Life on tour has been a mixed blessing for Portugal. The Man. It has cost them members, but it also led them to Weird Al Yankovic.
"I love Weird Al," Portugal. The Man's John Gourley says. The Alaska-bred, Portland-based band backed Weird Al Yankovic on "Canadian Idiot" for Bonnaroo's lineup announcement earlier this year, and they performed together at the festival a few weeks ago.
"He introduced me to Nirvana," Gourley says. "That dude with his jokey band parodies introduced us to so much music. His 'Yoda' to me is better than 'Lola.'"
Portugal. The Man tours pretty constantly. The group plays Wednesday night at the House of Blues, and so far this year it has played Bonnaroo and Coachella. The difference? "Bonnaroo's about the music," he says. "Coachella's about Lindsay Lohan dragging herself around." Festivals like that are unquestionably opportunities to make new fans, but he has mixed feelings about those prospects. He first heard James Blake by stumbling across a show at SXSW so he knows it happens, but the festivals are rarely an artist-friendly way to consume music, particularly in the daytime. "That just sucks," he says. "You just got up." Still, he thinks a lot of band make it worse for themselves by refusing to tailor their set to the sunny day, the atmosphere, the lack of production, and the crowd that's there. "A festival set should be a party for the people who showed up."
Portugal. The Man has been practical-minded like that since its early days. In Alaska, tickets to concerts often cost $50, $60 - the cost of getting bands to travel that far. When Gourley moved to Portland, he was blown away by how many good bands he could see for a $5 cover and wondered why more people weren't there. That instinctive preference toward grass roots indie-oriented music helped shape the band and its aesthetic, including the way it traveled. "We bought a five pound bag of rice and a cooker and hit the road."
That mentality has worked better for some members than others. When Portugal. The Man played The House of Blues last year, drummer Chris Vanacore walked offstage mid-set, quitting the band in the middle of the show. Gourley didn't see it coming, but he knew something was up earlier in the day. "He avoided me a little bit," Gourley says - something that was unusual for Vanacore. "Chris is a good dude. Supernice. Good to hang with." When the show started, his performance was distracted. Gourley looked back to check on him a few times but couldn't make eye contact. "You could see he was in his head the whole time; he wasn't paying attention to what was happening outside of that."
Eventually, he simply got up and left the stage. Gourley let him go, then put down his guitar, leaving the band to jam while he checked on Vanacore. When he got backstage, Gourley discovered Vanacore had left the building. Portugal. The Man finished the set playing a semi-acoustic set dominated by Beatles covers with the drummer from the opening act filling in.
"Chris is a really, really good drummer, but there's a lot of things that come along with touring," Gourley says. "The stress and pressure got to him. I don't think people give it enough credit because it's such an intense situation," particularly when touring means piling into a van instead of a tour bus or three. "It's not a normal living situation."
It's one that band will continue to live for the foreseeable future, particularly since the release of their recent album, Evil Friends. It is clearly the product of the band - slightly elaborate, Beatles-influenced, dense, and ridiculously catchy - but those signature elements were strengthened by the presence of Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) behind the production board. The band had started working on an album when its label president approached Danger Mouse about working with them, which roughly coincided with Patrick Carney of The Black Keys telling him that he should produce the band after Portugal. The Man had opened for The Black Keys. Gourley ended up flying to New York to talk strategy with the label about how to get Burton on board - what to say, what not to say. When they finally met, Burton said he didn't want to produce them, that he already had a rock band he produced: The Black Keys.
"As soon as that came out, I started saying all this shit I wasn't supposed to say," Gourley says, laughing. "I told him we were making a record already. We ended up listening to music all day." That refusal and the subsequent conversation gave them an occasion to connect, which led Danger Mouse to change his mind.
He tends to be a very collaborative producer, which is something Gourley was open to. Portugal. The Man has been largely self-contained since its inception, but he welcomed another pair of ears to help the tracks better. "Working with Brian is such a fun thing because it's about music," he says. "We were hanging in the studio trying to figure out how to transition from a part, and Brian said, 'Maybe it's not good enough. Let's delete the session.' I think that shit's rad. I'd rather delete it than mess around in the studio for a couple of days not getting stuff done."
In a recent interview, Gourley said that when the band went in the studio, it wanted to make its Dark Side of the Moon or Thriller. "That's what a band should do," he says now. "It's not being pretentious to say you want to make the best record you can make." He thinks that attitude is part of the reason Danger Mouse worked with the band. When they talked, Burton asked Gourley what kind of album he wanted to make. He answered "the best" - an answer he now laughs at, more for its bald nerve than the ambition.
"I love when guys say, 'I don't listen to my own records.' If you can't listen to your own records, what the fuck are you making?"
My Spilt Milk has joined with the House of Blues to offer fans "the best seat in the house" for the Portugal. The Man show. Here are the details.