Os Mutantes, Music History Legends and They Didn’t Even Know It

Photo by Nino Andres

Throughout their decades-long career, seminal band Os Mutantes have managed to influence the sounds of a huge range of critically and commercially acclaimed artists. David Byrne from Talking Heads has been a vocal admirer, Beck wrote an album to pay homage to the band, Kurt Cobain tried to get them back together to tour with Nirvana, and Devendra Banhart managed to play with them. Yet most of these artists never had the chance to see Os Mutantes live, nor did they know the whereabouts of its former members. On the flip side of this story, the band themselves had no idea they’d made such a big splash in popular alternative music.

This is a true story, the story of São Paulo’s Os Mutantes, who became one of the biggest bands in music history but didn’t know it. Originally the union of two brothers, Sérgio Dias and Arnaldo Baptista, and mesmerizing singer Rita Lee, Mutantes were influenced by a unique blend of 60s rock – from instrumental combos like the Ventures, to the Beatles, whose Sgt. Pepper expanded their understanding of what music could achieve. They were subversive, fun, poetic, melodic, playful, noisy and much more; in short, the ultimate sixties band. They were key players in the Tropicália movement of the late sixties and early seventies in Brazil, along with Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and Tom Zé. The band’s first three albums —68’s Os Mutantes, 69’s Mutantes and 70’s A Divina Comédia ou Ando Meio Desligado— are considered crucial works by everyone from Byrne and Cobain to El Guincho and Flying Lotus.

Following the departure of Lee, who went on become a megastar in Brazil, and Arnaldo’s mental health problems, Sérgio led the band through several prog-infused records until their final breakup in 1979. Then, they more or less dropped off the radar until it was announced that the band would return to perform at the Barbican Arts Center in London; they took the stage without Rita Lee, and remained in the festival circuit for the next nine years, releasing two critically acclaimed albums and changing lineups until Dias was, once again, the only remaining original member. Now, they’re about to headline this year’s Festival Marvin, playing Mexico for the first time.

Many questions float around our heads when it comes to this mysterious and highly original band, so we sat down with Sérgio Dias to set the record straight. In conversation, Sérgio is warm, knowledgeable, grateful, constantly surprised, and with something on his mind constantly. The guitarist speaks five languages fluently, but we settled on talking in English.

How have you been, Sérgio?
I’m very happy to be in Mexico City. It’s exactly like São Paulo, it’s as if I’ve been living here for 50 years. It’s the exact same layout, the same kind of driving, the people’s face types, the dressing. It’s fantastic! It’s like being at home. We were invited to Las Vegas for the Latin Grammys because we were nominated and we were totally [isolated] from all the other artists. Why are we in this island? I hate it. I’m concerned about it, especially coming here and seeing how much we have in common.

When you consider the music movements in the different countries of Latin America and Brazil, they mirror each other and yet they never intersect.
This is the first time I’m playing in Latin America. We have never played in Argentina, can you imagine that? There’s a stupid barrier…I don’t understand it. I’m going to start to researching this. What happened between Portugal and Spain? There has to be something there, because it doesn’t make sense.

You reactivated the band in 2006…
Actually, it was a total misunderstanding. They were doing a homage to Tropicalismo and someone told the curator that it wouldn’t make any sense without Os Mutantes; but this came out all crooked to the press and they started reporting that we were getting back together, and we were starting to get bombarded with emails and phone call from, like, Mojo Magazine. Then the biggest radio station in Brazil said we were rehearsing again, and we started calling each other, “Do you know anything about this? What do you know about this?” Then Dinho [Leme] the drummer who stopped playing for 30-something years —he’s a journalist now— said “Do you want to play?” and I said “Woah.” That hit a nerve, we got together to see what happened. And here we are. Arnaldo couldn’t keep up because of his health, and Dinho couldn’t as well for the same reasons.

When we played the Barbican, I expected to see people my age, but I had no idea about Beck or anybody. When we played at Pitchfork [Music Festival]; Zélia [Duncan] who was singing for us because Rita didn’t want to be a part of the reunion, looked at me sideways and said “Sérgio, the voice of the people is the voice of god” because there was 20,000 people screaming “”MUTANTES! MUTANTES!” before we went on [laughs]. It was a total surprise.

Then you put out a couple of albums.
I didn’t want to be in a dead band. After the first shows of the reunion, Arnaldo, Dinho and Zélia left, there were so many changes that I didn’t know what to expect; but then I had this sense of responsibility after seeing these kids, there was no way I could stop. So I got together with Tom Zé and wrote a bunch of songs for the Haih Or Amortecedor album [2009] and it was great. Then I did Fool Metal Jack [in 2013] and I stopped in 2014 because I had been doing this for nine years, it was too much. But then I dreamt a song, and I wrote the lyrics in Spanish, and we’re releasing it now, it’s called “Esos Ojos Verdes” and maybe that’s the beginning of a new album.

Photo by Nino Andres
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That’s amazing.
I did this song from bits and pieces of other songs that I knew. Like [sings] “aquellos ojos verdes” and “Perfume De Gardenias” and “lunar junto a la boca…” and “eres hechicera…”, “Cielito Lindo;” all these songs that influenced me when I was a kid, listening to Sarita Montiel and Trio Los Panchos and the mariachis. Once I was with my bass player and I tuned the TV to one of those radio stations you tune on cable TV, I stopped at a Mexican station and started to sing along to the mariachis, and he says, “how the hell do you know the lyrics?!” [laughs].

Why do you think you can make this connection with so many people, so many years later?
Because we were always very honest. We never gave up or gave in. During the dictatorship we never changed our lyrics. We never did anything that wasn’t real. I stopped in 1979 because the other guys had no idea about the spirit of the band. And the band that has now become Os Mutantes, I have known them for many years and we’re like brothers. I don’t know Rita anymore, she’s a stranger now…it’s been too long and she trailed a totally different path that I wouldn’t take.

So what happened after the breakup?
I moved to America. Eddie Offord, who had produced all the Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer albums came to Brazil, I was a big fan and he invited me to produce an album. All of a sudden I was playing with [jazz fusion violinist] L. Shankar, [bassist] Fernando Saunders and [guitarist] John McLaughlin. In one year I changed everything, I was living in America, married to an American girl playing with everybody, the crème de la crème, and I became a producer. There’s a reason for everything that has happened to my life, I have been very lucky that I have learned to steer the boat of life according to the wind. I don’t have a direction.

Do you ever think about the past, the so called Tropicália movement?
I really don’t but I can tell you the Os Mutantes were the heart of that. You can’t imagine Gil or Caetano or us without each other. We were basically playing traditional rock but when we met Caetano and Gil, it was like “what is this [type of] samba?” [laughs] It was totally new, it was a fantastic thing. I have been just realizing this, everyday we were meeting a George Martin or a George Harrison. You would turn around and they would introduce you, “this is [acclaimed Brazilian jazz vocalist] Elis Regina;” it was like the impressionists in France. We were living on a great artistic, musical and intellectual level that I have never experienced since, and it was a very small group, if you think about it. But everybody had a new approach in everything they did; in music, cinema, literature, and everything. I would love if things were still like that. I would love to be with Gal right now. I don’t understand Elis dying, there’s nobody like her.