'Portugal. The Man' Collaborates With Danger Mouse On New Album

Sep 9, 2013

John Gourley was living in Wasilla, Alaska, when his family suddenly moved.

“My dad just decided that he wanted to race sled dogs and when he did that, he took us out of Wasilla and we never really went back,” Gourley told Here & Now.

Gourley and his family ended up living all around the state, but he and Zach Carothers — a friend from Wasilla — ended up forming what became the band Portugal. The Man.

You get a call that Danger Mouse wants to check it out, you have to do it.
–John Gourley

Now based out of Portland, Oregon, the five-member band has released the album “Evil Friends” — a collaboration with über-producer Brian Joseph Burton, better known by his stage name Danger Mouse.

“We were in El Paso, Texas, we’re going to make the record ourselves, we’re going to self produce,” Gourley said. “But you get a call that Danger Mouse wants to check it out, you have to do it. He’s one of those kind of iconic producers of today.”

Gourley compares Danger Mouse to Tony Visconti, who did arrangements for David Bowie and The Beatles.

“Visconte would get up and he’d play the bass with Bowie. That’s really important in a producer — a producer that can step up and play a keyboard, play a bass, play a guitar and help you with things, instead of just saying ‘I think this could be better.’”

Danger Mouse helped in similar ways.

“Take ‘Modern Jesus‘ for example,” Gourley said, referring to a song on the new album. “He just stood up at one point and said ‘Man, I think I got something,’ and he played the keyboard hook in that song.”

The band is touring Europe and the U.S. this fall.

Hear The Whole Album ‘Evil Friends’


  • John Gourley, co-founder and frontman for the band Portugal. The Man. The band tweets @portugaltheman.
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JOHN GOURLEY: (Singing) Your mama's got nothing on me. Your daddy's got nothing on me. And the world that sleeps in its lunacy has got nothing on me.


The band Portugal The Man has a devoted following. It started out as a couple of guys who met in high school in Wasilla, Alaska. And now, Portugal The Man, is touring Europe and the United States, promoting their latest album, "Evil Friends." We've been listening to a little of the title track.


GOURLEY: (Singing) You know it's not because the light here gets brighter. And it's not that I'm evil. I've got a friend in the devil.

HOBSON: Portugal The Man is now based in Portland, Oregon. John Gourley is co-founder and the front man, and he joins us from Oregon Public Broadcasting. John, it's great to have you.

GOURLEY: Thank you for having me.

HOBSON: Well, let's start with the title of your band, actually. Can you explain that? It's Portugal The Man.

GOURLEY: What we wanted to create with this band, that it was a group of people but an individual as well. It was this alter ego. It's Ziggy Stardust or Sgt. Pepper. And when we picked the country, it was just - I mean, a country is an individual in the world that represents a group of people. I think we just pulled Portugal out. It was just, that sounds good. His name will be Portugal, his alter ego. And we decided that we would put the period in there to say, it's Portugal, period. He's the man.

HOBSON: And the new album is called "Evil Friends." You have an earlier album called "The Satanic Satanist." I have to say, you don't sound evil or satanic. Where did those names come from?

GOURLEY: Well, darn. I try my best.


GOURLEY: Well, "Satanic Satanist," to start off with, I'd gone back home to Alaska for the winter. And I started writing these songs kind of based on the Motown songs we heard growing up and the Beatles. Not that we grew up in that era, but we listen to a lot of oldies radio in Alaska. And I was just trying to write songs in three minutes. I mean, that's the most amazing thing about Motown, is you hear this brilliant, brilliant songs that - I mean, get everything across in two to three minutes. It's incredibly difficult to do that.


GOURLEY: (Singing) Slip on down from the sun to climb down to earth and down to things like time. Because we are all, we are all just lovers, born of earth and light like all the others.

HOBSON: Well, let's remind people of your story. You were born in Alaska. Your father moved there shortly after high school. Talk a little bit about what life was like growing up. You raced sled dogs, right?

