Concert preview: How L.A.’s bad attitude created Portugal. The Man’s latest album
By David Self Newlin
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Oct 17 2013 10:13AM
If there’s one universal perception about the entertainment industry, it’s that everyone hates Los Angeles. And if there’s a second, it might be that catered salmon is not very rock ’n’ roll. It’s these truths that gave Alaska indie-rock band Portugal. The Man the material it needed for its latest album, "Evil Friends," which takes the band’s feelings about the emptiness of the music industry, too often filled with fancy backstage food and shallow conversations, and channels them into a lyrically aggressive album that both makes fun of and embraces the whole affair. Portugal. The Man is supporting its seventh album, passing through Salt Lake City on Monday. Bassist Zachary Carothers talked with The Tribune about the album and tour, working with Danger Mouse, beer-fueled nighttime snowmobile rides and much more.
"Evil Friends" has been your most successful record yet. Did you think it was going to be your best-selling record going into the project?
I knew this last record was going to do pretty well. Obviously Danger Mouse is a heavy hitter. When we first found out we were working with him, it was pretty crazy. He was just an absolute pleasure to work with. … We learned a lot, not just about writing and recording music, but about our careers in general. He had a very unique insight into band dynamics as a producer because he’s been in bands, he’s an artist himself, so he really understood what we were trying to do. I think us being on that same level really helped to make a good record.
There seems to be a lot of anger and sarcasm on this latest record. Were you trying to direct that against something or were you more embracing it?
It’s a little bit of both, actually. We’ve always had a level of sarcasm in our lyrics and our songs. It’s kind of how we are, but I think it really holds through a little more on this record than it has in the past. A lot of it had to do where we were recording it. We were recording it in L.A. We’ve never done a record in L.A. We were always out in the middle of nowhere. So the whole time we were recording, we were going out to the parties and bars and meeting very interesting people. But also, there’s a lot of really shallow people in the industry in L.A. You meet people in bars and before they even ask you your name they ask you, "What do you do? What project are you working on?" …
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of good people in L.A., too. I’ve got a lot of friends there. But some of the places we were at, it was like every conversation I got in I felt like they were trying to figure out a way to get something from you, or some kind of connection or some kind of networking. And then when they realized that they couldn’t, the conversation was pretty much over. A lot of the songs kind of ended up being about that whole vibe and where we fit in it and where things go with each other.
I think John also started embracing a new writing style as far as lyrics go. He actually started coming out and saying things, which he has never really done before. A lot of his songs have just been stories, a lot of metaphors and very vague. This is one of the first times he’s actually starting to come out and say something, even if it is kind of sarcastic.
It’s like the song "Hip Hop Kids." We say "F--- those rock ’n’ rollers, all the hip-hop kids think we give a s---," and all that. It doesn’t have anything to do with those kind of people. Obviously we love rock ’n’ rollers and we’re huge fans of hip-hop, but it’s more about the kind of fake lifestyle.
We got that idea when we were on tour with the Black Keys, actually. Nothing against the Black Keys. I’m a huge fan and they’re good buddies of ours now. But it was kind of funny. We were playing this arena in Paris, and we’re all backstage in a big catering line, waiting for your steak or your salmon. You’re backstage and it seems like the least rock ’n’ roll thing in the world. But it makes sense because to put on a show that amazing, you gotta have a big crew, you gotta feed them. But it’s one of those funny things. We started talking about hip-hop videos and where people are renting jewelry and Escalades. It’s about a lot of the fake bull---- that’s in the industry these days.
You’ve released four music videos for tracks off "Evil Friends" so far. How does the visual aspect of music videos play into your music and affect how you perform and write?
We’ve always been a fan of music videos. This time we’ve just had some very good opportunities that we couldn’t say no to. We got to work with AG Rojas. Our buddy Mike Ragen films all of our videos. He directs some. He’s basically filmed all of our videos for four, maybe five years. We’re just fans of music videos, honestly. We really wanted to have it step out with a theme, with a look for the video.
The first video we did for the album was for "Evil Friends." We were talking with Mike one night, he’s a close friend of ours, and we decided to fly up to Alaska and buy a sh---- Sony camcorder from 2007 that had night vision, and just go out into the woods and make a real dark … I don’t know. We were watching Rough Riders and we love that whole crew mentality of a bunch of dudes riding around on four wheelers and bikes in the city and we thought it would be a pretty good idea to do that on snow machines up in Alaska, because who does that?
It was pretty fun. We didn’t tell our label about it. We didn’t tell anyone about it. We basically bought Mike a ticket up [and] bought a camera. Because if we had [told the label], just the insurance alone on making a video like that would be a lot of money. John’s sitting there riding a snow machine, hauling ass in complete darkness because we’re using night vision, not even looking where he’s going, as if he could see where he was going if he was. That kind of thing is generally not cool. There would have had to be paramedics on call and everything. And we’re just like, "That’s not really how Alaska rolls." We’re like "You know what? I’ll just buy a bunch of beer and get a bunch of friends together, get some snow machines, go up into the woods and make a video that we want." When we have it all done, we give it to the label and say, "Oh hey, we chipped in for this and this, can you pay us back for it? Thanks." And it ends up way cheaper.