From the musical hotbed that is Wasilla, Alaska came the now-Portland-based indie quartet Portugal. The Man, best known for their consciously mercurial musical style and astounding prolificacy. Not to mention the confusion the period in their name has caused. Even after lead singer John Gourley’s detailed explanation of the name, I was left wondering how to title the interview and where exactly to place the period. But, come on people. It’s really not that bad once you get used to it, so give the guys a break. When we last met up with the group over the summer they were on tour promoting their last album Satanic Satanist, and Gourley informed us that they had already finished recording their second one! On the P. The Man blog Gourley announced the release of their fifth proper album (or sixth if you count Majestic Majesty the acoustic album version of Satanic Satanist), American Ghetto.
“The Release: How does March 2nd sound?”, he writes, a question which we will take as an official release date (read the entire post here) Want to get a promo copy? Too bad.
“On March 2nd we will make this record available to you, press, radio, retail, etc. Nobody gets the record early; we will not be soliciting reviews, airplay or any support from the industry. It is up to you to tweet about #americanghetto or to share or to send friends to buy. If you want to write/blog/play American Ghetto, March 2nd is your opportunity. It will be the same for everyone.”
And for those of you without a calendar on hand, March 2nd is in 14 days. So, if you’re a fan mark your calendar. If you haven’t gotten a chance to listen, what are you waiting for? Check out IF’s extensive conversation with Gourley below…
Inflatable Ferret: You’re from Alaska originally, right?
John Gourley: Yeah.
IF: And you grew up there and everything?
IF: How’s the music scene in Alaska?
JG: Um, it’s a lot of metal, or at least it was when I was up there, as you can imagine. Most small towns have a lot of metal and bluegrass. But it’s gotten better since the Internet sort of “blew up.”
IF: The Internet has gotten to Alaska, then?
JG: Yeah, I mean, we didn’t have a phone for the longest time, but we had the Internet when I was pretty young. And it was so crazy to see what was happening in the outside world.
IF: And when did you move to Portland?
JG: I guess about seven years ago. I had some friends that were in a band called Anatomy of a Ghost, and they asked me to come down and sing with them. I have no idea why they asked me to do it. I didn’t know how to sing.
IF: So, you hadn’t had any experience singing?
JG: No, not really. I was pretty shy growing up, so I just tried to avoid anything that would ever put me in front of people. But I really loved music. And it was kind of one of those things where I did everything I would never do in my life, and I did it within two days. I just said, “Alright, I’m going to Portland.” I never wanted to leave home before, but I just kind of did it. And I’m glad I did. But we went back to Alaska after that band broke up and started Portugal. The Man, and we’ve been doing that for about five years now.
IF: So, you guys still live in Alaska?
JG: Um, not really. If we have significant breaks we go up to Alaska, but we really don’t have those breaks.
IF: You’re mainly based in Portland.
JG: Yeah, in between tours and if we have time off from practicing. It makes more sense for practice and for the band. That’s the reason we’re out of Alaska, is for the band.
IF: I’m sure you get this a lot, so sorry to pester you, but I’m sure our enormous fan base will be angry if we don’t ask you about the origin of the band name.
JG: Again, like anything with this band, it’s completely random. Portugal was our choice country to name a person after. It was meant to be kind of an alter ego, like a Ziggy Stardust or Sergeant Pepper. It was about creating that larger-than-life character. We really don’t have anything like that today – I guess we have, like, Justin Timberlake or John Mayer. But it really doesn’t mean the same thing that names like “James Brown” meant, or even Michael Jackson. But we were just thinking more along the lines of David Bowie, James Brown, Elton John, and it just came together. It’s weird, and the period messes up everybody.
IF: Everyone probably thinks it’s a typo.
JG: Yeah, I feel kind of bad for doing all that, but it’s the band’s name.
IF: It kind of gets your attention too.
JG: Yeah, it works. And I think we hated it for a little while, but everybody’s cool with it now.
