OS MUTANTES: SUBVERSIVE AT THE AGE OF FIFTEEN
Os Mutantes are one of the best bands ever to come from this planet. Original members Sergio Dias, Arnaldo Dias Baptista and Dinho Leme will be joined by singer Lia Duncan and six capable auxiliaries to play their first full Los Angeles show this Friday. Guitarist Sergio speaks just hours after a hurricane from his house in Brazil.
[Ed. Note: This is the complete interview.]
So the first time Os Mutantes played England, you played in a subway station.
We were just visiting because we played in France, and we were in the subway and we wanted to try out the possibilities! We had bought some army clothes, so we put the army clothes on the floor and we started to sing, and Dinho was sitting like a bum on the corner, and they’d drop in a bit of coins to call for more. We made some money—we went back home in a cab! That was 1968.
And that was the only time you played England until last year.
We didn’t really play—we just played the subway! But I think that was the first time.
You first heard rock ‘n’ roll on the BBC shortwave?
That was the way we could get information. The first time ‘Help’ was played on the BBC, we could record it on a little tape recorder, so when it was finally released in Brazil, we didn’t have to wait for the record. The day it was released, we performed it exactly the same because we knew it from the radio—that was our internet!
Did a lot of kids listen to the shortwave that way?
No, that was us—we were into all that stuff. We used to go to the planetarium—we were already into communication! The closest thing we had to Telstar was probably the shortwave.
And you built your effects pedals out of sewing machines.
We built all those! I’m very happy—I have all the equipment, and we’re gonna perform with it. I just finished today a brand-new guitar. Nobody knows about it yet, so you have a scoop on this one. This one is the successor of the one I have, so it will be both of them—the old and the new. It’s entirely gold-plated, inside and out—for shielding—and it has a bunch of shit inside. All the switches are very simple, but it’s going to be processed by an automotive relay—a car relay. It’s very complicated to do these things without going with digital. It’s all analog. It’s a hell of a guitar. It’s still with its belly open because we’re fixing little things here and there.
How did your homemade equipment hold up?
It’s very dependable. I never had any problems with my guitar and it’s 36 years old, with a hell of a lot of electronics inside. Claudio my brother was a very good engineer—very good at what he did. Right before I even started playing anything. The guitar fell on the floor flat and cracked open in the side. But after just tuning it, it was perfect. It’s very very strong. This new one, of course—I’m gonna pass it to all the tests of the American airlines. That’s the best test of it!
You said you were natural freaks as kids—that you never did any drugs until the seventies.
I think the best material we did without anything—we were just naturals. I think Mutantes were meant to be a band. The preparation for everything was where we were born—our families were extremely artistical. My mother was an incredible piano player and composer and my father was a great tenor and poet—that was all we knew, basically. And our parents were very free with anything in terms of music and art. That was great—that was a major influence.
What about the 45 that came before Mutantes?
[The band] Six-Sided Rockers was only for a little bit of time. Suely Chagas was our main singer and she decided to live in the U.S., so she left the band, and we ended up putting another girl in her place, and she sucked compared to her. So we recorded that little 45 as Os Seis—which is two great pieces of songs, and great lyrics—and this girl ended up being the reason Mutantes was born. She was hanging with Rafael, the leader of the band and the creator of all the stuff, and he couldn’t cope with the fact that she couldn’t sing as well. So they left and that was how was born Mutantes. But Six-Sided Rockers was a hell of a great band.
How did you come to write a song for Shell Oil?
Shell wanted to have a young image, and we were the perfect thing for them. We arranged the financial thing and I wrote the song—‘Algo Mais’—which I think is going to be on the re-release of Everything Is Possible. The song was a great piece and we decided to put it in the album. That was a first—putting a commercial song, a jingle, in a record that was art. But we never really separated anything.
Did you feel isolated from the rest of the world as a band in Brazil?
We thought we were sounding exactly like the Beatles—you know, kids! So we saw those things… like the famous event of the insecticide pumps, just because we heard the hi-hats reversed that the Beatles used and had no idea how it was done, and the closest thing we had was the insecticide pumps.
So you were spraying all over the microphones?
And you did that on a lot of songs.
You know, young and reckless.
Who would you have brought to Brazil if you could?
In the beginning, probably the Ventures or maybe Duane Eddy. Maybe later Dave Brubeck or the Beatles. We were so much involved with everything. Jimmy Smith, all those cats—we were listening to everybody.
Were you playing on TV before you were writing your own songs?
We were hired to—I think there was some muscle from my father there—and so we had to punch cards. It was weird! It wasn’t a studio, it was a TV network, and we used to play—the best show in Brazil!
