Having cycled through Fearless Records, Equal Vision and Atlantic Records, no one should be allowed to claim that PORTUGAL. THE MAN have bitten off more than they can chew. If anything, the quintet have truly been defiant, breaking old rules by releasing an album almost every year since 2006. Considering their Northern take on genuinely destructive psych pop, their discog is still their underrated strength, and their seventh disc, Evil Friends, continues to terrorize glossy production and heart-popping melodies that are colourful, in “a creep in a t-shirt” sort of way.
Pushing their record along a summer tour, frontman John Gourley and bassist Zach Carothers recently pit-stopped in Toronto and shed light on how their career has pushed them to realize the buzz in rock n’ roll is as dead as the link suits have with their own imagination. In more ways than one, it’s pretty scary. “MTV has changed,” explains Gourley. “I mean it may still be there but Vimeo has kind of become that channel now and you get to skip over the bullshit.”
How did you meet the guys from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and why did you want to collaborate on that “Eternal Handshake” video for College Humor?
JOHN GOURLEY: They’re actually friends of friends. There’s this advertising/design place in Portland called Kamp Grizzly and actually the one dude’s brother plays in Unknown Mortal Orchestra – amazing band. I just hit them up one day because I knew that they were close friends. I was like “Hey man, do you think you could connect me with the It’s Always Sunny guys?”. It’s funny because we all work in the same industry so asking him for that favour wasn’t something he had to do for us, but he did. He connected Glen and it seemed like such a stupid thing to do, but I sent Glen the idea and said, “You know, I was wondering if you can do a promo, you can be dismissive of the band – actually that’s like the whole thing – just be dismissive of the band”.
The funniest thing about it was when he wrote me back. I know him as Dennis but he’s actually super nice. He said he’d love to help with the promo video and that he loved the band. It just came together; he introduced me to some of the writers and we did it one day when they were shooting in Los Angeles. Actually Rob McElhenney wasn’t even involved in it. He was actually working on the episode, and they went up to him at one point and were like, “Can you come in at the end of this video and put on this wig and just end the video for us?”. Rob was getting the breakdown of what was happening on the way over and he was like, “What, so, you guys high five and get stuck in a high five… wait… what happens?”, and then just walked out. It was so funny. Their MGMT thing was on the fly too.
So Glen actually makes a hit at your band name at one point saying “Why don’t you take the period out of your band name stupid!”. So I guess what I’m wondering is, why not a comma?
ZACH CAROTHERS: We just did it. We’re stuck with it now.
JOHN: Yeah, I didn’t go to high school (laughs). I don’t even fucking know man! The whole point of the band name was that it’s an alter ego… Ziggy Stardust or Sgt. Pepper. It’s Portugal period. And he’s the fucking man.
“That song to me was, ‘This is who we are and this is what it is, don’t let them tell you shit’. Fuck rock n’ roll, fuck hip hop kids, fuck all that because it’s not true.” – JOHN GOURLEY
Punctuation aside, how would you say you’ve progressed as a band?
JOHN: I don’t know; It’s kind of a hard thing to explain. Looking back signing to Atlantic Records was the first step for this band. Well, first step being, track this and learn how to write songs, and that’s why we’re releasing so much music. It was about finding our sound and learning how to write. I mean Satanic Satanist was about finding out how to write a song in three minutes. That shit’s difficult. It’s so much easier to be in a band where you put a bunch of pedals out and have like all these filters and things and you go. It’s fucking noisy.
ZACH: Trying to take someone on a journey in seven and a half minutes is so much easier. I mean check out “Ain’t No Sunshine” – it’s a little over two minutes, there’s one basic melody and I go so many places in that song. I look at the clock after I’m done and I’m like, “Man, I just went somewhere in that amount of time”. It’s just amazing.
That’s interesting, i would have assumed the opposite.
JOHN: Yeah it’s kind of a hard thing to understand because you hear pop radio like… fuck, “Umbrella” or whatever it might be, and it seems so simple and so stupid to even assume that there’s any sort of musicianship in that but it’s more about honesty. Rihanna and Britney Spears and people like that grow up wanting to be pop stars. They want to get on a stage and they want to sing that song. You see those scenes in movies, like Almost Famous, where they’re singing “Tiny Dancer” – those people are delivering that the same way you would in your car. You sing those songs like they’re a part of you and that’s why that stuff works. That’s where the difficulty is for me: I can’t write stupid fucking lyrics like that because that’s not who I am.
ZACH: But we’re not talking about “Tiny Dancer”. The “Tiny Dancer” lyrics are rad.
JOHN: Our progression has been more about learning to do that and being able to even walk into a meeting with Brian (Danger Mouse) and have a conversation, and you can’t do that without any experience
So that’s actually my next question, what was the experience like working with Danger Mouse?
JOHN: It was good. Working with Brian was more about – this is so stupid and totally the thing to say – but it’s about the notes you don’t play. It’s about trying to deliver things with a single vocal take instead of stacking up 20 layers like I tend to do. It’s just easier to do that, but you don’t connect with it the same way. He said no a lot. It was a positive no – “No, man, that shit sucks, you’ve done better, you can do better”. He never actually said “that shit sucks”, it was always the nicest things.
ZACH: He was very constructive and very cool. Being an artist himself, he really knew us. He knew about the dynamic of being in a band and trying to write with a couple of people. Most of it was John and Brian, especially at the beginning. They just went in by themselves which I thought was good because they got to establish a rapport.
Speaking of rapport, I feel like rock and hip hop share this bridge of collaboration and mutual respect. “Hip Hop Kids” suggests otherwise, and I mean you are working with Danger Mouse, so can you shed some light on the lyrical content behind that song?