IF: Speaking of David Bowie, Ryan [Waring]’s a huge Bowie fan, and we heard you playing “Moonage Daydream” during sound check.
JG: Yeah, we’ve never really covered it. Kind of obvious, as we were just trying to figure it out.
IF: Is it on the setlist?
JG: No, we’re not playing it tonight. We covered it at Lollapalooza. We did an acoustic version with part of “Mind Games” by John Lennon. And it worked alright, so we’re going to bring that to the stage at some point.
IF: And away from the stage, you’ve released five albums in four years, including Majestic Majesty.
JG: Yeah, I guess so.
IF: Can we expect that kind of efficiency in the future?
JG: (laughs) I would think so. We have another one that’s pretty much done, so that will come out sometime. I was just talking to our manager about that today. It just has to be mixed, and then we’ll record two more songs for it in Seattle. And then we’ll record in January or February again, so I feel like we’re moving along fine. It’s one of those things – I mean, who knows, maybe it will get bad at some point and we’d never know. I feel like Paul McCartney’s making bad music right now, but he doesn’t know. He’s just like, “I just play music. I was in The Beatles.” Everybody gets to that point where they start to make bad music. But I feel like it’s what we do. Everybody always talks about it being a crazy pace to keep – recording an album a year.
IF: Yeah, because for most bands it takes a few years at least to come out with a new album.
JG: Exactly. I feel like musicians and artists are pretty lazy people when it comes down to it. I mean, how many people do you know that play in bands simply because they didn’t want to do anything else? The way I look at it, we’re only doing an album a year. That’s not a lot of work when I think about how many houses my family built in a year or how many essays you have to write in a year for school. A lot happens in a year, so it’s really not a lot of music that we’re doing. I’d like to do more, but we like to tour a lot.
IF: You guys started your own label last year. And how does that work? It’s kind of a sub-label of Equal Vision?
JG: Well, it’s our label, but we license our music to Equal Vision, so Equal Vision acts as a distributor, and they still act as a label as well. They help us out with things when we need help. Obviously we’re not at this crazy level where we’re dong whatever we want, but…we do whatever we want.
IF: And it’s called Approaching AIRballoons, which is also kind of the name of your backing band?
JG: Yeah, it was. It was going to be Portugal. The Man and the Approaching AIRballoons – and this is so old, like six years old – but what it was going to be was that everybody would have different projects, and they would all be backed by The Approaching AIRballoons. So Portugal. The Man started off as a solo project but then became the name of the band because I really like writing a lot of music.
IF: Does the label make you feel liberated?
JG: To an extent. We own our own music, which is awesome. Everybody should own their own music. It’s kind of silly that you would ever give it to somebody else, unless you’re getting a huge check or something. (laughs) But it’s never been something that we had to fight against. We’ve never had to fight with labels about anything. They never tell us how to write our songs, and if they have in the past we’ve always just said, “Don’t tell us what to do.” You know, we’re pop kids – we want to write good songs. It’s not like them coming to us and saying, “You know what? I don’t think there’s a single on this. Can you write us one?” Because in the end we’re trying to write singles. We’re trying to write songs.
IF: How did you approach Satanic Satanist differently?
JG: Well, everything to this point had pretty much been on the spot, just because we were touring so much. This time around, we were working with [producer] Paul Kolderie, who worked with The Pixies and Radiohead, so we didn’t want to make him feel like an asshole and just walk in with no music. So, we sat down and did pre-production for it, and it really helped us understand better what was gong to happen with production.
IF: And Majestic Majesty is kind of Satanic Satanist’s acoustic counterpart. Whose idea was that?
JG: I think it was our manager’s. We talked about it every now and then, but it kind of came up for this one just because the songs are so much tighter. This record is so much more about the song, so it was so much easier to translate to acoustic guitars. That whole record [Majestic Majesty] was the first time we had ever played those songs acoustically as a band, and it was literally about three hours in the studio, so all that stuff was kind of on the spot.