Before that—kind of like Shindig! It was called Round And Square, and then we also did Hit Parade, so whenever a rock ‘n’ roll or Beatles tune or Four Tops or something like that came out, we used to do it, which was a great school, and fun as hell!
Were people surprised when you played your own songs?
I don’t think so. We always tried to do some stuff on our own. I think I wrote my first song around 16—I wrote ‘Senhor F,’ and discovered 7/4.
And your mother played piano on that.
My mother did play piano on that. My God, you’re well-informed.
What about the story about Caetano Veloso performing the national anthem and holding a gun to his head on TV, and then being arrested the next day? When did things begin to turn?
That’s not exactly what happened. We were playing the Sucata, which means ‘Garbage’—
Is this the show with Caetano that was recorded?
Yeah, a double 45 or something. I think you can hear me playing the national anthem there. I think the military needed some excuse, so they made a big deal out of it. In other words, here’s poor Caetano in jail—I didn’t mean to do that!
How fast did things become dangerous in Brazil?
It was danger all the time. In ’64 we had our coup d’etat. You had yours in ’63 with Kennedy, and after that came the invasion of South America. Brazil was ’64—my father was arrested because he used to work with politicians, and it was getting tougher and tougher. So we had to deal with all this—many times we had to stop the gig and leave by the back door.
Because you knew the police were coming in the front?
Oh yeah, we had people who would advise us. Many times we had to stay in the hotel because we were warned they were going to kidnap us. What saved us was we were too cute. It was hard for them to say these three little kids—blonde hair and blue eyes like Rita—would be a danger to the system of the country. But we kicked them a little bit. We were bugging them. I would love to see my sheet—you know, my record? In the Department of Police. To be subversive at the age of fifteen—this is great! That’s a kid’s dream! When you’re young, you have this indestructible feeling. We were defying the hell out of those guys—we never really changed our lyrics when we were censored. When we changed them, we mutilated the music and put it nice and clear, so everybody knew it was censored. And when we’d play, we’d sing the original lyric—we’d bypass the censor. There was always a lot of pressure. We had a guy backstage—it was kind of weird.
There was some government guy whose job was to see every Mutantes show?
Not a guy—always somebody from the government. Always some censorship. At festivals there would be military police behind the stage.
Is that why you moved out to your commune?
No, nothing to do with this—we decided it would be fun for us! And it was a good investment for our money. We built three houses! It was great—it was wild! Everybody was always there. We were surrounded by thirty people. Totally psychedelic!
Is this connected to that photo of you in the star-spangled dune buggy with a bunch of collie dogs?
The dune buggy, yeah—that was one of my cars. Before that I had a racing car and I got tired of it and I bought the dune buggy. The military couldn’t make us as anything. We were there using the American flag to paint our cars, and the leftists would say we were pro-American, and the government would say we were leftists because we’d play with Caetano—they didn’t know what the hell we were! We were just kids with a very good cause.
You didn’t really break up because you liked Fender and Arnaldo liked Gibson.
Of course not! That’s bullshit. I didn’t use Fender guitars!
Why didn’t you ever play America?
It was a very small business then—nothing compared to today. There were no tours, no facilities. The idea of a roadie was such a far thing—we used to carry all our equipment. It was just the beginning of everything! You gotta understand—we saw the Sputnik come up! There was no interaction like this, and the U.S. was such a far country, and Europe—we were very blessed to get in touch with those countries when we were 17 or 18. That was very unusual.
Why was it so hard to get your records in America?
I don’t know—probably because we sang in Portugese. Then this was a huge barrier. Americans wouldn’t care about anything they couldn’t understand. I can’t explain why they’re digging it now. I think the same way we dug American music without knowing the lyrics—because it was pretty. Which is beautiful to see now! When we played Pitchfork last year in Chicago, there were like 18,000 kids singing the songs! Really really beautiful—if you think about the ‘system,’ we’re so far out of the axis of every possible marketing thing. We don’t get played on the radio, we didn’t have a promotion company, we didn’t have anything, we didn’t play anywhere—and kids just found out! I don’t know how. Of course performers of opinion were influenced by us—Beck and David Byrne, and that’s really great—an honor to be mentioned by them! And Kurt Cobain—what an honor!
Did you play in Brazil yet?
Yeah, I’ll send you some pictures! More than 80,000 people! All the public—the audiences are all teenagers, and it’s really really amazing. You see kids five and six years old singing the songs—not even second generation, but third and fourth generation! It’s scary sometimes! Now they are very proud of us. When we started to regroup, there were a bunch of bad things—you know they know how to be depressing, all those guys saying, ‘This won’t work—they’re after money.’ This is crap! We were playing because we wanted it and it sounded good—otherwise there’s no way we’re gonna play! And after all the success in England and the U.S., they had to swallow us again!
