When Danger Mouse calls, you answer—even if you’re ten songs and two weeks into your album. Portugal. The Man found this out the hard way. The call came when they were recording their new album at Sonic Ranch Studios, a massive recording studio surrounded by pecan groves near El Paso, Texas. The only problem was that they had to abandon most of their current work. But eventually Portugal. The Man left the pecan groves for sunny Los Angeles, Danger Mouse’s home base. The result of their decision is Evil Friends, a dynamic album that is their most cohesive and sonically appealing to date.
Each track is catchy, memorable and unique, from the quiet clapping and fluttering guitar rhythm of “Sea of Air” to the sexy, slithery vocals and rolling drumbeat of “Purple Yellow Red and Blue.” Evil Friends is still very much Portugal. The Man—a flexible, wry band that embraces different musical elements regardless of genre. They’re equally at home with poppy synths and distorted punk riffs. In fact, they pair the two in the title track and add their own playful tone. I spoke with bassist Zach Carothers about the new album and the formula behind Danger Mouse’s success.
What was the original concept for the Evil Friends?
Zach Carothers: It’s really an album about us. John [Gourley, vocals and various instruments] got far more personal on this record than he’s ever gotten before. We all did. We all got more personal with a lot of things. It went really well, I think. In the end it’s all about—we had kind of a crazy year. The last record almost killed us. This record almost killed us. Every record pretty much almost kills us. We finally decided to really write about that, about ourselves and the relationships we have with each other.
So you would characterize yourselves as evil friends?
Yeah. I think that’s safe to say for John and I. [laughs]
Of all the tracks, the one I’m listening to the most—as well as the one with my favorite name—is “Creep in a T-Shirt.” What’s the history behind that song?
That song was a freakish one. It went through a lot of changes. I think we had about nine or ten different versions of that song. It had several different choruses, different verses. That chorus came out on the second-to-last day of the entire recording session. It had a bunch of choruses but none had really sold us. Then John started this, uh… We’re big fans of humor, things that are tongue-in- cheek, that kind of self-loathing delivery. Especially when in contrast it’s an upbeat song. John started singing that chorus with that line, “Creep in a t-shirt / I don’t fucking care.” That’s where that chorus came from. We were in this moment of “Let’s get this shit done, I don’t fucking care anymore. I’m tired of thinking about it. I’m tired of stressing out about it.” So he started singing it and we all started laughing. Honestly, Brian [Burton]— Danger Mouse—came into the room and started listening to it and I did not think he was going to be cool with that chorus. I’m like, “Dude, you’ve got to check out what John is singing right now. It’s fucking awesome.” He started laughing. He’s like, “You know what? I really love that.” I could not have been more surprised. I thought he was going to give a really quick, concerned no to that one. But it was around that time when we were having fun. We knew the record was finally finishing up. We’d switched studios. It was the last two days of recording. It was actually our last day with Brian. It put us all in a good mood. We were having beers, we were happy people and although it may not sound like it, that song ended up being one of the happier songs on the record for us.
What were your initial thoughts about working with Danger Mouse?
They were very conflicting. Our initial thoughts about working with him were one, that’s fucking crazy but two, it was really bad timing. We were already in the studio doing what we thought was going to be our new record. We were doing it on our own. We had a guy helping us engineer it and helping us produce it by ourselves. So we got this call saying that Danger Mouse is interested in talking with us. John had to fly out and meet with him the next day. We were very conflicted at first. Obviously, we were like, “Oh my god, Danger Mouse. That’s crazy.” We never thought that we’d be able to work with a guy of his caliber. We’re huge fans of his. Half of us were kind of like, “Well, fuck that. We are doing our record. We’re almost done. It would put a wrench into our stuff here.” It all kind of came up when we were on tour with the Black Keys. We were talking to Patrick [Carney] one day and he’s worked with [Danger Mouse] forever. They’re close friends. He was like, “He’d be a really good fit for you guys. You should work with Danger Mouse.” We were like, “Of course we would.” We never thought it would come around. Brian and John really ended up getting along and seeing eye-to-eye on a lot of different levels about music and what they wanted to do. It’s really strange that it all worked out.
He works with so many different genres and people. What is it that he specifically brings to the table? If we listen to this album, can we point to a place and know, “This is Danger Mouse?” Or does it all sound like Portugal. The Man?