GOURLEY: Yeah. My parents were sled dog mushers. I mean, it's really the stereotypical Alaska story if you're not from Alaska. I mean, we moved all over the state. I lived in Denali, outside Denali National Park, lived in Cooper Landing, off the Kenai River. I mean, my dad just decided that he wanted to race sled dogs. And when he did that, he took us out of Wasilla and we never really went back.

HOBSON: Well, is there a song on "Evil Friends" that is influenced by your time growing up in Alaska?

GOURLEY: I think all of it is. Just like anybody else, every experience I had growing up is how I judge the world around me and take in the world around me. It's that work ethic and that drive that my dad had. On "Smile" especially, the closing track, it was us being out on the woods and listening to The Beatles. I mean, we lived in a place called Icy Lake at one point, and it's literally an icy lake. The only way in and out was snowmobile or dogsled.

HOBSON: Well, let's take a listen to a little bit of "Smile."


GOURLEY: (Singing) I don't need to talk about world alright. I just wanna sleep with a smile tonight. I don't wanna talk about the hungry people, people down, and I'll sleep when the sun goes down.

HOBSON: John, the thing that's interesting about this is it sounds like it's going to be a sadder song or somewhat more melancholy, and yet the message doesn't come across that way at all. I don't feel depressed after listening these songs.

GOURLEY: I think, in the end, when I listen to music, I like to hear contrast. I like to hear sad music with a happy message, and even - can I say this - pop music with kind of a bummer message. I think it's important to have that conflict.


GOURLEY: (Singing) Felt like forever.

HOBSON: Portugal The Man's John Gourley. The band's album is "Evil Friends." We'll have more after our break. HERE AND NOW.



And we're talking with Portugal The Man frontman John Gourley about the band's latest album, "Evil Friends." And John, I want to take a listen to a song that I particularly like on the album. It's called "Sea of Air."


GOURLEY: (Singing) It came the day we found a sea of air. When we went back, nothing was there. It towered so tall it nearly left the ground. Still when we looked, nothing was found.

HOBSON: Now, before the break, you were mentioning that The Beatles were a big influence on you. I do hear that in "Sea of Air." But I also hear a little of the Broken Bells.


BROKEN BELLS: (Singing) What is, just is, I know so we're trapped by answers. Love haunts to the end.

HOBSON: That was "Citizen" from Broken Bells, which brings me to the uber producer Danger Mouse, who was a co-founder of Broken Bells and also collaborated with you on "Evil Friends." Tell us about working with Danger Mouse and where his influence came into your music on this album.

GOURLEY: Well, to start off, "Sea of Air," we had actually written in El Paso before we even met Brian. Brian is Danger Mouse to everybody else who doesn't know that.


JOHN GOURLEY MUSICIAN: We had actually just written "Sea of Air," and I got this call from Atlantic saying, hey, man, Danger Mouse wants to meet you out in New York. And getting that call was so funny because we had set out. We were in El Paso, Texas. We're going to make the record ourselves. We're going to self-produce. But you get a call that Danger Mouse wants to check it out, you have to do it. He's one of those kind of iconic producers of today. And I'd say it's very, very fair to put him in a boat with George Martin and Tony Visconti, people like that who did arrangements for David Bowie and The Beatles.

GOURLEY: And like Visconti would get up and he'd play the bass with Bowie. That's really important in a producer, a producer that can step up and play a keyboard, play a bass, play a guitar, and help you with things, instead of just saying, I think this could be better. Brian's the type of guy that - take "Modern Jesus," for example. He just stood up at one point and said, man, I think I got something and he played the keyboard hook in that song. And I would never shy away from giving that credit.


MUSICIAN: (Singing) Come on in take a seat next to me. You know we got, we got what you need. We may be liars preaching to choirs, but we can, we can sell your dreams.

HOBSON: John Gourley, the chorus has lyrics like don't pray for us, we don't need no modern Jesus, the only faith we have is faith in us. What were you trying to say with the song?

