[This piece ran in the Scene on 9/23, but I forgot to post it last week.]
Os Mutantes get darker on their first album in 35 years
Guitarist Sérgio Dias formed Os Mutantes in the mid-'60s with his brother Arnaldo Baptista and singer Rita Lee. They recorded six studio albums (one of which, Tecnicolor, went unreleased until 2000) before Lee departed. Baptista followed her out the door a year later, leaving Dias to keep the band going until 1978 with one more studio album, an EP and a live disc. Then there was nothing, until a 2006 reunion concert at London's Barbican Arts Centre, which led to more shows in major U.S. cities. The excitement following that wave of performances has led to a new lineup, a new album Haih Or Amortecedor and a new tour.
In the early days, Os Mutantes were part of Tropicália, a Brazilian cultural movement that encompassed poetry, visual art, theater and a mini-wave of psychedelic rock bands and singer-songwriters like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. But a military coup had put a new government in power in 1964, and Tropicália, which mixed avant-garde art with radical politics, didn't sit well with the dictatorship. Veloso and Gil were both exiled from their homeland in 1969, unable to return until 1972. Other artists were forced into mental hospitals or even tortured. A lot has changed. Tropicália artists are now revered as kings of Brazilian music. From 2003 to 2008, Gil was Brazil's minister of culture.
According to Dias, the military government influenced the Brazilian record industry. "There was no interference from the government, no open censorship, but the worst thing the military government left in Brazil was the corruption," he says. "And that was very, very bad. Payola and all of this. And [among] the major record companies, there was no competition. They had a society where they talked to each other. So if you were an artist and you didn't do what one company wanted, you couldn't just go to another company. They would all close the door to you."
At this point, Dias has no plans to release Haih Or Amortecedor in Brazil. If he does, it may be through a mobile phone company rather than a label "because everybody's just downloading everything on the Internet. Behind the façade of 'This is all free, this is beautiful, this is the way it's supposed to be,' the artist needs to receive something for what they do, or they will not survive and will not make a second album. I'm not even talking about for Mutantes, but for new groups that are coming out. We're in a transition point now, to find out what will be the correct way of commercializing your product, so everybody gains out of it."
The early Mutantes albums combined the essential lightheartedness of much Brazilian music with the experimentation of the Beatles' most psychedelic work and the funk grooves of Sly Stone. Though there was a political edge to songs like "Panis et Circenses (Bread and Circuses)," the music's dominant spirit was one of youthful energy and fun; the cover of their second album, Mutantes, depicts the core trio onstage, smiling broadly. Haih Or Amortecedor, by contrast, is darker and more explicitly political, featuring songs with titles like "Baghdad Blues" and "Samba do Fidel." Its cover features a black-and-white photo of a raven, gazing balefully at the camera.
"I was in France and I was pestering the hell out of this crow," recalls Dias. "He was lazy, he never flew off. He was just walking and walking, and then he looked at me and I could get this picture like, 'You're next.' We're not such a lightweight band anymore. We're pretty intense. And I think the look of this raven says a lot."
He sees a connection between the savagery of the raven's black, emotionless eye and the concept of anthropophagi that was central to Tropicália — cannibalizing all societies, all cultures, and creating something unique from the mixture. "It's good to have a bird of prey there. It lets people know that we're not just kidding."
Even if he's the last man standing from the '60s incarnation of Os Mutantes, Dias sees himself as a man on a mission. "I don't see the point of stopping the band now, especially after all that's happened. If Arnaldo [Baptista] decides to leave, what can I do? It's like if you're in a foxhole and your brother-in-arms falls, you don't just surrender. I have a responsibility to these [new fans], that's how I feel. After playing all these places in the world and being received how we were, the least I can do is release new music."