In Portugal. The Man, every day is Independence Day
The Aspen Times
In 2010, the Portland, Ore.-based band Portugal. The Man signed with Atlantic Records, a six-decade-old recording-industry giant. The business relationship appears to be a productive one: Soon after signing, Portugal. The Man released its Atlantic debut, “In the Mountain in the Cloud,” and in June put out “Evil Friends,” its eighth album overall, which went as high as No. 28 on the Billboard 200 chart. The band’s concert tonight at Belly Up sold out in advance. John Gourley, the 32-year-old lead singer, counts the association with Atlantic as significant, even a rebirth of sorts.
“It was a big step,” Gourley said from a tour stop in Indianapolis. “It felt like putting out a new kind of record. I know people hate that — ‘a new artist to watch,’ when some people have been watching us for years. But as far as the nation goes, it’s a new band. It feels like that in the band, too.”
It certainly is a new course, on the artistic side as well as the business end. For “Evil Friends,” Portugal. The Man teamed with superproducer and Gnarls Barkley member Danger Mouse, who produced the album and also is credited with co-writing all the songs. And recent promotional materials tout how the band has honed its sound to create “more widely accessible pop songs.”
So is Portugal. The Man in danger of losing its independence? Has it renounced the eff-you sentiment — “We don’t need you to do what we do” — that was repeated in a fierce tone in the chorus of “Do What We Do,” from the 2010 album “American Ghetto”?
Probably not. Among the songs on “Evil Friends” is “Modern Jesus,” whose lyrics — “Don’t pray for us / We don’t need no modern Jesus / … The only faith we have is faith in us” — echo those from the pre-Atlantic era. The album’s overall theme, delivered in songs such as “Creep in a T-Shirt,” is of being defiantly and happily on the outside. And when the band wanted to shoot an official video for the title track to “Evil Friends,” it did so in unofficial fashion. The band sneaked up to Alaska without notifying the record label and shot a dark-hued, darkly humorous video.
The most significant component of that adventure was the location. Gourley was raised in Wasilla, Alaska, the same town, north of Anchorage, where Sarah Palin began her political career. Alaska gave Gourley a sense of isolation.
“I grew up really far away from everything. I was a really shy kid,” he said.
And shooting the “Evil Friends” video reminded him that a byproduct of the isolation in Alaska is independence.
Making the video without Atlantic’s backing was a way to skirt matters such as getting insurance. The producer of the project, however, did mention that it would be a good idea to at least get releases from the people appearing in the video.
“None of them would sign. They said, ‘No way — we don’t want anyone knowing where we are,” Gourley said. “That’s Alaska, and I love that sense of humor. That was very much my Alaska upbringing. Over half the state is up there for money, a job. The rest of us are trying to get away from everything. You’ll find people in cabins, no Social Security, no ID. It’s not even political. It’s just, ‘Let me be; let me do what I’m doing.’”
Part of Gourley’s isolation as a kid was musical. He said his dad — who went straight from Woodstock to Alaska with $300 in his wallet — listened to nothing but older music.
“A lot of Beatles, Motown, Elvis,” he said. “Not till high school did I realize people were still playing good music. The best music, in my mind, was crafted in the ’50s and ’60s.”
Gourley dropped out of high school early on, but not before learning that there was worthwhile music outside oldies radio.
“I heard Oasis for the first time and went, ‘Holy s— — you can play music today. It’s not all The Beatles,’” he recalled. “I hate to say this, but Oasis improved on some of it. The ’90s was a big time for music — very precise songwriting, big statements.”
The ’90s band that arguably made the biggest statement was Nirvana. Kurt Cobain and company left their mark on Gourley.
“You hear three chords and a great song and think, ‘I can do this. I can pick up a guitar and play,’” he said.
Gourley used to see his high school classmate Zach Carothers play cover tunes and would pester him.
“I’d say, ‘Why can’t we just write our own songs?’” he said. “I always felt like I had a melody in my head. Not very good, just messing around.”
Gourley left high school.
“It just wasn’t for me,” he said. “People learn things in different ways. I could care less about music theory. It’s amazing that people can grasp that stuff, but I have to figure out this stuff in another way.”
Gourley’s method was to pick up a guitar and, with Carothers, form a band, Anatomy of a Ghost. Carothers left for Portland, started a band there and persuaded Gourley to join him in the Lower 48 and become the lead singer. Portugal. The Man got signed to a label — “a cool, indie Portland label,” Gourley said — after its fifth performance.
Portugal. The Man might be indie, but from the start it was also ambitious. It did as much touring as it could afford and recorded prolifically; it has released eight albums in seven years.
“It’s like learning a trade,” said Gourley, who had worked construction in Alaska. “None of us are schooled musicians, not trained. We wanted to put out as much as we could. And now I look back and say, ‘Thank God we did all that.’ We wouldn’t be doing Jimmy Fallon and playing festivals if we hadn’t done all that stuff. And it feels good to put out that much music.”
To Gourley, part of being independent is not being tied to any one style.
“We’re not a rock group or a pop act or punk or retro or soul. The people we’ve worked with have been cool with that,” he said.
Portugal. The Man’s sound mixes a bunch of flavors — Beatles and Bowie and Electric Light Orchestra, electronic noise, acoustic guitars, bright tones, droning tones, modern and contemporary.
“The Beatles meets Wu-Tang,” Gourley said, describing the music. “Which sounds ridiculous — they’re so far from each other. But the connection I make now is so obvious to me. Suburban kids were connecting to hip-hop that wasn’t clean, wasn’t about collaborating with Aerosmith. It was a tone you heard — Wu-Tang had the same guitar tones as Motown, the same amps as The Beatles. And guys who were just total dorks. I say that respecting them to the highest degree.”
If Portugal. The Man gave up some of its independence to make “Evil Friends,” then Gourley did so happily. Collaborating with Danger Mouse — the producer, born Brian Burton, who has put his stamp on albums by Beck, the Black Keys and Norah Jones — was more fulfilling than maintaining the band’s independent persona. The band used its own equipment to make “Evil Friends,” but Danger Mouse seeped in nonetheless.
“I find myself saying, ‘Geez, it sounds like Danger Mouse. Is that really happening?’” Gourley said. “I think his name alone affects how you hear a song. You hear a record with his name on it, and you hear his drum sound.
“But he doesn’t make your album for you. You’ve got to be a band. But he’s willing to tell you when something isn’t good enough. He’s saying, ‘I know you can do better than that. That’s a cool vote of confidence.”
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