Plucked from the Bering Sea
Unraveling Religion, Politics and Music with Portugal.The Man
Words by Alex Napoliello
St. Louis, Missouri — 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 culture, diversity and an underground circuit that is buried deep in the local dive bar. Snow covered freeways and miles full of open country don’t halt creation. In the case of Portugal.The Man, it has inspired five LPs worth of material.
The band’s latest full-length is American Ghetto: a melodic masterpiece composed of high-pitched vocal melodies, drum machines, transcendental guitar riffs and 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).
The Alaskan-bred quartet has been cruising coast-to-coast since the release of their debut LP, Waiter: You Vultures! in 2006. Their first two albums were released through Fearless Records before the band decided to put out their last four albums via their own label, Approaching AIRballoons, with Equal Vision controlling distribution.
“Labels aren’t our goal”, Gourley says, in a soft-spoken voice, just before sound check in St. Louis, Missouri. “Music is our goal. We want the band to do what it needs to do, go where it needs to go.”
“When we finished our contract [with Fearless Records], we weren’t getting calls from labels because we don’t actively pursue anything like that. If it happens, it happens”, Gourley says nonchalantly, “we’re not going to go out of our way to find it.”
However, Portugal.The Man finally got the call they’ve been waiting for since 2006. On April 2, Gourley wrote a lengthy blog post on the band’s web site announcing they were signing to Atlantic Records. He states in the announcement, “We were approached by Atlantic Records about seven or eight months ago and as of a couple of days ago have made a decision to join their family, and let them into ours.” It is important to note, however, that I spoke with Gourley at the end of March, shortly before this announcement.
“I never really had a problem with major labels outside of their watering down the music to fucking test markets and all that bullshit”, he says with a sense of pride, “All of our favorite bands have been major label bands.” This sense of pride instilled in his voice can also be found in his lengthy post on the site. Gourley thanks the fans for their support and acknowledges their recent rise in popularity within the past year, noting appearances at Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands, and Coachella.
“I feel like we’ve had to prove ourselves quite a bit and I think it’s good. We purposely stayed out of a lot. We don’t solicit reviews for national press anymore because we’ve never really done it”, Gourley continues, “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.”
With Atlantic Records now in the picture, that may change, however, Gourley insists that rock n’ roll doesn’t always have to be about the glamour — it can still be stripped down to its bare essentials, 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. 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”, he says.
For American Ghetto, Portugal.The Man sought the help of producer Anthony Saffery. Saffery played with the 90’s post-punk band Cornershop and was also a part of production on Portugal’s fourth LP Satanic Satanist. “We talked a lot about 90’s hip hop. His reference points were so much different than mine, but I knew what he was going for because he played music in the 90’s. The album really picked up that vibe, which I thought was really fucking cool because I was never apart of that.”
Gourley and his band mates have painted a canvas that mashes warm and cold colors, shades of dark and light, but most importantly, it all comes together to make up one image. Unity is the glue that holds Portugal.The Man together and it becomes more apparent after further explanation of their band name.
“We made this alter ego [Portugal.The Man] 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 explains, “Portugal pretty much sounded the best, but it’s a really beautiful place and I’m really glad we picked it. The people do have a lot of pride in their country and it’s not something you find all the time anymore.”
Gourley refers to all of the band 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.”
– John Gourley of Portugal. The Man
Even though Gourley is at the forefront of the creative process, respectively, he attributes the other members as well. “We jam a lot live”, he says, “and it’s things like tonight, I really love taking note of. Every night saying, “o.k., what’s that bass line that Zach [Carothers] was playing? What bass line was he really digging’ or ‘how is Ryan [Neighbors] 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 allows them to fit right into the jam band scene. Their vocal harmonies, and use of electronics, are similar to that of Brooklyn’s MGMT or The Dirty Projectors, but their live concert experience leaves hippies clamoring for more and hipsters baffled. But what really separates them from the rest is their Alaskan upbringing, which prevails in their lyrics.
Before former Governor Sarah Palin received national attention by running alongside Republican nominee, John McCain, in 2008, Alaska was a small dot on a map to many. Now, however, Alaska is the topic of discussion in energy (drill baby drill), a Discover channel reality show, and the joke of many political pundits. It’s also widely known to have a politically conservative base and as a result, Gourley has always felt disconnected from the people growing up.
“I went to so many sleep overs where these parents were reading the Book of Revelation before bed and things like that. 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 with a hint of confusion.
Referring to religion in his writing, he offers, “it all comes across pretty straight forward actually. There are songs like ‘People Say’, the whole album Church Mouth [their 2nd LP], and the follow-up, Censored Colors. 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 maintains throughout their career is a lack of dependency on money. For the most part, they have managed to stay clear of the mainstream, meaning they haven’t received the major label pay-outs, which is subject to change now that they’re on the Atlantic Records roster.
Regardless of record contracts and the like, Portugal.The Man’s approach towards professionalism continually relies on a want-versus-need attitude. This attitude 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 post, Gourley dissects Palin’s political strategies, pointing out the excessiveness of 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.”
Aside from the political connotations of the article, the most intriguing aspect of the piece is a hunting experience with his father Gourley recalls 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.” The imagery is a clear metaphor for a life-long lesson Gourley continues to hold onto.
“How did we start saying, ‘o.k., well we need hotel rooms now when we didn’t need them before’. 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 passiveness of Gourley’s voice, most apparent 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 at this industry as a way to get rich, the boys from Alaska are truly here to have fun, despite their recent major label acquirement.
Atlantic Records has been a home to some of rock’s most noted legends – the Rolling Stones, CSN, Ray Charles and Led Zeppelin, just to name a few. These bands helped create rock n’ roll, let alone pave the way for future acts such as Portugal.The Man.
Similar to how Gourley and his father saved 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, and maybe Atlantic is the outlet that will help them fulfill that achievement.
Referring to 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.”
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