Since their formation in 2005, Portugal. The Man
has captured the attention of the American indie scene with their extraordinary amalgamation of electronic beats, complex melodies, and atmospheric post-rock soundscapes. Formed in Wasilla, Alaska by lead singer/guitarist/songwriter John Gourley
before migrating south to the Pacific Northwest, the band proved as prolific as they were eclectic, releasing an album each year since their 2006 debut, "Waiter: 'You Vultures!'
Each consecutive collection revealed the ongoing evolution of Portugal. The Man, from the cathartic hard rock of 2007's "Church Mouth
" and the theatrical pop psychedelia of 2008's "Censored Colors
" to the sci-fi chamber-pop found on 2009's "The Satanic Satanist
" and 2010's "American Ghetto
." Last year the group released their major label debut in the form of In The Mountain In The Cloud
after signing to Atlantic Records. Recently on the group's tour of Australia, Joe Matera
caught up with Portugal. The Man's John Gourley
to discuss the group's move into major label territory, the recently released new album and the importance of social media to the group's success.
UG: How has the band coped with having to make the transition from indie band to being a major label act?
It has been really great as there a lot of things that come along with being on a major label. Especially for a band that has put out five records previous to this new album and who have toured extensively. You know, we've been to Europe twelve times before we even signed to Atlantic Records. And we have also done multiple passings across the US and been to Canada a few times as well. So signing to Atlantic was a really important thing, but it was also just a matter of, is this the time to do it? Should we wait and tour some more?' But I felt the band was ready for it. It is important to know that your band is ready as it is a lot of work to take on.
Speaking of the most recent album, In The Mountain In The Cloud it definitely has a certain sound and a feel that seems to run throughout the record. Since it was your first major label recording session, did you approach the sessions differently to how you had approached them previously?
Yes it changed completely how we did things and also in the way things happened unexpectedly. Like I expected that because we had made five albums, they had signed us for what we'd done previously, but the reality was they wanted us to explore things musically. A few records before this new one, we did one called The Satanic Satanist . And that record was my take on the whole Motown thing and the influences that I grew up on. As well as, many of my high school influences too such as Nirvana and Oasis and even some of the industrial music I was listening to at the time. So I thought it was that kind of record I kind of expected that Atlantic wanted that, in other words another pop record. And to be honest, that is fun for me to do. As a songwriter, it is always good to be not too scared of anything. I know a lot of people get weird about a label stepping in, and saying to the artist, we've just sitting here and we want to know where are the songs, what are you doing, and what are your plans with this?' But I personally like that, as it's good to have some honesty and it is good to have somebody step in during the process.
So as an artist you're not precious in a sense that you want total control over your creations?
"I kind of expected that Atlantic wanted another pop record. And to be honest, that is fun for me to do."
Yeah I am artist and I am going to create what I am going to create but at the end of the day, sometimes an artist can create some bad works of art too. Not everything you do is amazing you know. So it is good to hear. The way it changed was that it was not that we lost touch, but we took for granted the way we did things. But when you can have that input into the process, it shakes things up. We made records in the past that were totally made with a different mind set. Yeah we have an A list producer now, but what that means is that we can expect that the record is going to be made, and that it is not going to be made by ourselves. And yeah it certainly caused a lot of trouble doing it this way, but in end it made for a better record.
You're a very experimental band live, is it hard to capture that kind of spontaneity and spirit when it comes to the recording studio?
Yes very much so. I am not ever going to be pretentious about it and say, oh yeah no problem, we nailed it every time'. It doesn't really work like that. There is this spark that sometimes only comes once with a song. And with our music, you just go in and record it and just hope for the best. On this new record, it is the best example of us really being a band. With the other albums we have made, it was always different. We started out with the first two albums, and we couldn't make those albums now even if we tried too. And with the third album Censored Colors  that was a really fun record to make, but we made it in two and a half weeks. I wrote songs every day and we'd just record them that same night. So we didn't really take our time to grow with the songs and learn to understand them, yet I think that record is one of our best sounding albums. And the reason that is so is because it was very spontaneous.
The band adheres to the old school way of releasing a new album per year and then undertaking a touring cycle behind before repeating the whole process again and again. So have you got new material for the next album already?
Yeah and as much as everyone would hate for me to tell them that, yeah were working on new songs. But we are always doing that in reality. But I work on songs the way it works best for me, which is I just record a lot of pieces consistently, through all the traveling we do as a band, and in between the brief breaks while I am at home. I record a lot of riffs and vocal lines and lyrics. So when we finally head into the studio, it is more about picking the right parts, as it is important to not become too set into a song and feeling you can't edit a song.
You mentioned the amount of traveling the band does, so how do your audiences compare around the globe?
I feel real lucky you know. We went to Paris for the first time two years ago and as we were heading over there, I had all these people, and everybody telling us that a rock band never does well in Paris. Yet the first show we played there, sold out! And it was crazy. But something happened around that period because it seems to be a similar thing wherever we travel to now around the world.
You guys are very much on the ball when it comes to the whole social media aspect to the music industry. So how important has that been to the band's evolving success?
The best way to illustrate that is by the huge response we had to our gear being stolen and how by utilizing social media, we ended up having the gear returned to us, everything but our guitars that is.
You're still trying to recover the guitars?
Yeah, and one of them was a '81 Precision bass special that I loved.
The power of social media is incredible today
"With our music, you just go in and record it and just hope for the best."
Yeah, and that whole thing, it even made network news in multiple states. Funnily it was the best thing to have happened to the band and I mean that in the most humorous way, because we ended up on network news and no body gets advertising on network news! And because of the celebrity shift and all, I feel really privileged to have such a great following. But the reality is I am a music fan. And we are all music fans. Just imagine if there was an option when I was a kid to get online on some band's forum and say, hey what kind of pedal are you using' and to just get a reply and a public reply for that especially if people had the same question, and even if you got the same reply, it would have been really cool.
Speaking of gear, what are you currently using on this latest tour?
I have a 1968 Gretsch Viking as my main guitar and pretty much most of my amps are from the 1960s too. I have a '66 Fender Bassman, a '64 Fender Super Reverb, a '64 Fender Champ and a 1958 Fender Showman. I also have a couple of newer Fender amps too which are really cool but there is something to be said about those old hand wired amps, as each one sounds a little bit different and you can really find your own sound with them.
Have you had any really weird tour moments while on the road?
I guess we have had many but the thing with our band is that we're always doing something. We will go to all the parties and will show up at parties and we will go and do all those things because nobody really cares or looks at it like this, Oh, I play in a rock band and I have to be prepared for tomorrow'. Well we don't, because we practice just so much.
Finally, what do you want to achieve as a songwriter and guitarist?
I want to make music that you want to hear that you also feel is missing. It is one thing to be in a band that is all about hype and paying homage to current music trends, but that is not necessarily what I want to do. It has more of a drive behind it for me underneath it all and it also needs to be exciting. It took us five years to sign to Atlantic and in all that time we never did any network TV, and before we played any network TV in the States and that was due to the fact that I believed we needed to practice. We needed to get better as a band first. I and nobody else were looking for instant gratification. I admit it would have been cool in the beginning to do it, but I am glad we waited. And we were lucky too that we had management that was willing to wait with us and help us to grow and so we could show honesty with our music. So the ultimate goal for me is to make a better record every time and to be really critical of myself because that is what being creative is all about. It is definitely not thinking you're better than anyone else it is just about making good music.
Interview by Joe Matera