Friends Like These

Portugal. The Man's success comes from founders' opposite personalities, bassist says

It has been a long slog for Portugal. The Man.
Courtesy photo

Life days for is pretty good these Portugal. The Man, or at least it was pretty good when we caught bassist Zach Carothers on a rare evening off, rumbling down to the Alabama shore with a busload of homies for a sunset beach party with margaritas and shellfish. We felt a little bad about getting the guy on what was supposed to be designated chill time, but Carothers was in a good mood and eager to talk about life on the road and the band’s seventh long player, Evil Friends.

Carothers says the album was kind of a therapy exercise for PTM, a re-invigoration of purpose for an outfit that has been plowing through club dates and festivals for the better part of a decade and, unsurprisingly, was a little tired and a little calloused, despite having scored a minor hit with “People Say” in 2009.

“When we were doing the album before,” Carothers remembers, “when we recorded In The Mountains In The Cloud [the band’s 2011 follow-up to its breakout 2009 LP The Satanic Satanist], we all almost died. It nearly ended all of our lives; we were in the worst place ever. We were not nice to each other. Things were really dark.

“Since that happened, this whole record has … it’s even kind of about that. [The new album] is lot about ourselves, how we relate to each other. It was really good to be in a positive working environment, especially the last two weeks. … We had been doing all these fly-outs [to work in the studio], and we just said, ‘OK, two weeks, we’re just going to block out and finish this thing. Two weeks, don’t fuck with me, don’t call my phone, don’t email me, we’re just going into the studio and we’re going to do this thing.’”

You could make the case that a band singing about itself is likely to be a one-way conversation and mostly a purgatory of tedious navel-gazing. But Evil Friends, the culmination of months working with industry star Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) on production duties, is a vigorous and satisfying document. The offerings include the buoyant arch and proggy ambitions of “Plastic Soldiers,” the pop anthems “Creep in a T-Shirt” and “Atomic Man,” and the breezy, Lennon-esque head candy of “Sea of Air.” John Gourley’s unrelentingly melodic verse vocals, tightened in the upper reaches of his trademark falsetto, bob and weave, with lyrics alternately crafty and diffident on religion (as both metaphor and a subject of ironic humor), the hopelessness of rewriting the past and the uncertainties of redemption. And then, true to the pop craftsman’s trade, they lead inevitably into rousing, resolutely affirming choruses. Bruce Springsteen once said his songwriting strategy was to represent conflict in the verse and resolution in the chorus. Gourley got that memo.

And, in fact, when Carothers says that a lot of the record is about the band working through its slump, you can hear it.

“Yesterday / Has come and gone, and we can’t forget it / Anyway, we tried / Take the ride / If we get divided / You and I can’t fight it / March along, help me stay in time,” Gourley sings on “Someday Believers,” or “Don’t pray for us / We don’t need no modern Jesus / To roll with us / The only rule we have is never giving up / The only faith we have is faith in us,” says the chorus on “Modern Jesus.” Maybe it’s about the band; maybe it’s about almost everyone.

Singer John Gourley’s sky-high tenor makes Chris Cornell sound like Barry White. | Courtesy photo

“Yeah,” Carothers says of “Modern Jesus,” “like most of our stuff, that one has a few different meanings. We wrote that during those last two weeks, the time we really pulled together, and like a lot of our stuff it kind of has a couple of different meanings. It’s one of those lines that I really like, that you can kind of relate to any situation in your life.”

But some of the album is a little less profound, like the endearing slacker testimony of “Creep in a T-Shirt,” with the probably radio-disqualifying chorus line “I’m just a creep in a T-shirt, jean / I don’t fuckin’ care.” Too bad, we suggested to Carothers, since the song is damn-near perfect and the whole world should hear it.

Carothers laughs. “That’s pretty funny, we just played that for a radio show we did,” he says. “Instead of ‘I’m just a creep in a T-shirt / I don’t fuckin’ care,’ we sing, ‘I’m just a creep in a T-shirt / censored by millionaires.’ We did that for Conan O’Brien’s show, it was pretty funny.”

Carothers has been ying to John Gourley’s yang in this band since its inception about 10 years ago; the two grew up together in Alaska and started the band after they both moved, at different times, to Portland. We asked Carothers how they work together. Conflict or consensus?

Carothers laughs. “John thrives on conflict, I thrive on consensus.

“But it seems to work itself out. I think that’s why we’ve always worked so well together, because we are polar opposite people. And that’s how we fight; he wants me to be more like him, and I want him to be more like me. The whole reason we got this far is because we’re so different. And the things he’s not good at, I’ll pick up. And the things I’m not good at, he’ll pick up.”

Although the band did a Red Rocks gig this past summer, opening for Avett Brothers, we dial back and recall PTM’s b.side lounge gig four years ago, playing the venue’s tiny stage to a two-thirds-full room of PBR-clutching 20-somethings, and apart from the band’s astonishing tightness, we couldn’t help noticing Gourley’s almost painful audience reticence. The guitarist/vocalist faced stage right most of the evening, when he didn’t have his back completely turned to the audience.

“Yeah,” Corothers says, “he’s a lot better now, but it took years. I think he turned about 15 degrees a year. Growing up, he was the shyest kid I knew.”

But Colorado is familiar and friendly turf for PTM.

“Oddly enough, we have more friends in Colorado than anywhere else in the world.

“On our very first tour ever, we had a falling out with our tour manager, and it was his van. He just split, leaving us stranded in Colorado. So we just played a show and made good friends with Fear Before the March of Flames, and pretty much lived at their at house for about a week, and made a lot of friends. Every time we go back, we seem to make more.”

Portugal. The Man plays the Boulder Theater on Friday, Oct. 18. Doors at 8 p.m. Crystal Fighters open. Tickets are $25. 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030.