Interview: Os Mutantes
Published on April 17th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
“The Brazilian Beatles”: that really is the best way to describe Os Mutantes to the uninitiated. They emerged in the same decade during their homeland’s politically charged Tropicália movement and recorded a string of mind-bending albums that still sound astonishing to this day, reforming in 2006 for a performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall that Rocksucker feels privileged to have attended. Basically, they’re one of the most innovative, colourful and all-round amazing bands ever to have existed, so we weren’t half excited at being granted a private telephone audience with founding member Sérgio Dias Baptista.
His fellow originals, namely brother Arnaldo and Rita Lee, are no longer involved but this has not prevented Sérgio from forging onwards with a new cast of musicians under the famous old brand name. 2009 comeback album Haih Or Amortecedor could conceivably have been made during the group’s heyday – great songs, bucketloads of imagination, unyieldingly fresh sound – and this month shall see the release of its successor, the thrillingly eclectic and primarily English language Fool Metal Jack. We spoke to Sérgio about the new record and much more besides, so read on for the thoughts of a true legend of popular music history…
What made you decide to do the new album in English? Is it because you live in America now, or was it to convey a certain message?
No, I think songs have a life of their own. There’s one song in Portuguese [“Eu Descobri”] but the rest just appeared in English. Maybe it’s because I’m living here.
Was the music all written in the time since Haih Or Amortecedor, or does some of it date back further?
There’s only one that is older, which is “Into Limbo”; I wrote that for my brother when he jumped. [Rocksucker says: In 1982, Arnaldo attempted suicide by jumping from the fourth floor of a hospital in São Paulo, surviving with brain damage – it’s in Portuguese, but this beautiful documentary called Loki is a heartwarming document of his return to a normal life]
How is Arnaldo?
I really don’t know, you know. The last time I saw him was in Heathrow after the tour but since then his wife broke the connection between us. I don’t want to steer things so I’ll just sit and wait (laughs).
When you’re making a new Os Mutantes album, do you feel under any pressure to make it in any way in keeping with the older material?
No, I don’t think about it at all. You have to be honest with yourself and do what you’re doing now. I think it has nothing to do with the rest of the stuff we did; working with different people means it’s a whole different story. I don’t know if it sounds like anything that we did, but I don’t think so. I’m not a teenager anymore, I’m 62, so it is a big difference. I’ve been younger for more time!
Who else was involved in the songwriting this time? Jorge Ben, Tom Zé?
It was just myself and the band, although I wrote “Time and Space” with a guy from here in Los Angeles called Sam Spiegel. I wrote the title song with our bassist Vinicius [Junqueira] and there are two songs from Vitor [Trida: vocals, keyboards, guitars] which are “Look Out” and…(forgets title, starts humming it, laughs)…”Once Upon a Flight”!
What was the inspiration for the song “Bangladesh”? Is it a message of peace?
It is a more spiritual thing. I think George [Harrison] lives a lot in me. I never realised the connection but we were both taught by Ravi [Shankar], who has departed also. I didn’t mean it as an homage but I feel close to the thoughts that George had, the same points of view; you know, all those lives that we have lived, Earth and rebirth.
It’s one of those situations where you have to measure yourself against the entire universe and it’s a question of, okay, are you part of everything, or are you just a piece of carbon and water? “Bangladesh” is about the acceptance of everything; it’s like, “Hari Jesus, Hari Buddha, Hari Judas”, because there’s no Jesus without Judas, and there’s also “Hari Lucifer”, because there’s no God without Lucifer.
All of those dogmas, all of those status quos, they just lose perspective. Things are so much deeper, so much, how can I say…simpler. I think that’s what “Bangladesh” is about.
There’s a sitar riff in it that does remind a lot of George’s “The Inner Light”, now you mention it.
Yeah, there’s definitely inspiration there. It’s something that I hadn’t thought about, but you’re nailing it! You’re telling me about my music, that’s great (laughs).
Where did you find the new members Amy Crawford [keyboards, piano, organ] and Ani Cordero [drums, percussion]?
They were in two opening acts that toured with us in the US and we became friends. I knew they were good so it was the sensible thing to do. It’s really nice to be playing with them.
Are there any plans to come back to the UK any time soon?
I would love to, I’m dying to go back. It will depend on the release of the album in Europe, and we’re dealing with that now.
Os Mutantes is one of Rocksucker’s favourite bands, and you’ve also inspired quite a lot of our other favourite bands…
It’s been amazing to see the music outlast the band because we had no idea it was going on. When we came back to play at the Barbican and sold all those tickets, it was mind-blowing because I finally got a sense of being responsible for it. It was a life-changing thing for me.
