By: Josh Herwitt
John Gourley has always been adept at switching things up. Ever since he formed Portugal. The Man nine years ago following the breakup of emo/screamo outfit Anatomy of a Ghost, the singer-songwriter has seen his fair share of band mates come and go.
“We did tours where we would have 12 people sometimes,” Gourley explains. “The original band was everybody we had been playing with since we were 15 years old. That was Portugal. The Man.”
By now, the roster looks a bit different for the psychedelic five-piece, which headlines the House of Blues Anaheim tonight and the Wiltern Theatre in L.A. tomorrow night. Original members Wesley Hubbard, Nick Klein and Harvey Tumbleson are all gone, and keyboardist Ryan Neighbors and drummer Jason Sechrist left the band last year to pursue other musical endeavors. None of that bothered Gourley, though.
“It's all understandable stuff,” he says.
But when Portugal decided to scrap an entire album's worth of material after recording for two weeks at Sonic Ranch Studios outside of El Paso, Texas, Gourley wasn't as eager to welcome change with open arms.
“I was so fucking pissed, man,” the Alaska native admits. “I was so pissed.”
Gourley, who grew up in Wasilla with bassist and longtime friend Zach Carothers, had just gotten a call from Atlantic Records CEO Craig Kallman, and the word was Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton wanted to meet him in New York the next day.
“I was like, 'Fucking damn it! What the fuck, man? Where's the trust?” Gourley remembers after he hung up the phone.
At the time, Portugal had been in talks with several other candidates to produce its seventh full-length effort Evil Friends, and Burton was nowhere even near its radar. The band, in fact, had been leaning toward self-producing the album after bringing on John Hill for 2011's breakthrough In the Mountain in the Cloud. And with Burton, there were no guarantees that Gourley and his sidekicks — Carothers, keyboardist Kyle O'Quin, guitarist/percussionist Noah Gersh and drummer Kane Ritchotte — would end up working with him at all.
“The first thing I got from him when we met was really amazing,” Gourley recalls about his initial encounter with Burton, who for a long time shared the same publicist as Portugal and was familiar with the band's history. “It was, 'Hey man, just so you know, I don't really want to work with you guys. I've worked with The Black Keys. I don't really want to work with another band. I got my guys.'”
Danger Mouse, after all, has been known to be a very busy man. The architect of the groundbreaking Beatles/Jay-Z mashup The Grey Album has since metamorphosed into a household name after titanic commercial splashes with Cee Lo Green in Gnarls Barkley and The Shins' James Mercer in Broken Bells earned him multiple Grammys.
Then, there's his highly lauded production work with Beck, Gorillaz, Jack White and Norah Jones. And if that's not impressive enough, he's also currently producing U2's next album. As you can see, there's a reason why Esquire listed him as one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century.
With those kinds of credentials, there was no way Gourley was going to miss that flight to New York, where he spent several hours at Burton's apartment listening to music and revealing his vision for Evil Friends.
“Of course I was going to meet Danger Mouse,” he says. “I would be stupid not to do it. And that's why it was so frustrating.”
Gourley had every right to be upset. For years, Portugal had won the trust of the record companies, even after signing with Atlantic in 2010.
“Everybody trusts us,” Gourley maintains. “I never really thought it was easy to be a loose, messy, do-whatever-you-want type of band.”
That's why a year earlier, when Portugal first discussed the prospect of leaving Equal Vision Records for a major label, it quickly dismissed the idea.
“We were like, 'No fucking way. We can't sign to Atlantic right now. We're not good enough. We can't play national TV,'” Gourley says.
But Portugal has overcome those misgivings and in the meantime, joined some elite company at Atlantic — Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin to name a few — all while collaborating with one of the biggest super producers in the game today.
“Working with Brian, I couldn't have done that four years ago,” Gourley confesses. “I wanted to work with Danger Mouse because of Gorillaz and Gnarls Barkley more than The Black Keys — and in the best possible way. The Black Keys are the rock band. That's the fucking rock band. That is what rock 'n' roll is today, and they're fucking doing it.”
While Burton's fingerprints aren't always detectable on the 12-track Evil Friends, he's certainly helped Portugal reign in its prog-rock roots and embrace its poppier tendencies on songs such as “Modern Jesus,” “Atomic Man” and “Purple Yellow Red and Blue.”
“He doesn't have a bag of tricks,” notes Ritchotte, a former child actor who played Benjy Fleming in the TV series “Monk.”
Portugal, on the other hand, does. Early last month, it teamed up with some of the cast from FX sitcom "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia” to create this apocalyptic spoof video for the release of Evil Friends. Then, a week later, it surprised a packed crowd at Bonnaroo with a guest spot from "Weird Al” Yankovic, who rocked out to "So American” with an accordion in hand. Luckily for the PTM boys, it just so happened that the festival had asked them months earlier to perform with Yankovic as part of its web series, and Ritchotte says the pairing couldn't have been a better match for the band.
"We're all coincidentally very big fans of him,” the 21-year-old Angeleno says. "He's a killer musician. … He's not a character.”
Despite the kooky moniker he borrowed from an old British cartoon series, neither is Danger Mouse. It's clear that attaching Burton's name to Evil Friends would offer Portugal an extra dose of credibility, but it was his extensive background in hip-hop that proved just as vital when it came to writing indignant odes like "Hip Hop Kids.”
"Everybody in the band really likes hip-hop,” Ritchotte affirms. "Most of the music we end up listening to is hip-hop.”
For that reason alone, the partnership between Portugal and Burton made sense from the get-go, well before Gourley and company relocated to L.A. from Portland, Ore., to record the rest of Evil Friends. It was only a matter of getting Burton to buy into the band's lofty ambitions for the album at the onset.
"Before I left New York, he asked me what kind of record we wanted to make,” Gourley recounts. "I was like, 'I don't know, man. The best.' Which sounds like this pretentious thing, and it's totally not. What's the fucking point? You're going into the studio. Why are you going into the studio just to say, 'Let's see what happens'? I want to make fucking Dark Side of the Moon!”
Throwing out most of the Sonic Ranch sessions may have seemed like a dark moment for Gourley at the time, but this wasn't the first instance where Portugal had been through the wringer.
Almost two years ago, the band's van and trailer containing all of its instruments and gear were stolen at Lollapalooza before being recovered days later from a man who claimed to have purchased what was $80,000 worth of equipment at a Chicago flea market.
"When we lost it, instead of freaking out, I sat back and wrote down every piece of equipment that we had,” Gourley says. "[I had to] make it into a good thing instead of a shitty situation.”
Because you never know when Danger Mouse may want to work with your band, too.