Shooting From The Hip: Interview with Sergio Dias of Os Mutantes

Admirable anti-fascist South American hippie, Sergio Dias, gained international acclaim fronting Os Mutantes, rebellious bossa nova-based folk surrealists whose ceremonial Beatles-influenced Tropicalia clashed against politically-empowered authoritarian traditionalists during Brazil’s turbulent late-‘60s uprising. The Sao Paola-raised Dias, alongside percussionist-brother, Arnaldo Baptista, and female singing counterpart, Rita Lee Jones, helped devise an enduring musical style rooted in their country’s cultural heritage and inspired by contemporary absurdist pop.

Credited with being unintentional innovators of cut-n-paste technology, a sample-based technique utilizing electronic affects and tape loops made fashionable by ‘90s hip-hop heads, indie rockers, and bhangra tenets, Os Mutantes have been gloriously resurrected as a newfangled septet under Dias’ direction. Joining him on ‘09’s kaleidoscopic elixir, Haih or Amortecedor (after several post-Mutantes ‘80s solo records) are fellow ‘60s Tropicalia rivals, Tom Ze and (to a much lesser extent) Jorge Ben. Together they’ve updated, modernized, and redirected Tropicalia’s melodic sun-dazed ebullition and trenchant sociopolitical ambitions.

Highly inventive and endlessly lauded, Os Mutantes originally suffered at the hands of Brazil’s oppressive government, which imprisoned, then exiled to Britain in ‘69, esteemed activist musicians, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. In fact, Gil-Veloso’s rejoicing tribal affirmation, “Bat Macumba,” may best represent Os Mutantes, as its distorted guitar bluster, punctual rhythmic core, and catchy titular chorus coalesces past strategic ideas with newer studio elements. Strangely, amidst Brazil’s chaotic unrest and in spite of suffocating military crackdowns, sinisterly hallucinogenic mantra, “Ando Meio Desiglado,” translated as “I Feel A Little Spaced Out,” became their biggest Brazilian hit, despite surreptitiously illustrating marijuana’s narcotic uplift.

Reintroduced via David Byrne’s culturally diverse Luaka Bop label, fabulous ’99 compilation, Everything Is Possible!, definitively captures the distended trio in all its early resplendence. Cryptic bedevilment, “Ave, Lucifer,” and phase-shifting sub-aquatic fugue, “Dia 36,” defy easy categorization. “Baby (1971)” finds redheaded temptress, Rita Lee, purring suggestively above Spanish guitar and cocktail lounge piano. On “Fuga No. 11,” a two-part neo-Classical orchestral, her reverberating multi-tracked coo reaches angelic heights. Elsewhere, a blistering Electric Prunes riff anchors “A Minha Menina,” an enchanting hand-clapped Trini Lopez knockoff entwined with “Peppermint Twist” shout-outs. And the entire ensemble goes percussive on electric-guitar injected escapade “Cantor De Mambo.”

Os Mutantes fans acknowledge ‘72’s Mutantes E Seus Cometas No Pais Do Baurets was inspired by Santana’s Latin rock pyrotechnics. A few follow-up releases, continuing through to ’78, leaned evermore towards prog-rock ‘til Dias pulled the plug and began a prolific solo career beneath American radio’s tenuous narrow radar. Spurred to reunite by a new audience that included Beck and the Flaming Lips, Dias’ newly transformed Os Mutantes began appearing live in ‘06, receiving rave reviews.

Listening to Haih, it’s easy to relish these morphed mutants unexpected reawakening 40 years beyond their ‘60s commencement. Commanding cinematic opener, “Querida Querida,” offers fiery rock-driven six-string combustion and a busy cymbal/hi-hat groove to juxtapose the silent-loud acoustic-electric exchanges permeating musty catacomb, “Teclar.” Operatic gypsy folk diva, Bia Mendes, quick-spits rhymes opposite Dias on delightfully obtuse circus-like Vaudevillian scamper, “2000 E Agarrum.” Chanted organ-droned samba, “O Careca,” poses as smooth jazz fusion and lovely summer retreat, “Anagrama,” sung by Mendes in a windswept mezzo-soprano, betters sentimental campfire lullaby “O Mensageiro.” Wispy soul-injected calypso, “Neurociencia,” gives salsa a psych-induced boost.

Beginning with a pithily offbeat version of “New York New York,” the rapturous South American crew held court for a sold out Webster Hall audience, October ‘09. Their captivating musical celebrations were delivered in a fun loving smiley-faced manner wherein the combo felt completely at ease. Dias, the delighted, ripened, 58-year-old minister of Tropicalia, jokingly blamed the audience for demanding his reunion and comeback tour “35 years later.” Dressed in a scarf, long black coat, and knee-length boots, Dias strummed acoustic guitar, got electric for a few psychedelicized moments, and urged his minions to “get high” and enjoy some music.

Chipper harmonic exchanges between Dias and Mendes brightened the melancholic sentiments. Her operatic theatricality, wide-eyed facial expressions, and sassy sensuality deepened lounge-pop relaxants as well as surreal Beatles-informed rock. A few swaying bossa nova ballads drifted gorgeously into floral sun-parched romanticism. They even saluted Prez Obama with a catchy Latin cha-cha.