GOURLEY: Oh, it's so simple. It's the most simple track on the record. I mean it was really about believing in yourself. I mean you can't accomplish anything if you're just hoping and putting your faith in someone else. It's believe in yourself. If you want it, you got to grab it.

HOBSON: You've also got songs like "Holy Roller" and "Someday Believers." What's going on with you in religion on this album?

MUSICIAN: Well, growing up in Alaska, it's a conservative place. I mean I stayed the night at friend's houses where their parents were reading us Book of Revelations growing up. And that's the most terrifying thing you put on a little kid, especially one who lives out in a cabin and doesn't have a church to go to. Like I just wasn't around it much growing up. And it's just my way of relating things. I mean it's - it feels like everything is so black and white, and that's my way to get it across to different people.


GOURLEY: (Singing) I'm not your holy roller. Hallelujah. I'm not your holy roller. Hallelujah. Holy roller. Hallelujah. Holy roller. Hallelujah.

HOBSON: You guys have a tendency to use little bits of your own music in some of your songs. Tell us about that and why you do that.

GOURLEY: I've always been a fan of calling back to some of our songs. Say, with "Smile," for example. It ties into "Senseless" on "In the Mountain in the Cloud."


GOURLEY: (Singing) And when the summer ends, yeah, I'll be there hiding. And when the sun rises, yeah, I'll stay warm forever.

And it's actually the starting lyric for "Senseless" is the chorus of "Smile."


GOURLEY: (Singing) Lets watch the sun come up to take it down and hide it. Seems like this spring has come and gone. It felt like forever. We watch the sun...

To me what it means is we recognize the stuff that we've done in the past. We're moving forward. And a lot of the time that means finishing those thoughts that weren't conveyed properly in the album before or the song before that.

HOBSON: We also hear about other topics like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a song called "Waves." Let's listen to a little bit of that.


GOURLEY: "Waves" was the very first song that we wrote with Brian in the studio. And the whole idea, like we wanted to go after this kind of Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon"-type album. And once we got to that intro, it came into the verse and it became something different. And I think that's what really sparked what "Evil Friends" became, "Modern Jesus" being the second song we wrote together. With "Waves," it was just such and urgent track, like it felt like something needed to be said. It wasn't necessarily about past wars or even current wars. It was more about just letting people be people and we don't need to be governed as tightly as we have been lately.


GOURLEY: (Singing) You can't fight a war with nobody to fight back. But if we get to digging to the bottom of the stack, we'll sell it to the youth and you never know. Maybe you'll get back home and you'll see your baby, oh. We'll just act like we care.

HOBSON: When you say that you set out to do a Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon"-type of album, what does that mean? How does that change how you do the album versus just trying to do an album?

GOURLEY: OK. I'm going to say this straight out. I'll lay it out...


GOURLEY: ...the way it went down. When Brian and I talked the first time, as I was leaving his place, he asked me what type of record we were working on. And I said - I mean this is silly but I said, I don't know, man, the best. You know, it might not be "Dark Side of the Moon," it might not be "Thriller," but if you're not trying to make those records, what's the point? And it became this whole thing about "Dark Side of the Moon." That's the best rock record ever.

So it got into our heads that we should make a "Dark Side of the Moon." And the silly thing about it is, why would you do that? Like you would never touch that. That's Pink Floyd, man. It just ended up being our jumping-off point.

HOBSON: Do you think you succeeded?

GOURLEY: I'd say we succeeded in making a very good record. I mean I feel really, really positive about it, really confident in what we accomplished.

HOBSON: What's next for you guys?

GOURLEY: The next one's "Thriller," all right?


GOURLEY: (Unintelligible) with it.

HOBSON: John Gourley is the frontman for Portugal The Man. The new album is called "Evil Friends." John, thank you so much for joining us.

GOURLEY: Thank you for having me.


GOURLEY: (Singing) All I want to do is live in ecstasy. I know what's best for me. I can't help it. It's this hopeless itch. I just want to feel purple, yellow, red and blue.

HOBSON: And we've got a video from Portugal The Man up at hereandnow.org. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.