The Magic of Os Mutantes

A 47-year-old band from Brazil is coming to Club Congress to promote a new album. Why should you care?

Some wars—the war on drugs, the war on terror, the cultural revolution that was the '60s—never seem to end. They just get rehashed, refought, reinterpreted, repeated. Just ask Sérgio Dias of Os Mutantes. At a prelaunch listening party in Los Angeles for the band's new album, Fool Metal Jack, he says, "I was here in '68, during Vietnam, up on Sunset Strip. Most of you weren't even alive back then; you're kids." These aren't the ramblings of a crotchety old man by any means; at 62, Dias is nearly a decade behind Dylan and five years younger than Neil Young, both of whom were making albums when Os Mutantes formed in 1966. He's even a few months younger than Bruce Springsteen, whose career gained steam just as Os Mutantes' was going off the rails. The point he was trying to make was that he's been around long enough to see history's arc bend back on itself to become something of a circle. Sometimes it's with a war, sometimes it's with a band. Sometimes, it's a little hard to tell the difference between the two.

It's a Wednesday night at Sonos Studio, a smallish, acoustically designed gallery in the heart of the evolving La Brea Arts District, and the room is filled with bugs. Not insects, thankfully, but a high-tech multimedia installation with six large monoliths containing TV screens that feature animated otherworldly creatures synched with music loops. They look like mutants, and they sound like Moby and Philip Glass collaborating on a soundtrack after a few quick belts at the Star Wars cantina. What better a backdrop for an Os Mutantes audio debut? Unsurprisingly, this listening party/Q&A/performance has drawn a hipster crowd, though not so aggressively trend-fueled as the celebutante-studded Hollywood clubs a mile or so to the north or the Gangnam-style Koreatown salons a mile or so to the east. Tropicália standards from the likes of Jorge Seu and Tom Zé waft out of the speakers as the crowd settles in. Lights go down and a DJ from the local NPR station—who, true to Dias' observation, wasn't around in 1968—jumps onstage to greet the invitees and announce that the listening-party portion of the evening is about to begin.

Oddly enough, for a listening party, not a whole lot of listening ensues. To be sure, no Os Mutantes album could be deemed audio wallpaper, but the chatter and buzz give it a decent run on the dB meter. After about 45 minutes, the playback winds down, the DJ re-ascends the stage and the crowd drops into an expectant hush. Sérgio Dias fields half a dozen questions from the interviewer, who's trying his best not to be starstruck in the presence of one of the deities of neo-psychedelica. Then Dias picks up an acoustic guitar and launches into the new album's opening tune, "The Dream Is Gone." Two or three songs later, he invites a few of his bandmates to join in, closing out the mini-set with a stripped-down version of the paisley-inflected title track from what was supposed to have been the band's fourth release, Tecnicolor, and the years just drop away. The dream is back.

Let's set the Wayback Machine to the year 1964, and the place to São Paulo, Brazil. Brothers Arnaldo Dias Baptista and Sérgio Dias Baptista form the Wooden Faces, the first of several bands that would ultimately coalesce into Os Mutantes.

The history of brothers in rock bands is a checkered one at best, going back to the Everly Brothers; the list of ensuing outfits (save for a few such as AC/DC and Arcade Fire) reads like a who's who of failed family relationships and a litany of lawsuits to boot. Consider the Beach Boys, Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks, the Bee Gees, John and Tom Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Jackson 5, Mark and David Knopfler of Dire Straits, the Stinsons in the Replacements, the Gallaghers in Oasis, to name but a few. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. While the seeds of future conflict were sown in fertile family soil, yet another outside pressure would help shape the band in ways that no one could have predicted.

Just a few hundred miles from where the brothers were honing their craft, Brazil's leftist president João "Jango" Goulart was overthrown—er, resigned—in the spring of 1964. He was replaced by army general Castelo Branco, ushering in 21 years of military dictatorship, supported (at least philosophically and possibly militarily) by the business-friendly, socialist-hating American government.

Traditionally, artists and governments are uneasy partners even in the most harmonious of times, but in the fine tradition of authoritarian regimes since the dawn of history, Brazil's newly installed leaders decided that they needed to vet every single song for lyrical purity. During their reign, more than 800 such compositions were "edited" or banned, and many of the country's most gifted songwriters (including Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque) were routinely harassed by the censors. The period is referred to as the Anos de Chumbo (Years of Lead).

