We caught up with Portugal. The Man's lead songwriter and frontman John Gourley for a chat about all things musical and not least their new record 'In The Mountain In The Cloud' set for release in the UK next week through Atlantic Records.
You're over in the UK at the moment, what brings you to these shores?
This is our first album with Atlantic records and we were over in Paris doing some promo so we took the opportunity to come over to the UK to play some shows. We've travelled around the UK a little bit, it's all still a bit bizarre for us, as we came to the UK so late. We visited Europe about 8 times before we actually came over here.
Europe on the whole seems to respond well to your music, but outside of London you've never really broken into the UK scene, do you think the UK is harder to break than most places?
Honestly, we came over to the UK at a time when rock bands weren't exactly the coolest thing around, bands like Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear were doing really well and I guess we just didn't fit in. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why we didn't break initially but it's something we have to prove with touring and playing good shows; we were really nervous when we come over as so much good music has come from here. It'll be hard work but we're from Alaska so we're used to it.
You signed to Atlantic in 2010. How have you found working with a big label, and how does it compare with the Indies?
There's definitely been differences but it's been refreshing for me. I like work, I like song writing and I like the history of Atlantic Records. They've sat in the studio with so many artists like Ray Charles for example and created something amazing. As a label they seem to be great at growing bands rather than telling you how to do it. I really appreciated them coming to the studio and having that input. As a songwriter it's good to have criticism and I like objective opinions. I know so many bands who see it as interference and absolutely hate it. Sometimes I hear stories about labels going into the studio and saying 'I think that chorus needs some work', so the bands change them but in a total opposite way. I really wanna shake them and say 'you realise you've changed your music for the label, you could've just said 'no'.
So the added pressure on being on a major affected you?
We approached the situation with the attitude of not needing a major label as we were doing well on our own but we really want this band to be a great band, we want a future, if only for the music. I think it's important to realise it's not just something you can jump into and Atlantic seemed to share that.
We actually really fucked up the record at initially. We were in the studio arguing and that's something we never do! We make albums every year and it was never a problem until we were on the same label at Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones! We totally freaked out, and in the last two weeks it all came together and it was through the help of Atlantic that it did... not in a creative or artistic way but just being cool, they made it really easy. To me it's more like this is our first 'real' album but it feels like that every time; it's just learning to do it better each time and we just happen to have recorded the history of our practice.
You worked with a couple of new producers on this record, when it comes to passing that aspect of control over to someone, is that something you're always confident in doing?
I think in most situations we are. It's all about working with people you trust and looking at their history. This album was our first time working with A-list producers; in the past we couldn't have afforded to do anything like that it was a whole new studio experience. So when I first played the demos to the producer I was almost *too* objective, I'd constantly ask what they thought to the structure and this and that. I guess I was expecting them to want something more focussed.
It's hard to explain, but if you watch Werner Herzog's "Cave Of Forgotten Dreams" there's one little part in it where they uncover one of the first manmade tools, it's a flute and it's perfectly in key on the pentatonic scale; that's almost how I thought we should be - perfect. A lot of modern day producers learn their skill on computers, it's not necessarily about arrangements, structure or about writing, it's more about uncovering sounds so it was a strange experience for us.
So recording was quite an unusual process for Portugal. The Man?
I think it knocked decades off my life through stress! I wasn't sleeping more the 1 to 3 hours a night and I finally had to face facts and go see a therapist. That point came when I was driving and someone put on their brakes and just that small amount of adrenaline coming into my body shut me down and I almost passed out. Then I knew I had to sort my sleeping out.
You worked with the legend that is Andy Wallace...
Yes! Andy's in his 60's now and I can tell you he's the nicest most respectful person I've ever worked with. We were ridiculously lucky to work with him; he actually called us before we started the record and said he wanted to mix it but I didn't believe it was him, I was like 'yeah, whatever', so we finished recording and he still wanted to mix it - we couldn't believe it! We knew we were gonna go with him but we also thought 'Can he still do it, does he still *really* mix or is this the kind of job where he simply makes money in the end?'
