'60s rebels jump back into music


July 23, 2006


Though the actual drugs the musicians so fancifully sang about may not have been as readily available elsewhere, the psychedelic explosion that swept rock 'n' roll in 1966-67 wasn't confined to the United States or England. Inspired by the way artists such as the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and the Byrds used the recording studio to transport listeners to strange new worlds that existed only in the space between the headphones, young rock bands embraced the spirit of imagination inherent in psychedelia in countries such as Germany, France, Japan -- and Brazil.

Os Mutantes came together in Sao Paulo in 1966 around the trio of bassist, keyboardist and vocalist Arnaldo Baptista; his girlfriend, singer Rita Lee; and his younger brother, guitarist-vocalist Sergio Dias (Baptista). The group would release five albums before Lee departed in 1972, joining peers such as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Tom Ze as leading lights of Brazil's Tropicalia movement. Its music never made much of an impact in America during the band's heyday, but it would be rediscovered in a big way during the alternative-rock years, with Kurt Cobain begging Os Mutantes to reform in 1993; Beck paying tribute with the song "Tropicalia" from 1998's "Mutations" album; and former Talking Head David Byrne releasing the critically acclaimed compilation "Everything Is Possible! The Best of Os Mutantes" on his Luaka Bop label in 1999.

Now, 38 years after the release of the band's self-titled debut, Os Mutantes have reunited, and they are gearing up to perform in the United States for the first time next weekend at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park.

"It's amazing, and it's something I can't really explain," Dias recently said from his home in Brazil. "It's a hell of a good thing to be able to see that music can happen without any of the marketing machine, because all of this is happening without any effort by us because of songs we did 30 years ago. We didn't contact anyone; we didn't try to make it happen or do any stunts. The songs just hit the right people, and people started to listen, and that was it. It's a great message for the kids -- that maybe they don't need all the Hollywood thing after all."

As befits a band whose name is Portuguese for "the Mutants," Os Mutantes gleefully combined elements of classical, folk, bouncy British Invasion pop, searing psychedelic rock and -- often with tongue-in-cheek -- the traditional South American sounds of samba and bossa nova. It's hard to listen to albums such as "Os Mutantes" and "Divina Comedia" (1970) without thinking that their creators had to be tripping. (The independent label Light in the Attic has just reissued all eight original albums; visit www.lightintheattic.net.) But Dias insisted that drugs were never part of the mix.

"When we started the first album, which was released in 1968, there was no LSD or drugs in Brazil at that time, and even through the fifth album" -- 1972's "Mutantes e Seus Cometas no Pais do Baurets" ("Mutants and Its Comets in the Parents of the Baurets") -- "there was nothing happening in terms of what was going on with Jimi Hendrix or anybody like that. It didn't exist in our environment -- we just heard the songs. The great thing about Brazil in that era is that when you guys in America were having the peace and war of the '60s, we only got the peace part."

But things weren't exactly idyllic in Brazil in the late '60s and early '70s. The country experienced a right-wing military coup in 1964, and in its wake, the secret police frowned upon any hint of a burgeoning youth movement, including strange sounds such as those made by the Tropicalistas. "There was a lot of division, because you were either a Communist or right-wing," Dias said. "There was no choice, but we were none of that! [They assumed] we were Communists because we were playing crazy stuff and had long hair, yet we were like the Americans, because we were playing with guitars!"

Simply playing in a rock band was a political act.

"We were hassled all the time, and we had a lot of censorship. Many times, we were tracked by the Gestapo Brazilian police, the DOPs [Departamento de Operacoes Internas], saying that we were going to be arrested. There was always some kind of advisor saying, 'OK, don't leave the hotel today, because otherwise you guys are going to be kidnapped.' Sometimes we had to stop the show and leave, because there was going to be a raid. My father was arrested and several songs of ours were censored, but instead of changing the words, we mutilated them by putting a noise on top of it."

Veloso and Gil both spent several months in jail for "anti-government activity" in 1968, and upon their release, they were forced to live in exile in London. But Dias said Os Mutantes never thought of relocating or quitting music. "I think that because we were so young, we had that sense of immortality and indestructibility; you really believe in Superman, and that's how we were! We always just fought back. I think we were very lucky that we never got arrested, but we had too much of a clean image. Caetano [Veloso] had more of a dirty image, and he was older, so they used some excuse to arrest him. They said they arrested him because he played the national anthem in his show, but I was actually the one that played it, so I'm guilty of putting him in jail! I don't know if he's forgiven me, but I think so [laughs]."

Although Os Mutantes were by far stranger-sounding and -looking than many of their fellow Tropicalistas, their lyrics were never directly political -- in fact, they were often purely gonzo. "Lately, I feel a little spaced out / Can't even feel my feet on the ground / I look and I see nothing / Can only think of whether you care," the group sings in "Ando Meio Desligado (I Feel a Little Spaced Out)," while "Ave, Lucifer (Hail, Lucifer)" opens with the memorable lines, "The apples / Surround the naked bodies / In this river which runs / Inside my still veins." (It sounds better in Portuguese.)

While the band always had less of a signature sound than a predictably schizophrenic approach, its best recordings revolve around two sonic signatures. One is Dias' strange and inventive guitar playing, made even weirder by the homemade sound effects built by "the fourth Mutante," Claudio Cesar, and which the group still uses today. The other was Lee's breathy and incredibly sexy singing. Unfortunately, she is not taking part in the reunion.

"When Rita left the band in 1972, I remember arriving at Arnaldo's place, and her saying she was just not going to keep on," Dias said. I personally think that it was because they were sweethearts, and they were married later; it was probably some Romeo and Juliet situation -- things from the heart. But we Brazilians are very passionate, so she left the band. We were always together. Still, we would be playing and she would come up and join us, but she pursued a more pop-oriented career, and she was a huge hit in Brazil. When we got together [for the reunion], the first thing I did was e-mail her, because she's one of the Mutantes! But she declined and said that she has turned into a grandmother and had to take care of the grandchild. I don't think she was ready for it."

To replace Lee, Os Mutantes turned to a young woman named Zelia Dunkan, who joins Dias, Baptista, drummer Dinho and bassist Liminha (who both joined in 1971) and five additional musicians who will add an array of instruments from flute to cello to percussion. "I love this lineup, and Zelia is outrageous," Dias said. "It was very magical, because I met Zelia only three months before all of this thing happened, and we just fell in love with each other musically. It was as if we were together for 30 years."

Channeling the spirit of vintage Os Mutantes was just like riding a bike, Dias claimed: The sound and the vibe came back almost instantly.

"It is lovely, because I'm playing using all of the equipment I used then, and getting all these same sounds. The great thing is that most of the time when you see something that you wrote or did a long time before, you say, 'Eh, I could have done better.' But, God, we did all this stuff when we were so young, and every time I hear it, I say, 'F---! How the hell did I do that thing?' It's amazing. There is no way to change or bend the songs or the solos, because they were perfect. I'm basically just redoing it, but at the same time, it's really refreshing for me, because I'm 55 now, and I'm listening to myself at 15 or 16, and it sounds brand new and just feels really, really amazing."