It is January, and squeezed away upstairs in their favorite sushi restaurant in downtown Sao Paulo are the six members of CSS plus a stray boyfriend. (Turns out he belongs to producer-cum-drummer Adriano Cintra, the only fella in the group.) After 18 months touring the world, they are back home in Brazil to record their second album, which at this moment might end up being called “Donkey” or might end up being called “Hunk of Sh*t.” Shortly hereafter, once the album’s finished and it’s summer festival season in Europe and North America, the band will split this sprawling megalopolis for good. But this evening, as the rain slams down in the subtropical streets outside, the sake is flowing.
Conversation around the low table ranges over Shilpa Shetty (the band met her in the green room of U.K. TV show “Friday Night with Jonathan Ross”); the fanciability of the “Flight of the Conchords” guys (the band are big fans of the New Zealand comedy show); their myriad tattoos (“Adri has the worst!” — and he does, two lovey-dovey stick figures on his arm); and the stinkiness of their road crew. “We’ve got one roadie with the smelliest shoes ever,” says glamorous guitarist Ana Rezende. “One thing about us as a band, because we’re women, we keep everything very neat on the tour bus.”
I’d last seen CSS in subzero Cambridge, England — almost 10,000 km away — in early December. The band had traveled there by train, didn’t soundcheck, and played poker beforehand. “The preparation for the show is really boring,” Cintra says later. “But when you get on stage it’s crazy — it’s the best thing.” Cue streamers in the air and a friend dressed as an outsize Christmas present stalking the stage, as sophisticated teenage girls in spangly getups and provincial spotty boys bounce up and down to “Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death from Above,” “Music is My Hot Hot Sex” and the rest of the band’s necessarily limited canon. It’s an exhilarating gig and easy to understand how, over the course of a year or so, CSS have become one of the hottest live acts on the circuit and pinups for the music press and social-networking site MySpace.
The softly spoken Lovefoxxx (born Luisa Matsushita) — a riot of energy in Cambridge in one of her trademark catsuits, made for her by an American designer called Peggy Nolan — came third in trend-setting U.K. music magazine NME’s Cool List last year, trailing one of the Klaxons. CSS’ singer is now planning to set up house in London with another member of that same group, her boyfriend guitarist Simon Taylor-Davis. As electro-indie’s first couple, are they the prey of the paparazzi?
“No,” says Cintra, who with his handlebar mustache looks like a redneck gone wrong. “But there is a video of them on YouTube. A girl filmed them on the Tube on her cell phone. ‘Oh, it’s Lovefoxxx and Simon!’ ”
“I hope it doesn’t happen,” Lovefoxxx says.
Cintra: “We’re all boring really.”
Lovefoxxx: “Sometimes I don’t feel like getting really wild, (which is what we used to do) when we started touring.” She mentions a show with The Gossip, which involved “painting our teeth black, doing a moonie, just throwing food on everybody.” But now “I get worried about doing stupid things and getting trouble with my visa.
“During the shows, people think we are like that all the time; it’s very honest, all that happens, but afterwards . . . Simon and I love staying home,” she continues. “And when I’m there with him, I’m usually just so tired. It’s weird to tour so much, because when you stop, you’re just, like, dead.”
Suddenly, two members of Bonde Do Role materialize in the restaurant, friends of CSS and another new Brazilian group who are better known abroad than at home. The evening starts to slip into a drunken haze — there’s talk about the capture of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann and the absence or otherwise of bears in Africa — but at least here their anonymity is assured.
“We’ve sold how many copies in Brazil?” Cintra asks at one point.
Rezende: “No, more like 3,000.” T hat morning, the latest issue of Brazilian Rolling Stone was on the newsstands. There were two best-of-2007 album lists: one for Brazilian records (led by the sambista Paulinho da Viola) and one for internacionais (led by LCD Soundsystem). It’s not clear where CSS would fit in, because they don’t sit comfortably within any tradition of Brazilian music — and their only place in the magazine is in a small item titled “Hype do Ano” in recognition of their oversees popularity.
“It’s always been difficult here,” says guitarist Luiza Sa, who looks like a 1980s New York scenester in her red Ray-Bans. “When we started we could, like, play; but we’re not musicians, and in Brazil, there are a lot of good musicians.”
Rather, CSS are steeped in a global pop culture — middle-class kids (their parents are schoolteachers, businessmen, an engineer, a landscape designer) who grew up in the biggest city in the southern hemisphere listening to all kinds of music. “It’s annoying, because every journalist asks about Brazilian music,” Sa says. “Sao Paulo is cosmopolitan — it’s different from the rest of Brazil.” Bassist Ira Trevisan, the artiest of the group, says: “It would be good if we were Belgian. No one would be bothered about our heritage then.”
“I was really an indie kid,” Sa says, “and there is an indie culture here. When I was 15, I was listening to bands like Sonic Youth. I’d buy everything on import.”
