Portugal. The Man Discuss F-Bombs, Working With Danger Mouse on New Album ‘Evil Friends’
Portugal. The Man sound ready for anything on their latest full-length, ‘Evil Friends.’ This is convenient, because fans and insiders alike have expected the band to break through since it signed with Atlantic in 2010. But while their major-label debut, 2011’s ‘In The Mountain In the Cloud,’ didn’t quite take off and put them on the same level as arena headliners like the Black Keys, the album was a critical success, and it helped them grow their dedicated fan base.
In a rock landscape where radio bands and Internet bands are the two primary distinctions, Portugal. The Man operate is an undefined space somewhere in between, relying on neither medium. And with Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton, producing this album, the Alaska-born, Portland-based five-piece might redefine how far hard work and infectious tunes can take a band.
Diffuser had a chance to speak with founding member and bassist Zachary Carothers about Portugal. The Man’s seventh LP, due June 4, as well as the band’s use of the f-bomb, getting treated like royalty at Coachella and Danger Mouse’s competitive edge.
Let’s talk about Portugal. The Man’s popularity. With some exceptions, alternative radio has not given you guys a major boost, and you’re ignored by many of the “taste-maker” blogs and websites. But, you guys have built a huge fan-base. What do you attribute this to?
We just work really hard. And, I think we’re really good. So does my mom. And, that’s pretty much all it has been.
We never really had help from anybody. We started off our band knowing we wanted to make a lot of records, and we wanted to get out on the road and do 300 shows a year. And, it all grew really naturally. We’re also really close to our fans, always hanging out with them out in front of the venue, always staying as late as we possibly can. They’re the reason why we can go out on the road and pretty much do this for a living now.
From the beginning, we’d play a show and leave, and it seemed like the next time we came back, everybody would tell one or two friends. The first show we ever played was for 15 people, and the next time 30 people came, and the next time 60 and [pause] … I can’t do the math after that. [Laughs] But, it has been our plan from the beginning, that we wanted to build a whole career. And, yeah, we are on a major label now and get all that help, but we knew we wanted to build it on our own first.
That isn’t common these days — a more grassroots approach to music and gaining an audience. But, this is how it once was, and it feels more natural.
Yeah, f— buzz and f— hype. Let’s just get out there and work and see what happens.
Listening to the ‘Evil Friends,’ it sounds huge. It’s ambitious, and there are so many instruments on it, and it’s hard to imagine radio or the internet avoiding it at this point. Was there a changes in the songwriting process to get to this sound?
No, no, we’re not going to deny that Danger Mouse helped that. But, that’s what we went for. We just went for it, and Danger Mouse absolutely helped guide us on that way. He didn’t change us; he helped facilitate what we wanted to do. We talked to him a lot before we started work. We tried to have as much conversation as we could, so we can be on the same page. He just had a unique perspective on the dynamics of being in a band, and that is rare. He’s been in the exact place that we have been and knew what we were going for, in a way that’s different than most producers do. He’s just an amazingly smart and talented guy, and it really helped us in the studio.
You can hear him all over the album. He has his signature touches that you hear in a Danger Mouse album.
It’s really weird, after working with him, you realize it’s a “taste” thing. It’s not even a sound thing. I thought that it was sound, but those were the songs before they went in. It’s really weird, but he just had a style. We really learned a lot, about how to hear … and about ourselves. It was a big learning experience.
How was the recording process this time. Did you come into the sessions with material in hand?
No, no, we never do that. We just go in and write in the studio. When we first found out we were working with Brian [Burton], we were in El Paso and working on what we thought was the new record, and we were self-producing it with our buddy Sonny, who was engineering it. We found out we had an opportunity to work with Brian an were flown to New York to meet him. At first, we were a little put off by the idea, like we weren’t trusted to do a good job on our own, but really, they just trusted Danger Mouse a little more.
