Even though the current King Midas of commercial pop himself, will.i.am, tried to update Sergio Mendes' sound for a Starbucks compilation a few years ago, the perennially optimistic Brazilian Angeleno seems to inhabit a time/space bubble. In Mendes' world, it's an eternal 1962 of the mind, all Kennedy-era high hopes and sunny beaches full of jet-setters (think Don Draper's Palm Springs escapade), with tasteful touches of polyester-era cosmopolitan disco and jazz-fusion injected into his retro hologram. Mendes has a new album out, called Bom Tempo, which he's now touring to ecstatic plastic-bossa crowds from Asia to Europe and all the way back home (his adoptive home for over four decades) to the Bowl.
L.A. WEEKLY: You've been living in L.A. for many, many years. Do you consider your music Brazilian, international or part of the West Coast sound?
I've been in the U.S. since 1964, but I go back every year to Brazil, spend time with the family. When I first came to L.A., I liked the weather and I played some clubs here and I met Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert. [Their] A&M Records was just starting. I like it here. I came to New York first with the bossa nova festival at Carnegie Hall with Stan Getz, then I went back to Brazil, and after that L.A. has been my second home.
The songs that made me famous were most of them Brazilian songs. “Mais que Nada” was my first hit: It became internationally famous. I was living in Glendale, rehearsing, and that's when I met Jerry and Herb and things started happening. Of course living here, the sun and everything else affected a lot. Also the great musicians that are here, that I've had the chance to work with.
It's a little different than if I decided to go to Wyoming, but the music is basically Brazilian music. That's why I called it Brazil '66.
You're known for your unique, unmistakable versions of other people's songs. How do you decide what songs to give “the Sergio Mendes treatment”?
I'm an arranger and producer: For me the key is the melody. When you have a beautiful melody, like the great Jobim songs, or Cole Porter, or Burt Bacharach or [the] Beatles, which I've done, that's what you look for. I can find them anywhere. I hear them on the radio, people send them to me from all over the world. Take “Fool on the Hill.” I was spending Christmas with Herb [Alpert] in Acapulco and he brought the Magical Mystery Tour album, and as soon as I heard it I said, “I gotta write an arrangement.”
The technology has changed a lot — it used to be two tracks, then four, eight, 16, now it's ProTools. Now you're able to record a track here, then send it to Brazil to put the vocal there. But forever, you need a great melody.
What's the best location to enjoy your latest album?
Bom Tempo means “good weather” and also “good time.” They are great songs from Brazil, by Gilberto Gil, Jobim, Carlinhos Brown, many others, a collection of beautiful Brazilian songs done in a summer style. They are up-tempo songs you can dance to. It's all about that.
I go to Japan, Korea or Europe and people love my music. This kind of music that I do is accepted internationally. I play a song in Portuguese and people in France can relate to it and dance to. It does have that summer kind of vibe. It depends what kind of place you wanna be. Some people wanna be in Hawaii, other people want to be in the South of France.
Brazilian music is like soccer. It has the same energy, and joy and happiness. The samba, all the rhythms from Brazil are very much like futebol.
Sergio Mendes will be performing his hits and material from Bom Tempo at the Hollywood Bowl Friday-Saturday, July 30-31. World soul purveyors Morcheeba will open.