If you don’t know Os Mutantes (oz-moo-TOHN-cheese), do me a favor: go to Austin’s La Zona Rosa on Sunday, October 18, at 9 pm. Buy the ticket now, going to gettix.com. Trust me. I know, it's in Austin. But go.
If you know Os Mutantes, you don’t need me to tell you who they are.
“For years, it was the only thing I listened to,” said Beck, who dedicated a song (‘Tropicália’) and named an album (Mutations) after them. Kurt Cobain reportedly (and unsuccessfully) begged them to open for Nirvana in Brazil, and David Byrne (another big fan) released the first-ever Mutantes compilation in 1999 (Everything Is Possible! The Best of Os Mutantes, in Luaka Bop). That compilation was followed by Tecnicolor, a an all-English album recorded in 1970, lost, found in 1994, and finally released in 2000 by Universal.
The influential band (which mixes psychedelia, rock, bossa, forró and whatever else happens to be in their heads) has just released Haih or Amortecedor (co-written with the great Tom Zé), their first studio album in 35 years, and are kicking ass nationwide (last I checked, the old farts were number one in the CMJ charts, but who cares).
Sergio Dias (vocals, guitar) is the only founding member to be in Austin, and Dinho Leme (who joined in 1971) will be at the drums. Most of the others joined in 2006, the year the band revived (Os Mutantes had a first run in 1968-78): Bia Mendes (vocals), Henrique Peters (keyboards), Fabio Recco (keyboards), Vinicius Junqueira (bass), and Vitor Trida (flute, guitar).
On September 17, the Current spoke on the phone to founder Dias, who was in Henderson, Nevada.
Sergio Dias (bottom left) with Os Mutantes 2009.
Haih... or Amortecedor... Their first album in 35 years.
Why did it take you guys 35 years for a new album? It’s life… It’s a life thing, you know? I could never imagine I could be here with Mutantes again, playing. I’ve never foreseen this thing coming. It was planned by life. I don’t have an explanation for it. What I saw is, basically, that our music outlasted us and somehow it became necessary for us to be alive and playing again, so we had to come out of hibernation to come back and start making new music.
Os Mutantes is one of the few non-English bands that enjoy a cult following in the US. Did it start with the Luaka Bop compilation or with Tecnicolor? I don’t know, I have no idea. When David Byrne called me [for Luaka Bop’s 1999 Everything Is Possible! The Best of Os Mutantes], saying that he wanted to make a compilation, I suggested a few songs, and that was it. And even when Tecnicolor came out in America, I had no idea, and I didn’t know it had reached people [in America]. I thought it was just a thing of re-releasing the Mutantes albums on CD in Brazil.
Americans were the last to embrace the Beatles, it took them forever… But with Os Mutantes, it all seems like instant love. Yeah! It’s amazing. And this new album [unlike Tecnicolor] is all in Portuguese. We could have tried to “aim to the American market,” but we wanted to be true to ourselves and the music came out in Portuguese. I was writing with Tom Zé and all this stuff, so it’s so rich in terms of lyrics. But it is great because people are listening to these songs in Portuguese and they’re joining the party! It’s beautiful to see this. Even the bossa nova [in the ’60] had to be translated, and now it is amazing, because Portuguese… There’s not too many people who speak the language, but it is such a musical language and so pretty… And people at our shows don’t get tired, they drink it, it’s a beautiful thing to see.
With all due respect to your different lineups throughout the years, I feel the trio format with Rita Lee is the most representative one. When I think of Os Mutantes, I see Rita Lee in it. Is that ok? That was the beginning, for sure, and [that lineup] was the most representative thing. I stopped Mutantes in ’78 or ’79 because the people that was in the band had no idea anymore what the band was about. I felt I wouldn’t be able to keep on going under that name, and it would’ve felt hypocritical continuing like that.
Does that include you? You had no idea either? Or you knew but couldn’t find the right partners? I had a complete idea, I knew what it was all about. But the guys who entered the band had no idea anymore what it really meant to be a Mutante.
What is it, then? Explain it to me. First of all, it’s freedom from the system. We’re not status quo, we never, like, sold a million records, we don’t have a golden album… We’re underground. And some of the cats there were trying to be a star and silly things like that. And that has nothing to do with being in Os Mutantes. Popularity and money has to be a consequence, never an aim.
Do you keep in touch with Rita? What did you think when she became a great pop star on her own after Mutantes? I loved her, but did you vomit or you also liked her? Her change was so radical... No, no, no, no way! Many times she asked me to do things with her and I always did. She’s my sister and I love her dearly, she’s part of my life. After we decided to put the band together for the Barbicon [Theatre, London, 2006], I sent her an email immediately. She declined it, but the doors are wide open to any of the early guys from Os Mutantes. It was her decision to pursue another kind of career. Actually, I should say “to pursue a career,” because Os Mutantes is not a career, but a state of mind.
The first half of the new album is probably Os Mutantes at its craziest and smells Tom Zé all over it. Tell me exactly what was Zé’s participation. Well… It was amazing. When we finally came to Brazil a year after the reunion, we played in São Paulo in an immense show for free for 90,000 people. Tom Zé was there and came up and sang two songs that he did with us before, ‘2001’ [‘Dois Mil e Um’] and ‘Qualquer Bobagem.’ We had totally parallel lives. I met Tom when I was 16, 17 years-old, so I could never even speak to the guy; the age gap was immense at that time. When we got together this time, we spoke. He’s such a genius. I told him, ‘Let’s do music together,’ and he immediately said “Yes!” He became probably the best partner I ever had in terms of writing. The things that we did together were so easy, as if we were part of each other. It was a beautiful thing to do and he became a major part in terms of writing now.
