Portugal. The Man: Back to the Garden
by Mike Greenhaus on September 14, 2017
In 1997, Pantera rolled into Anchorage, Alaska, and the experience melted Zachary Carothers’ mind. The seminal moment arrived just a few minutes into the metal titans’ show: During “Cowboys From Hell,” Pantera’s opening number, the group moved into what was supposed to be a very scripted section. But, instead of offering that specific guitar riff, Dimebag Darrell drifted into a taste of Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever” before segueing back into “Cowboys From Hell.” The mash-up only lasted a few seconds, but left an indelible mark on Carothers and his future bandmate John Gourley, laying the groundwork for one of Portugal. The Man’s signature moves.
“It was fucking awesome,” Carothers says, still visibly turned on by the night. “We realized we could blend covers into our songs. It’s fun to let people know where things come from, especially when a song inspires us to write another song.”
It’s an overcast June afternoon, on the eve of festival season’s summer peak, and Portugal. The Man’s principals are sprawled out in a conference room at Atlantic Records’ New York office. The windows overlooking Midtown Manhattan’s corporate epicenter highlight just how far the ensemble has come since they first coalesced around Wasilla, Alaska. Yet, the three members of Portugal on hand today seem immune to the hustle and bustle of their surroundings. At the moment, Gourley—the group’s lead singer, guitarist and primary songwriter—is considering getting a tattoo. (He decides to go with some Charli XCX ink that he later updates into the freedom of speech slogan, “Je suis Charlie.”) Carothers, the band’s genial, talkative bassist, is lounging comfortably to his right and sporting one of the band’s insider-only “P” baseball caps. Guitarist Eric Howk is sitting to Gourley’s left. Though he only officially joined Portugal in 2015, Howk knew Gourley and Carothers when they were growing up in the Alaskan wilderness and has been in the band’s orbit for years. An empty wheelchair is waiting by Howk’s side— he’s been paralyzed from the sternum down since he fell into an unmarked hole at a construction site in 2007, but he continues to tour and perform live.
All three musicians are antsy to get back on the road and are especially ready to hit Bonnaroo, where the perennial indie-psych favorites have grown into one of The Farm’s unofficial house bands. Over the years, Gourley, Carothers and their compadres have played late night-barn burners, participated in pop-up parades and even jammed with Weird Al Yankovic. They’re only able to make a brief stopover this year, which they see as both a blessing and a curse; in the past, they may have enjoyed their time in Manchester, Tenn., a bit too much.
Portugal. The Man share a kinetic energy with the famously eclectic Roo, mixing elements of rock, pop, jam, electronica, metal and hiphop in a wholly original way. Perhaps, more than ever, they embraced that seamless blend of styles and packaged those diverse sounds into a crisp, main-stage-ready release on their eighth studio-album, Woodstock.
“It’s meant to feel like a festival,” Gourley says. “We wanted it to feel like a CD binder—when you actually had CDs in your car, and you’d throw on some Motown and then you’d follow that up with Beastie Boys, then Missy Elliot. We wanted to have [elements] of all the things we’d listened to growing up and do them in a way that felt very organic.”
Woodstock, fittingly, opens with a snippet of Richie Havens’ “Freedom” invocation from the 1969 event at the start of “Number One” and proceeds to jump between radio-ready bangers, delicately crafted headphone collages and wild, soulful jams at the pace that one might bounce between Bonnaroo stages. It makes sense, too: At a time when the festival scene has become increasingly dominated by wide-reaching, anthemic pop and electronic artists, Portugal. The Man are the rare connection to the scene’s colorful indie-jam roots that still sounds very much in line with this summer’s soundtrack.
“There’s a lot of really obvious and deliberate sampling on the record,” Gourley says, pointing to a moment where Philly R&B/ blues artist Son Little pops up on “Number One.” “As soon as I put [a bit of Havens’ ‘Freedom’] in there, everyone was like, ‘I’m pretty sure that’s gonna be hard to clear.’ Ultimately, his estate was great, which is so fucking cool because I had heard this story about Quentin Tarantino trying to clear that sample for Django Unchained and it being insanely difficult. I feel so privileged to have that on our record—it’s a great thing to give the kids. People should look up that performance. It’s my favorite performance of all time.”
Portugal. The Man grew out of Anatomy of a Ghost, a hardcore screamo group that featured Gourley and Carothers and disbanded in 2004. At first, Gourley considered Portugal something of a side-project— assisted by Carothers and a drum machine—but, over time, it grew into his primary focus. They cycled through numerous members and a few slight stylistic variances during Portugal’s early years, gradually building a loyal, grassroots fanbase from touring and annual new releases. Throughout, Gourley’s falsetto vocals and cryptic-yet-catchy lyrics have floated over the band’s tight, art-pop grooves.
Gourley and Carothers may have spent their professional careers living in the hipster capital of Portland, Ore., but the duo credit their Alaskan upbringing with keeping their love of music pure and their tastes eclectic. The band wagers that there are actually more Metallica tattoos per capita in Anchorage than pretty much anywhere outside of South America.
