On July 21st, Brazilian psychedelic legends Os Mutantes, once known for their outrageous multimedia spectacles, will reunite for their first tour since 1973. The shows will be the first ever in the U.S. for the group.
“Anyone calling themselves the Mutants feels like our brothers,” says Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, who will share the stage with the Mutantes during their July 23rd performance at the Hollywood Bowl.
While founding singer Rita Lee will not perform — “I bless this Mutantes reunion,” she chimed in over e-mail, “but I’m not in the mood to get back into the past” — brothers Arnaldo and Sergio Dias Baptista and drummer Ronaldo “Dinho” Leme will be joined by a sextet of musicians.
Founded in 1965 in Sao Paulo by the teenage Baptistas and Rita Lee, who later married Arnaldo, the trio quickly became local television stars. “They’re still kids, and they play astonishingly well — and they know everything,” producer-arranger Rogerio Duprat, who later served as their George Martin, remarked at the time. “It can’t be true!”
Through Duprat’s introduction, the band became involved in tropicalia, a burgeoning artistic movement formed in reaction to the military dictatorship that seized control of Brazil in a 1964 coup d’etat. The Mutantes’ subsequent albums combined joyous mop-top harmonies, sound collages, orchestral flourishes and Brazilian rhythms.
“We were well-informed,” says Sergio. The sons of a local politician/poet/tenor and a composer mother, the young Baptistas were exposed to an array of culture, from technology to popular American and British music. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was the Beatles who stuck.
“In ‘Le Premier Bonheur Du Jour’ [on 1968’s Os Mutantes], we didn’t know that you could reverse tapes,” Sergio recalls. “We listened to the fffffft, fffffft, fffffft sounds that the Beatles had, and we wanted to do the same. So we got one of those manual insecticide pumps and filled it with water. We destroyed the fucking Neumann microphones.” At their upcoming U.S. shows, he adds, “we’re gonna play with the pumps!”
In December 1968, after passing an act that limited free speech in the media, the Brazilian government arrested and eventually exiled Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, two of tropicalia’s leading musicians. “We were always under threat of being kidnapped or being tortured,” Baptista recalls. “It was very heavy. The reactions happened because . . . we were long-haired guys. We were playing guitars.”
By the early 1970s, the government allowed Veloso and Gil to return, but drugs and chaos had taken a toll on the Mutantes. Rita Lee and Arnaldo broke up and soon left the band to pursue respective solo careers. Sergio continued under the Mutantes name until 1978. “I just couldn’t change myself to become something that I wasn’t,” he explains. “I was a Mutante. So I kept on.”
Rita Lee became one of Brazil’s leading rock singers. Plagued by mental health problems, Arnaldo managed to record several solo albums, before severely injuring himself in 1982 escaping from a psychiatric hospital. Sergio continues to record, operating a studio in Sao Paulo, and lived in the United States for a time, working with former Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera.
In 1993, the Mutantes famously rejected a personal request from Kurt Cobain to perform with Nirvana. Other hipster devotees, including David Byrne and Beck, will be happy to see them, now that they’re finally performing Stateside. Beck purportedly named his 1998 album Mutations — with its lead single, “Tropicalia” — in tribute to Os Mutantes. And Byrne issued the pioneers’ Everything Is Possible anthology on his own Luaka Bop label, which will be releasing an expanded edition this September. New music from the reformed group, Sergio suggests, may follow.
And it may be time for a tropicalia revival. Bread and Circuses, a Mutantes documentary, is in the works, and the Mutantes’ May 22nd unveiling at London’s Barbican Centre (with opening act Devendra Banhart guesting on Gilberto Gil’s wild “Bat Macumba”) was part of a season-long tropicalia retrospective.
“It’s humbling,” Sergio says of the attention. “You get the realization that all of this doesn’t belong to you. Music is the language of the universe! I know I’m sounding hippie now, but it’s great to see it happening. I’m dying to play.”