Author’s note: This article was originally published in October 2014 for DOWNTOWN Magazine NYC. I’ve repurposed it here for the sake of keeping some of my past/relevant work on my blog. Portugal. The Man has kept busy the past 2.5 years between working on new music and playing shows nationally and internationally (Including one at Red Rocks last summer which I was lucky enough to attend! Seriously CO friends, get your tickets for their 2017 Red Rocks show here). To keep up with their journey follow them on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook as linked here. For some entertainment and a little history on the band, keep reading! Oh and p.s.- John wrote out this sweet tattoo for me so I’m showing it off here (photo on the left or above depending on the device). Carry on.
Q&A with Portugal. The Man’s John Gourley
Last month marked the end of the 2014 Honda Civic Tour featuring artists Portugal. The Man and Grouplove. The tour showcased the talents of the band members both on and off the stage, with a collaboration of artwork between Portugal. The Man frontman, John Gourley, and Grouplove’s Hannah Hooper.
Gourley in particular has been known for sharing his creative abilities throughout the band’s career leading up to their seventh studio album, Evil Friends. After their most recent appearance in Central Park on Sept. 16, I spoke to John on the phone to try and get a look inside his mind and see where the band’s adventures will take them next.
Lauren Price: I was at your concert in Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield, which I know was the last show of the Honda Civic Tour. What have you guys been up to since the tour ended?
John Gourley: Man, I guess we pretty much flew straight from New York to Alaska and we played two shows up there. That’s obviously where we’re from originally, so we hung out with family and did that whole thing. We had our buddy Maclay Heriot with us taking photos, and he came up to Alaska so we took him up on some mountains for pictures.
LP: Nice! I follow you guys on Instagram, your photos are great.
JG: Yeah we can get pretty wild…So we’re in the studio with Mike D [of the Beastie Boys] right now working on some new stuff, which is a New York connection for ya!
LP: That’s pretty cool—should be an interesting collaboration. I know you guys are heading to Australia soon. When will your next world tour be? Or is it too far in advance to say?
JG: I guess it might be too far in advance. I mean we just started working on the new album, so it’s just all over the place. We have recording times scheduled in all these different places and we’re working on a bunch of different things, so it’s probably gonna be when we finish the new album.
LP: I know Danger Mouse produced Evil Friends. Are you still collaborating with him?
JG: No, but we’re still super psyched. We’ll probably do some stuff together—it just comes down to schedules, you know? That’s the way stuff always works, especially with Brian [touring with] Broken Bells and producing all the stuff he’s been producing right now. I think he’s playing out here tonight or tomorrow night actually.
LP: Your music is often referred to as Progressive Rock, but you guys really do have a unique sound. Who are some of your biggest inspirations that you always try to hold true to in your music?
JG: It’s kind of weird, it’s not the most obvious stuff in our music. So we do directly reference often enough David Bowie, The Beatles…I mean they’re just so easy. Wu-Tang was like the reason we started this band in the first place. They were a huge inspiration for the band…[and] the Beastie Boys. That’s probably the biggest stuff that inspires our music.
LP: Awesome, definitely a wide range of influences there. So I’ve seen you twice in New York now: once at Terminal 5 and once in Central Park. They both seemed like pretty special shows for you guys. Is there anything you’ve noticed that’s different when you come to New York?
JG: Yeah, New York has always been pretty good to us. Actually I take that back, as soon as New York started being good to us, it’s been really amazing. We came there a few times in the very beginning, and we didn’t have the easiest introduction to the city. It didn’t break right away, but after our second album we played one of our first sold out shows in New York City, and it’s just an amazing place. I mean, it’s the greatest city in the world. Paris has something different to offer than New York, and L.A. has something different as well, but New York is just absolutely unique.
LP: So in relation to your concerts, do you prefer playing music festivals or do you prefer the concert/arena setting better?
JG: Well they’re two different things for sure. The festivals are all about the party. They’ve changed a little bit even in the short time that we’ve been playing festivals just because there are so many. It’s become more about the party scene so you have to kind of plan your set around that, and it’s not necessarily straying from what we normally do. We always throw in covers and we always bridge gaps between songs, but festivals are about writing the perfect set list. At your own shows you can play whatever you want. We’re never trying to snatch fans or grab fans at festivals necessarily—we’re just trying to show everyone a good time and keep things moving for the other artists.
LP: At your recent concerts, you’ve been playing a lot of your current music, which most performers do obviously, but do you ever play any of your older stuff?
