UTG INTERVIEW: Portugal. The Man

Portugal. The Man - 2008

Psych-rock band Portugal. The Man have continued to be consistent and precise over the past seven years, providing fans with at least one release annually, with a somewhat reinvented sound for each. Between John Gourley’s distinctive, faultless falsetto and the expertise of each member’s instrumentation, Portugal. The Man have become one of indie rock’s most prolific contenders.

UTG recently had the exciting opportunity to get some inside information from keyboardist Ryan Neighbors about their most recent release In the Mountain in the Cloud, as well the band’s writing/recording process and future plans. Please read on and enjoy.

How have you been enjoying the success of In the Mountain in the Cloud?

I, personally, have been kind of blown away by the success of the new record. Not because I don’t think it is good enough to be successful, I think it is by far our best record to date. I am just not used to hearing our songs on the radio or selling out the kinds of shows we have been selling out on this tour. It has been incredible. We put a lot of work into In the Mountain In the Cloud and I am really proud of the record and how well it has been doing. We all feel really great about it.

Did you put anything different into this album than you have with past releases?

Oh yes, a lot more time went into recording this album. In the past, we had always booked a month of studio time and whatever we came up with by the end of that month was our finished product. It had always worked for us, half the time there weren’t any songs written in advance. For this record we spent a month doing pre-production in Seattle, then went to El Paso for a month assuming we would finish things up easily and quickly. This was not the case at all. We felt too much pressure to make a great record that we were never happy with the songs. We obsessed over tempos, and other small details that weren’t really the problems in the first place. We left El Paso with about six songs, spent time in New York, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Portland, recording in between tours and still couldn’t focus the songs until last December. We went to Seattle for three weeks without producers, just us and our friend Casey Bates, who recorded the first two records. We hung out, played video games, remembered how to just be friends and make music together. That is when we finished the record, openly discussing things with no weight on our shoulders. I think we learned a lot with this new record and hopefully the next one will go a little more smoothly although, in the end, all of the stress helped make this record what it is. I guess it wasn’t all bad.

You have been recognized as a band that seems to endlessly release material. What does it take to make this possible?

Well we don’t have other jobs, just music. We tour for anywhere between 6 to 9 months each year. When we are home we practice and write music. It doesn’t seem that absurd to record an album a year when we have time to do it, being that it is all we do. Each winter everyone gets a month to themselves. John and Zach go back to Alaska, Jason and I stay in Oregon. We have designated family time and usually the solitude of winter in Alaska gives John a chance to start writing new songs on an acoustic guitar. He sends demos over to us and everyone begins to get an idea of how to bring these songs to life. After that month apart we usually book studio time and just start recording. It is just how we have always done it and it has worked up to this point. I imagine we will continue do things this way as long as our schedules allow it.

Have you already begun working on your next release?

No, not yet. We have spent the last 2 months getting ready for the headlining tour. Learning covers, getting reacquainted with old songs. Just writing a fresh set for the fans of ours who have been seeing us for years. There have still been some new riffs thrown around but that is constantly happening with everybody, whether it will be a part of the new record or not is yet to be known. Writing will probably begin in the winter again, assuming we stick to our usual process.

Who/what are some of your biggest influences that go into the writing process?

Well the solitude certainly helps John when it comes to writing songs. He has said before that going home and forgetting he plays in a band is what allows him to pick up a guitar and write new songs. It helps to have a short escape from band stress. The Beatles are huge to us. Pink Floyd, David Bowie. They are undeniable and always artists to look to for influence. For me personally, Radiohead have been idols of mine for as long as I have loved music. I listen to their synths as well as their odd melodies. The Knife were also a big influence when it came to synth sounds and other keyboard noises. On the other end of the spectrum, Elton John has been my favorite pianist forever. Also my favorite wearer of glasses.

How would you describe the experience of making your television debut on Conan O’ Brien?

Terrifying. We were all really nervous, I don’t know if it shows, but it probably does. I was really scared until we got through the first 20 seconds of the song. Then I remembered, we are just playing one of our songs. We know how to play this song, there is really no reason to freak out. I think we did really well and we are all really happy about it. Conan is a guitarist as well and had some very nice things to say about our equipment, which I thought was really cool. Everyone in the crew was great and it was a really enjoyable experience. It was our first time on television and as with anything, it gets easier the more you do it. Hoping we will get the chance to do it again, of course.