Just as adverse weather conditions stress vines into yielding more flavorful grapes, so did the repression contribute to a renaissance of Brazilian art. In 1967, visual artist Hélio Oiticica organized the "New Brazilian Objectivity" exhibition for Rio de Janeiro's Museum of Modern Art, in which he created an installation entitled "Tropicália," transforming the museum gallery into a kind of favela (a Brazilian slum neighborhood). The exhibition proved to be the linchpin of the Tropicália (or "Tropicalismo") movement that spread across all the arts, including poetry, theater and music.

"It was an interesting time," Dias says. "We were hanging out not only with other musicians, but painters, movie stars, race car drivers ... there was an intense energy to the scene."

Cross-pollination was the order of the day, and Sérgio and Arnaldo glued themselves to the shortwave set, listening to this strange new music called rock 'n' roll on the BBC World Service. "I remember when I first got bit by the pop music bug," Dias says. "I was at my cousin's house and we were listening to Elvis play 'Jailhouse Rock.'" Classical music had long been a huge influence on the brothers—their father was a tenor and their mother a pianist and composer—and the likes of Verdi got dropped into the hopper along with the Beatles, Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, the Four Tops, the Mamas and the Papas, the Stones—all absorbed through the phase-shifted filter of a constantly drifting shortwave signal.

The year 1968 was a watershed time for Os Mutantes; not only did they appear alongside the likes of Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and Caetano Veloso on the Tropicalismo movement's musical manifesto, Tropicália: Ou Panis et Circenses (Bread and Circuses), but they also released their debut eponymous album. True to comedian Martin Mull's oft-quoted assertion that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture," the debut album doesn't yield to easy description. On an impressionistic level, it shares a close kinship with the Who's 1967 masterpiece, The Who Sell Out, herky-jerking through a kaleidoscope of musical motifs, opening with a military- (or perhaps circus-) style brass fanfare before lurching into an ethereal multitracked vocal featuring singer Rita Lee. Reverb gets slathered across the disc like rouge on a hooker. Guitar riffs are fuzz-bombed and driven to distortion, and sound effects—including a laugh track—drop in and out without warning. One track ("Senhor F," which Dias believes is the first song he ever wrote) features his mother on piano and was written in a 7/4 time signature far more suited to Dave Brubeck than Top of the Pops. Maybe Mojo got in the final word on the album's eclecticism when it put Os Mutantes No. 12 on its list of "50 Most Out There Albums," nestled between the Flaming Lips' Zaireeka and the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat.

"You know how when you first start cooking, you put every spice in the kitchen into the dish?" asks Dias. "That's how we were then, completely unafraid, completely experimental. We were making what we thought was rock 'n' roll; how did we know it wasn't like anything else out there?"

By 1969, Brazil's military government had ratcheted up the restrictions on political freedoms, tossing a wrench into the burgeoning Tropicalismo movement. Mutantes collaborators and mentors Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were jailed for several months, freed only after they agreed to leave the country.

"It was nasty," says Dias. "You could see people disappearing around you, and we were right in the center of that movement of art. Several times, people would say to us, 'Don't leave the hotel today, they're going to come to get you.' The way we dealt with it was defiance."

Sometimes that defiance would express itself obliquely, like Dias' coming out onstage in full Napoleonic military regalia, while Lee dressed as a bride and Baptista was garbed in a priest's cassock; other times, the band would obliterate a song's lyrics on record with a burst of noise, only to sing them clearly in concert.

While the era was difficult (and sometimes downright dangerous), Dias looks back on it with a mixture of repugnance and nostalgia. "I think we were very lucky," he says. "Maybe our image was too clean for them to pick us up and do whatever it was they wanted. You know, Rita was blue-eyed, with blond hair, and the rest of us were clean-cut kids who weren't dirty and who didn't dress too weird, so we kind of managed to stay out of trouble. Sometimes only by a step or two, but just enough."

