Portugal. The Man: Evil Friends and Travels with Neil Young
Portugal. The Man have tried on several personas since first emerging from Wasilla, Alaska almost a decade ago. They’ve fashioned themselves dark, progressive rock enthusiasts, colorful Flaming Lips circus freaks, electro-charged indie rockers and expansive psychedelic warriors. All those styles collide on their latest—and best—studio album, the new, Danger Mouse-produced Evil Friends. The most recent neo-classic album to push modern psychedelic closer to the mainstream, Evil Friends arrived two years after Portugal. The Man’s 2011 major label debut In the Mountain in the Cloud. Lead Portugal. The Man songwriter John Gourley started work on Evil Friends shortly after getting the call that Danger Mouse was interested in producing their next record, abandoning another set of sessions along the way.
Shortly before Evil Friends’ release, bassist and co-founder Zachary Carothers discussed the band’s evolving, twisted psych-pop sound, their recent collaboration with Danger Mouse and the time he drove shotgun with Neil Young.
Let’s start by talking about Evil Friends, your first collaboration with producer Danger Mouse. I heard you were actually in the middle of another studio session when you got the call he was interested in a producing a Portugal. The Man record?
We went into El Paso [to record] pretty much on our own with our buddy who was engineering and helping produce [the album]. Pretty much in the middle of that session, John [Gourley] flew out to New York and had a meeting with Danger Mouse. He got the call Danger Mouse was interested in working with us and flew out the next day.
It was pretty crazy, actually. We didn’t want to get our hopes up—and we were in the middle of a session—but we had to wait for a while for him to become available. We obviously wanted to start from scratch with him. So we ended up keeping two songs that we did in El Paso. We still have quite a bit of stuff left. Hopefully, we can put that out at some point or use it for something else because there’s some good stuff in there. After that, we had to pretty much work around Brian’s [Danger Mouse’s] schedule. The whole process took way longer than we’re used to. Part of it was our fault, part of it was scheduling. We had to pretty much reroute our entire year to make this thing work. It was worth it. We’re very, very proud of it.
Danger Mouse has worked with such a diverse mix of people. In terms of his catalogue, what material that he’s done in the past were you guys particularly drawn to? Can you talk a little bit about how he first heard of you and what his initial goals were for the session?
I’m a fan of everything. He has worked with so many different types of artists. It’s just a style that he’s got. He’s got really great taste, a really great ear. He puts his own stamp on everything. When we first started tracking, [we heard] it.
How did the sessions unfold?
John is always coming up with ideas. He walks around with an acoustic guitar all the time, and he’ll just sit there and sing melodies and play chord progressions. Then, we all sit around and work on the songs together. Our new addition Kyle O’Quin helped John a lot in that department. [Kyle] is very smart about music—way more than we are, which is sometimes a little frustrating [Laughter]. It was really cool to see. He just knows a lot of different things—very smart musical things—as far as theory goes. It was a real different experience for all of us.
Because only two of the songs were from the original sessions, did John just start writing the songs really as soon as he got the call to come to New York? Were these other ideas he had in his pocket that felt designed for Danger Mouse?
We pretty much started from scratch. John and Kyle went down a couple weeks before the rest of the band—just because Danger Mouse is known for working with artists, not necessarily bands. It was kind of a new experience for him as well as a new experience for us. It was a lot of just coming up with ideas and working on them together, especially in the beginning. And then the rest of us came and we started building up all the sessions. We do that—we build something up, we tear it down, we build it up, and we tear it down. It’s actually a pretty crazy process. Its very time consuming and extremely stressful.
You say it’s stressful but your music is so uplifting. It must be the release after all that stress.
I know! It’s pretty funny how that works. It’s a pretty ambitious process mentally and physically. That’s to be said for most art in general I think. Whatever you’re creating, it’s not a good experience until it’s done. Not to say we didn’t have a lot of very good times, we definitely did. It’s very exciting, exposing, and taxing for sure. I feel like recording albums and touring behind them has taken years off my life. Hopefully, I still have some years left.
In terms of your recording process, Portugal. The Man has always released albums so quickly that this one actually was the longest gap in a while the band has had between albums. Was that just a result of waiting to work with Brian or did you guys consciously decide to take time to regroup and recollect?
It was actually all scheduling and taking our time to make sure everything was right. If we can’t work for a couple of months, we obviously have to push stuff back. We kind of set that quota for ourselves. We don’t wanna rush something out if we don’t feel good about it.
Are you already working on the next album considering that it’s been a couple of months since you guys recorded this one?
Well, we’re obviously toying with ideas. We haven’t sat down to do anything yet. We’re working on a number of things. We actually built a studio in our house in Portland. It’s really nice to go down and do it. That’s a whole learning process but we actually have a good handle on it.
Does most of the band live in that house?
Yeah, most of us do. John lives there, I live there, and Kyle lives there. It’s really amazing. And we haven’t gotten to fully take advantage of it yet. Once we get into it though, I’m really excited to see what we come up with.