Blood, Bites, and Brazil

Mosquitos keep bossa nova fresh, free, and lawless

In the photo gallery on the Mosquitos Website, www.mosquitosnycom a single picture footnotes the raison d'être for the group's self-titled debut, a bossa nova/indie-pop love child that's earning praise from imbibers of cool drinks and stirring hipsters' hips. From above, we see singer Juju Stulbach, a slight young woman in faded jeans and a gray sweater, reclining on her back, eyes closed, in the womblike corner of some anonymous vehicle. Between her legs rests the tufted and pronounced widow's peak of guitarist and fellow vocalist Chris Root. Stulbach's right leg cradles his face -- eyes closed, he looks like a bird emerging from a denim shell -- and her left hand is down her own pants.

From her fey, wide-eyed face to her coconut-salty accent, the Brazilian Stulbach is the consummate maverick muse. A sun-darkened child of the Rio de Janeiro beaches, she came to the United States knowing almost no English to study at the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance. "I did that for two years," she says, "and never wanted to dance again."

An orphaned artist, Stulbach learned English while tending in bars. In the spring of 2002, she got the lead role in a student film; the filmmaker also happened to be a friend of Root, who was then a member of East Village apartment-party band am60. "My friend asked me to come over and blow up, like, 200 balloons," he remembers. "When I came into the apartment, Juju was on a ladder. All I could see was her feet, and I could hear her humming a bossa nova." Shortly thereafter, her visa expired and she returned home to Brazil, taking with her an am60 CD. Its contents impressed her enough to send Root a postcard.

The Mosquitos from Ipanema: Jon Marshall Smith 
(left), Juju Stulbach, and Chris Root
Ivory Serra
The Mosquitos from Ipanema: Jon Marshall Smith (left), Juju Stulbach, and Chris Root

That lightheaded day -- was it caused by the 200 balloons or the feet leading up to the bossa nova? -- Root didn't need more than a second to cast his bet on the ladder, and flew to Brazil where "one thing led to another," he says. "Suddenly I'm on a beach in Ipanema. She thinks I'm crazy, but we're strumming my guitar together, and we're making music."

Most of the Mosquitos' self-titled debut is a travelogue of the time the duo spent together in Rio. The titular track, based on an actual mosquito assault in Stulbach's apartment, is Root's version of British poet John Donne's "The Flea," an account of two lovers pondering the symbiotic and symbolic nature of bloodsucking insects as they are rent apart by circumstances, but still joined by mutual affection. The album hosts two versions of the song: a bouncy pop number voiced by Root, and a sexy, bossa nova girl-on-girl version by Stulbach. In this instance, though, the "circumstances" refer to the Brazilian authorities.

"We got arrested by the police," says Root. "We were on our way to the beach, and we drove through a roadblock. And apparently, whenever there are Americans in the car, they pull you over and start sniffing around. They found a little weed, and we paid them off." From this experience he offers a nugget of wisdom: "If you ever go to Brazil, you need two envelopes. One for yourself and one for the police."

The events following those "circumstances" are unclear. The album's liner notes detail the next turn in the lovers' fate: "After an unfortunate run-in with the Brasilian Policia involving some uncontrollable substances, Chris and Juju were torn apart. Root fled the country without a finished mix." But he now adds, "[The music] was kind of a hodgepodge, a big mess. Then it all fell into place by mistake." The "mistake" was Jon Marshall Smith, bonhomme from the bohemian East Village scene who had already worked with am60 as a producer and engineer. When Root came home, Smith heard the story: He'd fallen in love and wanted to make a Brazilian record. "It sounded completely crazy and its odds for success seemed remote at best," recounts the latter, "so it was perfect."

With Smith on keyboards, the two set to the spit-and-polish stages of recording an album that now bears the sticker, "The girl from Ipanema goes indie pop." (On the cover photo Smith is the man on the left, jumping like a hyperactive child on the receiving end of a sugar enema. "It's a real jump, too," he brags. "That's not Photoshopped.") He says he intentionally kept the sound "simple and sparse." It eventually got picked up with little fanfare or, as Root puts it, "bullshit," to Bar/None Records.

You may have already heard Mosquitos' first single, "Boombox," on a recent Bailey's Minis commercial. The band romantically calls the album "sonic destiny." But unlike the politically purposeful music of Tropicalia, it's a fair-weather record with modest ambitions. "It's almost like you're living [in] the moment," says Stulbach. "You don't have to struggle to find words or messages or meanings, because it's all right there."

 
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