With Tropicalismo's influence on the band waning, Mutantes took a turn toward a more mainstream sound, adding a full-time drummer and bassist to the three-piece core. They cut an album, Tecnicolor, in Paris, hoping to break through to the American market with some English-language re-records of earlier tracks, plus a smattering of new songs. The record languished in the vault unreleased for three decades. Some say the tapes had been misplaced. Others suggest that the band was unhappy with the recording. Five of the album's compositions ultimately surfaced on the band's 1971 release Jardim Elétrico. That same year, singer Rita Lee and Arnaldo Baptista married; it was not to be a long-lived union. Drugs were beginning to take their toll on Arnaldo's psyche, and the marriage—not to mention the band—was headed for rocky shoals.

The final recordings of the "original" band were issued the following year, one under the Os Mutantes banner and one as a Rita Lee "solo" album. In retrospect, perhaps "Balada Do Louco"("Ballad of the Insane") from E Seus Cometas No Pais Do Baurets takes on a little darker meaning, given Arnaldo's mental condition at the time. By the end of 1972, Lee had split from Baptista personally and from Os Mutantes professionally. In Rashomon-like fashion, the only objective truth is that considerable acrimony arose between the one-time soul mates. Lee claims she was kicked out of the group; Arnaldo responds with "Rita Lee put me in the madhouse." Between the departures of both Lee and brother Claudio Baptista, who had built many of the band's instruments and special effects, Arnaldo uncoupled from his emotional moorings, and he left in 1973 after cutting A e o Z, the band's second record in four years to get shelved. Bassist Liminha and drummer Dinho Leme also packed it in, leaving Sérgio Dias in charge of a band that had but one member. He regrouped for one more studio album, then a live record and an EP, the latter two released in 1976. It would be the last music that Os Mutantes would make for 30 years.

By the 1990s, as David Byrne combed Brazil for new/old sounds to reissue on his Luaka Bop label, the legend of Os Mutantes began to percolate into American pop culture. Kurt Cobain famously sent a letter to Arnaldo Baptista, asking if the band might consider reforming to open on Nirvana's 1993 Brazilian tour. Bands like the Flaming Lips and Of Montreal were name-checking them as being among their influences. In 1999, Byrne released a Mutantes compilation called Everything Is Possible!, and it seemed like just about anything was ... except a reunion.

That changed in 2006, with an exhibition at London's Barbican Art Center entitled Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture.

"I kept hearing that it would be weird to have this Tropicalism exhibit without Os Mutantes, and somehow a rumor began that we were going to play there," says Sérgio Dias. "I got an email from Mojo, and radio stations said we were rehearsing (which we weren't), so we started to phone each other and say, 'Hey, what's happening?' At one point, Dinho just said yes, he'd be there, and boom! We were in."

All, that is, except vocalist Rita Lee. Lee's relationship with her ex-bandmates continues to be strained, and barbs were exchanged in the Brazilian press at the time. A double live album, Live at the Barbican Theatre 2006, documented the reunion gig, and was enthusiastically received by both critics and longtime fans (one of whom, Devendra Banhart, contributed backing vocals). The electric charge of that performance was enough to jump-start Os Mutantes as an ongoing concern, though Arnaldo Baptista's health prevented him from rejoining the band on a full-time basis. In 2009, the group released Haih Or Amortecedor, its first new studio album in 35 years, which was hailed by the New York Times' Jon Pareles as "a batty, free-associative mélange of 1960s rock and pop, regional Brazilian traditions, elaborate horn and vocal arrangements and Mr. Dias's fuzz-toned guitar solos."

For 2013's Fool Metal Jack, Sérgio Dias' pen is every bit as sharp as it was during Vietnam's—and the band's—heyday. "I was getting onto a plane in Vegas," he says, "and I saw these kids, Marines in their military uniforms, getting on with me, and I thought, 'They don't have the slightest idea what they're getting into.' Iraq, Afghanistan, there's always going to be a war somewhere, and there's always going to be kids to fight it, but where does it get us? Rome had its wars going back to the time of Caesar, and where is Italy now? Isn't that the same thing that's going on today? Then the words (for the title track) came out, boom-boom-boom."

Scheherazade is dead, was shot in the skies of Baghdad / Magic carpet is gone, crash landed in fire on Ali Baba / Yes, no more war, yes, war

"All those things I felt in the '60s," says Dias, "I still feel now. They still inform my music. I tried to portray what we felt; just open the chest and let it come out."

And after all this time, with so many battles on so many fronts, it's reassuring to know that Os Mutantes is once again out in the trenches, fighting the good fight, soldiering on.

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