Last spring, two weeks and 10 songs into the recording process for their new album, Evil Friends, Portugal. The Man scrapped nearly everything they'd accomplished. "We were super excited about it," bassist Zach Carothers tells Rolling Stone of ditching all but two songs they'd recorded at Sonic Ranch Studios in El Paso, Texas. Instead, they started from scratch with producer Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton, an opportunity Carothers describes as "not anything that we could turn down."
The five members of the Portland-based band subsequently relocated to Burton's home base of Los Angeles, where they recorded the bulk of their seventh album, out June 4th. Burton, best known for his work with Cee Lo Green and the Shins' James Mercer in Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells, respectively – as well as his killer production work for the Black Keys – helped expand the already-experimental band's sonic palette. "It was really an interesting experience. We learned a lot," Carothers says. "[Brian's] a very smart guy. He knows music incredibly well."
The result of the PTM-Danger Mouse collaboration is the band's most accessible and radio-friendly material yet. While still retaining Portugal's characteristically varied sound – from the undulating synths of album opener "Plastic Soldiers" to the Jane's Addiction-channeling punk title track – the hook-heavy material carries new mainstream appeal. Still, the outsider element remains in such material as "Creep in a T-Shirt," on which lead singer John Baldwin Gourley deems himself a proud loser.
The band also experimented with their version of hip-hop ("Hip-Hop Kids"), which Carothers says directly reflects his and his bandmates' musical preferences. "We're huge fans of hip-hop," he says. "We listen to it every day. We've tried that kind of stuff before but we didn't know how to do it right." Burton proved a vital resource in this department. "He definitely helped with that," Carothers adds. "He really knew how to do it more than we did."
The bassist says that he has zero reservations about Portugal's new material, the follow-up to 2011's glam-rock-channeling In the Mountain in the Cloud, being labeled as pop. "I love pop music, but I want to make good pop music," he says, pointing to the album's winsome lead single, "Purple Yellow Red and Blue," as a prime example. It's shortsighted, Carothers adds, for fans to expect a band to remain complacent and not aim for commercial success. "[David] Bowie had hits upon hits. But nobody ever said, 'Oh, I think Bowie's selling out.' He's just cool. I say, let's make the mainstream better. I would love to switch on any radio station in a city and hear something fucking cool that everybody knows."
The new material is not a complete left-turn from Portugal's previous output. "We have a style but it seems no matter which direction we go, whether it's more hip-hop or electronic or more Southern rock or more our version of metal, whatever we do, we're lucky enough to have that sound where it still sounds like us," Carothers says. "We're very lucky to have that. A lot of bands don't." He says fans shouldn't expect Portugal's new songs to translate directly when played live. "We are pretty well known for changing all of our songs a little bit live," he says, adding that the band often alters their songs from one gig to another. "We want to showcase a song – not necessarily every part or every sound."
Over the past two weekends at Coachella, Portugal road-tested some of their new material. The first weekend proved challenging: the band played nearly their entire set without monitors. "Honestly, I was freaking out a little bit at first," Carothers admits. "It was pretty much the most important show of our career and I couldn't hear myself or anybody else." The musician carried on though, despite the obstacle. "I played shows for the first five years without monitors," he says. "So I decided to say, 'Fuck it,' and I ended up having a blast."