JOHN: That was actually the first song we wrote for this album and one that we didn’t actually record with Brian. I had written it when we were out with The Black Keys. We had just done a tour with them and there was no chance of us working with Danger Mouse at this point. I took my daughter out with us to Paris a week early when we were touring in Europe. That song is very much what music is to me, I mean that’s like fucking real. I’m out hanging with my baby girl in Paris of all fucking places, buying her clothes and shit. It’s just so far from what you expect rock and roll to be. After that you meet up with The Black Keys at these shows where they have to get 8,000 people in. They’re massive shows with a buffet with salmon and chicken and vegetarian options… you go through all these steps to end up in this place where it’s so far from where you’ve come from.
I’m glad we got to experience it with The Black Keys because I don’t think they care. I don’t think they give a shit at all. It’s just the nature of the beast… you have to feed a crew of 40-50 and that’s the way it works and that song to me was, “This is who we are and this is what it is, don’t let them tell you shit”. Fuck rock n’ roll, fuck hip hop kids, fuck all that because it’s not true. Those dudes are rolling up in rented Escalades… fuck you guys and your rented Escalade, and rented jewellery and all that shit. It’s stupid. Fuck you.
The first thing that drew me to you as a band was actually the album art, done mostly by John. I find a lot of people have become lazy about that side of the music. How important is the connection between visual art and music for you?
JOHN: It’s very important. Actually the guy I do all the artwork with is here, he’s selling merch on this tour. He put together all the packages and everything. I could draw all day, but I need a guy who knows what I’m talking about and Austin (Sellers) is that guy, he’s like one of my best friends.
So what came first for you: art or music?
JOHN: Probably art for me. I mean, I failed all my art classes in Alaska but you just have to assume that Alaskans fucking hate me, for whatever reason. When I moved to Portland to start touring I met Austin and we were talking about the artwork for our first album and I was drawing it all out and as we were hanging out he’s like, “You know you’re drawing all this stuff and this is what you’re asking for”. So he kind of just pushed me to get better and get more confident in it. I’m glad he did, because it’s so important. You listen to albums in a different way looking at the album cover. Jimi Hendrix records… that shit is part of your experience.
ZACH: Janis Joplin too, I really liked her. She was kind of a female Jimi for me at that time.
JOHN: Sometimes just putting a picture on the front works. It’s about capturing a moment and it’s always about honesty. I love when bands put photos on the album cover of them playing live because it’s never like that. It’s never that crazy. It’s crazy for like one fucking split second…
ZACH: Yep, broke that guitar, don’t have it anymore.
JOHN: Smashed that shit, can’t take that picture twice. But again, it all comes down to honesty and how you present it. To me it’s about contrast; it’s making an album called Evil Friends with Danger Mouse that isn’t necessarily about anything evil. I mean I can say “fuck those guys” but it’s not really evil, it’s just how I feel. Fuck you, rented Escalade! I buy my shit cash! Cash money.
So you kind of alluded to this but Satanic Satanist was bolder greens, reds and some yellow, In The Mountain in The Cloud saw a lot more purple and blue, American Ghetto was greens and blues and now Evil Friends is mostly black and gold. Is there a reason for the color schemes you use?
JOHN: Yeah, art is very important. Any sort of visual connection to the music is huge. It’s the reason Quentin Tarantino is Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson is Wes Anderson. I’m a huge fan of film and all these directors. I love watching movies. I mean Stanley Kubrick too – he had the common sense to make the placeholder in 2001: A Space Odyssey music and that’s what ended up being in the movie because it set this tone that you could not top. Someone was supposed to write the music for it but he was smart. He was like, “Fuck those guys… fuck them and their rented Escalades!” (laughs). But yeah, it’s very important to have those connections.
Juxtaposed has featured some of your work, specifically picked and praised by Alex Pardee – who is also known for his eccentric, creepy characters and album art as well. What is the art industry like versus the music industry? Do visual artists rent Escalades as well?
JOHN: They don’t rent Escalades. They sleep in the streets and even when they have money they continue to do that because that’s art. It’s a really difficult thing. I feel very lucky. Alex Pardee is fucking amazing. Such a nice dude – and he’s funny and smart. I’ve hung out with those dudes and I’ve been there when they look over a piece, and I’m like, “Mother fucker! What is he doing selling that for $50,000? Are you fucking kidding me?”. They’ve got a built-in fan base and they’re selling shit to people for whatever they want and it’s going to sell. It’s a fucking joke. I’m not trying to make money, if you make money doing it, that’s rad, but you can’t do it for those reasons.
ZACH: It’s gotta be pretty selfish, that’s the only way it can be taken seriously.
JOHN: Our thing with Insta was so funny. I did that graffiti-GIF stuff with him and he’s a really amazing street artist and we get along really. I can’t tell you anything about that cause nobody needs to know about him (laughs). But he’s an amazing artist and I remember the first time we met – we were talking about it and he’s like “Well, Atlantic is paying me to come out there so I have to deliver what they want”, and the whole meeting was me going, “No we don’t, what the fuck are you talking about? We don’t have to give them anything. You’re an artist, you were hired to do whatever the fuck you want. Don’t worry about that shit”. We ended up leaving this meeting where we had this fancy breakfast and halfway to the tube in London he’s like, “Do you want to go get a beer? Want to just hang out?”, and we both talked and I think we just ended up venting about our industries and how fucking stupid all that shit is. I think artists are more competitive. Artists are always like, “You fucking stole my shit, he’s doing my thing”.
So what is originality to you then?
JOHN: Picasso, what does he say? Good artists steal and bad artists imitate or some shit like that. Picasso said that and he’s a fucking artist.