I last interviewed Portland based, Alaskan bred Portugal, The Man way back in June 2011, just as they were releasing their sixth album, ‘In the Mountain in the Cloud’. Since then under the wing of major label Atlantic records, the band have been expanding their horizons musically, intellectually and geographically.
They’ve worked with some of the biggest producer names in the business (Dangermouse and Mike D) toured the world and released two albums, 2013’s ‘Evil Friends’ and the fantastic new ‘Woodstock’.
(pic credit Maclay Heriot)
I caught up with Kyle O’Quin to find out about the new material, politics and to pick up some vital tips on breakfast locations in the Portland area.
Why the long wait between this record and Evil Friends? – I heard that you ditched an albums worth of new material, is that true or just something you told the record company? =] if so, what kind of stuff was that like and why did you decide to do start again?
Well technically we did continue to write an album a year we just didn’t release them…actually we wrote about 4 albums worth of material since Evil Friends and most people don’t know that we wrote and scrapped an entire album right before tracking Evil Friends so it’s nothing new. I think it’s good to write more than you’ll use and sometimes you’ve got to write 10 songs to get the one that really hits you. Basically we got in over our heads. You hear stories of Michael Jackson writing 100 songs for thriller and then picking the best ones…well, yeah that didn’t really work for us. We became overwhelmed with something like 40 songs and over 5 versions of a lot of them.
Something most people don’t know is when you make albums there’s such a gap between when you finish it and when it’s actually released to the public. I think the lyrics on G + D were incredible and it was a really dark album, but a lot of shit has gone down in the world since then and we really try to say something with our lyrics, always been important to this band. It’s hard to write lyrics in 13′-14′ and not want to change the message after seeing what’s been going down in the world the last year. That played a big part in it honestly, the album had to relevant to the current world. But G + D sessions were not spent in vain. Some magic from them got sprinkled into Woodstock. Just working with guys like Mike D and Dangermouse, they’re insanely creative and talented guys. Mike was in the beastie boys, I mean they are so prolific and willing to take risks that it really inspired us. We don’t just like rock, or oldies or jazz or classical or whatever. If it’s good music, that’s all that matters. The lyric “rebel just for kicks” and the 1986 reference was a direct nod to “fight for your right” and the beastie boys. We wouldn’t be a band without them honestly.
What was the recording process with the album? Did you jam together or come in with rough ideas individually and start from there?
I would say that our process is not really having a process. Songs start from so many different places. Sometimes is a drum beat, sometimes a reoccurring lyrics or melody or even a chord progress on a guitar or piano. Sometimes we do jam and ideas develop, sometimes John will go up to Alaska with an acoustic and write a song that’ll blow us away. Recent example when we were tracking a random song recently, john popped in the side room with a bass and started playing the bass line for Feel It Still. Our friend Asa Taccone from Electric Guest, who also produced the track, was like “that’s great man” and made a voice memo on his phone instantly…couple hours later the song was pretty much written as you hear it on the album.
It feels like this record has more of a political message than your previous material? Did you feel a social responsibility to become more political, and if so is there a defining message that you’d like people to embrace?
We actually try to stay out of politics for the most part but the Feel It Still video brought in a lot of questions about that and I would say this. The message was just be a good person, don’t be a dick. All those issues were social issues, things like gender and racial equality. Supporting ACLU and making sure people have clean drinking water??? Those don’t strike me as political but if it upsets people I would just say they’re probably assholes. Our social responsibility is more like, “Yes everyone should go fucking vote!” we always promote that everyone should go vote, but were not telling people who to vote for, ya know?
When people say musicians shouldn’t talk politics, I don’t agree because we have an insane advantage to travel all over the world and see places we’d never been to. We dive deep into the culture when we go places, we learn, we listen how people in countries view our government. A lot of people might change their views if they travelled more, which yes is a luxury that we’re lucky to have because of our jobs.
There is a social responsibility when it comes to kids and music and art programs that are being cut, we will do anything to help those programs. Mr Holland’s Opus Foundation is doing a lot to keep music programs in schools from drowning. There’s a 100% social responsibility to keep music alive for future generations for everyone. Art is always the heart of any culture.
How does the new record translate live, do you have a favourite track to play on tour, does becoming less traditional (ie working with sequencers etc) more liberating or more nerve-wracking?
The new records been translating great live, super fun songs to play. We just started playing So Young live and I’ve been really enjoying it. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album. I think Tidal Wave is going to be really fun live but we haven’t had the chance to play it yet. I’m not sure we’re becoming less traditional, we’ve always used tons of synths and sequencers on all of our albums. We don’t play to tracks live, don’t play with click tracks, we’re honestly just a band in every sense of the world which is becoming a rarity it seems these days. As different as all the albums sound on record, they translate really well live together and translate pretty seamlessly even if we’re playing material from 5 different albums. As we’re playing bigger festivals it does get a little nerve wracking because we’ll just jam and improvise in front of huge crowds.
Sometimes people catch us looking at each other and realize we’re straight jamming, you can see it in their eyes when they see us looking at each other trying to figure out what’s going on. Not gonna lie, it doesn’t always work but man when it does it’s fucking magic. Sounds better than any tracks anyone could play off a laptop.
From all the acts at the original Woodstock festival, which band would you have like to have been in?
Well playing the part of Mitch Mitchell and drumming with Hendrix would have been pretty epic, I love playing drums and he fucking shreds. He was just a kid too, so crazy. I also would have been completely content smoking tons of weed and playing bongos with Santana, no doubt.
Where did you learn to breakdance? do you have any body-popping advice?
I actually learned to breakdance on the streets back in ’92. Wasn’t something i thought i’d be good at first but it turns out i had a nack for it. Graduated to some basement clubs that my older brothers friends would sneak me into, the ones that look like something out of a Michael Jackson music video. It was a good scene, crazy times back then…kind of just had to be there if you know what i mean?
What’s the weirdest thing on your rider?
Uncrustables. They’re like little pre-made PB&J sandwiches that have the crust cut off. They must be terrible for you, they’re targeted for young kids most definitely, or inebriated adults apparently.
What is the best diner in Portland?
Now when it comes to breakfast in portland, shit gets serious. We take our food in general very, very seriously. There’s an insane amount of brunch spots but I’m going to stick with the diners. Genie’s is one of our go-to diners. Its been around portland forever which is always cool, we always support the old school local establishments. It’s also right next to our practice space so it’s close which is nice. There’s also Junior’s in SE which is also close as well but it’s a super rad tiny little diner that has about 10 tables. Good vibes.
Woodstock is out now!
For more info visit www.portugaltheman.com/