Let’s talk about some of the songs in the album. Where did ‘Gopal Krishna Om’ come from? I’m a big fan of Indian devotional music, but this is like a kirtan from hell! [loud laugh] I studied a while with Ravi Shankar, during the ’70s…
Indian music in general or sitar? Sitar. He came to Brazil and I went to meet him. I told him I wanted to learn. I think he saw in my eyes that I was not kidding, so he asked me to come to his hotel, and I arrived there and there was a bunch of journalists, and he sent everybody away. “I have an appointment now with this gentleman,” he said. I was a kid! We started speaking music. I brought my acoustic guitar, and he saw I was serious. So he started to give me classes, and he sent me a sitar as a gift. That was a very important thing in my life. The first sitar-playing there is in Brazil is in ‘Balada do louco,’ that we did in Mutantes. All the Indian music was always a constant in myself, especially the mystical side of it. The thread of life that made it possible for Mutantes to come back, it is a weird thing. That triggered somehow this more mystical part of myself. The lyrics are in Portuguese, Sanskrit and English. I have a book that has the Sanskrit and the English, so I used it to translate and make a collage with the lyrics. It’s a very pretty song, but it is also very dense. It’s part of us.
‘Samba do Fidel’ has so much stuff in it. You make fun of los argentinos… [laughs] Sí, sí, of course…!
And Fidel [Castro], Hugo Chávez, México… It’s endless. We were in Miami when Fidel fell ill. We didn’t know what was going on, because everybody was using firecrackers, everybody was screaming on the streets, we didn’t know what was happening. So we started playing around and saying “Me encantaría saber cómo está Fidel…” (I’d like to see how Fidel is), because everybody was saying Fidel was killed… “Por qué el hermano no me dice nada?…(Why his brother doesn’t tell me anything?) “Dígame Fidelito Cuba libre ya (Tell me, Little Fidel, Cuba libre now)… [keeps on laughing]
Caipirinha-fueled stream-of-consciousness cha-cha… It makes no sense but it’s perfect! We make a joke about how the Spanish language sounds to Brazilian years. Like the "cueca cuela…" Which is all wrong, and the Argentineans… “Seremos todos argentinos/seremos entonces sin amor/siempre serán las Malvinas.. mandingas de amor…”
Maradona… Maradona! “Adiós a los tangos de Maradona…” (Goodbye to the tangos of Maradona) “Estoy emborrachado en tequila” (I’m drunk on tequila)
Do you play it live? Sure!
You have one foot in rock and another one in Tropicalía. Where do you fit in the big picture of Brazilian pop music? I have no idea [laughs]. Our thing is a kaleidoscope, a bit of everything. That’s the beautiful thing of Brazil: such a mix of people and everything. This is reflected in our music a lot.
But is Os Mutantes Sergio Dias, or are you a band? We’re a band, for sure. I would not be able to do this album by myself. If you listen to my solo albums, they’re completely different. This is a total collaboration. It it wasn’t like this I wouldn’t even contemplate the possibility of being a part of this band. My solo music is completely different. There’s jazz albums, one in South Africa after I fell in love with the music there, a rock album I did for Brazil… Another one with Phil Manzanera, another one is very pop… I have many faces, always mutating, even in my solo career.
The world has changed a lot since the late ’60s, when you started your recording career with Os Mutantes. You’ve seen it all, musically and politically. What do you see now? There’s a new beautiful political and social party that’s taking over, and it’s the internet. It’s pure anarchy, pure freedom, and it’s fantastic to see. We’re so happy to see this new idea of communication. Somehow is what we dreamed of before, when we were kids: that science fiction-like idea of one government, no countries, one flag, and going to space like in Star Trek. Somehow this is happening, and there is no language, there’s no barriers, or customs. It’s beautiful to see. It’s an entity of its own. Beyond frontiers, beyond languages. I think this is the most important thing that is happening now. It’s great to see this embryo, the need for the young kids and the human kids to communicate beyond what they’re allowed to. Who can have the power to allow anybody to do or not do something? We’re free, and that needs to be celebrated. Just like our show. The celebration of being young and rebellious is the most important character of the human race. Of course, there’s a lot of hurt and bad situations, because we are made of good and evil. But this is what we are. It would be hypocritical to say, “OK, from now on, nobody is going to eat meat anymore,” or whatever. We’re a huge kaleidoscope. Take Brazil, for example, and India. They’re so different. The values in Brazil and the values in India, and the values in Oxford… They’re totally different. Yet, we’re all the same. When people realize the importance of… How can I say it? It’s a hard one… The importance of the feeling, besides the importance of the rest of the economical and personal aspirations. We’re evolving and we’re so young still. We’re like crazy kids who were thrown into a planet and who make a bunch of mistakes and a bunch of good things at the same time. Kids are the most merciless people in the world. If a kid finds another kid who is fat, he points to him and says, “You’re fat, your ugly!” There’s no barriers, no censorship. We’re embryos in the universe.
Have you played in Texas before? Yes! I played there many times, with Airto [Moreira] and Flora [Purim]. I love Texas.
You do?? Texas has that raw, beautiful thing. The whole idea of being a Lone Star, that’s a fantastic thing in America. The identity of Texas… I’ve been in Houston a lot, and visiting San Antonio will be a fantastic thing. To be closer to the real Texans and try to remember the Alamo… [laughs]
Please do! My and my wife… We’re trying to support Obama, so I bought a huge American car… [laughs] A Lincoln town car, and after the tour we’ll go to the places we want to, with more time to spend and explore, just being with the people. That’s the best thing. We love you. That’s all we do. We’re so grateful to all these people that care about Mutantes. All we can say is that we love you and we’ll give you 150% or 210%, if we can.