July 6th, 2009 | Interviews

luke mcgarry

Sérgio Mendes swept into America with “Mas Que Nada” in 1966 and went on to establish immortality among connoisseurs of both classy cocktails and bossa nova rhythms. He is working on his new album and still claims to be nervous before shows—especially if he’s playing at the Hollywood Bowl. He will play the Hollywood Bowl this Wednesday. This interview by Ayse Arf.

I read that you played for Richard Nixon. What was that like?

Yes. We did a couple of concerts at the White House. One was for Richard Nixon, for the visit of now the King of Spain—he was the Prince, Juan Carlos—then. Then we played for Reagan years later for the visit of the Brazilian president. We played twice at the White House.
How was Nixon as an audience?
He was great. I mean he introduced the band and he was very funny, and for me it was a very incredible experience to be here and to play at the White House, and the now King of Spain was the guest of honor. It was a wonderful experience for me.
You use the word ‘sensual’ a lot in describing your music. What does that mean to you?
Do I use it a lot?
According to my research, you do.
Well, that’s one of the components of Brazilian music. That’s one of the things. It’s about joy. It’s about sensuality. It’s about romance. It’s about dance. It’s about rhythm. It’s a happy music.
Was it a happy childhood growing up in Niterói?
It was a lot of fun. A lot of soccer on the beach and a lot of—you know. It was a wonderful time growing up there.
Antonio Carlos Jobim is often spoken of as a mentor to you. Do you consider him to be?
Yes. Great composer—maybe the most important composer in Brazilian music. He was a good friend and I’ve recorded many of his songs through the years.
What do you feel like he taught you?
Everything from arranging to composing and sounds and chords. A lot of stuff.
Why do you record so much material by other people? What do you find appealing about that?
I like songs from all over the world. I’ve recorded Beatles songs. I’ve recorded Burt Bacharach. I’ve recorded Cole Porter, Gershwin, Jobim. I’m an interpreter, and I love great songs.
Why piano?
Because that’s where it started. I was a kid and I loved the sound of it, and I still do. That’s what I play.
What did your parents think of you wanting to become a musician?
My parents? In those days in Brazil to become a pop musician—my father was a doctor—so it was kind of a surprise when I decided that I wanted to become a musician, but they were very happy after things started happening, and they realized I was very happy doing it when I was doing it. So they really became very happy about it, although the beginning was a little difficult.
You started off playing classical music. What drew you to bossa nova?
Well—I was there at the time, and this was like early ‘60s in Brazil and the movement was starting and there was great songs and I had a band and so I was part of that beginning. I took classical lessons—the whole training—and I started to really get into jazz, and then bossa nova came in, and it was something that interests me more.
The wonderful—are you familiar with it? Wonderful songs. It was a historical time during Brazilian music, and being there at the time and having a band, I was part of the movement. It’s like being around the be-bop era in New York.
What do you think of the Hollywood Bowl?
I’m looking forward to it. It’s one of my favorite places to play.
Because—I love it with the why. You’re funny!
No one cares why I like the Hollywood Bowl.
You’re funny. Anyway. Well it’s a very special… have you been there? So you know it’s a beautiful place. It’s unique. You don’t have many places like that in the world. It’s just the atmosphere, the people. Everything about it. It’s very romantic. It’s just a wonderful place. I’ve played there many many times and I really love very much playing there.
Do you feel like after so many years of performing you kind of have everything figured out?
I’m always a little nervous before a show—a show like that. We’re doing an hour so we have to come with what kind of songs we’re going to do. It’s always a new experience. I’ve played the Bowl many, many, many, many times and it’s always fascinating because you never know what’s going to happen at the last minute. It’s a nice thing.
Do you have any rituals?
No. We rehearse a lot. That’s the ritual. We practice a lot.
But you’ve been playing with the same people for a very long time, correct?
No. It changes, you know. My drummer’s been with me for over twenty years. I have a singer that’s been with me for a year. A lot of the band members have been with me for a long time. One’s been ten years, one’s been five years. It’s a great band. They come from different places. I have people from Brazil. My bass player is from Sri Lanka, and you just meet them, and you know, whatever—‘I need a new member of the band.’ Somebody leaves or gets married so I start looking for a new one.
You’ve put out an astonishing number of albums—almost one a year for a really long time. How did you work so quickly?
I don’t think I put once a year—well, in the early days you used to do that. One album a year was the norm. Everybody used to do that. Now I would say every two, every three years.
You also took a really long break. There wasn’t really much coming out between 1996 and Timeless. What were you doing?
I was touring. I was doing concerts all over the world. I felt like it was the right time to take a break, which I did. I decided to record again when I met and came up with Timeless, which was a big success all over the world. And then I did another album, Encanto, and now I’m working on a new one. I just started last week. We’re going through pre-production—looking at what songs to do and who’s going to be in it. So this is pre-production time.
I know you worked with on the Be Cool soundtrack.
We did one number, actually—it came out great. It’s the number where Travolta dances with Thurman. What’s her name? Uma. That’s the number that I recorded with the Black Eyed Peas that they decided they wanted to use as the dance number. It was a wonderful experience. I met Will much before when he invited me to play on his album—it was Elephunk. So the movie came after the album was out and Will asked me if I wanted to be in it because that’s what this song that I played on it. It was great.
Why did you take to Brazil to work on Encanto?
We decided we gotta cut a few things down there, and he wanted to go, so we went. It was something that we thought was going to be a different thing, because we did Timeless all here in L.A. and to go to Bahia—to go to Rio de Janeiro to capture some of the rhythms and some of the things that you can only do when you’re down there. He liked it very much and it was wonderful to have him down there with me.
How do you keep track of what’s fresh in Brazil?
I’m always receiving new records and people always send me stuff, and you know—today with the internet. I have Brazilian television, satellite—so yes, I am very aware of what’s happening musically.
Who are some artists or movements that you find particularly exciting?
There’s a lot of things happening down there. Brazil is such a multicultural place. There’s such a diversity in Brazilian music. It’s impossible to describe just one element. I suggest that you go down there and experience it.
What do you think are five essential artists that people who want to get to know Brazilian music should explore?
Wow. I haven’t thought about that. It’s more than five, but I will give you Antonio Carlos Jobim, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, Toninho Horta, Zeca Pagodinho and Marcelo D2.
I read that you recorded a bunch of escolas de samba in a parking lot.
This was an album that I did years ago called Brasileiro—that won a Grammy. I think Brasileiro represents the best the diversity that I told you about Brazilian music—the rhythms, the songs, the different styles. It’s about that, you know. You have Carlinhos Brown and his sound. You have all the artists that were part of that. It represented at the time of the best of Brazilian music. It’s a great album and I’m very proud of it.