“It’s a special place,” Carothers says. “If you are a band and you come up there, you are automatically loved. We see that when we play small towns—people are really grateful. Obviously, playing New York City is amazing, but people are seeing more shows in a night than we got in months.”
The bassist’s eyes light up as he describes his first concert, Primus, when he was 12. “I danced like I had never heard music before because I had never fucking heard music before,” he says with a grin. “It was fucking rad.”
Even early on, Portugal. The Man strove to create extended suites that glide through styles and songs like progressing through the levels of a video game. Gourley points to an early trip to Germany where they used the old trick they learned from Pantera to extend their set in new, interesting ways.
“In a very German way, they asked us to play at least an hour and we had a 40-minute CD,” he says. “The first night, we played a couple songs twice and just started extending things—I would just start singing Beatles lyrics, whatever came to my mind. We started seeing transitions within the songs, leading you to the next point. That’s what music is about. I want to show people what we listen to, the way we listen to music and the way we hear it—to give something for other bands to strive for.”
In 2010, Portugal signed with Atlantic, who issued the John Hill-produced In the Mountain in the Cloud the next year. From there, they partnered with Danger Mouse for 2013’s Evil Friends. Portugal. The Man’s major-label backers and big-name producers didn’t really change the group’s sound, yet they slightly polished and tightened it, emphasizing the vocal hooks, psych-rock freak-outs and funky beats that have always been part of their DNA. Those breakthrough albums also arrived at a time when the lines between indie, pop and hip-hop started to blur across the board. Singles like “Got It All (This Can’t Be Living Now),” “So American,” “Evil Friends,” “Purple Yellow Red and Blue” and “Modern Jesus” managed to embrace modern production techniques and electronic elements while using those tropes as touchstones to reference and reclaim.
While supporting Evil Friends, Portugal. The Man toured with Chris Black, an actual MC and hype-man, who would intro the band and energize the crowd. His presence even caught members of the band by surprise and signified that the group takes their love of rap seriously.
“I didn’t even know he was coming,” Howk says. “It was my first show with the guys in a long time and, suddenly, this giant guy walks up like, ‘Y’all ready to turn it up?’ And I was like, ‘I guess I am, sir!’ He’s philosopher smart. When you get him one-on-one, he’ll talk at length about anything.”
In 2013, Portugal. The Man started working on the material that would eventually surface as Woodstock. Their initial sessions were somewhat piecemeal; they took advantage of their various offers and spent an uncharacteristically long period of time on their projects, recording separately with both Danger Mouse and the Beastie Boys’ Mike D. Gourley credits Mike D with pulling out some of his most esoteric sounds while they channeled the spirit of The Band at Rick Rubin’s idyllic Shangri-La Studios. Working alongside their heroes inspired the group to write a handful of their catchiest tunes, but they didn’t have a real timeline or end date. In their words, they got lost in “The Matrix.”
“We all have the same goal— that’s where I think this band is different than other bands,” Gourley says. “We genuinely want to be objective and we want to write the best songs we can. So, every time we sit down to go after something, it’s more about focusing and finding what makes that song great. We’re not really the type of band that just rips the tops off our heads and can throw out all these things and work like that. We all want to make the best record possible. I’m not an uncertain dude; none of us are uncertain people. We don’t come up with a song and go, ‘Oh, I don’t know. Is it good?’ It either is or it isn’t.”
It took a trip to visit Gourley’s father—a contractor who moved his family around Alaska to work on various projects—to get the band back on track. The musicians describe him as a practical man who leads a practical life. “John’s dad always saves the day—he has a million times,” Carothers says. “We just couldn’t stop writing, and he asked us what is taking so long. It was the way he put it: ‘Don’t you guys just go into a studio, bring your instruments, record some songs?’ We didn’t want to argue too much.”
“That’s what I was raised with,” Gourley adds. “Every time my dad says something like that to me, I sit down and go, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ He basically wrote ‘So American,’ just by sitting down and watching a Pete Seeger documentary with me, saying, ‘You know what, Johnny? I haven’t heard a good protest song in a while. Can you write one of those?’ There’s just something about the way he puts things—it just made me think about the reason I play music. We lived two hours from town and had to drive to get groceries. My family would listen to oldies radio the entire drive and sing along. It’s all of those memories that made me want to play music.”
Gourley’s father also inspired Woodstock’s title. The elder Gourley attended the original Woodstock and loved to screen the concert film on VHS for his son. During Portugal’s recent visit to Alaska, he also showed the band his Woodstock ticket stub.
“Watching Ritchie Havens open up Woodstock was the first real performance I had ever seen,” Gourley says before trailing off. “Seeing how beat up his guitar was and watching him deliver something that real—that’s as raw as it gets. It’s improv, and it’s everything that this band is about.”
The fortuitous trip back home overlapped with the tense political climate around last year’s presidential election. The parallels with the late- ‘60s and early-‘70s—the period Woodstock epitomized—weren’t lost on Gourley.
“When we picked that name, pretty much everybody we told was like, ‘Ah no, you can’t do that,’” he says. “But I said, ‘I actually think we should.’”
