Here Come the Mutant Men

Brazilian legends Os Mutantes invade the States

When Sérgio Dias of legendary Brazilians Os Mutantes attended the Fillmore in 1968, he never dreamed that one day he'd play the venerable San Francisco ballroom. But that's where the guitarist will be hitting the stage this week, with a reconstituted Mutantes, no less. And Dias couldn't be more excited.

"It's gonna be really, really great," the effervescent 55-year-old gushes over the phone from his home in São Paolo, Brazil. "I'm dying, just counting the days," he says of the band's first-ever U.S. tour.

The name Os Mutantes (Portuguese for "The Mutants") was inspired by a sci-fi novel, and is often clipped to Mutantes by fans and band members alike. The founding trio of Sérgio Dias Baptista, his older brother Arnaldo Baptista on bass and keyboards, and vocalist Rita Lee came together around 1966. A third Baptista brother, Claudio, contributed one-of-a-kind instruments and effects units that lent Mutantes a one-of-a-kind sound. Incredibly, the band made its debut on an uncle's Brazilian television program, and several warbly old black-and-white TV appearances currently can be found on YouTube.

Combining western influences ranging from the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix with Brazilian folk, bossa nova, and avant-garde experimentalism, the members of Os Mutantes were an integral part of their nation's Tropicália movement in the late sixties. The band often collaborated with such fellow Tropicália luminaries as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and the first two albums, 1968's Os Mutantesand the following year's Mutantes, are two of the most wildly creative, oddly engaging works ever. In addition to the previously mentioned "influences," these records feature layers of gorgeous vocal harmonies, insanely fuzzed-out guitar tones, and some seriously wack studio production. Mutantes released three more albums — each a fun listen in its own right — before Lee left for a solo career around 1972, while the band continued its trajectory into a more prog-rock realm before dissipating in the late '70s.

Those early records soon became the stuff of music-hipster legend. Redd Kross referenced them in the '80s, Kurt Cobain tried to get Mutantes to reform as Nirvana-openers in the early '90s, and Beck's 1998 Mutationsalbum was inspired by Os Mutantes. David Byrne's Luaka Bop label released an Os Mutantes anthology called Everything Is Possible! in 1999. The original albums were re-released in the early '90s by Polydor in Brazil, and niche record stores like S.F.'s own Aquarius Records helped bring a new generation's attention to the band.

"They're one of our all-time best-sellers," says Aquarius Records co-owner Allan Horrocks of Os Mutantes. "It's this incredibly happy, sunshine-y music combined with the weirdest psychedelic rock, and when we put it on, people always say, 'What is this?' And then they usually buy it."

But nobody could get the band to reunite, until now. "It's been years of everybody offering this, offering that," says Dias. "But the way that it happened was as I always thought it would be, with a couple of phone calls between us, and just getting together and playing." Those calls were between Dias, brother Arnaldo, and original drummer Ronaldo "Dinho" Leme, all of whom opted for the reunion. Lee excused herself in part due to recently becoming a grandmother, so the band got Zelia Duncan to fill in, and by all accounts she excelled when the group played London in May.

That same 10-member band — featuring three veterans — is now touring the United States. While Dias feels the creative energy within the new lineup promises future compositions, the U.S. shows will be nothing but the old classics. "Now is the time to really celebrate the music," he says. "It is great to revisit yourself, and look back and see the things that you were doing when you were 16, 17 years old. They still feel fresh, and they still feel good."

 
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