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When news spread that the Sixties Brazilian Tropicália group Os Mutantes (the Mutants) was getting back together, its frontman, Sérgio Dias, was the last person to know. "I started receiving telephone calls from, like, Mojo magazine, saying, 'Listen, you're gonna play here again. That's great,'" Dias says, laughing, from his home in Sao Paulo. " I said, 'Wow! I didn't know that. Where am I supposed to play?' Suddenly it started to come up in the news in Brazil."
Luckily the rumor sparked interest in Dias to consider the opportunity. "When our drummer Ronaldo said, 'Well, if you guys are up to it, I'll play,' that hit me hard because we hadn't played for 30 years,' says Dias. "I thought, This is for real. Fuck! I'm going to have to ride the wave." Their first gig was a headlining slot at a Tropicália exposition at London's Barbican Theatre this past May. And now Os Mutantes have embarked on their first tour ever of the United States.
But as it happens whenever legendary bands reunite, Os Mutantes are missing a key member. Rita Lee, the group's only female, declined to participate in the reunion when Dias approached her. "I called Rita and asked if she wanted to do it," says Dias. "I don't really know her reasons." Lee, in an interview with the New York Times in 2001, said the band "was the expression of a particular time and place, and no one will ever be able to re-create that again."
Os Mutantes came together during a heady period of Brazil's history; it wasn't too dissimilar from the cultural and political climate of late-Sixties America. As teenagers, Dias and his brother Arnaldo Dias Baptista played in a few bands before hooking up with Lee to release Os Mutantes' debut record in 1968. The government, overtaken by a military dictatorship when the left-leaning president Joao Goulart was ousted in 1964, viewed Tropicália as a threat. In 1969 Os Mutantes' collaborators Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were forced into exile and fled to England. Os Mutantes, however, just barely avoided persecution. "When we heard that Caetano was arrested, we thought that we were going to be next for sure," says Dias. "We couldn't really believe that [the government] would do such a thing, you know, because [Veloso and Gil] were so big in Brazil. So of course we were afraid."
Os Mutantes' early records (1968's watershed Os Mutantes and 1969's imaginatively titled Mutantes) are unequivocal triumphs, for they capture the irrepressible and recalcitrant spirit of the human will. Dias, Baptista, and Lee, in their naturally precocious twenties, couldn't give a damn about the government's oppressiveness even as they watched as their peers were excommunicated. "We were always under the threat of being kidnapped by the police," recalls Dias. "But we were very young, and when you're young, you believe you're indestructible. So, it was a question of: Who the hell are these guys?" Makes sense, then, that they took many cues from the Beatles.
Sung in Portuguese, Os Mutantes' songs are an energetic hybrid of traditional bossa nova, dreamy folk, psychedelic rock, and musique concrète. Sometimes they flirt with classical tropes like the fugue. "We think in English," says Dias. "So we used to think we'd start our career singing like Peter, Paul and Mary; the Mamas and the Papas; and, of course, the Beatles. So we had that background. It was natural."
As the Seventies progressed, Os Mutantes began to unravel. Rita Lee, who married Arnaldo, broke up with him and left the group to pursue a successful solo career. Embattled with addiction and heartbreak, Arnaldo left soon thereafter. Ever the optimist, Sérgio continued recording more prog-rock-influenced records before quietly disbanding Os Mutantes altogether with 1974's dubious Tudo Foi Feito Pelo Sol. "It was very hard for me," Dias says about Os Mutantes' final years. "I just kept on going. With the guys [I was playing with], it came to a point that there was nothing to do with the idea. I respected Mutantes too much to just keep on with the name and not honor what we had already done."
Contemporary musicians like Beck, David Byrne, Nirvana, and the Flaming Lips have cited Os Mutantes as influences. Beck even named his 1998 album, Mutations, in honor of Brazil's most out-there collective. Consequently a new generation of music geeks has rediscovered Os Mutantes legacy, and the group was asked to headline this year's Pitchfork Music Festival.
At their kick-off show in New York City on July 21, Dias and his crew sounded surprisingly polished. Though the performance featuring 22 songs from most of their albums is certainly nostalgic, it is also an ebullient soul shakedown, especially the masterful performances of classics like "Dom Quixote," and "Technicolor." Backed by an ace team of musicians, Dias found a suitable replacement for Rita Lee as well.
To see Os Mutantes is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you needn't be well versed in the band's history to find it a pleasurable, sometimes-transcendent experience. But maybe that's overromanticizing it, for Dias seems to sum it up best: "It's just fucking great."