We ended up scrapping what we were working on because when you get the chance to work with someone of that caliber, you always have to take the chance. We’ve always done everything on our own, and a lot of people were worried about how we would collaborate, but that’s what we do; that’s what rock bands should do. And a lot of people think it’s real cut and dry, asking, “What did Danger Mouse do on the record? What did you guys do?” And it’s not like that. We did everything together. It was basically like Danger Mouse joined the band for six months.
The songwriting process basically was started off by John [Gourley] and Danger Mouse. John went down ahead of the band to get ready and clear his head. It helps him not having a whole lot of people around when he gets ready to write. That’s sort of how we’ve always done it. Him and Brian just started getting ideas down and then we came in and spent several months changing everything, doing several versions, really trying everything that we could think of and sometimes it took a lot of variations to get the right one. ‘Purple Yellow Red & Blue’ was one where we had 20 completely different versions. Different bridges, different outros, different intros — it was crazy, and by the end of it, you start to get lost. So we had to stop and spend a couple weeks thinking and listening and then went back and the last two weeks recording were amazing. Best time I’ve ever had in a studio.
I think that comes across on the album. ‘Evil Friends’ sounds like the band is really connecting.
Yeah, we did, but just at the end. As with any recording, there were ups and downs, and as with every album, it killed us. But, that comes with the territory on any artistic venture. By the end, I was so proud of everybody, from the band to Danger Mouse to the engineers.
A couple of the new songs drop prominent f-bombs in their choruses. Was there any pressure from Atlantic or from anyone to change the words because of these?
Nah, they don’t mess with us. That’s what is funny, though, is that people don’t know what really happens. Like, we change our sound on every album, but once we get on a major label, people think that it’s the label, when it’s something we’ve always done.
I think that John got a little more personal this time with the lyrics, but we cuss in every record. We may say “f—,” but it’s not usually a “f— you.” So, it’s a little more harsh this time, but John also started adding a different style to his lyrical technique. I was really pumped on it. It’s kind of tongue-in-cheek, almost lazy humor, especially on ‘Hip Hop Kids’ and ‘Creep In a T-Shirt.’ It’s kind of self-loathing, and I don’t know, we’ve never really done that. I love when I’m listening to a song and someone says a line that makes me laugh my ass off. Not necessarily because I think it’s funny, but because I can’t believe he just said that.
We were trying to figure out the chorus for ‘Creep In a T-Shirt’ during the last couple days of recording, and we had a bunch of different choruses for the song, and I really loved them all. And after discussing and discussing, someone said, “I don’t f—ing care,” and then John started singing that line, ‘I’m a creep in a t-shirt, and I don’t f—ing care.” And I just started laughing, because it captured what we were feeling at that point perfectly.
Of course, the thought goes in when you are writing lyrics, you have to ask, “Do we really want to say ‘f—‘ in this song, because then radio stations will be less likely to play it?” But in the end, we decide selfishly. We made our decisions based on what we want to hear, and what we want to write about. I mean, every once in a while there may be a little bit thinking in that way, but really not much at all. We don’t do s— for money. We do it for music.
Going back to Coachella, you guys got one of the best performance slots you can have, outdoors at sunset.
Yes it was. It was crazy. Somebody, I don’t know who, wait, yes I do, it was Coachella and all those dudes over there, they hooked us up. It was insane. Unless you are headlining, that’s the most coveted spot.
It is. That’s where Leonard Cohen and Jeff Mangum played, and so many others; it’s an iconic position to be in. Did you guys feel pressure to raise your game?
Yeah, we kind of did. A lot of people don’t know this, but we’ve been so busy lately with random things, we just don’t have a lot of time to just be a band and practice. We used to practice eight to ten hours a day, seven days a week. And now, we did a couple days before Coachella, but that’s it. There’s interviews and artwork and all these things, and we essentially still do everything ourselves, and it’s incredibly time consuming. It’s such a full-time job, I can’t even relate it. I’m on call every day of the year. The only time I know I don’t have to do anything band related is Christmas.