In 2008, it's likely Portugal. The Man wouldn't have even conceived of earning a No. 1 hit on the radio, let alone a Grammy.
But the rock band are now bonafide pop stars — riding off of a successful album release in 2017, which features their biggest hit to date, 'Feel It Still' — and winners of a highly-coveted Grammy award, beating The Chainsmokers and Imagine Dragons in the process.
The award is the cherry on top of an explosive year for the band, whose album Woodstock is a kaleidoscopic hodgepodge of rock, soul, funk, indie pop and R&B — a strange equation for radio hits in 2017, but the band succeeded anyway.
Just before the new year, we spoke to keyboardist Kyle O' Quin about 'Feel It Still', working with their heroes and why they have full unreleased albums in their archives.
I remember listening to The Satanic Satanist almost 10 years ago, and it seems so surreal that you guys are hitting the radio airwaves and streaming charts now – how is the band taking it all in?
We don’t really have the outside perspective, so we’re just travelling every day and just doing these little things. It’s still a little bit surreal — I don’t think it’s quite as registered yet or you know, how we’re going to deal with it. Everything with this band has been such a slow, steady progress. A year ago, we’d never done anything, and now we’re asked to be doing interviews and stuff. I guess over the ten years, we learned a lot.
It’s funny you mentioned Satanic because way before we signed onto Atlantic Records, we were just trying to figure out how to write songs. That was the first record which featured more three-minute songs than we'd ever done, and that was the record that got us more of a public profile."
Do you think that some of the lessons you’ve learned when making your past albums have been helpful in trying to realise Woodstock and the songs that are on the album?
A hundred percent. I think, I mean, any record, no matter how perfect it is, you’ll always make a mistake, and the best thing to do is just to learn from them — because, I mean, they’re gonna happen, you know? But yeah, we most definitely have just been acquiring information — you know, we get to work with guys like Danger Mouse and Mike D from the Beastie Boys.
They’re incredibly smart and talented, and you just try to learn as much as you can from them. It was cool because they play in bands too — because they’ve been on the festival stages, they know what you’re going to have to do in the studio that can capture that kind of magic."
Working with such luminaries in the studio, was it intimidating at first?
Oh yeah, it’s extremely intimidating at first. I don’t think you kind of realise that you’re afraid to say an idea or something. The first day, we had the day off in New York and Mike D was like, “Hey, do you wanna go to the Beastie Boys studio?” That was the first time we met him and we were like, “Uh, yeah?"
We went in, and we were so nervous. It’s hard to open up and be yourself when you’re not confident, when you’re feeling judged — it becomes harder to express yourself. But we then worked with Danger Mouse for about 22 songs, and about 14 more, a couple of which formed Woodstock. Now he’s just like a really good friend."
I believe that, with the band's time spent with Danger Mouse and Mike D, there was another record made that was ultimately canned. Is that true?
Will fans ever get to hear that album?
I mean, yeah, I’d like to think some of them will. I mean we did 38 songs, you gotta understand. I think part of making art is not having or feeling the need to release every single thing you make. I think it’s a good healthy thing to do.
That being said, there’s a couple that were really close to making it, and there’s some that we most definitely want to be heard. There’s some that we’ll take the ideas and maybe put them in these songs, you know.
But we've been doing an album a year, every year, and people don’t realise that we did a whole other album before Evil Friends that we scrapped, and then every year after we've done 10 songs a year. Now we've just become a little bit more selective.
Part of the reason that that record didn’t come out – I mean, it was so cool to be on it, it had some of the coolest stuff, but it had to be released right then, cause you could have that relevance, you know? Working with Mike D, he was just like “look at what’s around you man, what we’re doing – drinking beers in the parking lot, put that in the song!”, it was really cool.
But so much has happened in the last three years that that record, as cool it was, it just wasn’t relevant to what’s going on today."
"We’ve taken our time — we didn’t make any shortcuts, we’ve always done things our way, we’ve always worked with the same people, we’ve had the same manners since day one. Our record label has just stood by us."
— Portugal. The Man's Kyle O'Quin (second from right), on the band's journey thus far.
Right, it’s interesting you say that because for 'Feel It Still' and Woodstock, they're pop-friendly, but they also don't really sound like anything that’s on the radio charts right now – could you explain what went into making the album?
(laughs) A lot of work. We recorded in seven different studios. We had the idea, like, we always want the next record to be something different, you know, we want to get out of our comfort zone. So I think the second you get comfortable and you feel secure is when you’re most vulnerable you know?
And we kept thinking about how we used to listen to music, and we talked about how the tracklisting for this record – it reminds me of like, in the 2000s, when you looked at your CD binder, and it wasn’t weird to have Missy Elliot next to The Beatles, next to Wu-Tang, next to Smokey Robinson.
We wanted our record to sound like a 2000 binder – we love all that stuff, we love hip-hop, we love Oasis, we love Beastie Boys. And that’s what ‘Feel It Still’ was – it’s the 1966 our parents were raised in, when the whole political/social climate affected the music as well."
With Woodstock, do you feel like this is a nice signifier for what is next for Portugal. The Man, or is the band not really thinking that deep into the future just yet?
Oh, we’re always thinking ahead. We always think, “is the next record we’re making going to be the best one?” We’re always just trying to top ourselves, we’re not simply going to be like, “we’ve always been trying to write good, big songs” – that was the plan on The Satanic Satanist — so we’re just going to keep trying to write better songs.
Sometimes, we don’t even know how the albums are going to turn out, and we’re the ones making it — we’re in the studio. In the last two weeks of making Evil Friends, we just totally clicked, and the exact same thing happened with Woodstock. I feel like we captured a little bit of that spontaneity because we are experiencing it at the same time, very shortly, before everybody else gets to.
But I gotta tell you, it’s gonna be good man, it’s gonna be good. We’re learning a lot, we’re going to just keep trying to write better songs and it opens up more opportunities for us to work – I mean, not like we don’t already work with our favourite people, but you know what I mean? I’m really excited for more of the future. We like playing a lot. That’s why we keep doing it."
Looking back at how the band has progressed over the past decade, do you think that the success the band has gotten now is, in a way, overdue?
Well, it’s a dangerous thing – bands getting too big, too early. I think it could break a lot of bands. I think even a song like 'Feel It Still' could break a band. But it's a really, really hard dynamic to describe. I think we’ve done it right.
We’ve taken our time — we didn’t make any shortcuts, we’ve always done things our way, we’ve always worked with the same people, we’ve had the same manners since day one. Our record label has just stood by us.
Things weren’t always number one, but we've had such a supportive team of people that have been with the band for so long. We’re enjoying the highs together, as well as some lows, but it’s all been so, so swell. That’s why I think it’s very manageable."
Special thanks to Warner Music Singapore for arranging this. Woodstock is now available on digital download and all streaming platforms.