What all contributed to your van and gear being recovered that was stolen back in August?

Well right when we couldn’t find our van we sent out tweets and Facebook posts. We made a gear list and sent it to all the pawn shops and music stores in Chicago so nothing could be sold, on top of that it became a major news story right away. You couldn’t search Lollapalooza on Google without hearing about our band. It was insane. I was at a Jiffy Lube in Missouri and I saw our band on TV. Everyone just came together and supported us, other bands (Blitzen Trapper offered to loan us all of their equipment), as well as music companies. Fender gave us a bunch of new stuff, Orange Amps, Audix Microphones. The amount of support we were getting was just unbelievable. The van and trailer were found later that day, empty. A week later our tour manager got a phone call from the Chicago PD telling him that our equipment had been found in a house. They were unsure how much of it exactly, but our logo was spray painted all over the cases so they knew it was ours. We ended up losing 6 guitars and 3 keyboards, which may sound like a lot, but we had so much more than that recovered. The bummer of course is the sentimental value of some of those guitars. Zach had had his bass for the entirety of the band. He wore that thing down to shit and loved it. We played Chicago about a week ago and one of the detectives, Tom McDonagh, came out to the show to meet us. It was really cool to meet one of the guys who helped us get our stuff back. We thanked him profusely and he seemed really happy just to be there hanging out.

Does John still have a lot to do with the artwork of your albums and merch?

Oh yes, he is very hands on with all of the album art and merchandise. Since the start of the band, John and Austin Sellers have done every piece of Portugal art together. Posters, album art, shirts, banners. all of it. There is a certain feel to our music and our art, I don’t think anyone else could really do the art for our band. It might look cool, but it wouldn’t be right for the band. There has to be some consistency to the bands art just as much as there needs to be consistency to the band’s music. Stanley Donwood, who I am a huge fan of, has done all of Radiohead’s album art since the Bends. I don’t think every band needs to keep their art consistent but for those who do, it can create great moods.

How has the change been from being independent to being signed with Atlantic Records?

It has been huge for us. The band used to operate with about 8 people. The band members, manager, booking agent, publicist, and tour manager. That is not very many people as far as running a traveling business goes. Now we have a whole team of people working around us, they legitimately care about the band and our future. I have personally loved working with Atlantic and I love everyone at the label. We have just felt a lot of growth since signing with them. Everything has been running a lot smoother and we are generally very happy at the moment.

Which of your music videos has been your favorite/most fun to make?

Well I was the star of the Lay Me Back Down video. We reenacted a scene in Star Trek where Captain Kirk fights the gorn. I had the pleasure of fighting a gold monster in the desert. Attempt my first acting since playing Santa Claus in a middle school Christmas play. I am not a very good actor, but that is okay with me. It was a lot of fun. Really hot. Our tour manager Ian was painted gold, his skin couldn’t breathe and he passed out. Probably the highlight of my day. I got to pick up a fake boulder and throw it at a monster, it made me look strong but also exposed my sweaty armpits. It was a really enjoyable day, the miserable heat just kind of made it more funny.

What have you been listening to lately?

Lately I have really been digging the Dangermouse and Sparklehorse record, Dark Night of the Soul. There are different singers on every song. I think it is a really cool idea. The song featuring Wayne Coyne is called Revenge. Definitely a highlight. For almost half a year I have been obsessed with Astral Weeks by Van Morrison. Pathetically enough, it’s because I only heard the record half a year ago. Not sure how that one slipped by me for 24 years. Also, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel is in my top three favorite records of all time. Some of the best lyrics I have ever heard. If you don’t know this record, know it.

What would you consider to be the highlight of the band’s career thus far?

There are so many different career landmarks in this band. The first time we played a festival, Bonnaroo, was the highlight of the bands career at the time. We never thought we would get there. I used to just dream of attending those festivals, let alone playing them. When we signed to Atlantic that was a landmark. Signing a major label record contract is something I never saw myself doing as a young boy. Then this year we played on national television. Another highlight of the band’s career. As we progress the highlights keep changing, but they are all highlights of our career. New levels, new landmarks, I am very proud of our growth as a band.

Written & conducted by: Brian Leak

Brian Leak

Editor-In-Chief. King of forgetting drinks in the freezer. Pop culture pack rat. X-Phile. LOST apologist.
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  • Anthony

    Great interview.  I couldn’t tell you guys were nervous during So American on Conan, it was awesome.