Q&A with Portugal. The Man front man John Gourley
With a sound as big as the snowcapped mountains and an eccentricity of Sarah Palin-esque proportions, the Alaskan natives of Portugal. The Man, have chiseled out their rightful place in the vast indie glacier.
What they’ve done is beyond impressive. In just five short years, the band has played nearly every major festival (Coachella, Bonaroo, Lollapalooza) and managed to release a whopping six albums— that’s more than a album a year.
Now in support of their latest record, “American Ghetto,” the group has gone back to the road and brought the album’s psychedelic soundscapes to the live setting.
The State Press recently chatted with the group’s frontman, John Gourley.
The State Press: You guys didn’t exactly come from the biggest musical city in the country. How did you guys get to being signed and headlining tours, despite being from Alaska? What sort of work ethic and techniques did you have to use during your early years?
John Gourley: Well, we just practiced a lot. Really, what it came down to was that we just loved playing music and we would just get together and jam everyday. Things fell into place from there.
SP: How did Portugal. The Man come to fruition? Was there some crazy cosmic alignment of events to take place for it to happen?
JG: Yeah, I actually got a call from my buddy Zach [Carothers], who plays in my band right now, and he asked me to come down to Portland to sing for his screamo band, [Anatomy of a Ghost], that he was playing in. I had actually known all the guys from my hometown in Alaska. (Laughs) But it’s weird because I had never wanted to sing a band.
I was just horribly shy and would tense up and have panic attacks. But for whatever reason, I decided to do it — to fly out to Portland and move down there. This was all two days after he called, and just after I turned 21. And, you know, all my friends from Alaska around this time were starting to get into partying really, really hard and I just worked all the time.
Really, when the call came, it was the perfect time, the perfect way for me to get out of that lifestyle. It just all came so fast. Within a month we were signed and I didn’t know how to initially handle it. It really just wasn’t my thing, you know? I was just singing in that band and wasn’t really playing the style I wanted to make. Eventually we broke up shortly after, but out of the ashes, Zachary and me started Portugal. The Man.
SP: As an artist and musician, you are capable of influencing the opinions of many people. What exactly do you want to tell people, or what exactly are you trying to get people to see?
JG: (Laughs) Man, I wish I could give you a very in-depth, artistic answer, slightly condescending where it sounds like I’m on a pedestal. But, you know, I just do what I do because it’s fun without really trying to push forward any sort of agenda. I just like to make music and draw. Sometimes there’s a meaning to what I do, but a lot of times there’s not. Sometimes you just write a song, like “Colors,” and it just happens to be whatever words were in my head at the moment. It doesn’t need to be relevant to really anything—it just needs to sound good, at least for me anyways. I feel like a lot of artists do it that way, but I mean, (laughs) I’m sure an artist like Grizzly Bear thinks about everything they do. There are always exceptions.
SP: On your last album “American Ghetto,” you guys took a darker approach with song structure. What kind of things helped influence the new sound in terms of life and music?
JG: You know, it is a really dark sounding album. It’s pretty strange, I guess we used a lot of cold instruments — a lot of synthesizers and programmed drums. But a lot of the sounds being worked into it aren’t necessarily cold. The vocals were very warm, but it really did come out sounding much darker. It was actually all a concept record — well more like a themed record. I hate calling it a concept record. … Really, we just like to stick on a similar train of thought when we’re doing a record. Emotions and feelings going on in our lives spawn many tracks, not just one. We like to keep moods fairly cohesive.
SP: So it was the same thing with your album “Satanic Satanist?”
JG: Yeah, when we were making “Satanic Satanist” I started writing about growing up in Alaska in 1987 to 1994, right around the time I was going through middle school. There were also some songs about my high school years as well. But I just kind of realized there weren’t always the happiest things for me to take out of my high school years, mainly because it was some seriously dark s--t you know; Alaska has one of the highest suicide rates in the country.
SP: So would you say overall, it was dark growing up in Alaska?
JG: Well not necessarily for me, I had a pretty good family growing up. I have really just had a profound respect for my family. They were never partiers or heavy drinkers. My mom actually never drank. (Laughs) So I sort of [had] hard work engrained into me from a young age. I guess I just sort of have been conditioned to like working a lot. But, when high school hit for me, I broke out of all that. In a lot of ways for me, it was a period that I regret, but I’m really happy for [it]. I was sort of like an Amish kid being thrown into the real world when high school came. A lot of “Satanic Satanist” was about that period — it was drugs, it was guns and every messed up thing you could have done at that age.
SP: In a lot of your songs you talk about being and living in the woods of Alaska. How did living and being in the woods benefit you mentally and spiritually as an artist?
JG: Well, from an outside perspective, it all seems very spiritual. But when you grow up in it, you take it for granted. My friends and I would always go on overnight trips and set up camp for days. Really, I never fully understood the magic of it all until I left — until I traveled around the country. Going back to it, it really is its own place. That’s why all of my songs are about it. It’s just so much fun to remember that period of my life. You know, not everyone got to do the things my friends and family did. Alaska woods are truly just a different world. We would mush dogs and shoot guns.
SP: I get a very spiritual vibe from a lot of your guys’ songs. But have you actually submitted yourself to any religion?
JG: Not a religion. I believe in the mind. Everything is energy. Everything is everything. It’s always there in some form. But you know, Alaska was a very conservative Christian state. I would have friends’ parents read to us from the Book of Revelation before we went to bed — as bedtime stories. And I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but it all sort of clicked later. (Laughs) I just realized that it’s crazy. Are you really going to scare the hell out of people with that? Is my buddy over here who doesn’t believe in your god, yet is a good person, really going to go to your hell?
SP: What kind of music do you listen to?
JG: (Laughs) I like really good albums, as does anyone in the world. I’m sure everyone has the best taste in music. But with music, I like really consistent albums with a meaning at the end of it. (Laughs) I know that goes against the art question at the beginning of the interview, but I do like music with a message; it has to do something.
SP: You guys consistently change up your sound with every album. What can we expect in the future for the next Portugal. The Man record?
JG: Well, the new record coming out in March or April sounds awesome. Really, we’re just trying to take it out as it comes. I really just like things that come back around, you know? I never want to forget the things we did, whether it be “Vultures” or “Church Mouth” or anything else. I like to fall back on those sounds, here and there. You know, I always talk about our albums, but everyone who works with us wants to talk about “the next record,” or no, “the next, next record.” But that’s just the way we’ve always talked about this band. We always seem to be thinking about what we’re going to do three records ahead.
SP: Is there any music, books or art you would like to recommend to ASU?
JG: I would tell them to check out this band called The Knife. They’re actually a Swedish brother and sister. And when you first listen to it, it sounds like dance music; I actually didn’t like it when I first listened to it, but after listening to it more, you realize that it isn’t dance music. It’s punk, it’s hardcore — it’s metal. It’s so many things all in one and they do it in the strangest way. … You totally have to check out songs like “Heartbeats,” which is a total roller-rink jam, but there is just this level of creep to it you can’t put your finger on. And than there is the song “One Hit” that’s really awesome. There are just so many great tracks.
You can catch Portugal. The Man playing on October 28 at The Clubhouse in Tempe. For more information visit http://www.clubhousemusicvenue.com.
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