Q&A: Portugal. The Man's John Gourley

The Portland band courts major-label success with a swirling, psychedelic, Danger Mouse–produced new album.

By Robert Ham June 3, 2013 Published in the June 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

On its best-selling 2011 album, In the Mountain in the Cloud, Portland’s quaintly punctuated Portugal. The Man stepped toward a sound informed by the punchiness of leader John Gourley’s punk days, tempered by a love of flowery ’60s pop. The band’s seventh album, Evil Friends, moves further into the psychedelic wonderland, this time guided by Brian Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse, the Grammy-winning producer who’s worked with the likes of the Black Keys, Norah Jones, and Gnarls Barkley. 

Wisely, neither band nor Mouse messes with the previous effort’s formula, but instead they expand and brighten the sonic canvas with elements such as the triumphal horns and swirling strings that burst through the Beatlesque “Sea of Air” and the circus keyboards mixed with hip-hop beats of “Holy Roller (Hallelujah).” 

The entertainment industry traditionally saves summertime for its would-be blockbusters, so it says a lot that Atlantic Records is releasing Evil Friends this month. The weight of this moment doesn’t seem to be affecting Gourley, though, as he talked with us about the hype, the festivals, and whatever else 2013 might throw in his path. 

What was it like to collaborate with one of the music industry’s biggest producers? A million times, I’ve wondered why Danger Mouse would want to work with our band. He’s such a big presence and is very picky about what works and what doesn’t. As we were recording, he wouldn’t even have to say a word. “What was that look? Yeah, that’s probably right. That melody doesn’t work.” 

After your last tour, Ryan Neighbors, your keyboardist and one of the key architects of your evolution from folk-tinged rock to psychedelically leaning pop, and longtime drummer Jason Sechrist left the band. How has that affected the group? It’s a huge change. It really sucks to lose someone, but it loosened some things up. I created the band and can sit down and write the songs like I always have. I don’t have any regrets when it comes to the way things went. Everybody’s happier and in a better place. 

Evil Friends has a more cohesive feel to it than some of your previous records. That’s especially true of the lyrics, which are a little darker. Where did that come from? What happened was all the music we were coming up with reminded me a lot of people back home [the band originally hailed from Wasilla, Alaska]—friends who had gotten into drugs and the small handful who made it out and went to college. The music made me think about what I had been through and where I am now. I was able to get a lot of that off my chest, and say things I haven’t said before. Some of it, especially the religious imagery, is a little more obvious. We do have a record called The Satanic Satanist, after all!

You played Coachella in April and have Bonnaroo coming up in June, as well as a huge tour planned. Do you feel any added pressure about the schedule? It’s really exciting and scary, because we haven’t had a minute to really rehearse. Still, the band is solid. There would be times in the studio where Brian would turn around to me and say, “Man, I cannot believe your band.”  

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