Portugal. The Man: Alaska's Rock 'n' Roll Saviors
Alaska's Portugal. The Man have been gaining quite a following outside of their native state. Singer and guitarist John Gourley talks about the lessons they've learned growing up in the land of Sarah Palin, and how it's affected their approach to life as a rock band.
For Portugal. The Man, life on the road is vastly different than life in the backwoods of Wasilla, Alaska, the band’s hometown. The city streets offer some culture and diversity, but the underground music circuit is buried deep in the local dive bar. Snow covered freeways and miles full of country don’t halt artistic creation, however. In Portugal. The Man’s case, for example, it has inspired five LP’s worth of glorious, avant-garde indie rock. Their latest full-length is American Ghetto: a melodic masterpiece composed of high-pitched vocal melodies, drum machines and transcendental guitar riffs, topped off with a splice of hip-hop.
Portugal. The Man is John Gourley (Guitar/Vocals), Zachary Carothers (Bass/Vocals), Jason Sechrist (Drums), and Ryan Neighbors (Keys/Vocals). After a lengthy winter tour in support of American Ghetto, their last stop was at Coachella music festival on April 17, 2010. The journey to Coachella has been longer than just a winter, and although it isn’t the band’s first major festival appearance, their recent rise in popularity is something still new to Portugal. The Man.
“I feel like we’ve had to prove ourselves quite a bit and I think it’s good,” Gourley says over the phone just before sound check in Missouri. “We purposely stayed out of a lot. We don’t solicit reviews for national press anymore because we’ve never really done it. We never had national magazines writing about the band, no real write-ups and I feel really good about it because everything we’ve put out at this point is very real, and it’s truly about the love of the music.”
The sense of pride that underscores Gourley’s voice highlights his assurance that rock 'n’ roll doesn’t always have to be about the glamour -- it can still be stripped down to its barest essential: the music. “Portugal. The Man to me doesn’t have any real ties. We try to change things up with every album, really progress and let things happen,” he proclaims. “ I think that’s the best thing about it. There’s nothing specific about the band, which is, I think, why we’ve become a rock band. Rock n’ roll isn’t the hippest thing right now, but we’re just kind of in the middle of it.”
For American Ghetto, Portugal. The Man sought the help of Anthony Saffery to produce the album. Saffery played with the 1990s post-punk band Cornershop and was also a part of the production of their fourth LP Satanic Satanist. “We talked a lot about '90s hip-hop,” explains Gourley. “His [Saffery’s] reference points were so much different than mine, but I knew what he was going for because he played music in the '90s. The album really picked up that vibe, which I though was really fucking cool because I was never a part of that.”
Gourley and his band mates have painted a canvas that mashes warm and cold colors, shades of dark and light. Most importantly, though, it all comes together to make up one image. Unity is the glue that holds Portugal. The Man together and this becomes more apparent after further explanation of their band name.
“We made this alter ego and we decided to name this person after a country because it’s a group of people with a singular voice in the world,” Gourley offers, “Portugal pretty much sounded the best, but it’s a really beautiful place and I’m really glad we picked it. Not only does it sound good and it’s a beautiful place, but the people do have a lot of pride in their country and it’s not something you find all the time anymore.”
Aside from the band name, Gourley refers to all the members as equals. He admits, humbly, that he does most of the writing, but states, “everybody has to do this, it’s an insane amount of work. Whether it’s recording or touring, it’s a huge level of work.”
Even though Gourley is at the forefront of the creative process, he attributes a lot the bands output to the other members as well. “We jam a lot live,” says Gourley, “and its things like tonight, I really love taking note of. Every night saying, ‘OK, what’s that bass line that Zach was playing, what bass line was he really diggin’ or “‘how is Ryan playing keyboard?’ You tend to think about all that stuff and write music in a round about way.” Gourley clarifies, “even if they’re not sitting in on it [the writing process], there such a huge part of it.”
Portugal. The Man’s frequent onstage improvisations allow them to fit right into the jam band scene. Their vocal harmonies are similar to those of Brooklyn’s MGMT or the Dirty Projectors, but their live concert experience has left hippies clamoring for more and hipsters in the gutters. But what really separates them from their ostensible sound-alikes is their Alaskan upbringing, which prevails in their lyrics. “It’s really hard to escape where you were brought up. Not that I would ever want to escape it. It’s beautiful and full of very tight communities. It’s a pretty great place to be a part of,” says Gourley.
Before former Gov. Sarah Palin garnered national attention by running alongside Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, Alaska was a small dot on a map for many. Now, however, Alaska is a major topic of discussion in debates on energy (“drill baby drill”), the subject of a Palin-helmed TLC reality show, and a popular punch-line for many political pundits. It’s also widely known to have a politically conservative electoral base, and as a result Gourley has always felt disconnected from other locals, especially whilst growing up.
“I went to so many sleepovers where these parents were reading the Book of Revelation before bed and things like that,” he remembers. “I would listen to that stuff and I would sit there and say to myself, ‘if God is so great and so good, why is there this list of rules?’ Like, you go to hell if you don’t believe in him and hold him up above everyone else,” Gourley explains.
Referring to religion in his writing, Gourley states, “it all comes across pretty straight forward actually. There are songs like “People Say,” the whole album Church Mouth (their 2rd LP), and Censored Colors (their third LP). I think we’re pretty spiritual people, the band in general. We’re not a bunch of hippies or anything like that, but we like to work together and work with people. We believe that positive energy is pretty necessary in life, although it’s not always easy to maintain.”
However, the one thing Portugal. The Man has always been able to maintain is their lack of dependence on money. For the most part, they have managed to stay clear of the mainstream, which means they haven’t received the major label pay-outs. Their first two albums were released on Fearless Records and then the contract ended. They self-released the following three records on their own label Approaching AIRballoons. “Labels aren’t our goal,” Gourley states, “music is our goal. We want the band to do what it needs to do, go where it needs to go.”
Portugal. The Man’s approach towards professionalism has continually relied on a want-versus-need attitude. This principle is clearly outlined in a blog post Gourley posted on the band’s web site shortly before the 2008 Presidential Election entitled, “Palin, Because We Don’t Need It”. In the piece, Gourley dissects Palin’s political strategies, pointing out the excessiveness in her governance. For example, the article states, “We don’t need more debts. Palin spent 15 million on a new sports center in the valley, leaving the small town of Wasilla, Alaska in debt to the amount of 22 million.”
Despite the political connotations of the article, the most intriguing aspect of it is Gourley’s hunting experience with his father, in which his father has a clear shot at a moose, but hesitates and says, “we’re not going to get it…because we don’t need it.” Gourley explains how this mantra still holds true with the band today, “how did we start saying, ‘OK, well we need hotel rooms now when we didn’t need them before’” he wonders. “I think more of what that’s about is you don’t want to over do it. But, more than anything, to me money is not necessary to live and I don’t necessarily need it. It’s nice to have it though,” he laughs.
The nonchalant tone in Gourley’s voice, most notably when speaking about the band’s funds, serves as a reminder that Portugal. The Man is solely concerned with the music and not the fame. While many bands go into this industry as a way to make money, the boys from Alaska are truly here to have fun. Just as Gourley and his father spared the life of the moose, Portugal. The Man is a part of a small group of bands that can still save the integrity of rock n’ roll.
Referring back to the idea of animals being hunted, Gourley says, “I’m not in tears over that, it happens every day, ya' know. People get killed every day and I give a shit about it, that’s part of life. It’s when you have [the chance] to save something, that’s when you need to.”