Acclaimed music theorist and renowned author, Simon Reynolds pointed out in his article on the subject in The Village Voice, that the constant mining of Post-Punk during the noughties left slim pickings and the archivists had to go further afield to find lost and undocumented curios. The smart money would have gone to another European country with a similar grey weather and dour temperament to England, Germany for example. However, surprisingly, the compilations “Não Wave – Brazilian Post-Punk 1982-1988” (Man Recordings) and “The Sexual Life of the Savages” (Soul Jazz), both released in 2005, shed light on a tropical music scene in Brazil very much influenced by the leading contemporaries in the UK and USA while at the same time embracing the local flavas of samba and Bossa Nova.
The core of the scene was essentially from São Paulo, it’s hard to imagine any other city in South America capable of throwing out such a creative and strange hybrid as tropical art-punk. But political as well as cultural changes in the country at the time contributed to creating this fertile and radical underground circuit.
A clear example of this hybrid is a track on one of the compilations by Akira S e as Garotas Que Erraram “Sobre as Pernas”, a swinging bass driven number sounding like Joy Division with Frippertronics. What makes this track distinctly Brazilian is that these young guys have taken this serious, sombre sound created in the decidedly unglamorous North of England and resolve to break into a carnivalesque batucada right in the middle!
In fact their debut self-titled album (released on São Paulo label Baratos Afins) the track is taken from is an album full of intelligent and experimental pop music in the best tradition of groups like Japan, Heaven 17 and Teardrop Explodes, with dynamic funk laden bass riffs, atmospheric electronics and classic post-punk choppy guitar providing melancholic melodies, drones or just plain noise.
Akira S were formed in São Paulo by a core of two individuals, Alex Antunes, vocals, and Akira Tsukimoto on bass, tapes and computer programming, with other floating members contributing to tracks and performances. Alex Antunes is a published author as well a musical producer, his outstanding novel “A Estratégia de Lilith” (Conrad Livros) is like reading a Paulistano Bukowski but with esoteric and pop culture references.
In the early eighties Alex was programming the Centro Cultural in São Paulo, which was an important platform for underground bands in the 80’s, later on he went on to become a journalist for the renowned music magazine “Bizz”.
I spoke to Alex about the formation of the band during this period.
“I met Akira when he was the sound technician for a previous group of mine, No.2. We got talking and I found out that he researched contemporary classical music and edited sounds that he recorded from short-wave radio. Our initial idea was to use these tapes as backgrounds to a mixture of funk bass and drums, with spoken word vocals – but no guitars! So I left No.2 and we started working. I wanted the name “As Garotas que Erraram” (the girls that fucked up) because the two girls who played in No.2 wouldn’t hook up with me. Akira found it strange, us being two guys so it became Akira S and the girls who fucked up. Then some other members came in, Edson X on drums, a second bassist, keyboards and then finally we allowed guitars, but we didn’t want conventional guitarists who were exhibitionists.
At the time in Brazil there was nothing really similar musically. Perhaps Walter Franco whose experimentalism really impressed me when I was about twelve years old, and which I still love today, Azymuth were really good as well. I grew up listening to progressive rock, Hermeto Paschoal and Egberto Gismonti but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. What became more important was the black music I heard on the radio (Issac Hayes etc.) and Post-Miles fusion. My favourite lyricist at the time was Caetano Veloso but I felt let down by his 80s phase, I much preferred his more uncultivated period of the 70s.
The principal references for Akira were foreign, mainly Robert Fripp’s discotronic album “God save the King” and “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” by Byrne and Eno. He was also a fan of James Brown, Carly Simon and Bela Bartok
During that period I was listening to a lot of Chrome, Cabaret Voltaire and Clock DVA, the influences of No.2 had been Gang of Four, The Clash, Joy Division and Fra Lippo Lippi (!). I found this style too depressing; we were defined as “dark”- a kind of precursor to Goth. We were constantly drunk and depressed and I thought we would all end up killing ourselves. So when Akira and I found out we were both fans of King Crimson, Duran Duran and Bill Laswell/Material I thought it would be a healthier band to be in, driven by funk and experimentation”
Listening to the Não Wave collection I wonder what the Brazilians who made this music were listening to at the time. I asked Alex if he was aware of things like the Sheffield scene, Fetish records etc.
“I loved the Sheffield sound, The Cabs, Heaven 17 even Hula! At the time I also listened to early A Certain Ratio – the “Flight” EP for example – were really good.
We really loved the New York No Wave scene, principally Arto Lindsay and James Chance and the Contortions, but also Liquid Liquid and the beginning of the hip-hop scene. The subtitle of LP opening track “Swing Bass Series 2” is “Eu não vivo sem meu baixo” (I can’t live without my bass), a reference to LL Cool J’s “I can’t live without my Radio”. The whole Kraftwerk/electro/hip-hop connection was all too clear for us.”
But how were these recordings getting into Brazil? I find it hard to believe that many people knew about these groups at the time.
