A glorious, psychedelic catastrophe, Portugal. The Man’s In the Mountain in the Cloud is a bewildering act of deception, tricking listeners into wilfully abandoning hours of their lives in pursuit of the exquisite music. The album sounds like an older and wiser Ziggy Stardust has travelled to the future, witnessed the destruction of the universe and returned to recount the event through splendid song. It’s the most delicious and well-executed amalgamation of glam-rock and psychedelic-pop.
Flaunting tantalisingly unconventional melodies and delectably abstract compositions, In the Mountain in the Cloud is possibly 2011’s best album. Tone Deaf spoke to Portugal. The Man’s keyboardist and backing vocalist, Ryan Neighbors, about their new album, embarking on their first ever trip to Australia and being attacked by a rolling-pin.
“None of us have been to Australia before,” says Neighbors, “so we’re really looking forward to it. It’s always exciting for us to go somewhere we’ve never been before.” The band will be here in January and February as part of the St Jerome’s Laneway Festival. “We were always asking ‘why don’t we ever go to Australia?’ and we’re finally doing it!”
Portugal. The Man’s music is notoriously difficult to define. Genre jumpers, each of their albums exhibits a unique blend of sounds; a persistent evolution and expansion of the band’s art, culminating in their masterpiece, In the Mountain in the Cloud. Consequently, the band has developed a reputation for being unpredictable and exciting. How does Neighbors describe their sound? “That’s one of those questions we get asked a lot, and I should know how to describe it by now,” he laughs, sighing a little in frustration at the tiresome question, yet pausing to calculate a response. “I usually say ‘psychedelic-pop’. Then, I like to extend a little bit and say, ‘well we’re a rock band as well’, but saying ‘pop-rock’ sounds kind of weird, so I would just say psychedelic-pop. We like David Bowie and love The Beatles. That’s the kind of stuff you can sometimes hear in our music.” He pauses. “Hopefully.”
The critical praise surrounding In the Mountain in the Cloud has shot the band from being a hidden indie gem, skulking around in the leaf litter on the floor of the massive jungle of indie bands, to a dangerous force who have catapulted themselves from the rubble, swinging majestically through the branches and rightfully securing a position atop the trees, mixing with the best of them. The past few months have proved to be a frenzied parade of tours and promotional events. “It’s been a really big year for us. Our first Atlantic release came out in July and we’ve got a couple of songs on the radio right now. We played Conan O’Brien, which was our first TV performance.”
The band created headlines in America after their tour van and trailer was stolen from Lollapalooza, with the subsequent media attention being a shock for the humble lads. “It just became big news,” says Neighbors, still apparently in disbelief. “I don’t think any of us were expecting to see that on the national news. We got most of our stuff back in the end, though.”
In the Mountain in the Cloud is the band’s first release on a major label; the legendary Atlantic Records. Neighbors admits that transitioning to Atlantic actually hindered the recording process. “It made it more difficult, but Atlantic didn’t do it to us; we did it to ourselves. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves because Atlantic had bands like Led Zeppelin and is one of the most successful labels of all time. We wanted to continue that and make something great that people would be excited about. We spent more time in the studio than we needed to, obsessing over songs, when in reality, we should have just gone with our gut and made our record like we’d done in the past. It didn’t come together as easily as we initially thought it would.”
Regardless of the self-imposed anxieties, the end result is arguably their finest album (and their previous albums are all pretty darn good!). “All the trouble in the end led to a better record. We wrote “Sleep Forever” [the glorious six-minute album closer] in the last few days of being in the studio, after eight months of working on the record. It was worth it because we got the record we got because of everything that happened, whether it was good or bad, no matter how much fighting and head-butting we did over the songs.” Chuckling, Neighbors admits “Atlantic actually took the pressure off, telling us to calm down and make the record that we wanted to make and everything would be okay.”
Numerous reviews have predicted a huge future for the band, with some critics even claiming that Portugal. The Man has the potential to rise to a legendary status, similar to Pink Floyd. “I would definitely be okay with that,” laughs Neighbors. “I mean, that’s always the goal – to reach as many people as possible. And if we’re getting compared to Pink Floyd, I’m okay with that. I think Pink Floyd is amazing.” He pauses for a moment before defiantly stating “Yep, we’re going for it! We’re going to be the next Pink Floyd,” followed by a cheeky chuckle.
Neighbors reveals that he is disenchanted by the current state of the music industry and the way people are listening to and appreciating music, claiming that “it’s a lot easier to have thirty small bands that you kind of like instead of a couple that you kind of love. When I was growing up, I knew the name of every member of ever band I listened to. It was a personal connection to the bands. I felt like they were my friends because I knew their music so well.”
Portugal. The Man’s music often exhibits a complexity and precision that could be likened to many of the delicate opuses of Radiohead. It’s no surprise that Neighbors cites the British band as his biggest influence. “When I was 16 years old, I was mostly just listening to punk rock, but then I got Kid A and OK Computer from my older brother and that immediately turned me around. I started exploring more interesting music that wasn’t just power chords and fast drums. I love what Radiohead do.”
Thankfully, comparisons can’t be found between Portugal. The Man’s music and the artist of the first album that Neighbors claims to have ever purchased. “I think it was Weird Al. Definitely! It was Weird Al Yankovic!” he laughs. “I don’t know if people know him in Australia [this interviewer assures him that we do] but somewhere we did an interview and people didn’t know him, so they didn’t think it was funny. We said ‘we all love Weird Al!’ and they were like ‘…who?’ I still am a Weird Al fan, I won’t lie.”
Naturally, a band like Portugal. The Man would engage in all sorts of crazy shenanigans on the road despite Neighbors protesting “we’re not that crazy!” However, he does admit to provoking (well, accidentally triggering) an attack from a crazed Englishman, who was charmingly armed with kitchen utensils. “I got attacked with a rolling pin in England, one time. A guy came over to us, looking for ‘the Americans’. He was convinced that this group of Americans had drugged his girlfriend, so he came up and asked ‘are you guys the Americans?’ and I said ‘yes’. He pulled a rolling pin out from under his coat and pointed it at my head, but before he could swing, our sound guy grabbed the other end of it. They were pretty much chicken-fighting with it, both holding the ends of the rolling pin and swinging punches at each other. That was interesting.”
– Lara Moates