikue, it kept us real, but that macho thing between Tim and I, I think was healthy. And it was thrilling.”
With Wright in the band, they began playing out regularly, especially at CBGBs. Lindsay remembered, “It was great because then you were able to survive. If you played a weekend, you made real money. And of course, we wrote all our music together. Sort of a Lennon and McCartney — and McCartney — thing. The three of us were equal collaborators. We thought we would be rock stars; we had absolutely no concept of the business or how songs should be.”
So it really stung when John Rockwell of the New York Times wrote that they were determined to be non-commercial. “I thought that was despicable,” Lindsay said. Years later at a Yoko Ono show, they met and Lindsay recalls “going CBGB on him. I said, ‘You ruined me with that line.’ I mean, he’s a nice guy and all but he was creating a hierarchy…. I was trying to affect an audience, make people sweat, get girls excited.”
They released an EP, A Taste of DNA, in 1981 and toured America. “We played the West Coast a lot so they knew us,” Lindsay said, “but then we did places in the South and the Midwest. We even played in a pizza parlor, once.” At an Austin date, when a beer was accidentally kicked from the stage and an already huffy crowd was destabilized, writer Lester Bangs had to throw himself between the audience and the band.
DNA broke up in 1982. It was time to explore other avenues of expressions, other scenes. Arto continues to play, focusing more on his Brazilian roots with his solo releases like O Corpo Sutil, and Mondo Civilzado. As a producer, he earned a Latin Grammy for his work with Marisa Monte. He’s also active in the field of sound art, both as a curator and installation artist. “I’m still trying to figure things out,” he says.
Ikue Mori also performs and composes, collaborating with artists like Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore and in Hemophilliac, a trio with John Zorn and Mike Patton. She likes to think of her laptop as her primary instrument.
Tim Wright passed away on August 4, after a bout with cancer. Jay Dee Daugherty, drummer for the Patti Smith Group, remembers, “Tim was an original; brilliant, irascible and eccentric. We jammed a few times, but I wasn’t up to snuff with his unorthodox freedom. I loved Tim and DNA. I’ll miss him.”
Watch this week’s clip, a DNA performance at the Mudd Club in 1979. Doorman Richard Boch remembers, “It might’ve been 3 a.m. I walked out of the Mudd Club second-floor bathroom and heard the scream. Not sure if the floor was shaking or if it was me, I walked downstairs. Arto was singing, Tim was doing a bass rumbling crazy side-step and Ikue was pounding away. DNA was onstage.”
They weren’t covering “Layla.”