JG: Yeah we do. I mean you have to stay up on our Twitter and Instagram and those sorts of things, but we do shows like sideshows and after parties. We play music as much as we can, that’s what we love to do. Those shows are where we play a lot of our older music. The sideshows and the after parties and the smaller things we play are so much fun. We’re having the most fun the band has ever had. We’re actually having trouble in the studio right now because of it…apparently at one point I climbed on Kyle’s keyboard and it all fell apart. But anyway, yeah the sideshows are definitely where we play most of our older stuff. We do play some of it at our shows but we’re in between records right now, so we’re working on our next set list and trying to figure out how to incorporate new stuff. And to be honest, Brian Burton obviously did a pretty amazing job producing Evil Friends, so that album just ended up having a flow to it that we hadn’t had in the past due to his attention to detail.
LP: So you guys have been doing this for a while now. I know you’ve had members of the band leave and new members join, but as a whole, how would you say this entire journey has shaped your music style?
JG: Oh I mean, in every way. Us leaving Alaska in the first place and moving to Portland, Oregon—that was the first step. We knew what we wanted to do, and we literally left Alaska to go on tour. That was how we left. We just knew we had to chase it. But it was going to Portland and seeing $5 shows and $3 shows and free shows sometimes and watching bands we loved play for 20 people. And for us it never was that dream of being rock stars or super stars. We just saw people playing for fans and doing what they loved, and we were like, “S*** man, if we can do this for $3 tickets and play for 20 people, let’s do it.” So we kinda started out like that. All of those experiences…like touring in a mini-van. We bought a mini-van and put all our gear in it, and we bought a rice cooker and a 5 pound bag of rice, and that’s all we ate. We would eat rice and vegetables and every now and then we could get something on a dollar menu, and that was a treat for us. But it was amazing though. That’s why we do what we do.
LP: When was the transition from that point in your career to superstardom? You know, when was your big break?
JG: [Laughs] Oh right, right when did we become the “superstars” we now are. It was playing Bonnaroo in 2009. We went into the studio to record Satanic Satanist and I was really trying to write a record like the music we used to listen to as family growing up. We listened to oldies stations and it would be The Beatles and Motown and all these three-minute songs. We weren’t trying to write pop songs but I wanted to see if we could write a song in three minutes because it’s so difficult to pick that handful of parts. It’s so much harder than writing experimental music because you’re really constrained, and I think it helped us. We wrote that whole album just trying to write these three-minute songs, and it obviously connected with people. We played Bonnaroo for the first time. It was our first open air festival, and it was massive. And I think because we were all so nervous, we ended up playing a really tight set for the first time in the history of the band. It was so loose and we loved that.
LP: Was that the biggest crowd you’d ever performed in front of?
JG: At the time, it was huge. That was the biggest thing we had ever done by far and probably even so for the next two years before we did our next Bonnaroo. There were a lot of things that worked in our favor that night. Delta Spirit missed their flight and they were playing the slot right before us, so we got this hour and a half long set change, which you never get at a festival. The sound was perfect. It started raining right before we played, and we were playing in a tent so everyone filled into the tent and it just had this big build-up to it, you know? It was massive for us. That was when we decided that, yeah we can play the late night shows, yeah we can do this, yeah we can sign to a major label like Atlantic Records and really try to do this. Not to sell ourselves short because we definitely felt good about what we were doing at the time, but we never felt like, this was it. Being with Atlantic Records for these last two releases, I really feel like this is the start of the band, which a lot of elitists and fans of music would hate to see—when it’s like, “Oh yeah, this is our first record because it’s out of a major label.” But the reality of it is that your first major label album release is like putting out your first record. It’s like your debut. So it currently feels like we’re working on our third record right now.
LP: I’m sure that’s something that a lot of people don’t realize unless they’re experiencing it. Last thought—do you have a favorite moment from a tour in the past? An incredible experience that stands out?
JG: It really is kind of all of it. Every step we take, we don’t really get to see it because we’re on tour all the time. During the last tour we did, even before the Honda Civic Tour, it seems likes every tour just gets a little bit bigger, which is what you want to happen. It’s a really amazing thing. But unless you take a step back, you don’t really notice those transitions. You’ll stand on stage one night and go, “Oh, holy s***. Six years ago we opened for this band and it was empty.” So you have moments like that where you really take it in and realize how amazing the experience is.