What’s in a name? When it concerns the true pioneers of Brazilian psychedelic rock, the answer is just about everything. Os Mutantes are much more, in fact, than “the mutants” of São Paulo's late ’60s Tropicália scene; since their founding in 1966 by brothers Arnaldo Baptista and Sérgio Dias with singer Rita Lee, they’ve pursued evolution, revolution, musical activism and extreme experimentation at every bend in the road. They’ve also weathered lineup changes, near-death tragedy, break-ups, years of silence, bumpy reunions and tiring but triumphant world tours, often fueled (in the early days, to be sure) by all manner of hallucinogens. And these are just the broad strokes.
Even if the band had never made another album—and they almost didn’t—after 1974’s prog-rock obscurity Tudo Foi Feito Pelo Sol (“Everything Was Made by the Sun”), there’s little doubt that the likes of Kurt Cobain, David Byrne, Beck, Devendra Banhart, the Flaming Lips and many more still would have felt the Mutantes’ influence. Their appeal resides in the ranginess of their music, and to this day, it’s an ever-morphing aesthetic that Dias—now as de facto frontman, lead guitarist and guiding creative force—continues to develop with the latest incarnation of the band.
“I feel like I’m finally achieving what I wanted, which is basically to have the entire band writing together,” he says, referring to the way the majority of Fool Metal Jack—Os Mutantes’ ninth studio album, and their first to be recorded almost entirely in English—came to fruition. “We got into a ping-pong way of writing that was very much like improvisation. That’s why most of the parts on the album are first takes. There comes a point in your life, especially when you’re deep into music, that you know when you’re ready. You know what to do, so you just go and do it. There’s no matter of perfection or thinking about it. I don’t work like that. I go for the spontaneity. Then when it’s time to tour, I have trouble trying to figure out what the hell I did [laughs].”
Dias assembled the current lineup in 2008, in the wake of a brief but wildly successful reunion tour with older brother Arnaldo that opened in London before rolling through a string of American cities. They were so warmly received that Dias caught the bug to do it again—this time with some fresh material at the ready. 2009’s Haih Or Amortecedor featured contributions from Brazilian legends Jorge Ben and Tom Zé, and was the first Mutantes studio album to be released in more than 35 years. New and younger audiences in America and around the world suddenly embraced the band as their own.
“It was ridiculous, man,” Dias recalls fondly. “I mean, to play New York is easy. To play L.A. is easy. But when you go to the middle of the country, to a small town like Lawrence, Kansas—here’s this wild band from Brazil, playing the old songs and putting out a new album in Portuguese, and everyone just went crazy. And I think this is a movement that is happening because of the power of indie music and the demolishment of the empire of the record companies. Everything used to be very separated, but now it seems more like Brazil!”
That sentiment sheds some light on his decision to relocate to the U.S. in 2011. Now a resident of Las Vegas (“Can you imagine? It’s like being on another planet!”), Dias retains a gleeful and contagious sense of adventure on Fool Metal Jack, even as he pointedly examines the darker side of the American Dream—one of the perks of experiencing Vegas on a daily basis. “The album kind of built itself on its own,” he says, “but the first thing I started to understand was that it’s all about America, and what I was seeing. I have such a high respect for America and its ideals, and how many times you guys fought for those ideals. But how can I say—the corruption of the ideals is hard on every empire. Scary things are happening now, and that’s what inspired me for the name of the album.”
Fool Metal Jack crackles with depth, confidence and complexity. The title track treads with a marauding, heavy-leaded beat (and Vinícius Junqueira’s floor-knocking bass) as Dias gnashes his teeth over tales of wartime—yet another young soldier at death’s door. But “To Make It Beautiful” dispels the darkness in favor of a sunny and endlessly catchy meditation on love, devotion and personal connection. “Once Upon A Flight” (written by the band’s resident multi-instrumentalist Vitor Trida) whips up a swirling circus of inspired art-rock riffage, its infectious refrain of “Fly...open wide...go, fly out!” providing the perfect vehicle for veteran Mutantes drummer Dinho Lemeto take off into the stratosphere. By contrast, “The Dream Is Gone” takes an intimate and poignant look (with Dias on accordion, no less) at America’s housing crisis, channeling hope into the narrative through the sheer songcraft of Dias’ soothing vocal melody.
And then there’s the Rundgren-esque “Into Limbo”—a master stroke of pastoral, mind-expanding pop that belies the seriousness of its subject. “I wrote that song when I found out that my brother jumped out a window,” Dias reveals. “I just never had the guts to record it, because it was a very personal thing.” Back in the early ’80s, rendered fragile and disillusioned by his drug-laden past, Arnaldo Baptista attempted suicide and awoke from a coma two months later. “The song is really a prayer of hope. At the time, I thought invulnerability was implicit, just because I signed the pact. When you’ve taken LSD and you’re in contact with the whole, this is basically a pact. You’ve got to earn your inner freedom with every single breath. Life is tough. It’s not easy. And jumping out is not the answer.”
The album’s lone song in Portuguese—the Gilberto Gil-penned “Eu Descobri” (“I Discovered”)—seems to make his point. A devotional bossa-style ode sung by Bia Mendes, it’s a yearning reflection on life, death, time and transcendence that typifies the work of Gil, as well as the old tenets of Tropicália. “That song needed a very simple frame,” Dias explains. “If you have a beautiful painting, the frame you put on it is either gonna take away or give more to what you see. So we did what Tropicália basically taught us—just eat it, digest it and throw it up. And it’s right in the middle of the album, so it’s like turning a page. It has so much to do with us and our past, we just had to go there.”
More than anything, Fool Metal Jack embodies the sound and spirit of a band that has not only recalibrated its past, but also redefined its future by remaining open to new ideas, new directions, and new ways of making music and interpreting the world. For Dias, that’s exactly what Os Mutantes have been about from the beginning, and now that they’ve settled into a constant state of recording and touring again, he can’t wait to bring new fans into the fold.
“To be accepted now in America is such a blessing,” he says. “It’s so beautiful. We could never imagine that back in 2005. If anybody asked me then if I was gonna do a tour of North America, I’d have said no way—it’ll never happen. I had no idea at all that Mutantes would come and claim my life again, and that the music would survive myself. That’s just a beautiful thing to be a part of.”