Portugal. The Man has quietly become one of the most consistent bands out since releasing their debut album Wait: You Vultures! in 2006. A five-piece group that has roots in Wasilla, Alaska and is based out of Portland, Oregon, Portugal. The Man offers an electrifying blend of Psychedelic pop and indie rock for listeners. Their output has been nothing short of remarkable too, as they released six albums in as many years, one better than the next.
The band has encountered a revolving door of group members since forming in 2004, but their current roster of co-founders John Gourley (lead vocals, guitar) and Zachary Carothers (bass guitar, backing vocals), as well as Kyle O’Quin (keyboards), Kane Ritchotte (drums) and Zoe Manville (backing vocals) have captured the perfect balance of skill, wit and charm when it comes to their music. Each individual has likewise played an integral piece of the puzzle on their road to success, especially their live performance.
Their latest album Evil Friends is arguably their best yet as Portugal. The Man teamed up with Grammy-winning producer Danger Mouse in the studio, who challenged the group’s creativity every step of the way. The partnership clearly paid off, resulting in stellar cuts like “Purple Yellow Red and Blue,” “Modern Jesus” and “Waves.” The latter track finds Gourley delivering thought-provoking words with a political undertone over a moody backdrop. It’s this union of insight and entertainment that demonstrates Portugal. The Man’s musical purpose. You’d be hard-pressed to find another group quite like them.
We got on the phone recently with John Gourley of Portugal. The Man who spoke on the group’s preparation for Evil Friends, connecting with Danger Mouse in the studio and why a remix from Mike D of the legendary Beastie Boys was a monumental moment for the band.
Up until this latest album, Evil Friends, Portugal. The Man has released six consecutive albums from 2006-2011. That’s not even including the acoustic project. This time around it was a two-year break, so was it a conscious decision to take an extended break between this album and In the Mountain in the Cloud? What were the factors that played into that delay?
It wasn’t a break at all. We were touring the whole time we were recording with Danger Mouse. We had a few changes happen during that period. Our keyboard player, Ryan Neighbors, had decided he wanted to pursue his own project called Hustle and Drone.
It was a really difficult record to make, simply because we were touring so much. I mean, we had done over a thousand shows by the time we signed to Atlantic. You kind of expect everything to keep going as it always did. I don’t think we expected it to be as difficult as it was, and it just caused a lot of tension in the group. In all honesty, I think Ryan working on his own project is simply for his own sanity. Portugal. The Man has been my project for a long time. I think it’s really good to see Ryan doing his own thing, and being really happy, and doing well with that. At the same time, I needed to reevaluate how we worked with this project and how we made records. I guess a lot of things played into the two-year break.
You guys were basically independent for about a decade, and then you signed with Atlantic in 2010. Has it been what you expected?
Oh yeah. I totally love it at Atlantic. Everybody we work with there is cool. Craig Kallman (Atlantic’s Chairman and CEO) has one of the largest independently-owned record collections in the world. He can talk about music for so long. I mean he can dig through his records and he’ll tell you who played on what, the other records they played on. He’s one of those guys that really loves music.
To explain the step and the way this band has worked, it’s always been about just learning as much as we can. To go all the way back, I was born and raised in Alaska. My parents were dog sled mushers, and we moved around the state a lot, and just listened to a lot of oldies radio. I never really got a chance to learn a lot about the music scene and the music industry. We didn’t get the same amount of shows as people in the “Lower 48,” as we call it back home.
When we signed to Atlantic, it was about presenting the music to people and seeing what worked and what didn’t work, and trying to get better at songwriting. It was just a lot of practice, more than anything. Learning to play in front of people. I was a really shy kid and being in front of people was that therapy. I love music more than anything. I’m going to get on stage and play music. I don’t care if I’m facing the back wall and singing into the mic facing the drums. It was about just getting on stage and getting over those fears.
I mean we never did TV before we signed to Atlantic, and that was a conscious decision. You don’t want to get on TV too early. You do not want to get on Conan O’Brien and not be able to play with the band, and not be able to present who you are.
Going back to the album, Evil Friends, you said you guys hooked up with Danger Mouse, and he fully helmed the production of this project. He’s a Grammy Award-winning producer whose worked with Cee Lo Green, Norah Jones, The Black Keys, Beck, etc. What was it like working with him?
He’s just a great producer. Honestly, I never thought he would do it. I mean we had had him on a list five years ago. And five years ago we realized there’s no way we’re going to get Danger Mouse to make a record with us. It was hearing that Beck album [Modern Guilt], you know? It still sounded like Beck, but it was very focused.
I guess working with him first hand, it was really cool to see that it wasn’t about a drum machine or a certain bass or amp or anything. He doesn’t really have tricks the way that you’d think that he does. It’s more about taste.
It sounds like he challenged you guys in a positive manner. He brought something out that you might not have known before.
