The myth and magic surrounding the Brazilian ensemble Os Mutantes is just about as potent as the band’s early period recordings.
The group was part of the Tropicália movement, which included Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Tom Zé. It rankled the military government of the era while helping to define a youth counterculture in the South American nation.
The members of Os Mutantes attained more than a modicum of home-turf notoriety, donning capes or dressed as aliens on the backs of their album covers and channeling the Beatles run through boogie, folk and psych filters. And while the clutch of albums from 1968 through 1970 now garner a fair bit of international fawning, the troupe initially had a difficult time reaching beyond Brazilian borders.
“Everything was so far. Europe was like another world — the USA also,” says Sergio Dias, one of the ensemble’s founders and its lone original member. “There was no interest in bands that spoke other languages. English ruled, basically.”
Renowned at home for ecstatic concert engagements, Dias, his brother, Arnaldo Baptista, and Rita Lee pushed through politically contentious moments even as some of their musical compatriots left home or were forced out.
Such garage psych as “Bat Macumba,” from the group’s opening salvo, and the besotted beatnik folk of “Desculpe, Baby,” off 1970’s “A Divina Comédia Ou Ando Meio Desligado,” didn’t distill the moment. They cascaded color down onto a difficult time.
“We were under a military government and that was not very healthy for art or culture,” Dias explains. “We were totally different from what they could stand. They tried to label us, but we were kids then. Kids are basically anarchists.”
Os Mutantes’ lineups persisted through the late-’70s with Dias’ guidance, as his brother and Lee, who married briefly, left the fold. Eventually, the guitarist decamped to New York and began performing with John McLaughlin compatriot, L. Shankar. This jazz-world entrance afforded a wealth of unforeseen opportunities.
He traveled to New York to meet bandleader Deodato, he says, after someone gave him the Brazilian expat’s number — and was invited to produce four songs on his album.
“I didn’t even know what production was,” Dias says. “He changed my life with one phrase. He introduced me to Kool and the Gang. He said, ‘This is Sergio Dias, producer.’”
That career shift, along with touring opportunities, enabled Dias to let Mutantes lie dormant at about the time punk and American independent rock began solidifying. What all those bands shared was an affinity for digging up old recordings. And by the ’90s, Kurt Cobain had voiced his Mutantes fandom and David Byrne’s Luaka Bop imprint issued a compilation of the ensemble’s work.
After an inaccurate report of a reunion began circulating, the band decided to reconvene in 2006 at London’s Barbican Theatre. By 2009, there was a new album. Another followed in 2013, Dias helming each without his brother or Lee.
“‘Haih ... Or Amortecedor …’ is very Brazilian, but ‘Fool Metal Jacket’ is based on what I’ve experienced in America — it’s a political album, for sure,” Dias says about recordings by the latter-day Mutantes troupe, which includes the group’s first forays into English songwriting. “It was regarding Bush and his policies, and also the destruction of the economy and people losing their houses. That touched me a lot. … Now, it’s such a punch in the stomach to see Trump be president. I cannot understand.”
The encumbrances of political regimes are something to which Dias remains acutely attuned. He notes he’s a citizen and voted in the 2016 election. But more than politics, his time performing in Os Mutantes formed Dias’ inner contours, something that snakes out far beyond politics and music.
“Mutantes, for me, is my life. It’s very hard to disconnect myself from the persona,” says Dias, who’s slated to appear at the Capital Ale House on Feb. 28. “When I do music for myself or did my solo albums, it’s totally different than recording or writing under the Mutantes umbrella. It is a different kind of magic — it’s part of my being; so powerful.”
That vigor’s being channeled into work on a new record. And while the music since 2009 has, at times, pushed a substantial hard rock vibe, a carnival sense of the unknown remains central to Os Mutantes. S
Os Mutantes and Major and the Monbacks play the Richmond Music Hall at Capital Ale House on Tuesday, Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $25 in advance and $30 at the door. capitalalehouse.com.