Interview with Os Mutantes
It was in 1966 in Sao Paulo, Brazil where visionary brothers Sergio Dias and Arnaldo Baptista teamed up with singer, Rita Lee, to form the seminal band, Os Mutantes. The results were an astounding and pleasurable sonic blend of psychedelic rock and Tropicalia.
The Brazilian music movement occurred in the early sixties, starting from a visual arts installation, but quickly branched out to include all aspects of Brazil’s rich cultural scene. Its philosophies are based on antropofagia or the cultural and musical cannibalism of all societies, generously absorbing influences from all genres and concocting a unique syncretic blend of art, music and film.
Os Mutantes began to perform on Brazilian television shows and eventually met the pioneers of the Tropicalia movement Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso who embraced the band’s creative, manic energy and took the young musicians under their wings.
Gil and Veloso had recorded politically charged lyrics expressing revolt against the coup of 1964. During this time the Brazilian Military regime, that had recently taken power, viewed these musicians as a threat and had Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso incarcerated and exiled. Os Mutantes was threatened by the military government in Brazil, but manage to remain there and record 5 albums.
In 1972 Rita Lee left the band to pursue a solo career. Arnaldo Baptista began to struggle emotionally, and he wound up being institutionalized. He jumped from the buildings window leaving himself in a six-week coma. Sergio Baptista kept the band going until 1978.
Now 30 years later, the band Os Mutantes has reshaped its lineup and recorded a new album, Haih Or Amortecedor released on ANTI- Records. Evil Monito caught up with the founder of the band Sérgio Dias.
EM: Where are you at the moment?
Today, I’m in Henderson, Nevada, which is at the tip of Vegas, close to the lake. I bought a small condo here and we are using it as our headquarters. Our U.S. tour recently finished. It was very lovely; it was fantastic! After 17k miles on the road with everybody in the van, if people aren’t crying by the end, that’s a good thing.
EM: Did you invite Arnaldo to join the band for the recent reformation?
Yeah, for sure. He was with us for the beginning of the tour, but I think it was too tight of a schedule, and it became too hard on him. His wife preferred for him to not continue.
EM: What do you think caused the initial break-up of the band?
I think we broke up because of the consequences of the acid. [Singer] Rita [Lee] and my brother Arnaldo [Baptista] (bass/keyboard/vocals) were married, and I don’t think that was a very healthy thing to being with a—how can I say?—“Make love, not war” in Brazil. All the things that came with it, like several partners, became a very hard situation, I think, for them, and I don’t think they could handle it. And they ended up separating. That is why Rita left, and Arnaldo was very harmed by all this. It was kind of a Romeo & Juliet situation. [Love], it doesn’t come with a label and instructions, you know? So people don’t know how far they can go in terms of handling situations. You go and experiment, and sometimes it’s not a very good experiment and that can create a not very successful ending.
As far as drugs? Well, [during] the first five albums that we have, which are basically our legacy, we had no idea what “drugs” were. We were basically under the influence of oxygen, and that was it… It wasn’t until much later, in the 70’s—as everyone else—we began experimenting with acid. I don’t think it was a very healthy thing in terms of—we became much more of a—how can I say?—we left before “broad and open” influences. When you are on acid it becomes more of a “planned” thing. This sort of locked us up in a corner. Are you experienced or are you not? There was that limit. I don’t think this was a very good or healthy thing. I think it is better when you have no boundaries.
I haven’t had any drugs in like 35 years. I was only on acid. I took a decision in the middle of a trip. I saw that everyone was very conscious of the fact that we were a whole. Like John Lennon said, “I am you as you are me as we are all together.” There was a girl in the same house where we were. She was [the only person who was] not on acid. But she was as high as we were. That was something that caught my eye and I said, “What’s the difference, really? Why do I have to be conscious about something that is so intrinsic of the human race?” Basically, there were so many people falling like flies. I don’t think I could have handled much longer. It takes a toll on you. But it was a great “self” experience for myself.
EM: What was the craziest thing that happened on tour?
I wouldn’t be able to tell you that. Okay, well, I washed a pair of my underwear in the sink of a hotel and put it to dry in a place where there was rust. It came out with ugly colors on it. I was throwing it around and scaring the girls in the band.
EM: A major part of psychedelic music is the effects pedals. I hear that you guys made your own effects pedals and got creative with the process, even using the motor of a sewing machine. Can you elaborate?
With effects we were basically working on an as-needed basis. I was in charge of all the harmonies, melodies, sounds and textures. I needed a distortion that wouldn’t intermodulate, that you could play chords with. The only way to do this was to have an exophonic pick-up with six distortion units, so that’s what we did.
The sewing machine effect was something that my brother created. It was partly a rotation meter that connected to the axis of the sewing machine engine. We took the lock out of it so it would turn 360 degrees, and when you played a sound, you could modulate the rotation speed of the volume pot so it would come out with the craziest sounds in the world. Today we have the possibilities of digitalizing all the effects, which is easier to work with because a pot wouldn’t hold for more than five minutes.
EM: What is your take on the current state of politics in Brazil today compared to the years when you played with the band?
If you are alive, you are a political entity. Just the way that you are can present a new political status. Just being yourself. That is basically what we were and what we did. I think Brazil now is finally coming out of the shadows of the terrible coup d’état and militant government that we suffered. I think now the kids are trying to regain their own national identity as Brazilians. I think we were very “sacrificed” because of that. A lot of Brazilians feel that we might be in a better economic situation now, but socio-politically we are still in the cradle, because of the “Middle Ages” we had to endure [during] these last three generations. I think one of the worst things that happened and one of the best ways to destroy a country is by disseminating the corruption, and the corruption in Brazil is a very bad thing. Now we have to deal with this and it’s very hard.
EM: Where’s your favorite place to play?
It’s great to perform in New York and L.A. but I think a special place was Iowa, in the middle of the country. When you open the map and you see that you are playing in the heart of the country and you see the kids with the sparkles in their eyes, that’s something. That was something very, very nice.
EM: What have you been listening to?
Been too busy with the tour. But something I stumbled upon in France that really blew my mind, there is this church called Saint-Eustache, and there is an organ master player. His name is Jean Guillou, who basically does pipe organ improvisation. He is so much beyond Stravinsky. It was an amazing thing. The sounds and the atmosphere and the freedom that you have with five keyboards and the pedals. An immense instrument like that was a trip, amazing. I got to see him and meet him. My wife and I actually got married in that church with the pipe organ music. It became a very special place.
EM: I see that you are playing an Oud on the new album. How did you start that?
I bought it in France. It’s an Egyptian oud, such a beautiful instrument. It’s great to look for new stuff, even though it is so ancient. I used to play sitar, I still do. I learned a bit with Ravi Shankar. He was kind enough to teach me and then I stumbled into this oud thing and I just fell in love with it. I just picked it up and started to play it.
For more info on the band, visit: http://mutantes.com/