Blood, Bites, and Brazil
In the photo gallery on the Mosquitos' website, a single picture footnotes the raison d'être for the group's self-titled debut, a bossa nova/indie-pop love child that's earning praise from the drinkers of cool drinks and the hipsters with stirring hips. From a bird's-eye view, we see one Juju Stulbach, a slight young woman in faded jeans and a gray sweater who reclines on her back, eyes closed, in the womb-like corner of some anonymous vehicle. Between her legs rests the tufted and pronounced widow's peak belonging to guitarist and co-vocalist Chris Root. Stulbach's right leg cradles his face -- eyes closed, he looks like a bird emerging from a denim shell -- and her left hand is down her own pants.
From her fey, wide-eyed face to her coconut-salty accent, the Brazilian Stulbach is the consummate maverick muse. A sun-darkened child of the Rio de Janeiro beaches, Stulbach was born to artists of the Brazilian Tropicalia movement: a youth-driven musical force from the 1960s and 1970s that was part of a larger action to subvert military dominance and redefine Brazilian culture. Stulbach danced from an early age. At 19, she came to the United States knowing almost no English to study at the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance.
"I did that for two years," Stulbach says, "and never wanted to dance again."
An orphaned artist, Stulbach learned English while tending bars. In the spring of 2002, she got the lead role in a movie a friend was putting together. The friend was also a friend of Chris Root, a member of East Village apartment-party band am60.
"My friend asked me to come over and blow up, like, 200 balloons," Root remembers. "When I came into the apartment, Juju was on a ladder. All I could see was her feet, and I could hear her humming a bossa nova."
Shortly thereafter, Stulbach's visa expired and she returned home to Brazil. She brought with her an am60 CD. Impressed, she sent Root a postcard.
That light-headed day -- was it caused by the 200 balloons or the feet leading up to the bossa nova? Root didn't need more than a second to cast his bet on the ladder, and he flew to Brazil where "one thing led to another." "Suddenly," he explains, "I'm on a beach in Ipanema. She thinks I'm crazy, but we're strumming my guitar together, and we're making music."
According to Root, most of the album's material is "nonfiction," a travelog of the time Root and Stulbach spent together in Rio, dripping with the honey goo of sunsets and the gray milk of rainy cafe windows. Stulbach wrote two of the songs on the album and all of the Portuguese lyrics. (Sometimes, the English lyrics are arguably a bit too precious: "She's got a cat named Blue/And she likes humming/She also likes/The sounds of/Guitars strumming" from "Juju and Blue.")
The titular track, based on a true-life mosquito assault in Stulbach's apartment, is Root's version of John Donne's "The Flea" -- an account of two lovers pondering the symbiotic and symbolic nature of blood-sucking insects as they are rent apart by circumstances but still joined by mutual affection. The album hosts two versions of the song: The first is all up-tempo bouncy pop, voiced by Root. The sexy, bossa nova girl-on-girl version is sung by Stulbach.
In this instance, "circumstances" were the Brazilian authorities.
"We got arrested by the police," Root glozes. "We were on our way to the beach, and we drove through a roadblock. And apparently, whenever there are Americans in the car, they pull you over and start sniffing around. They found a little weed, and we paid them off." From this experience, Root offers this nugget of wisdom: "If you ever go to Brazil, you need two envelopes: one for yourself and one for the police."
Still, the circumstances surrounding the "circumstances" are unclear. The album's liner notes explain the next turn in the lovers' fate: "After an unfortunate run-in with the Brazilian Policia involving some uncontrollable substances, Chris and Juju were torn apart. Root fled the country without a finished mix."
Root remembers: "[The music] was kind of a hodgepodge, a big mess. Then it all fell into place by mistake."
The "mistake" (or hidden intention, as it were) is Jon Marshall Smith, bonhomme of the bohemian East Village soundscape. Smith was actually a producer and engineer with am60 for an album that exhausted its shelf life in the post-9/11 economic downturn. When Root came home, Smith heard the story: Root had fallen in love and wanted to make a Brazilian record. "It sounded completely crazy, and its odds for success seemed remote at best," Smith recounts, "so it was perfect."
With Smith on keyboards, the two set to the spit-and-polish stages of recording what is today the album that bears the sticker: "The girl from Ipanema goes indie pop." (Smith is the man on the cover's left, seen jumping like a hyperactive child on the receiving end of a sugar enema. He says of his cover appearance: "It's a real jump too. That's not Photoshopped.") Smith says the plan he had for the album was to keep it "simple and sparse." The plan worked. The album got signed with little fanfare or "bullshit" (as Root says) to Bar/None records, and now the band is about to start its third tour. You may have already heard a bit from "Boombox" on a Bailey minis commercial. The band romantically calls the album "sonic destiny." Some chill-out fans might call Mosquitos one of the best jazz hybrids since Supreme Beings of Leisure debuted four years ago.
Unlike the politically purposeful music of Tropicalia, Mosquitos is a fair-weather album with relaxed intentions. "It's almost like you're living the moment," Stulbach says. "You don't have to struggle to find words or messages or meanings, because it's all right there."
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