IF: Of course, your music has been compared to Led Zeppelin and Jane’s Addiction, mainly with regard to your vocals being similar to Robert Plant and Perry Farrell. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
JG: That’s awesome, but I really wouldn’t say so. I don’t really listen to Led Zeppelin, not to offend anybody. I just never got into that stuff. It’s good, it’s crazy, it’s massive, and it’s really flattering to be compared to it. But I think singers with high voices always get compared to each other. That’s just the way it works, whether it’s White Stripes or Mars Volta. You know, we don’t sound like Mars Volta, but you’ll always get lumped into other bands like that, and more often than not it doesn’t make sense. But it’s cool.
IF: I especially thought the Perry reference was interesting because you guys played at Lollapalooza this year, and that was kind of his brainchild.
JG: Yeah, we never ran into him. I guess he just like hangs out there. But we kind of just hang out by ourselves. We’re so bad at networking and all that stuff. We just want to hang out. I don’t want to have to deal with shaking a bunch of hands and remembering all these people.
IF: You guys played a few festivals. Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, was that it?
JG: We played a bunch in Europe. We played one in Portugal with Nine Inch Nails and Peaches. It was just five or six bands I think the night that we played. And I have to tell this to everybody in the world – Peaches may play the dirtiest music in the world. It’s the dirtiest chick rapper ever. To listen to it’s really good, but you just have to see it live. I’ve never seen anything cooler than that. And then they were all really nice afterwards. But she’s crazy on stage, saying all this nasty shit. So, if you ever get the chance to see them, do it. Maybe don’t take kids to it. Or, I don’t know – maybe take kids to it. Kids can hear “motherfucker” every now and then.
IF: Speaking of bands like Peaches, who do you guys listen to?
JG: Um…Flaming Lips, Fever Ray. Do you want new bands? Lykke Li, Thunderheist. I think Fever Ray is a unanimous favorite.
IF: They’re related to Sugar Ray, right?
JG: Yeah, it’s Sugar Ray’s brother.
IF: Going back to your earlier work, there seems to be a big change from Waiter: “You Vultures!” to your second album, Church Mouth. Was there a reason for this?
JG: Well, Church Mouth is more stripped down, more of a five-piece, or a four-piece, I guess, depending on the song. After we recorded Waiter: “You Vultures!” we went over to Europe, and the record happened to do really well in Germany, out of nowhere, which I think is very cool to see happen. It doesn’t have to be us. It can be any small, unknown band, and I’m pretty pumped when people just recognize it, free from buzz and hype and everything. So, we headed over to Germany, and we had never played more than 25 or 30 minutes – I mean, we had a 45 minute record, so the longest we could play was 45 minutes really. And we showed up with six or seven songs and were immediately told we had to play an hour and a half each night. So, we just started jamming and kind of writing new songs on the road. It caused us to work together as a band, and I think that first trip to Germany was really the birth of this band. Waiter: “You Vultures!” was just a pile of ideas.
IF: How is your live sound different from your recorded sound?
JG: There’s more jamming. When you’re in the studio, all you think about is making the best song you can possibly make, whether it’s an orchestra or a three-piece. You just do whatever works in the studio. You can have 50 guitar tracks if you want. When you’re playing a song live you kind of have to re-learn it and figure out what works best. The thing about the way we make music, each record so different from the last, is that it almost takes the whole headline tour to figure out how to play the songs. They don’t really become great live records until at least a year afterwards, but it’s always fun.
IF: What would you say is your main influence?
JG: I would say The Beatles take up so much of what we listen to that it always comes back to them. The original intent of this band was a project where Wu Tang meets The Beatles. You know, songwriting over hip-hop beats. And not just hip-hop beats, like soul hip-hop.
IF: Yeah, I’ve noticed that when you play live, a lot of the blues and soul comes out.
JG: Yeah, that’s one of those things that’s easy to do in a live setting but hard to translate to a recording. Most of our studio time is spent saying, “let’s make this kind of record”, so we just go and do that, and we kind of forget ourselves and just make the record that works.
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