While American counterculture was taking shape in the mid-1960s, bringing relaxed attitudes and brave new music with it, Brazil was experiencing its own cultural revolution. With the military in control of the government and cracking down on dissent, two teen-age brothers and a friend formed a band that combined their native Brazilian music with the bold sounds being introduced by The Beatles' new psychedelic stage.
The music of Os Mutantes -- created by brothers Sérgio Dias and Arnaldo Baptista with friend Rita Lee Jones -- came to be known as tropicália, and held a certain provocative quality that flew in the face of the ruling regime. Onstage, they dressed in a Napoleonic uniform, a priest's cassock and a wedding dress. In the studio, they cushioned controversial lyrics by surrounding them with sound effects and musique concrète.
Speaking from the road, Dias says the group never felt intimidated even as the Brazilian government was jailing musicians like Caetano Veloso. "We felt defiant. Especially when you're kids, you have that sense of indestructibility and immortality, which is great," Dias says. "It's something that I try to nourish. We never took [the intimidation] as the fear that they wanted us to feel. We never let it get into our soul. We made a joke of them."
The group rarely played outside Brazil before disbanding in 1978. Yet it eventually gained fans in high places, such as Beck (who saluted them on his Mutations album) and David Byrne (who released a compilation of the band's earliest work on his Luaka Bop label). During a Nirvana tour in Brazil, Kurt Cobain tried tracking Baptista down to beg him for a reunion. These well-positioned cheerleaders inspired Dias to resurrect the band in 2006. Only Jones and Baptista appeared in the first reunion shows, but the new lineup slayed the audience at the Pitchfork Festival that year. Some things never go out of style.
Most of the time, Os Mutantes expressed themselves in a lighthearted manner, combining psychedelic guitar sounds with Brazilian grooves, and this fun-loving attitude carries through on Haih or Amortecedor, the first new Os Mutantes album in three decades. Tom Zé, a veteran Brazilian composer, collaborated with Dias and wrote lyrics for several songs. It begins with "Hymns of the World Part 1," a brief intro with a sample of a Vladimir Putin speech. Nearly every track sounds different, jumping from tropical hip-hop beats and exotica (both in one song) to indie rock or a torch song, adding distorted guitar where it's least expected. Yet Haih never sounds overly ambitious.
Dias says the album was not assembled in an effort to capitalize on Os Mutantes' past glories. "We didn't use any preconceived ideas. We didn't look back and we didn't lean on anything we did before," he says. "And I think this is what Os Mutantes would sound like in the 21st century. It's very straightforward. I think it's important for a band who comes back to put out new music. We never played it safe and I don't think we're going to start this now."
The title Haih or Amortecedor also combines two different languages and ideas. "Haih" translates from the Shoshone language as "raven," the album's front cover image. "This started with me wanting to have a raven as a pet, like a cat," Dias says with a laugh. "It's always a big fun joke but there's also the mystical aspect of the raven. It's always connected to magic and mysteries."
"Amortecedor," the title of a song which doesn't actually appear on the album (iTunes will soon release it), contains some Portuguese wordplay. "In Portuguese, if you break down the syllables, 'a' is an interjection; 'amo' -- I love; 'amor' -- love; 'amortece' -- love weaves; 'tecedor' is a weaver. 'Amortecedor' -- Love weaves pain. And so it goes and goes and goes," Dias says. "It never ends."
As Dias talks about the band's recent success, he says that Everything Is Possible, the title of Byrne's Os Mutantes compilation, really reflects his current attitude. "I don't believe in Murphy's Law. I believe that anything that can happen will happen in the good sense," he says. "We're very positive, and we're honored to be here in your country and play our music, and be able to express all of this, after all these years."
Os Mutantes with Deleon. 8 p.m. Fri., Oct. 9. Mr. Small's Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $20. 21 and over. 412-821-4447 or www.mrsmalls.com