Os Mutantes – Long Players
October 21, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Big Issue #339, October 2009.
Nearly four decades after they hung up their guitar straps – along with the anarchic creative vision of Brazil’s Tropicalia movement – legendary Sao Paulo ensemble Os Mutantes have re-imagined popular music yet again.
To describe Sergio Dias Baptista as young at heart would border on understatement. Throughout today’s encounter, the 57-year-old founder of iconoclastic Brazilian Tropicalia outfit Os Mutantes is all giggles and good times.
“I feel indestructible!” he hollers down the phone, breaking into a manic cackle.
“The body is one thing and the mind is another and your soul is definitely another thing, and to be able not to get old in your mind and your soul is the most important thing that a human being has to do. You must cherish the child inside of you.”
Chatting from his home in Sao Paulo, Dias Baptista has good reason to be upbeat. Having reformed he and his brother Arnaldo’s band in 2006 for what they thought was a one-off performance at London’s Barbican, this month sees the release of Haih or Amortecedor, Os Mutantes’ first studio album since 1974.
“I think we have the obligation to be happy,” he rambles on. “When you’re a kid it’s very easy to be happy, but then when you grow up – so many ordeals and so many losses and things – life is hard, but I believe honestly that you have the obligation to be a really happy person and to keep looking for the positives. That’s how you make things happen.”
It’s an attitude that typifies the Os Mutantes story. Having formed in 1966 under the reign of Brazil’s military dictatorship, the Sao Paulo group – a trio consisting of the Baptista brothers and Arnaldo’s partner and vocalist Rita Lee – rose to become unlikely pillars of rebellious, free-thinking Tropicalia movement sweeping Brazil’s artistic and musical underground.
At a time in which Brazil’s cultural identity found itself on a short governmentally enforced leash, the Tropicalia movement (also known as Tropicalismo), led by singer Gilberto Gil and composer Caetano Veloso, proved a direct affront to notions of cultural unilaterality. Channelling a global palette of musical aesthetics – from African rhythmic structures, funk and soul all the way though to psychedelic rock and the avant-garde tape loops and sound explorations of musique concrete – the movement offered an outwardly political and distinctly internationalist rethinking of Brazilian culture. Suffice to say, government agencies recognised Tropicalia as such a threat that by 1969, founders Gil and Veloso were arrested with no charge and exiled to Britain.
“It was a very hard situation,” recounts Dias Baptista. “I mean, my father was a poet and a politician and he was arrested when I was only 13. I didn’t know why; I couldn’t understand it. He was beaten and almost died in prison.”
Nonetheless, as young artists in Sao Paulo, the political climate proved something of a windfall. “It was a very healthy environment for creativity because you had to fight back,” he says.
“For a kid, that’s the best situation, like, ‘Defy me, and I will kick your ass’. We were denied so many times. It was like ‘You cannot use electric guitars in Brazilian music, you cannot do this, you cannot do that’ and we were like ‘What? Look at us then!’.”
Os Mutantes’ rebellious music took off, the group’s dynamic blend of abrasive hard rock guitars, playful rhythms and noise-drenched pop experimentation garnering young fans across the breadth of Brazil. “We were just mutilating the music, you know,” laughs Dias Baptista. “We were more anarchists than anything.”
Records such as their self-titled 1968 debut and 1969 follow-up Mutantes went onto become signposts for the genre. But by the early 70s, Os Mutantes’ freewheeling ethos – and more specifically, Arnaldo’s penchant for hallucinogenic drugs – had brought them to a virtual standstill. The band fell out in 1974 and, soon after, Arnaldo was institutionalised.
“The acid and the ordeals Arnaldo went through in life were very hard on him. He and Rita broke up and when he left Mutantes, it was probably a very traumatic thing for him, being one of the original founders. I always asked him ‘please return’ but he never did, and it basically got to a point where we started to have different lives.”
While Sergio attempted to keep some semblance of the band together, continuing to work with a new line-up, he disbanded the group in 1978 and moved to the US to start career as a session guitarist.
But while Os Mutantes drifted further apart, their legacy only grew. Throughout the 90s early early 2000s, the likes of Nirvana, Beck and David Byrne all publicly sung the group’s praises. When London’s Barbican Art Centre approached the former band to play at the opening to their Tropicalia exhibition in 2006, Os Mutantes’ fate was sealed.
“Once you try so hard to get the fire to catch, it really starts to happen,” says Dias Baptista. “If you tell a lie and so many people tell the lie then it becomes the truth.”
Indeed, following their performance at the Barbican, the brothers went onto play a sold-out string of concerts throughout the US and plant seeds for Haih or Amortecedor. While Arnaldo was unable to continue on due health reasons, Sergio enlisted a new line-up, including fellow Tropicalia composer Tom Ze, to help keep Os Mutantes’ dream alive.
“From the first day we got back together in 2006, I said that we had to do a new album, otherwise it just wouldn’t make any sense,” he says.
And if the elliptical sounds of Haih or Amortecedor are anything to go by, Os Mutantes aren’t resting on their reputation.
“I didn’t just want to drink on the milk that we had already made. That would be disgusting to me,” says Dias Baptista. “It’s very important for anybody who is doing a kind of comeback to create something concrete and real and to put your face out there to be slapped.”
“And it’s a beautiful thing, you know,” he pauses. “It was as if we were surfing this perfect wave when we were kids, and now, we’re basically back surfing that same wave and it’s fantastic.”
by Dan Rule
Haih or Amortecedor is out now through ANTI-/Shock