I spoke to Dias a few days after Os Mutantes’ invigorating Webster Hall show.

You’ve never lost your political edge. Clarinet-fluttered espionage blues investigation, ‘Baghdad Blues,’ takes Saddam Hussein to task.

We always talk about things we see. The idea we had with Scheherazade and 1,001 Nights was basically what Baghdad was beforehand, flying carpets and all. Then you have so much destruction and ugliness. It’s a big loss to have Baghdad’s culture, the cradle of mankind, be devastated. I understand what it’s like in dictatorships because I was in Brazil. But the U.S. has lost world respect since the Kennedy coup d’etat. When he died, Brazilian students went home from school for three days of mourning. I was 12. That’s the respect America was given. This wouldn’t happen now due to the overseas American policies. The fears and troubles America went through after World War II with Stalin and Communism pushed people to react. Brazil’s a sub-product. The coup d’etat we suffered was staged by Brazilian military and American government. America was unprepared to deal with a Cuban crisis the size of Brazil.

I understand the fear during nuclear proliferation but Baghdad’s not that kind of threat. The Gulf War is sadly more economical than political. Oil. Sometimes you’re accepted by another country, but America can’t force that. It’s worrisome due to negative antagonistic aspects. Everyone wants to be respected and America’s in a tight position. At the end of Haih, we merge the U.S., Russian, and Brazilian National Anthems to remind people how it was when the U.S. had a match in terms of the world chessboard. Kennedy blockaded Cuba, snubbing Kruschev, who helped stop Nazi invasion but wanted foreign missiles. Much was at stake. There was a world threat. Now, I don’t think force is the best way to spread idealism.

Almost coincidentally, Dylan went electric when Os Mutantes concocted ‘60’s Tropicalia. These revolutionary maneuvers were, at first, misunderstood. Worse, Brazil’s government exiled several promising artists.

Dylan’s problems weren’t as menacing as being tortured, getting deported, or my father being arrested working for a politician. Viet Nam was difficult, but men drifted into Canada as protest. In Brazil, if you insult the government, you die. After the Cold War, America had to deal with this crescendo of nuclear power, guns, and war. My first Casio organ was $200 but the price of technology came down. It’s the same with weapons. It’s not healthy how Israel is armed against Arab states. Third World countries need stability and look up to America’s leadership. When America thwarted the French Revolution and rid the grip of Britain, Lafayette returned to France and Jefferson’s ideas got deeply rooted in the French community. It created history much like ‘60s music did.

What’s ‘Samba Do Fidel’ about? It’s Latin percussion, vibes and plinked piano create a red-hot Cuban rhythm.

We were in Miami when Fidel Castro fell ill. So there was a party happening. In reality, the song’s about the Brazilian government. It’s more political-oriented being that football still runs the country. They have elections the same year as the World Cup. It’s like a circus.

Explain the silly impromptu ditty you did about Obama at Webster Hall.

Obama’s already part of Brazilian folklore—Obama superstar. The poor guy just entered the kitchen and he has to cook with the instruments he’s been given. It’s great and liberating, an Afro-American in power. But so far, we have no idea what he wants to do. So I sang, ‘Obama, oh please, help us.’ There’s starving Third World people. What’s he gonna do? It was spontaneous.

Where’d you find exhilarating singer, Bia Mendes?

I’ve known her for 20 years. She sang backup for Rita Lee but lacked the license to kill which I gave her. I had to push her to center stage where she shines. It’s beautiful to see someone bloom in that way.

Her counterpoint on ‘2000 E Agarrum’ is truly remarkable.

It’s an answer to ‘2001,’ a song we did with Tom Ze. He’s my new partner for this album. We decided to do ‘2002.’ When I counterpoint her, I’m invoking bossa legend, Dorival Caymmi, Brazil’s BB King. It’s a very famous trademark song of his so it’s a big collage.

What were Tom Ze’s general contributions?

The lyrics. I met him in 2006 when we did our first comeback Brazilian show. We invited him onstage to do ‘2001.’ He’s very active and we became like peanut butter and jelly—one of my best collaborators. When we started in the ‘60s I was 17. There was a huge seven-year age gap. I wouldn’t know how to talk to him. That’s no longer an issue. Songs flowed easily.

Was Gilberto Gil a mentor?

He had the Brazilian traditionalist style whereas Os Mutantes were into rock and roll forged through Tropicalia and technology. In terms of contributions to the movement, he was more tropical sounding. Gil’s a genius and probably enabled me to do a song like ‘2000 E Agarrum’ due to his influence. On the other hand, he now plays electric instead of acoustic. It’s like a marriage. Who influences more, the husband or wife?

How much of an influence were the Beatles?

Beatlemania was very strong in Brazil. First time I heard ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand,’ I immediately cut my hair like theirs. I wanted to be a Beatle and was in love with their amazing music. George is my Beatle. It took five tries to watch Concert For George. I was sobbing. He was part of my life that went away. An artists’ life is hard, being bombarded with so much. People expect so much then suddenly you’re dust like George Harrison or Ray Charles. Why didn’t the world stop when Ray Charles died? He invented Soul. His rendering of the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ were perfect. Paul McCartney must’ve been on his knees thanking God for Ray bringing those songs to Earth.