When we gave him the record he had to dig through 8 months of our fuckups which amounted to about 130 tracks and he was asking me what I expected him to do with them all, and I told him 'just mix it, you're Andy Wallace, you've made some of our favourite records, from Slayer to Jeff Buckley and Nirvana, all of it is great' and he came back to me in the nicest way and said 'I will not pick the tracks for your record' but eventually started to see what we were all about.
Andy did exactly what he said he would and created a visual mix, and it was so refreshing. We'd done earlier test mixes with Atlantic and they didn't feel mixed at all, just mastered - and overly loud. Every song sounded like it was on volume ten in; Andy's old school techniques made his version really dynamic. Even if you don't really like rock music, I think that side of the record is something most people will be able to appreciate; it's got a great flow. His speciality is finding the focus of a band and highlighting it, with Jeff Buckley it was his voice and guitar and despite with Nirvana hating that mix that (Nevermind) is their best sounding album, they were songwriters and that comes across.
Satanic Satanist is one of my favourite holiday albums, as soon as I get into the sun, I can be sure it's the first album I'm gonna put on. Do you have any albums you can do the same thing with?
Really? Thanks! Well recently I've been listening to a lot of jazz and blues. Miles Davis and Felonious Monk, they're both great artists who enhance things. Regards new music I like a lot of nice synthesisers washing over things; so The Knife, they're amazing, as is Fever Ray's solo stuff. Thinking about it, most things Swedish! Lykke Li is really good, that record is one of my favourites of the year. I don't know if it's part of being Alaskan but we're almost on the same latitude and they really manage to capture their surroundings in their music. It's a darkness versus the incredibly bright summers; summery tones dark lyrics.
Over the years, you've released many EP's as well as albums, when it comes to picking tracks for albums and EP's what are the defining factors between the two? Generally when it comes to EP's, are they the left over tracks from albums or do you have a defining vision to make something like a 'short album'?
When we make an EP it's generally just something I do when I have a bit of spare time. Outside of the first album, I don't think we've ever used old tracks. You have to go into something with a clear vision of what you want to deliver, if we want to record a 15 track album that's what we'll do... never more though or it gets ridiculous. If I have this idea and I'm thinking 'oh right the verse is really good but the chorus isn't quite as good' I'd prefer to try and mash two good tracks together to make a great track rather than using two OK tracks.
Most Portugal. The Man albums have quite short running times, do you think it's important to keep records short and concise?
It's more for me really, I'm a big motown fan. I grew up on that stuff, and what was cool about it was most of the songs were in A Major and they're all 3 minutes or shorter and I love that, I love getting to the end of a track and thinking 'I wish that were longer'.
I mean, 'Sleep Forever' is like 6 minutes and sometimes it makes sense to go for the longer play. Champagne Supernova by Oasis is a great track that deserves every second. Oasis were perfect when they made 'What's The Story...' Liam's such a great frontman, in the classic 'I don't give a fuck' kinda way; Noel is such an amazing songwriter. I'd argue that that album includes some of the best songs of all time.
Talking of favourite records, if you could have written one song by any band, which track would it have been?
Well! My favourite piece of music is actually The Dark Side Of The Moon as a whole. For me it's the most perfect and brilliant example of rock song writing. It's most certainly just one piece, you can't break it up. It's so perfectly blues and so perfectly Jazz and there's melody, there are no borders.
The reason I got into music was down to Wu Tang Clan. I grew up in Alaska and we don't have record stores - well we didn't, especially where we grew up! My parents moved from New York to Alaska in '69 or '70 straight outta high school so the only records I could listen to were the ones they listened to before they moved - staples included Sam Cook, The Beatles and Aretha Franklin. I then heard Wu Tang and they had all these really great references to soul and R&B with their samples, you didn't have to hear the whole sample to know it was great - that album is a straight out lesson in delivery.
Surely the full stop in your name leads to all kinds of issues RE venues and press getting it wrong,1) doesn't this really annoy you and 2) have you considered changing?
If we'd seen it in print before we put out a record, we'd have changed it in a second! Portugal. was actually the original name, it was our Ziggy Stardust and The Man only came about because that's how we wanted to express it!
'Portugal.... The Man?' had we caught it, we would've changed it - we're always listed incorrectly but I've gone beyond it!