Portugal. The Man: Alaska's Rock 'n' Roll Saviors

Alexander Napoliello

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.

Portugal. The Man

American Ghetto

Label: Equal Vision
US release date: 2010-05-11

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.”

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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