Portugal. The Man was nearly done recording its new album, Evil Friends, when reps from the record label intervened. They told front man John Gourley that he had to take a meeting in New York with hot-shot producer Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, the Black Keys, Sparklehorse) to discuss the possibility of coming on to produce the disc. To hear bassist Zach Carothers, who co-founded the band with Gourley, tell it, the band was a bit peeved, even though Danger Mouse has a stellar reputation.
“We were, oddly enough, a little pissed off,” he says via phone from New York as the band gets set to embark on a summer headlining tour. “ We were already in the studio and we were nine songs in. We were going to do it ourselves. Everybody trusted us. We were feeling really good. Then, we got a call that John had to fly to New York and we had mixed emotions. One part of us was like, ‘Oh my God. That’s amazing.’ The other emotion was ‘Wait, you don’t trust us.’ It was crazy.”
Gourley flew to New York and had a sit-down with Danger Mouse. Initially, it didn’t go so well. Danger Mouse simply told him he worked with one rock band — the Black Keys — and didn’t feel the need to work with another. Gourley didn’t mind. The album was nearly done, and he didn’t feel like he needed any help. So the two just hung out and listened to music. They ended up liking each other so much that Danger Mouse signed on to the project and the band scrapped all but two songs and went back into the studio.
“It was an amazing experience,” Carothers says of working with Danger Mouse. “He is so smart and amazing and has such great style.” As a result of Danger Mouse’s input, the resulting album has more of a groove to it. The infectious single “Purple Yellow Red and Blue” sounds like a ’70s funk tune as Gourley croons, “all I wanna do is live in ecstasy” over a dramatic piano riff. The funky “Creep in a T-shirt” features a bouncy keyboard riff, breezy horns and soulful vocals as Gourley sings “I’m just a creep in a T-shirt and jeans/I don’t fuckin’ care.” The percolating “Modern Jesus” is just as perky. Either song could just as easily have been the disc’s first single. The record runs deep and stands as the best in the band’s catalogue.
To hear Carothers tell it, the band’s slow rise in popularity is all part a master plan. He and Gourley first met while in high school in Alaska and started the band in Portland, Oregon nearly ten years ago with the intention of building a grassroots fan base.
“When we started the band, we had a rough outline of what we wanted,” he says. “We wanted to build everything up very slowly. We were on smaller indie labels and it was really cool. It was a little difficult. Now, we’re on Atlantic and we’re honored to be on a label like that. When I called my dad and told him we were signed, it was a pretty good day. Led Zeppelin is his favorite band and they were on Atlantic. He was a proud father.”
The band’s also added a striking visual dimension and made short films for both its last album and for this release. It’s all a part of continuing a psychedelic/prog rock tradition upon which Carothers looks fondly.
“Pink Floyd was so special, not necessarily in lyrics, but melody,” he says. “They would have a certain riff that they would bring back to reflect different tones and different moods. I thought that was such an amazing idea. It connects songs and lyrics and makes you think way more. Albums like that I can’t stop listening to. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s such a solid album that I never take one song off it and put it on my morning drive time playlist. I have to hear the song that comes after it. It’s just my thing. If I listen to Dark Side of the Moon, I listen to Dark Side of the Moon. I don’t fuck around.”
And during the downtime between 2011’s In the Mountain in the Cloud and Evil Friends, Carothers says he went a bit stir crazy. But it gave him a chance to listen to some music he doesn’t normally delve into.
“Right now, I’m on a huge hip-hop and metal kick,” he says. “I listen to Kanye [West] and then Slayer. Kendrick Lamar and then Cannibal Corpse. I think it’s because the in-between time when you’re done recording and the record’s not out yet is the worst. There’s nothing you can do. There’s no direction. We all turn into psychopaths. We’re very anxious. We’re not nice people to each other. Everyone gets real weird. Being anxious and stuff like that, makes me want to listen to really aggressive music. If I’m feeling crazy, I want to listen to crazy music. I love music that breaks new ground.”
Carothers says the guys think in terms of making albums and not singles. And while that’s meant they haven’t topped the charts with any of their studio releases, it also means that their albums are ones you can listen to all the way through without hearing any filler.
“We really try to make the record as an idea,” Carothers says. “But we also try to make songs that can stand on their own. We prefer it that way. We don’t just make singles, otherwise I’d be wealthier than I am right now. We decide to make albums. Writing music is the one completely selfish thing we do. We just make what we want to hear. It’s fun. If nobody likes it, oh well, we liked it.”