Portugal. the Man and Danger Mouse's Not-So-"Evil" Friendship
When word started getting around about Portugal. the Man's next record, singer John Gourley put it out there that they'd be working with Brian Joseph Burton, aka Danger Mouse--of Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz and The Grey Album fame--and that the band was toying with the idea of writing "their" Dark Side of the Moon. I couldn't help myself: I pictured these guys getting completely stoned and holing up in the studio projecting The Wizard of Oz on one of the walls while blasting the Pink Floyd classic and dashing off to the booth and boards as soon as the credits rolled with the intent to reinvent sound as we know it, so I asked Gourley, verbatim, if that's what happened. Portugal. the Man perform tonight at Irving Plaza.
"You know, we didn't do that, and I'm kind of bummed we didn't!" he laughs. "The Dark Side of the Moon thing was something we talked about so early on. I've always said I'll never make a concept record, because I've always kind of felt like I should. We ended up having too much fun writing songs and we got onto a different thread. This record is there because of that. Dark Side of the Moon is Dark Side of the Moon. What the fuck were we thinking? We can't touch that!"
Dorothy and her ruby slippers may not sync up to Evil Friends in the slightest, but that hardly tarnishes the universal appeal of the record on the whole. Danger Mouse's magic touch is ever present in the pulsating heartbeat of Evil Friends, with each and every song holding us tight in its clutches despite the sonic departures the record takes on a track-by-track basis. One second we're enjoying a dance track that's seemingly designed for meditative head-bobbing and mindless movement; the next we're taken aback by snarling lyrics ("Atomic Man"'s "After you hell should be easy") with fuzzy garage touches. Gourley takes us through the creation of Evil Friends, the foundation of their new relationship with Danger Mouse and what exactly he and Dewey Cox (yup) have in common.
I just listened through Evil Friends in its entirety, and I'm struck by the breadth of genres touched on here--danceable beats, lo-fi rock riffs, electronic deluges, the works. How important is it to you to keep your music in an indefinable place when it comes to genre? Back when we named the band Portugal. the Man, wanted it to have this alter-ego, like Sergeant Pepper or Ziggy Stardust, one without genre ties. People try to bill us as a rock band, which I don't mind at all. It's not about labels; it's about expression, just doing whatever the fuck you want. That's what the Beatles did; that's what Bowie did. The Beatles weren't a rock band and Bowie wasn't just some glam rocker, either. There are some elements of soul and R&B in all of that. If you take a step back and look at bands I'm a fan of, if you look like something like Jett or Kings of Leon or Wolfmother for that matter, how do you follow-up rock records? I don't really see how people do that. If you have success with one record, how do you top it? You can't write the same song over and over again and stick with one thing. Kanye doesn't do that. I think people who feel comfortable without being tied down or self-conscious about making records are who make great artists.
What was it like working with Danger Mouse for the first time? There were definitely moments where we first stepped in and I didn't know what to expect--you can't really know what to expect when you're working with somebody like that. It's a lot like when we worked with Paul Kolderie (The Pixies, Radiohead) on The Satanic Satanist: you just kind of step in and hope for the best and you start throwing things out there and pray that everybody's going to be cool with trying things out and rolling with it. We worked really well with all of these producers ... but we just really loved how [Brian] worked. It was collaborative. When he'd have an idea, he'd just stand up and say it, like, "Fuck yeah, get up and play that!" There's nothing worse than someone saying "No, I feel like this needs something different--" without giving an example of what "different" is. In the past, every time someone says that, I just go, "You play it." Brian says "No" really easily and it's a total taste thing; there's nothing asshole about it or condescending about it. He's pretty much like, "Hey man, I like your stuff and I know you can do better because I've heard it." That's the weirdest, most uplifting thing someone can say: "I've heard you do that before and I know you can do better." He doesn't need to jump on everything if there's no point; he's totally cool with not messing with a song if it's there.
Would you say that Portugal. the Man has broken new ground on a personal, creative level with Evil Friends? Every band wants to say their newest record is a heading in a new direction or "This is the best thing we've ever done!" I honestly feel that with every record we make, just because we have to--you have to be pushing yourself and pushing things and going out of your way to grow. We've really been pushing ourselves over the past couple of years to write better music and be more creative in our art. Throwing a bunch of homemade instruments through pedals and all that, that's cool when you finally break sounds through that, but just because you're doing that, that doesn't make it art. Art is trying to write the best music you can. It doesn't mean it's a hit. It doesn't mean it's the best thing out there, but you have to push yourself or you're not going to go anywhere. I would have to sit down a lot because I had a lot of those Walk Hard moments. Did you ever see that movie?
The Dewey Cox Story? Of course. (laughs) I've literally sat down with my guitar and I've had that moment where I'm playing and I'm like "That's pretty good!" and then I realized it's "All Your Light" or "People Say" and it's like, "I wrote that shit before!" and I throw the guitar across the room. This album, it's all been about the changes in the band, and I wanted everybody to do their thing. It's the reason we took such a long break as well. We miss out on a lot being on tour so much, and I totally understand that we all need to go out and do their own thing--see our families, work on other projects.
How did you push yourself differently when it came to making Evil Friends the best record you've ever done? The first couple of months, we worked on this record off and on, a few days here and there and then we'd rock out and just blow it out and that's when it really came together. The first time we were working on Evil Friends, we were just writing a song a day. If something didn't work, we just threw it out. That's something that a lot of people don't do. It's the reason why I don't like writing demos. I absolutely hate it. In my head, I'm hearing something new that I know can be better. Everybody's saying "I like that one part"--this wasn't like that at all. That's how we wrote our first three records. The first three albums, I told the label we had like, 40 songs, and we had no songs going in just hoping for the best (laughs). I think we learned a lot making those albums, and a lot about songwriting, so being more on the fly with Evil Friends was just more honest.
So, you've got two dates coming up--an intimate show at Irving Plaza [tonight] and a headlining slot at Boston Calling this weekend--and then you'll be touring rather extensively behind Evil Friends. Will New York and Boston get a sneak peek at the new stuff, or are you saving it for the tour kick-off? It's pretty hard for us to pick songs. We have close to a hundred of them. It's the fucking weirdest thing because I've never been a fan of going to shows and not hearing old stuff. As a music fan and somebody who does go to shows, it's kind of weird for me when a band just plays new stuff. That being said, I saw The Black Keys do it and I was totally fine with that, but they also had two really fucking good records. They played a couple of the old songs and that was cool, it worked really well. I throw set lists together without thinking about it and the band fucking hates it (laughs). If there's anything they hate about me, it's my inability to write a set list without being in the position where we're walking right onstage in ten minutes! We've gone over a lot of stuff, but I honestly feel like the newer stuff flows really well and the older music has a different life to it. We're using chords from old songs on new stuff and I plan on changing up the sound. It's what we've always done, so it'll be cool and new.
At the end of the day, they're all Portugal. the Man songs and people are there to hear them, you know? Exactly.
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