Portugal. The Man: Evil Friends and Travels with Neil Young
Each of your albums sound really different stylistically and production wise but they all have a common thread throughout them. When you first started working with Danger Mouse, were there certain albums or songs that you guys recorded that he really enjoyed or he wanted to use as a launching point? Or on the flip side, was there something he wanted to avoid or stray away from because you’ve already explored them on other albums?
Every time we’ve ever worked with a producer, there is a lot of time spent at the beginning just getting on the same page as far as ideas—throwing ideas back and forth. It’s always really good to have as much of a conversation as you can before you go in. That’s always such a fun part of it—to see where somebody else is coming from and to see the similarities and the differences and choose the direction you want to take.
Can you talk a little bit about those similarities?
We’re always trying to look forward and always trying to change. Every record we’ve ever done, we do something to make it different than the last. I don’t think we really look back at our old records. We have an idea we’re always talking about before we go in about ideas and what direction we take it and so I don’t think that’s an issue when it comes to anything we’ve done in the past. But we do reference it. Lyrically as well as with progressions that people will never notice, but it’s a cool thing to throw back to things we’ve done.
You live in Portland—where the band is based—but you’re originally from Alaska. The state’s mysticism is also still a big part of Portugal. The Man’s sound and overall ethos. Are you still able to go home and escape very often?
Oh yeah, definitely. I really wish we could do it more often. Lyrically especially, that’s a place [that is very special to us]. The timing didn’t work out as well this year but a lot of times, we’ll go into a studio early in the year and so John will have a lot of time. He lives really far out. We live in a small town anyway and he lives even further out. [Alaska] is definitely inspiring and it’s definitely a spot where we really like to create—especially our lyrics.
What type of following does the band have up there?
We actually got to play this winter at the Bear Tooth Theatre [in Anchorage]. It was really, really fun. It actually ended up being a pretty special show. We always try to do a show up there every year around Christmas, just so John and I can go see our families and have an excuse to go home and see everybody. It’s always fun around Christmas time because a lot of our old friends come home.
It’s really hectic playing home in Portland or Alaska. Just so many friends, so much family, it’s a little overwhelming but it’s always our favorite show. This last one was pretty cool. We did a, kind of last minute show. We don’t get to bring up a lot of our lights because there’s not a lot of stuff in Alaska that’s available everywhere else. We went into the theatre and obviously there’s a screen and a projector so kind of last minute, we called our management, we called our art guy, and had them send a bunch of drawings, video stuff, and artwork that we’ve done over the years and [we] projected it on the screen behind us. We thought we were going up there not having a lot and feeling kind of bummed out because we could not bring our entire light show because it was just far too expensive and time wise, we just literally can’t get it up to Alaska quick enough. It ended up being something really cool that we’ve never done before and probably will never do again. We’re all about that. That’s what creates those special moments for us.
You and John have been the two consistent members of Portugal. The Man since the band formed. How has your creative partnership changed over the years?
It’s almost pretty much stayed the same. John is our songwriter. He’ll influence anything anyone else has. With all the member changes we’ve had, it’s cool to see that everyone brings their own particular style to what they’re doing. Even when we play old songs live, things that were written before. Kyle will play something a little bit different and add his own feel to something that Ryan used to play. I think that’s really cool and very fresh.
What’s Kyle’s musical background?
He’s a trained musician. He played classical growing up and still does. He was in a band called Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground who are good friends of ours. Kyle has toured with us before and he’s played on records in the past. He played all the keys on Church Mouth. It’s pretty nice having him back with us.
Because you guys have a large catalogue of music, how do you go about putting together a live show? Do you try to represent material from across the band’s career or do you use each album as a chance to experiment with the new material? Do you think you’ll take the Grateful Dead approach by switching up setlists each night as you add more to your repertoire?
I have noticed that the further we get in the progression of this band, the harder it is to write setlists. We have so many songs that it’s difficult to choose from them. We have the ones that have been a little more successful on the radio and the songs we’ve had videos for. Obviously when we go on tour for a new album, we’re always excited to play the new stuff. We always teeter a little bit towards the newer side, especially when we’re on an album cycle. But we definitely try to keep a little bit of everything in there. And new twists on old songs and different random b-cuts off of old records. We try to do something for the people that just got into us and the people who have been around forever.
I’m sure it must be even more exciting for you guys to not have the exact same show every night.
For sure! It’s never like that. Even if we tried to, it’s never the same.
I read in an interview that I think you did that the new album was really influenced by Pink Floyd and The Dark Side of the Moon. Can you talk a little bit about that influence?
I’ve actually been asked that a lot! I don’t know if this album is specifically influenced by that at all. I mean, it does sound like that. Honestly, every time we go in making a record, we’re always thinking about The Dark Side of the Moon because I think it’s pretty much the best record ever made. To tell you the truth, I’ve listened to it so much and it’s such a beautiful thing to me, I think everything I do is influenced by The Dark Side of the Moon. From where I get my coffee, to my music, absolutely everything. The Dark Side of the Moon and Dr. Seuss pretty much made me who I am.
You recently performed as part of Bonnaroo’s live lineup announcement and a few years ago you played a surprise set at the festival as part of a late-night parade (in addition to your proper set).
It’s just such an amazing festival. It’s my favorite. The whole vibe about that place is so much love. It’s just fantastic. You can just feel the love of music. It’s so thick in the air. It’s just really beautiful. It’ll always hold a special place in our hearts because of the amazing experiences we’ve had there. If it was up to me, I’d play Bonnaroo every single year. And if I wasn’t playing, I’d go. That’s something I’d definitely love to do in the future. I’d really just love to go to Bonnaroo and camp and I want to get the whole experience. We rarely get to do that because our schedule is so packed. Even if we do get to hang out the whole weekend, there’s press and other stuff to do. We miss out on a lot of good stuff.
At our first show there, I remember the energy—there was rain, there was lightning and thunder, so nobody played music for like an hour. We couldn’t go on early so the crowd was getting pumped up. By 45-minutes in, all the songs they were playing through the PA, every time a song stopped, in between the next one, [the crowd] would start screaming and chanting our name. I couldn’t believe it. It was just absolutely magical. I don’t know another word for it. It was just completely magical.
I heard you ended up riding around in a car with Neil Young at Bonnaroo in 2011. How’d you guys meet?
It was through the CEO of Atlantic Records, Craig Kallman. He’s friends with Neil Young and they had been working on this project, a new way to listen to music at a higher quality than MP3s, CDs or vinyl. It was kind of a thing that Neil Young was doing. He sat down with three bands in his car and listened to music with them and because of Craig, we got to sit in the car with him. He knows we’re huge fans. Neil Young would probably hang out with the headliners of the festival, but him just being the cool guy that he is, Craig said that he’d let us go. John was in the backseat and I was riding shotgun next to Neil Young in this Cadillac, texting my dad. It was perfect.