John Gourley, frontman for US psych/prog rock band Portugal. The Man doesn’t know where he is when we chat – it’s an occupational hazard.
He’s in a hotel room, he’s in America, but it takes a second for the rest of the details to come forward. Who can blame him when his band are touring album number eight, Evil Friends, across the globe in a career that has seemed like one perpetual touring cycle. He’s enjoying dinner and time with his daughter, Frances, while adoring fans wait for the next gig celebrating their latest album, the Danger Mouse-produced Evil Friends.
“I’ve always been an early riser,” Gourley says, talking about how life has changed for him now he’s a dad. “I swear to God because of my parents I really didn’t know people slept past 6am until after I was 18. I know a lot of my friends in bands, they freak out at the thought of having a kid and they’re like, ‘What the fuck would I do?’ I’m like, ‘Fuck man, you buy some diapers and you just do the same shit that you’re doing.’”
Having grown up in Wasilla, Alaska – an immeasurably beautiful and intensely isolated part of the world – Portugal. The Man came about as a way of getting to the next part of the US and having a blast while doing it. There was no grand business strategy, but things just took off. Perhaps it was their inability to ever say no to a gig, even though Gourley contests that that could’ve been their downfall.
“It’s amazing we ever did well because over here, it was hard to miss us, we were playing all the time. We opened for every fucking band that ever asked us,” he laughs. “We had no expectations at all [for the band] and sometimes it’s crazy to me that we’ve made it this far. We’re Beatles fans and all we cared about was playing five dollar shows to pay our way to the next part of the country. We put out as many albums as we could and not for the sake of just putting out records, but to learn how to make records.”
Things changed along the way and for Gourley, In the Mountain In the Cloud was a career turning point. “The last album and this album are actually us trying to reach our best. I finally feel confident that we can go out and play TV and festivals and just understand it all better,’ he says.
Seminal producer and musician extraordinaire Danger Mouse produced the band’s latest album, but Gourley admits he wasn’t too thrilled when the plans for self-production were changed on him. “When I showed up to meet Danger Mouse I was in the middle of making the album with the band and we had decided we were gonna self-produce; that was our whole thing,” he explains. “I got a call from Craig Kallman [Atlantic Group Records CEO] just as we started recording and I was kinda pissed off when he made that call. But really, how can you be pissed off at that offer? I mean, Danger Mouse? If there’s an opportunity there you take it and I appreciate that Craig went out there and asked.”
Even Danger Mouse wasn’t sold on the idea of producing Portugal. The Man, which somehow turned the tables for Gourley – he suddenly wanted him on board. “When we met, the thing is it didn’t mean that we were gonna make an album together. When we first started talking…” he trails off. “Oh God, these arranged meetings. I assume that for Brian [Danger Mouse], I’ll call him Brian from now on, I assume Brian dreads those moments. I mean he can call up anyone he wants. So I flew out there – well this is the way I recall it happening – and he was like ‘I just did an album with my boys’, who are The Black Keys, ‘and I don’t think I wanna make another rock record.’ Blind confidence is what has driven this band from the beginning so I said, ‘You know what? We’re not a fuckin’ rock band’.
“He asked what kinda album we were making and I said, ‘We wanna make the best.’ We both laughed at that because it’s just the stupidest shit you can possibly say – ‘the best album’. We talked about Dark Side of the Moon and Thriller together. I guess if you’re not aiming for Dark Side of the Moon, then what’s the fucking point? I feel you still have to aim for that shit even if you think you probably won’t reach it. I love to learn, I fucking hated school but I love to learn. Once you land on the Moon you shoot for Mars – Bowie’s next you know?”
For Gourley, the presence of a producer like Danger Mouse brought both a calm and stoic drive to the recording process. “I appreciated Brian and his approach, it made it so easy,” he says. “The thing is Brian knows how to say no and you can’t say no to artists. Craig Kallman knows that, you know? You can walk into a studio and tell a band that the chorus isn’t their best and they’ll fucking make it worse, they’ll make it noisier. They think, ‘Who the fuck are you to say that shit?’ That’s not my style, I want an album to reach its potential and Brian did that with us. He said no when he needed to and we listened.”
BY KRISSI WEISS
Portugal. The Man play Splendour in the Grass on July 26. Evil Friends is out now through Warner Music.