Most American listeners probably know Brazilian singer-songwriter Seu Jorge as the soft-spoken dude singing David Bowie covers in Portuguese in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. He’s also acted in City of God and alongside Brian Cox in the 2008 prison-break movie The Escapist. His latest musical project, though, is a radically different affair.
The self-titled Seu Jorge & Almaz is a full-band record, and a surprisingly rockin’ one at that. The group features guitarist Lucio Maia and drummer Pupillo from the funk-rock band Nação Zumbi, pioneers of a Northern Brazilian sound called “Mangue beat.” (Their first two albums, Afrociberdelia and Da Lama ao Caos, featured activist frontman and street prophet Chico Science, but the ones they’ve made since his death in 1997, particularly Futura and Fome de Tudo, are just as essential.) Here, they’re joined by bassist and film-scorer Antonio Pinto (Central Station, City of God, Lord of War, Love in the Time of Cholera), with Mario C. handling production. The album is all covers, with a surprising range, including Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” Kraftwerk’s “The Model,” Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” and many Brazilian songs. In advance of the group’s show later here this week, we called Jorge at his home in Brazil to chat.
Your previous albums have had a softer sound, mostly dominated by acoustic guitar. What made you decide to make a more rock-styled album?
I wasn’t trying to make a rock-style record, it just happened that way. I was invited to record one song for the soundtrack of a movie [with these guys], and after we recorded the song, we looked at each other and decided to make an album. The formation of the band was something I’d never tried before, with stronger guitar, different drumming — especially the two from Nação Zumbi, who are very, very good musicians. And the bass player, Antonio Pinto, has done movie soundtracks all over the world; I knew him from City of God. It’s fresh for me, it’s different for me, and I think it’s different for Brazil, too, because it’s an opportunity to show people around the world a new conception of Brazilian music.
Lucio Maia is a pretty unique guitar player. How much of the arrangements were up to him?
Everything, because he was the conductor. We followed him many times. He had a lot of pedals, and he’s a very, very good musician. He’s not a musician, he’s an artist. And Pupillo is the same, and Antonio is the same.
Had you been a fan of Nação Zumbi for a long time? How did you get hooked up with those guys?
Yes, the first time I saw them was with their leader, a guy called Chico Science. Chico Science died years ago, but within a very short time he made a lot of music, and it’s had a big influence on a new generation. Nação Zumbi can point Brazil in another direction with the diversity of their music. It’s very unique, very strong, very original.
It seems like that Mangue beat sound is a secret Brazil is keeping for itself…that style of music hasn’t made the same global impact that samba, bossa nova and other Brazilian music has.
Yeah, and I would like to try and book a tour, a Nação Zumbi tour with Almaz, to show people that there’s a new Brazil. It’s a great moment, because it’s a new decade, and there’s the potential to find another way. Brazil has so much, in all areas . . . culturally there’s a new generation, and Lucio Maia said, ‘Let’s do it right now, because it’s a new decade. 2010 started things again.’ The new generation is hungry for news, information, for new conceptions, to rejuvenate what we need to do. And the new album can help with that — that’s our intention.
Why did you make the record all cover songs?
They’re all songs we’ve been hearing all our lives, and they’re from different perspectives. Like, Pupillo brought in “Rock With You,” and Lucio suggested “The Model,” and Pinto brought in “Cristina” and “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” And together we realized everybody loves these songs. This repertoire makes it easier for people to understand the music.
You do a lot of cover songs, period – why is that?
My perception about this is, with David Bowie for example, I didn’t know Wes Anderson before Life Aquatic, and he approached me about David Bowie. To me he’s a great, great artist, but before the movie I didn’t know much about him. When I wrote the songs in Portuguese, I realized how complex and poetic it was. It was very hard for me to do justice to David Bowie. But for myself, I felt like these were new compositions. Cane and Able [whose song “Girl You Move Me” appears on the record] was something different. That’s obscure. Mario C., for example, who produced the album, he didn’t know Cane and Able, and was completely shocked when he was listening to the music. I told him, Cane and Able didn’t release their album in America, just in France and Brazil. And my wife looked at the picture on the cover, and thought this [would be] a good album. And she put it on and discovered a great song and showed it to me. I selected this song, everyone loved it, it was very fresh.
So is this an ongoing band?
Yeah. I wanna write new songs, original ones. I wanna do the tour first, travel from city to city, find some melodies, write some lyrics. I think the next thing is to write an album of original songs.
Seu Jorge and Almaz play Terminal 5 on July 30.