It happened by accident, didn’t it?
Yeah. Somebody told the arranger that it wouldn’t make any sense to do that thing [the Barbican’s Tropicália shows] without Os Mutantes, and the guy said, “What are you going to do? Os Mutantes don’t exist any more.” Somehow it got through to the press that we were regrouping to play there, it was popping up all over the world. People were calling us, and in Brazil they were saying that we were already rehearsing.
Then we started to phone each other, and our drummer Dinho said, “If you guys want to play, I’ll play.” We hadn’t played in thirty-odd years, so when I heard him say that I thought, woah, this is serious. I said, “Okay, let’s get together.” We got together and played, it sucked, but the energy was there. We decided there on the spot to do the Barbican show, we had three months to rehearse and we did that thing that you saw.
Do you have any favourite covers of Os Mutantes songs?
(chuckles) I thought it was funny when Belle and Sebastian sampled my guitar to play the (imitates riff from “A Minha Menina” then bursts into laughter) Apart from that I haven’t really had the time to listen to everybody, so I don’t know who’s got the songs. It’s been like an immense rollercoaster; I haven’t stopped since 2006.
The Bees’ version is probably more well-known over here.
I don’t know that one. I would love to hear it. But do you know what’s funny, I would love to meet a lot of these people; I met Beck and Devendra, which was great, and it would be fun to meet more people and play music together.
What made you decide to turn down Kurt Cobain’s request for you to reform?
I didn’t know about it. Arnaldo received the letter. I never got the letter, just heard about it in nineteen ninety whatever.
What’s happening with the Os Mutantes movie Bread and Circuses?
I don’t know. I’ve heard of several people who are trying to do some stuff but I don’t know who is related to what. There’s a girl on Facebook who’s trying to do something, and a guy called Jeff McCarty who’s trying to do an animation film. There’s nothing complete yet, though. I think they’re all looking for funds or whatever.
Do you think you might do another album with Tahiti Boy and the Palmtree Family?
I’d love to! That thing was so fun, they’re great. We did all the writing and recording for that whole thing in sixteen days, it was fantastic.
Can you explain how you played guitar with a sewing machine? I’d love to know how that worked.
We used the motor of a sewing machine and we hooked it to the thing that turns on the volume on the guitar, and we took the lock out of it so that it would turn 360 degrees without stopping. We put the sound there, got it out and put it through the amp. On a sewing machine the pedal changes the speed of the motor, and that was what created the sound. It was totally impractical but a friend of mine managed to emulate it in digital form, which is much easier, so that’s what I’m using now.
I also read that you used insecticide pumps to recreate the kind of ‘backwards tape’ reverse hi-hat sound that The Beatles used…
Yes, we did. We had no idea that you could use reverse tapes and the closest sound we could find to that was the insecticide pump! We put water in it and it destroyed the microphone (laughs). It was crazy stuff but it was cool.
What’s the story behind the song “Meu Refrigerador Não Funciona”? Am I right in thinking that it means “My Refrigerator Doesn’t Work”?
It is much bigger than what we put on the album, all of it was improvisation. We didn’t rehearse anything, not even the lyrics, so when Arnaldo starting singing “my refrigerator doesn’t work”, then that he was trying to call a Japanese guy to fix it…it was a miserable state, and that is what the blues is all about, right? You have to be miserable somehow, so the problem that he had was that the refrigerator didn’t work (laughs). Then Rita was like “Try my honey! Try my honey!” I was playing bass. That was cut live, all improvisation.
You’ve said that your father helped you with most of the “onomatopoeic work”. What do you mean by that?
Not most of it, but my father gave us some help there because he was a fantastic poet. The ideas were ours, though.
What is your brother Claudio up to at the moment? [Rocksucker says: Claudio’s electronics were a key part of Os Mutantes’ early sound]
He’s writing a lot. He’s a genius. He did this fantastic science fiction thing called Géa. The easiest thing would have been for him to write something about Mutantes, right; but no, he created this whole new thing. There’s mystical stuff on it and it does reflect all of us. We’re all in the story but with different names. It would be fantastic material for a film.
He wrote sixteen or seventeen books and he’s trying to publish it now. The language in it is amazing; I need a dictionary to understand what he’s talking about. He is really out to lunch, breakfast and dinner!
Sérgio Dias, thank you.
Fool Metal Jack will be released on 30th April through Krian Music. Os Mutantes will be touring the US at the end of April and first half of May: click here for dates. For more information, please click here to visit the official Os Mutantes website or here to visit Os Mutantes on Facebook.