Is it true that Rita Lee is as famous as Madonna in Brazil?
She’s very famous, definitely. After she left the band she went really pop-oriented. Of course she’s very famous—she’s very good at what she does.
Did she really decline to play again because she’s a grandmother?
That’s what she said—I have no idea what the hell she really declined. Mutantes will always be the ghost in her machine. Even through her success and thousands of hits, she is always Rita Lee from Mutantes. She couldn’t erase that—she’s stained forever!
I don’t think Mutantes is a negative thing!
Neither do I—for me, I’m very proud of it! And I have my own career, but I’m always so proud and happy that we lived all these things together. I love Rita very much—she’s my sister!—but I know so many times she’s down on the band. I just can’t understand why and I won’t try anymore—that’s her trip.
Is there any unreleased Mutantes music you might have?
I have about 20 CDs digitized of rehearsals and all this stuff—probably there will be an anthology someday. We need to get permission from Rita and all this. I think that would come in the right time. I’m much more excited about writing new material! We already started—we started writing with Tom Ze, which was great! He was much older than us then but we met now and finally we can talk and understand each other besides the music. It’s great—he’s a hell of a genius. I have four or five songs with him, and on our own, three or four or fiver. I started to do stuff with Arnaldo—eventually something nice is gonna come out.
Is that story about the guy in San Francisco giving you your first joint true?
Yeah, it is real! I was straight then—I didn’t understand exactly what the guy was doing. He was just approaching and approaching and I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t smoke cigarettes—I said, ‘No, thank you very much!’ I was so naïve, but it was so beautiful to see this! And I remember on Wilshire Boulevard, there was this couple—probably in their forties, a guy and his wife in a beautiful convertible, and it was the first time I ever saw anybody do the peace sign. They did the peace sign to us and we were like, ‘What is this?’ We didn’t speak English then. Everything was so new and so pretty—to see Wilshire Blvd. with such a crowd as it was, everybody dancing and happy and talking to each other and saying hello—it was so beautiful. Something that I miss a lot. How are you dealing now in these years after 9/11?
It could be better. What do you think of where America is politically now?
It’s a very very difficult spot, man, honestly. It was really terrible when Bush Sr. invaded Kuwait and turned against their own allies—Saddam Hussein was backed up by the America like Noriega also. It’s weird to see this thing. The international policty of the U.S. is kind of funny. It doesn’t really go very well with the Constitution or the idea of Jefferson and Adams and all these guys. I think basically who is handling the wires—the puppeteers—are basically the guys with the money and the big corporations. I don’t think it’s even a situation that Americans on their own can be responsible. I think it’s a world thing. It’s very sad to see the situation, especially when Bush went into Afghanistan and dropped a bunch of bombs and then turned around lik, ‘Whoops! Let’s go to Iraq!’ We’re not naïve—we knew exactly what was going on. If you go down in conspiracy theories, you go down many levels. You already had your presidents killed several times. It’s a very delicate situation for America at the moment. It really hurts me a lot. My heart is in America on many levels. I lived there for ten years. In the heart of the country, you really see the spirit of the nation—it’s really really beautiful, so full of honor and beauty.
What are the best parts of the American character?
Honesty. For sure honesty is the best thing America always had. You guys are very technical, very specific, very honest. The beauty and honesty of the thing—it worked the hell for me, especially living in Brazil which was so much destroyed in terms of its own honesty because of the corruption after the coud d’etat of ’64. Brazil was raped to the end—really destroyed, and really sad to see, and it’s sad to see the same thing happening in America. Losing so much of the identity and origin—the freedom! America was so respected! You didn’t have to earn respect by gunpoint. When Kennedy died—I remember as if it was today—I was in school and suddenly everyone was sent home. I was a kid—twelve years old—and I didn’t understand why. When I arrived home, I found Kennedy had been killed, and the country declared three days official mourning for your president. That level of respect! And suddenly with Vietnam and all this stuff—with attacking the Communists and McCarthy, that was very bad. Of course the Communists were no daisies, but you didn’t have to be so aggressive.
So what would you tell us Americans?
Be honest with yourself always because you can die tomorrow. Be sure you’re doing exactly what you’d do if you knew you were gonna die tomorrow. Don’t waste time. I think that’s it.
OS MUTANTES PLAY FRIDAY, JULY 13, WITH BUSDRIVER AND DADDY KEV AT THE EL REY, 5515 WILSHIRE BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 9 PM / $35 / ALL AGES. WWW.GOLDENVOICE.COM.