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."