Guitarist Carolina Parra, the quietest member, adds: “I’d watch bands like Pavement on MTV and the thing that caught my attention was the lyrics. There wasn’t the heavy message that Brazilian music has.”
“A lot of Brazilian artists are too centered in their own music,” continues Sa. “Sao Paulo’s more about listening to everything else.” But she doesn’t think there’s much happening in the city right now. “I think if something amazing were happening, I would know, because all my friends are in the ‘scene.’ I don’t think anything so special is happening. Not in Sao Paulo anyway.”
The group are now talking in Trama Studios in the comfortable Pinheiros district. It’s hard to get a grasp on Sampa, as Sao Paulo is known locally. Helicopters, the preferred mode of transport for the megarich, buzz the leaden skies (it rains nonstop when we are here), while vultures circle too, redolent of the vast slums. Trevisan says that, in terms of a social scene, the city is “10 times bigger than London, but 100 times smaller.”
Parra explains that Western acts seldom play in Brazil, so when they do come, “even if you have no idea who the band is, you just (do some) research and try to like them, so you can have more fun.”
Cintra: “Me and my friends went to every band, no matter what. I went to a Scorpions gig!”
Cue much laughter at the expense of the German metal band. But Rezende trumps him. “I went to Blind Guardian, a German-Christian-medieval-metallic band. They sang a version of ‘Surfin’ USA’ that lasted about 16 minutes.”
And Lovefoxxx adds: “The first show I went to was Kenny G. I went with my father. I was like, ‘How can he do that with his sax?!’ I was 8. I was very impressed.’
When CSS came together in 2003, Sa, Rezende and Parra were at university, while Lovefoxxx and Trevisan (the only two who aren’t native Paulistas) were working in the fashion industry and Cintra (approximately a decade older than the others) was writing jingles for TV adverts. It all started almost as an art-school prank — their name derived from a quote attributed to Beyonce Knowles, when she said she was “tired of being sexy” (which translates as Cansei de Ser Sexy, hence the acronym).
“The first show we played was very small and everyone loved it and by the time of our third show it was packed,” Sa recalls. “But we continued growing and when we got to this big festival — I think (people felt) it wasn’t their discovery any more, it wasn’t underground, and they started saying bad things.
“Like the first show we did in Rio — and I have really great memories of it — one guy, a critic, said we were ugly as monsters. And I was like, ‘Who cares?’ It’s about music, right? But because we are girls . . . there was so much focusing on whether we were sexy or not. And just because we were having fun, people were like, they’re not working hard and they’re not serious, they don’t know what they’re doing and . . . la la la.”
Parra: “Sometimes the serious indie bands don’t like us because we’re doing pop music and having fun. That’s something in the U.K. that doesn’t exist, because (they) have a culture of indie bands doing pop music and not being afraid of being radio-friendly. Sometimes people, especially in Brazil, get a little bit grumpy about it.”
To begin with, CSS lived on their wits. But even if local tastemakers were sniffy, the band started to pick up fans from elsewhere: Their eponymous debut was released by hipster Brazilian label Trama in October 2005, before U.S. label Sub Pop (a subsidiary of Warners) picked it up internationally (in Japan it was released by KSR). The album’s tracks included “Meeting Paris Hilton,” a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the U.S. It Girl, and soon enough the band found themselves mingling with Hilton herself, at last year’s Coachella Festival in California.
Lovefoxxx: “We were just behind the stage waiting to go on. . . . This very tall guy came to me and said, “Oh, are you Lovefoxxx? Ah, Ms. Hilton wants to talk to you guys.’ ”
Cintra: “We were warming up and someone said Paris Hilton is coming and I said, ‘No, it’s not her . . . Oh f*ck, it is Paris Hilton.’ ”
Lovefoxxx: “She was very nice.”
Lovefoxxx: “Then she was very awkward.”
What was the point of the song? I ask.
Lovefoxxx: “At that time (when we recorded it) we were trying to be as silly as we could; there was not a point to it. . . . When we play it we still have a good response: People are like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah!’ ”
Cintra: “It’s not about Paris, it’s about ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah!’ ”
Cintra, who programed much of the first album on his laptop at home, is sat in the studio control booth. Boxes of herbal tea, packets of Rizla, small screwdrivers, sheets of paper with scary-looking schedules, two stuffed Kermit the Frogs and a rubber chicken litter the room. A techie in cut-off shorts plugs an iPod into the soundboard and a new track, still missing its vocal, blasts out. Sa plays air guitar and Trevisan munches cheeseballs.
“I think, ‘How is it going to sound when we play it live?’ ” Cintra says. “That’s how I’m producing this album.” The obvious reference points for the spanking new tunes — including what will later become “The Beautiful Song” and “Reggae All Night” — include groups such as Kings of Leon and New Order.