Oh definitely. The biggest thing he does that I witnessed and benefited from was the way he says no. It’s such a positive thing when he says no. It’s always presented in this way that’s like, “I don’t think that’s good enough. I think you can do better.” Hearing somebody actually just say, “I think you can do better, I know you can do better,” does a lot. Then it’s just really believing in that.
It’s funny when you do actually get upset about it, which happened every now and then. I’d be like, “What? That’s the best I can do. That’s the absolute best.” But you never really feel like you failed when you’re in the studio with him because he knows you can do better. Even after that frustration passes, he’d go, “Alright, let’s write something better.” I think that’s amazing.
Aside from Danger Mouse’s involvement, what were you personally trying to execute from a lyrical standpoint as lead singer of the group?
I guess the title of the record has been brought up a lot. It’s not necessarily directed at anybody. The chorus for “Evil Friends” was a placeholder for pretty much every song on the record. That’s kind of the way I write lyrics. I write the first line for the album. And if that melody is good, it’ll be sung over every single song. I think it confuses a lot of people, producers for sure. It’s my way of figuring out where to go from that lyric.
The songwriting was about all the stuff that was going on in the band at the time, and dealing with that record. It was more just criticism of myself: Am I working too much? Are we doing too much right now? At the time we were playing shows every single weekend. Even when we weren’t on tour, it was every single weekend we’d fly out and do shows.
Many artists have celebrated your catalog with their own remixes. That includes artists from Passion Pit, Mike D of Beastie Boys, etc. Do you have one in particular that you enjoy?
The Jake One remix of “Evil Friends” featuring Danny Brown was very cool. One of my buddies just called me up and he was like, “One of my friends wants to do a remix of your song.” He didn’t really say who it was or anything. He was just like, “He’s got a cool sample and he wants to do something with it.” And it turned out to be Jake One, who I guess after that worked with Danny Brown. It was very natural.
The other one too was obviously Mike D’s remix of “Modern Jesus.” I mean, he is so at the top of my list and has always been. We literally referenced the Beastie Boys every single album we’ve made. Whether it’s like, “How do we get our records to sound like theirs?” Or the way they do double and triple vocals and back each other up on things. Beastie Boys were on top of culture and hip-hop. They are so respected in the hip-hop community. And Mike D is the nicest dudes ever. It really freaked me out.
Did you meet him before or after you heard the remix?
We met him after the remix. I honestly hadn’t talked to him until he did the remix. It was a really funny conversation. He called me up, and the whole time I was thinking there are few people who really freak me out like that, and he happened to be one of them. That was a really huge moment for Zach and I. We were smiling so huge. We were like little kids after I got off the phone. We met him in New York on his last tour, and we got to go into the Beastie Boys’ studio and just hang.
Portugal. The Man is known for exceptional live performance. What do you do to prep before you hit the stage?
We have never had a ritual, we’ve never had a thing that we do. Some nights we just walk on stage and I’ll say, “What’s up?” Or we’ll just give each other a hug before we go on the stage [laughs]. We put no pressure on the live performance. I think that’s been very beneficial for the band.
We still watch movies together. We listen to music together. We hang out like friends hang out. I love bands that get together and do those things. It’s like a basketball team getting ready for the game. Like it’s us against the world, and we’re going to win.
2013 has been a very impressive year for music releases, your album included. What’s one album you’ve enjoyed the most in 2013, and why?
Oh man, mine’s so lame. Lame because it’s amazing and kind of expected. I think Kanye’s record Yeezus topped it for me. I’ve heard a lot of stories about that record coming together, and a lot of peoples’ concerns were like, “Is he going to do it?” I think he did the right thing. He made a record that he wanted to, and it might sound weird to some people, but I think he’s a true artist. He doesn’t work for anybody but himself. I think that’s pretty rad. It’s also rare in music.
So how would you react if you woke up one morning and looked on Twitter, and Kanye did a remix of Portugal. The Man?
Oh give me a break [laughs]. We’d flip out of course. And I’m going to tell you, we don’t get into that stuff of like, “It’d be amazing because a million people would hear our band.” That’s not what it’s about for any of us. Our manager sent us this thing that Ben Stiller had said about our band. We’re huge fans. That’s so cool having somebody that you respect and look up to like that talk about you.
It’s fair to say you guys have experienced a lot from your days in Alaska to performing all over the world. With that said, what still surprises you?
Being a smaller band and traveling in a van, you see a lot of stuff. I think probably the excitement about the music, but that’s also the reason we work so hard for so long. It was always about music, and figuring out how we could do this better.
I think getting notice with as many fans as there are is extremely difficult. It’s become a job that everybody wants to do, and pretty much anybody can do it, especially on the DJ side of things. If you have a sound in your head, you don’t necessarily need to be able to play music to play music, if that makes any sense. It’s not really about notes as it is understanding people. I personally love the DJ scene. Shlohmo, Baauer, RL Grime, those kids out in L.A. have something moving forward. There’s alway somebody keeping music exciting. And that’s what we aim to do as well.