It’s not about him putting a fingerprint on it. It’s not anything specific that he brings to the table. We write it together. It’s really more of a collaboration where Danger Mouse has joined our band. He really has—it’s a taste thing. I don’t know how he does it. He’s very smart and he has very good and specific taste when it comes to music. Yeah, when I hear a song, I’m like, “Yeah, that’s a Danger Mouse song.” But I don’t think it’s anything that my ears are hearing. It’s something that’s just in there. He’s got a style. We’ve been fans of his for a long time. I think it really helped us. One of the best things he did—you’re going to be shocked by this—was that he said “no” a lot. That’s what good producers really need to do. We’re okay with that. We’re fine with that. But it’s better—I’ve been told “no” a lot by a lot of different producers. It’s also how you say it. You can’t just say no without offering some kind of different suggestion. He was like, “No, you shouldn’t do that. What about something like this?” Then it’s our turn to say no or yes. Then we just go from there. A lot of no’s and a lot of yes’. It all worked out really well. What is particularly good about him, where I felt the most comfortable, is that he’s an artist himself. He’s toured, he’s done that whole thing. He has perspective into that dynamic of being a band. A lot of producers will be like, “We have this chorus and this chorus and this chorus for a song. What do you think?” Most people would be like, “No.” Then they might say, “It will do really well on radio, it’s cooler, it might end up being more of an in-cut.” But what Brian would ask us is, “Ultimately, you might be playing this song live for the next ten years. What do you want to play for the next ten years?” That shit’s cool. He also had good advice for literally every aspect of our career because he’s been in the situation before.
So which of the songs on Evil Friends are you looking forward to playing live?
All of them have such an amazing vibe and quality to them. I’m looking forward to playing “Holy Roller.” We haven’t done that yet.
That’s actually the other track I was going to ask about. Can you share more about that song?
I am particularly proud of that song because we wrote it really early on in the process. Or we had the basics to it—the drums, the bass, the hook. We had some lyrics but it definitely wasn’t all there. The last day we literally pulled our shit together and just finished that song. We added the guitar leads, we made the choruses better, we added verses. That thing made the record by the skin of its teeth. It was always one of my favorites and I knew it had potential but everybody else wanted to scrap it. Then it turned out to be half the band’s favorite song on the record. I’m just really proud of everyone involved for pulling their shit together.
What was the last day of recording like?
It was pretty hectic, especially with finishing “Holy Roller.” We had a lot of last days. We pushed a lot of stuff back. You’re never done recording. You’re never finished. You just have to stop or you’ll be working on it forever. Some bands take years and years to record records and we just don’t agree with that. We want to keep working and move on to the next thing. After we’re done with the record we start talking about the next one. We want to evolve. So it felt good. It was a really happy day. The two weeks before that had been a lot of ups and downs— emotionally and physically. But the last two weeks everyone did an unbelievable job with everything. We were nice to each other and we were listening to everybody’s ideas. A lot of this does not happen very often. It’s all worth it once you finally stop.
With the shake-ups in the lineup, has that changed your sound at all? Is it going to impact the way that we hear Evil Friends played live?
Oh yeah. Definitely. Since the beginning we’ve had a rotating cast of people. It’s always been a collective kind of thing. Every time we add a member or a member leaves, styles change. It’s cool. It breathes new life into old songs that we’ve been playing for awhile. That’s one of my favorite parts about it. The keyboard part that Ryan [Neighbors] wrote a few years ago, Kyle [O’Quin] will play a little different and add new touches to it. It brings life to the material. It’s pretty amazing to see actually. I always miss our boys but there’s no bad blood between us whatsoever. Our old drummer Jason [Sechrist] is watching our house right now while we’re gone. I talk to Ryan all the time. We’re all still really good friends. Touring and living together is very, very hard and it’s tough the way things work.
You’ve been based in Portland, Oregon for a while. Do you consider yourselves part of the Portland music scene?
Barely. We really don’t. We’ve lived there for quite some time but it was really hard for us to break into that scene. It’s a very tight scene and since we’re from Wasilla we still claim Wasilla [Alaska], that’s where we’re from, it’s our home (althoug Portland has become our home too)—we have several homes. I’ve been living in Portland for ten years and it took people a lot longer to realize the fact that we were there and we weren’t going to leave.
Who were you listening to while making this album?
[laughs] This sounds really shitty but we were mostly listening to ourselves because that’s all we had time for. We were in the studio all day and as soon as we left I threw my headphones on to listen to the tracks from that day. Overall, always the staples. We’re always listening to the Beatles. We’re always listening to Bowie and Pink Floyd. We’ve said that for every record and every band has said that forever. Something new and fresh would be a lot of hip-hop. Hip-hop these days is one of the few genres that is really breaking new ground. I listen to Kanye and Kendrick Lamar. I just think it’s so cool and pushing the envelope in a genre that’s been around for awhile. That’s something that’s not necessarily being done in rock’n’roll right now. We took a lot of influence from hip-hop and we always have. Wu Tang Clan started off as one of our main influences.
Portugal. The Man plays House of Blues on June 26th with Guards opening. For more information, visit portugaltheman.com