Is there no link with an indigenous tradition? Later, in the bar of the Hotel Unique, one of the city’s many extraordinary Modernist buildings, designed in the shape of a watermelon slice by Ruy Ohtake, I ask Trevisan about CSS’ Brazilian forebears.
“My generation, we’re aware of the Tropicalista stuff,” she says with reference to acts such as Os Mutantes. “But it’s almost from a foreigner’s point of view. . . . We come at it almost as outsiders.”
I show her a copy of a Soul Jazz compilation, “The Sexual Life of the Savages,” which documents the early ’80s postpunk scene in Sao Paulo. “We don’t know about those acts,” she says. “But it might be different for Adriano.”
So it proves. He grabs the CD and starts eulogizing about the bands. “The first Brazilian band I really liked — I was 14 or 15 — was As Mercenarias. But people don’t know who they are here. The singer of As Mercenarias, she’s the mother of a friend of mine and I didn’t even realize! Her son didn’t care. In the ’90s, I used to go and see them play.”
So do they count as an influence? “Of course, oh yeah. When I went to see Mercenarias, I’d never heard of (the British postpunk) groups that had influenced them, like Gang of Four. I didn’t know there was a scene outside (Brazil) that they were influenced by. I thought they were the real thing. But in a way they were, because they didn’t imitate that thing, they were also themselves.”
The following evening, the group have been booked by friends in the fashion industry to DJ at a party at Love Story, a club in the shadow of the landmark Italia Building. There is a “Borat”-style comedy moment when the drag queen on the door — who lets us circumvent the metal detector — extravagantly kisses first Trevisan, then Rezende, then Sa, who’s encouraged to give him a slap on his spectacularly tattooed arse, and then gravely shakes my hand. Inside, every conceivable pop-cultural tribe is represented: There’s a Leigh Bowery-esque trannie, in a white frock, with fluorescent pink lipstick; kids with asymmetrical haircuts looking like they’re fresh out of London’s trendy Hoxton area; greasy bikers; cowboy wannabes; and plenty more. Each member of CSS plays an appropriately eclectic set, Trevisan kicking off with some Spank Rock, followed by Nirvana, followed by a mashup she has of Battles vs. Metronomy. Sa makes good on her promise to play the Spice Girls’ “Spice Up Your Life.” Rezende and Parra are the last to leave the club, at 4 a.m. Parra can’t fully remember what she played come the morning, when it’s back to the studio, and I won’t see the six of them again. F our months later, Sa has been DJing again, but this time in a pub in north London. The band have just arrived in the U.K. for a tour production rehearsal, and the big news is that Trevisan has quit, with a statement saying, “I am a bit worried about climate change. . . . I decided to fly less,” but also because she wants to return to fashion. In an e-mail to me, she says, “The music business is not any worse than most of the business (sic), but I’m happy for following my heart!”
Clearly the cost of touring can be hard, but the remaining members have signed a new management deal with the U.K. team that looks after acts such as Bloc Party and they sound well prepared for what now lies ahead. Four of them have moved to London: Lovefoxxx has gone east to be with Taylor-davis, Cintra is somewhere near Camberwell in south London (“I don’t know the area well, but there aren’t too many kebab shops”), and Rezende and Parra are about to move into a property in the city’s northwest Kensal Green area, although because they only landed in town two days ago, and went straight into a tour production rehearsal, they haven’t seen the place yet. Sa, meanwhile, unhelpfully, is moving to Brooklyn, New York.
“We spend so much time in the U.K., it’s a natural move,” says Lovefoxxx. “It’s like a fresh start — it’s as if we were on trial before.”
Rezende has already been watching some trash TV. ” ‘Embarrassing Illnesses!’ It’s amazing. You see all these sick vaginas. . . . You’d never get that in Brazil!”
Nonetheless, there are things they miss about Brazil — their families, the food — and Sa is adamant that “We’re Brazilian; we’ll always be Brazilian. We’re not fighting that.”
Of the reaction to CSS she says: “The fact that you’re from Brazil makes no difference to the audience. What matters is the music. People (in Sao Paulo) are ready to party. Every day, literally, if I want to go out, there’s a party. In England it’s about the music. It’s like football: Everyone talks about it. Cab drivers will talk to you about music. We have an accountant and he started telling us how he once saw Joy Division. England is so particular. It’s really different to everywhere else.”
One further decision has been made; “Hunk of Sh*t” is out and “Donkey” is definitely in. But what does it mean? “It’s a Brazilian expression, . . . like ‘you idiot,’ ” Cintra explains. “Like, ‘We got new management: We’re not donkeys any more.’ ”
“Donkey” is released July 9. CSS play July 27 at the Fuji Rock Festival, Naeba ski resort, Niigata Prefecture. Three-day tickets ¥39,800; one-day tickets ¥16,800. www.smash-uk.com
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.