By Alex Distefano
By Daniel Kohn
By Aimee Murillo
By Nick Schou
By Nate Jackson
By Nate Jackson
By Dave Lieberman
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In their songs, Little Joy are a moment remembered by legendary Os Mutantes bassist Sergio Baptista: the first time he ever saw someone make the peace sign, from a beautiful convertible on Wilshire Boulevard one 1960s summer in Los Angeles. That spontaneous, that naive, that instant—that’s Little Joy for 11 songs of Sam Cooke-via-Rogerio Duprat tropicalista soul on their unexpected self-titled debut album, released early last month.
But in life, Little Joy are stewing in traffic on the way to Raleigh, North Carolina, spending their single day off watching nothing move outside the van windows. While Fabrizio Moretti (drummer in the Strokes, but here variously instrumental like the rest of his band mates) pays no attention from the seat ahead, Rodrigo Amarante sets aside a book on Victor Hugo’s conversations with the spirit world and shrugs off the traffic outside. He is in Little Joy; he remains optimistic. “Like Fab says, it takes guts to have fun!”
Amarante sometimes seems slightly eclipsed by the long shadow cast by his Strokes band mate, though that’s how the press presents it, not he. Back home in Brazil, it might be up to him to explain—to tropicalia founders-turned-friends such as Mutantes’ Baptista brothers; to Caetano Veloso, who demoed his songs to Amarante in his living room before recording his new album; to Gilberto Gil, who welcomed Amarante and band buddy Devendra Banhart onstage before shrieking thousands at the Hollywood Bowl—just who this “Strokes” guy is. And who is he, really?
“Fab is not only one of the most influential drummers of the decade, an amazing songwriter,” says Amarante. “But he’s also the fucking funniest man!”
In Brazil, Amarante’s old band Los Hermanos were colossal, a next-gen pop band who positioned him to deliver the introduction at the landmark Tropicalia Festival in London in 2006. An American equivalent might be the Strokes emceeing a Monterey Pop reunion. But Amarante is humble and self-effacing, almost to the point of dissolution. He’s perhaps more astounded at the many heart-bursting handshakes he’s had with music history than you are.
“I feel very fortunate,” he says. “To be honest, I don’t really understand. I must have done something nice before coming to this because I feel very lucky! All I try to do to pay back this great joy is to try to give people something, you know?”
So from great joy to Little Joy, named after the Echo Park bar where you will very likely hear someone playing Os Mutantes songs on certain nights. (They asked permission to borrow the name and received it, Amarante reports, when the owner said, “Just don’t sue me!”) And it’s not just the size of the venue, perhaps thankfully contracted from coliseum to cocktail lounge, that’s different for this supposed side project that has yet to set an expiration date. In Little Joy, Amarante feels he’s truly collaborating for the very first time.
“It’s letting the ego aside—‘This is our song.’ Forget who did what and just try and make it the best we can. That’s what changed,” he explains.
Parts from Amarante, Moretti and band mate Binki Shapiro combine gently into trim little songs without a bit of wasted weight to hold them down: Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” finds an echo in “Brand New Start”; Rita Lee and Leonard Cohen meet Jonathan Richman at midnight for the strangely affecting “Don’t Watch Me Dancing”; lead single “No One’s Better Sake” shakes great waves of dust off early reggae with a thunderous organ melody reminiscent of the wild, early Wailers songs. Amarante confirms that these diverse sources—Cooke, Wailers, Beach Boys, Fleetwoods (Fleetwood Mac, too), Elvis, and the tropicalistas who never shied away from trying something unexpected and never forgot to have fun while they were doing it—all serve as influences. Amarante explains that, as stated by Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade in the 1920s, tropicalia means saying yes to a helping of every possible thing. And even in steaming freeway traffic, he finds that beautiful.
“The idea is, in Brazil, we eat everything on the same plate. Salad and rice and beans and meat, and if we could put dessert on it, we would,” he says. “Just enjoying whatever you enjoy. Pick up on whatever you want. Love, that’s what makes the musical experience possible. When I say it takes guts to have fun—when Fab said that—you can substitute guts for love.”
Little Joy with Dead Trees and Red Cortez at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19TH St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0800; www.detroitbar.com. Sat., 9 p.m. $12-$15. 21+. Visit Little Joy at www.myspace.com/littlejoymusic.