Despite the longest stretch between releases of his career, Gourley decided to scrap much of the recorded material, which they had tentatively titled Gloomin + Doomin, in favor of crafting a new batch of tunes with Hill. Then, they wove in songs and stems from their previous sessions with Danger Mouse (“Number One,” the slightly apocalyptic “So Young” and the groovy “Mr Lonely,” which features a hiphop breakdown from Fat Lip) and Mike D (the dance-floorapproved “Noise Pollution”) that held together as a cohesive suite of music. The result is their most accessible release and among their densest. The EDM underbelly of “Easy Tiger” moves like both a reaction to and celebration of an all-night festival set, the lyrical twists and keyboard playfulness of “Rich Friends” make the cut a classic, oldschool P.TM nugget and “Tidal Wave” may inspire a few samples of its own.
A slew of guest musicians, outside producers, studio hands and Facebook friends also contributed to the process, including longtime Portugal pal Casey Bates and Electric Guest’s Asa Taccone. The band members describe their recording process as inherently social. If someone is tired, then they will bring in someone else with some new energy—or, as they say with a collective laugh, if a friend happened to play saxophone in high school, then they might as well trade them some beer for their services. On one track, every musician in the studio took a turn playing the same guitar solo, and others even sent in the same part remotely. “There are so many little moments on the record where I’m like, ‘Did I play that? Did you play that? Eh, it doesn’t matter,’” Howk quips. A range of samples—some more subversive than others—dot the album, pointing to the group’s influences and giving the LP a punchy, mixtape feel. “There some Where’s Waldo covers,” he adds. “In one section of one song, I dip into Weezer’s ‘Say It Ain’t So.’”
Woodstock’s playbill of guests rivals Michael Jackson’s famously large-scale Thriller credits. But Gourley is quick to point out that the album’s best moments came about much more organically.
“‘Feel It Still’ happened completely out of nowhere,” he says of Woodstock’s funky, soulful top-shelf single. “I stepped into a side room, Asa was in there, and we just started playing this bassline— this cool groove. We threw that song down in maybe an hour. That’s the way it should be—us writing music because we feel like it, because it was something that needed to come out.”
It's Friday night at Bonnaroo and U2 is about to wrap up their set on the What Stage. The members of Portugal. The Man—Gourley, Carothers, Howk, keyboardist Kyle O’Quin and drummer Jason Sechrist—and their entourage are hanging out behind This Tent, sipping some beer and wine. In a few minutes, they’ll launch into a late-night barn burner of a show that will reference material by such diverse influences as Metallica, The Beatles, Oasis and Pink Floyd, and include cameos from members of Cage The Elephant and longtime scene photographer Danny Clinch.
They’d hoped to bring out Trey Anastasio Band’s Jennifer Hartswick and Natalie Cressman, who were on-site for surprise sit-ins with the livetronica duo Big Gigantic, but, unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out. In March, Portugal. The Man released “Feel It Still” as a Woodstock teaser, and Trey Anastasio quickly added the song to his band’s set. The cover turned a new audience onto Portugal. The Man’s music; in certain ways, they scored an old-school jukebox hit. Howk says he was sitting in his backyard in Seattle when his neighbor, who is a Phishhead, broke the news. “He popped over the fence and was like, ‘Hey, check it out! You guys made it!’” he says.
Gourley says he gets texts and tweets every time Anastasio plays the song. He’s seen the impact that the cover has had on Portugal. The Man’s fanbase, too. “My dad met a group of 15 kids when we played Albany who only knew us and bought tickets because Trey covered that song,” he says. “When he saw them after, they were freaking out about the show.”
Though Sechrist is the band’s resident jamband aficionado and on-tour Grateful Dead DJ, Carothers has some fond touring memories of his own.
“When I was 18, I took a trip around the country,” he says. “I bumped into a bunch of friends and we did three nights of Widespread Panic over Halloween in New Orleans and went up and saw some Phish shows. I enjoyed it live, but I never took it home with me.”
Howk sees Phish and the Dead’s recent resurgence as part of an overall shift in modern listening habits where genres or styles no longer divide fans. “Now, you can pull up a crazy Trey Anastasio guitar solo at a Phish concert on YouTube and be blown away by it instead of having to go to a show and see the entire scene,” he says.
They all agree that once they bring a song into their live set, they are more concerned with the energy and spirit of it than actually recreating the studio sound.
“It’s how we do our covers too,” Gourley says. “Kyle [the band’s in-house musical scholar] can hop on me all he fucking wants about a song being in E-minor 7, but I’m going to be like, ‘Well, I’m going to learn it like this.’ Playing live, you should do it different every night. Dick Dale is the best at that shit.”
Despite his background in punk and harder-edged music, Gourley sees the jam scene’s commitment to nurturing passionate audiences as part of his ultimate goal. And he sees Portugal as heirs to the open-eared, dedicated music scene that the modern festival has helped foster.
“My Morning Jacket, The National, even Spoon a little bit—these are groups where it’s all built around the live presence,” he says. “They just pump out records and play these shows that people genuinely fall in love with. We are never able to see other people’s shows anymore but, if we did, I always felt that we would 100 percent be one of those fans. And we’d like to think that we can include ourselves in that group of bands, too.”