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Fender Q&A: John Gourley of Portugal. The Man

Portugal. The Man
Portugal. The Man has been touring extensively after releasing the sinister Evil Friends in June 2013, and rightfully so.

Their highest-charting album to date boasts powerful psychedelic rockers like “Modern Jesus” and “Purple, Yellow, Red and Blue” to go along with an already strong and extensive catalog.

What’s more, Evil Friends was also produced by Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton), who has put his golden touch on a string of smash hits in recent years.

The Alaska-bred band also made a splash last week by dropping a brand new track on Earth Day. “Sumatran Tiger” was created in conjunction with the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park Conversation Biology Institute to raise awareness of the endangered subspecies of tigers that roam the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

They sent each of the 400 copies to 400 influencers and asked them to help inspire change by digitizing the track and sharing it online using the hashtag #EndangeredSong. Each edition is a lathe-cut polycarbonate record that will actually degrade over time, meaning the song could eventually become extinct, much like the less than 400 remaining Sumatran tigers.

During a recent break from performing, Fender was lucky enough to catch up with Portugal. The Man singer/guitarist John Gourley to talk about a variety of topics.

Portugal. The Man Evil FriendsFender.com: How did you come up with the name Evil Friends?

Gourley: I was a month late turning in artwork. I was trying to get shit done, but there was so much to get done – interviews, rehearsals, all of that stuff.  I was on a conference call, and somebody asked what the name of the record was. Zack [Carothers, bassist] was taking a cab with me in New York. We were riding downtown because we had a show that night. I just said, “Evil Friends,” because that was the first song we wanted to put out.  We had the song and a video. Evil Friends became the album title and eventually became the theme of a lot of other stuff.

So the idea of being kind of sinister ran through the entire album?

I didn’t even realize it at the time, but it fits.  There is a lyric in the chorus of “Evil Friends” and the bridge of “Creep in a T-Shirt” [Ed. note: Both songs contain the line, “And it's not that I'm evil / I just don't like to pretend / That I could ever be your friend.”] that was on every single song on the album at one point or another.

It seems that most of the tracks on Evil Friends are a little longer/more expansive than some previous albums; most of 2009’s The Satanic Satanist clocked in under three minutes.

I grew up on oldies radio, period. That’s all we listened to.  We grew up in Alaska, and it was an hour to get into town, so we’d sing along to Elvis, the Beatles, Motown.  When we recorded The Satanic Satanist, I was just trying to write songs in three minutes. It was like, “How the f**k did they do that?” Some of those songs are two minutes long. “Ain’t No Sunshine” is like two minutes long, and Bill Withers says everything he needs to say in those two minutes.  I don’t think people give songwriting enough credit because of pop radio. There is a formula to it.  But there is a whole other side that is neglected. People like Britney Spears, she’s a Mickey Mouse Club kid. She lives that stuff, so it’s really honest where it comes from, but it’s just not accepted because of the way she’s saying things. There is something to songwriting and trimming things down and being as honest as possible in that amount of time.

How was it working with Danger Mouse [Brian Burton]?

Having someone like Brian there, who has plain and simple taste, there were definitely moments when you catch yourself thinking, “Yeah, even when he’s not touching anything, this sounds like a Danger Mouse record.” I think he’s really good at focusing on what bands do well.  He works like George Martin, Tony Visconti, David Bowie, or Mark Bolan.  He’ll get up and say, “I got a fu**king bass line.” That’s fun. You end up collaborating in the way you should with a producer.  Everybody gets so hung up on saying, “This is my art.” That’s a joke. I’ll just flat-out say it. If you play in a rock band, you’re working not only with your band, but you’re also working with the sound engineer, the light people, so many people.

I think he’s really good at pulling stuff out of you, because he can play and can suggest things. But, it’s never in excess. It’s very tasteful, and he’s always down for hearing what you have to say. You can say no to his idea just as quickly as he can say no to you, and that happens. But that’s what being in the studio is all about. I have no reservations about what he played on the record and what I played on the record.  If it’s good, it’s good.

What’s up with the “Purple, Yellow, Red and Blue” video?  It’s pretty intense, but also pretty great.

What says it best is that it’s a day in the life. It’s America. What we live in, what we’re all about.  I’ll tell you a funny story about that song. A few years ago, we were on tour with the Black Keys. I got sent an electronic song from some artist [and was asked to contribute to it]. It was really cool. I actually put that chorus from “Purple, Yellow, Red and Blue” on it, and it got turned down. We were all sitting there like, “What the hell? You don’t want that?  That was so easy.” For this electronic artist to turn that down, that was a pretty strong move. I showed it to Brian, who has made some pretty big records, and he said, “We have to use that [in a Portugal. The Man song].” We modified some of the lyrics, and it worked for our own song.

Where did you get the 1963 Jazzmaster you’ve been playing?

I got it when we were out on tour [in 2012].  I used to have a ’66 burgundy one, too. I’ve played Jazzmasters, but I also really, really love playing a Strat. I don’t know what it is, but whenever I pick up a Strat it seems like it’s my go-to guitar.

Who are some artists that come to mind when you think of a Strat?

The Strat players are really obvious, I think. George Harrison, Eric Clapton. I feel like there are very few today. John Mayer really can rip on the guitar. It’s cool seeing him play one, even though it’s a different circle of music [than Portugal. The Man]. I think it’s kind of intimidating picking up a Strat. Personally, I think that’s what it comes down to.  It’s a hard instrument to pick up. You have so many amazing people with amazing style, as well. George Harrison and Jimi Hendrix, they were style icons in addition to being guitar icons. That’s some serious shit. That’s the one thing about Fender that nobody can ever replicate.

Did the Strat make its way to the album? 

Yeah, I used my Strat on “Evil Friends” and “Purple, Yellow, Red and Blue.” You can hear me using the whammy bar at the end of “Purple, Yellow, Red and Blue.”

Watch Portugal. The Man’s “Evil Friends” video below and click here for more information:

 

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