Listen to the music of Portugal. The Man's 2011 major-label debut album, In the Mountain in the Cloud, and you hear the work of a coming-of-age band sounding wildly at home with itself.
Singer/principal songwriter John Gourley presides over a pop landscape filled with inescapable melodic hooks and his own animated falsetto. The songs are also drenched in pure pop charm and come balanced with doses of psychedelic wonder and more tradition-minded compositional lyricism. The resulting music is as bright, engaging and spring-like a pop confection as one could hope.
It's also a sound that was apparently murder to make.
Recorded in a series of cross-country studio sessions in 2010 (modestly described in the band's bio material as "a nomadic stretch"), In the Mountain was, in essence, a prolonged growing pain that captured the members of Portugal. The Man in varying stages of incompatibility.
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That the album sent Gourley and company from the indie legions to the high-level ranks of Atlantic Records might seem to outsiders as the catalyst for the recording's eventually labored construction. But bassist Zachary Scott Carothers said the move was merely daunting.
"Atlantic has these names in their catalog like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones ... and now us. Oddly enough, that didn't put any pressure on what we were doing. All of that was self-inflicted.
"To be honest, the record almost killed us. We weren't totally getting along as people. There were lots of issues. Some had to do with the band, some didn't have to do with the band at all. We all lived together. We all worked together. I would see these guys every day except Christmas — and, usually, I saw at least one of them then, too."
First, there was the simple work process. On earlier indie efforts like 2008's Censored Colors and 2010's American Ghetto, Portugal grew accustomed to working with producers that were longtime friends of the band (like Casey Bates) and recording whatever music Gourley had prepared within whatever studio time was available.
"In the past, we just jumped in with whatever we had. If we had 2½ weeks to make an album, we would make do with that. If we had six weeks, then we would use that. And we never really went in with a bunch of material — certainly no songs at all. Usually, we had a few parts and melodies and recorded an album in whatever time we had.
"But this one (In the Mountain) was just not working at first. I mean, I'm glad we went through all of the turmoil. I think that made it a way better record. It turned into an example of how we work together as people and a metaphor for a lot of the things we were thinking about at the time," Carothers said.
So what exactly was the problem and, more importantly, how did the band overcome it?
As Carothers explained, relations within the band were strained, fragmented material from Gourley was slow coming in, and the recording locales were continually juggled. Sessions began in El Paso, Texas, and went poorly. Then Gourley went to New York to work on the songs, sending what he came up with back to the rest of the band, who were holed up in their current home base, Portland, Ore. That process, as Carothers recalled, "wasn't working out so hot, either."
Things lightened up when the entire band reconvened in San Diego and recorded at a more comfortable pace. The daily regimen called for burritos and daily trips to the beach before recording work commenced.
"We went down there and basically said, 'No label guys can come in. No management guys can come in. In fact, nobody else is coming in.' We were just going to try and have fun with the music again. That was the turning point."
Los Angeles sessions with producer John Hill followed before In the Mountain was completed with help from Bates in Seattle.
"The pressure was all in our minds, really," said Carothers, who added that new sessions for a follow-up to In the Mountain will begin later this year. "I think it's always going to get like that whenever we go in to do any album. The record becomes, to us, the most important thing we've ever done in our lives. We're always thinking that the next one is going to make us or break us."