“I studied at university with Thomas Pappon and Cadão Volpato of Fellini, a friend of Thomas’s was an airline steward and would bring things back with him, Snakefinger for example. Later Thomas’s brother went to live in Germany and would send him things. A significant event was when the Portuguese writer and critic Jorge Lima Barreto was invited to give a talk at university discussing the importance of Talking Heads and other bands, this had a great effect on us.
Luiz Calanca of the shop Baratos Afins (still in existence) in the center of São Paulo would import and sell vinyls, that way we found out about Gang of Four, early Simple Minds and Yellow Magic Orchestra. Wop Bop was another shop that would have interesting stuff and Trouser Press became a very important reference; I would read it cover to cover.
When we finally met up with the bands from Brasilia (an interjection here: the scene in the capital Brasilia was of enormous importance in Brazil where the core of the rock bands that would become huge during the eighties were based) we found that they liked more or less the same things that we did, they could get their material through the diplomats who traveled abroad.
A bizarre intervention in the track “Sobre as Pernas” is the French horn solo near the end, which is played by none other than Holger Czukay, how did this come about?
“Holger came to Brazil for a series of lectures in the Goethe Institute. Miguel Barella (contributing guitarist to Akira S and member of Agentss, pioneering synthpop group, amongst others) brought him to the studio where we were recording; he had his French horn under his arm ready to collaborate. He heard the track and made two negative comments: he didn’t like studios where the engineer was separate from the musicians and he didn’t like the drums on the track, he found them too hard, he preferred things that were more “floating”, to quote. That’s a shame we said, “shame nothing,” he replied, “I’ll record anyway!” And so he proceeded to play one take along to the track and left us with the instructions to “edit this bit, take this out and put an effect here,” which we did, following his instructions rigorously during the mix.
When recording the album the background tapes for the track “Garotas que Erraram” were taken from a record by a sexologist, a cousin of Marta Suplicy (former Mayor of São Paulo), talking about losing one’s virginity. At this time there weren’t samplers so we edited them as Teo Macero did with Miles Davis, cutting the laminate and sticking it back together piece by piece. We were really into the manipulation of sound with loops and filters, in this sense we were very much influenced by Cabaret Voltaire, we even had the same influences in common with the Cabs: dada, surrealism and the Burroughs cut-up technique.”
The line up of the group is worth a Pete Frame rock family tree, with many key members of the São Paulo underground collaborating:
“Guilhereme Isnard, from Zero, commented that Akira S wasn’t a band it was a recreation community. We always considered it a creative nucleus, with Akira and I interacting with lots of guests. Branco Mello from Titãs, João Gordo from Ratos de Porão, Andre Jung from Ira! Ciro Pessoa from Cabine C, Skowa, Bocato a whole load of people, mainly during the recordings”
Another notable collaboration was with Arto Lindsay. Alex takes up the tale.
“We knew Arto was in Rio, translating lyrics for Caetano Veloso or something, and we invited him to come and play with us. He accepted with the only demand being that we play some old Brazilian sambas.
The show made the front page of the papers so the promoter put the ticket price up with nothing extra going to us. The venue was an old house that had been adapted and was giving us loads of electrical problems threatening to fry our computer plus there were lots of problems at the door, so I went to the door and basically invited everyone outside in as my guests. During the show it was pretty chaotic, I kept on trying to convince the audience to tear the venue apart and Arto insisted on playing some old sambas. At the end of the show the security kept Akira and all the equipment ransom until they were sure nothing had been broken, in truth nothing had been broken, although an audience member had broken a glass and had written “death” in blood on the wall.”
Apart from the album, little else was recorded. There were some tracks on a few collections; most notably two tracks on the genre-defining compilation “Não São Paulo” (again Baratos Afins) and a track on the Arnaldo Baptista tribute album “Sanguinho Novo”, though dozens of tracks were recorded on 2 to 16 track recording equipment between 1986 and 1989.
Did Alex think Akira S left a musical legacy in Brazil?
“A few artists and bands have said they were influenced by us, for example Zumbi do Mato from Rio de Janeiro, Speed Freaks, who recorded the Baile funk track for the Nissan ad, and perhaps one or two other nutters.
After Akira S I had other bands, Noticias Popular and Industria Mirabile 2, both still with Akira and then at the end of the nineties Shiva LasVegas who released a CD in 1999. All of these projects seem pretty much seem connected to me.”
Akira currently lives in Amsterdam working as a network administrator and has plans to release a CD of solo material recorded over the last 10 years. However, the band reformed in 2005 for a one-off show in São Paulo as part of the 4Hype festival of electronic music and arts, sharing the bill with Wolf Eyes and Fennesz.
“After watching a show by LCD Soundsystem in São Paulo and listening to The Rapture I thought it was the right time to for us to get back together and play again. We took out the keyboards which were pretty dated and modernized the sound with loops and beats and I think it worked well.”
Nowadays Alex has reunited with guitarist Miguel Barella for the noise project MARV, there is more of a focus on free improv but he believes that the project “has been contaminated by the same contexts” and some intriguing collaborators are being lined up.
What surprised most listeners of the two compilation CDs is how contemporary and fresh the sounds were, which can be put down to the then vogue for retro or perhaps how futurist the artists were, or simply that the music has a timeless quality, able to cross decades as well as continents.