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Portugal. The Man: Rock's Surprise Heroes

How a midcareer band – with roots in Sarah Palin's hometown – got out of their own way and scored one of 2017's biggest hits.

Portugal. The Man: Rock's Surprise Heroes

Portugal. The Man: Rock's Surprise Heroes

The first cold night of November in Portland, Oregon, found John Gourley and Zach Carothers of Portugal. The Man in a familiar position: in a maroon Ford E350 van, Carothers driving, Gourley in the back. Nine years ago, after the van they'd been touring in shot its transmission for the fifth time, they bought this one used and have logged 217,000 miles since, enough to crisscross the country better than 77 times.

During that time, PTM built themselves up from alt-rockers with a debt to Bowie and Pink Floyd and whatever else was handy to this year's biggest crossover band, with a Top Five single, "Feel It Still," that references everything from Motown to the Black Panthers and "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)" Their breakthrough album, Woodstock, took four years to finish, as they scrapped sessions with Mike D of the Beastie Boys, then hit the reset button and came up with the song that would put them over the top in about 45 minutes.

Gourley and Carothers' friendship goes back two decades, to high school in Wasilla, Alaska. Gourley is PTM's singer-guitarist; Carothers plays bass. They are the band's center, the two who have been at it for the past 13 years. Right now, they're wrapping up a week at home before heading back on the road. Gourley's days revolve around him and his partner, Zoe Manville (a graphic designer who sings with the band), dropping off and picking up their six-year-old daughter, Frances, at kindergarten.

Carothers has been on a short fishing trip, and is returning some gear at his uncle's house. This maroon workhorse is his daily driver when in Portland, and after years of sleeping in a van, a tour bus or a plane, he finds it hard to get some rest if there's no moving ground beneath him. "I am like, 'Sorry, I got to make myself a box on the floor. Pretend I am in a bunk,'" he says. "Nothing stresses me out more than relaxing. It's the work ethic we grew up with – in Alaska if you stop working, you die."

Errand finished, we roll to Pok Pok, a celebrated Thai restaurant. Carothers – who radiates a gentle take-care-of-everyone vibe – has organised a big dinner for King Krule, the U.K. singer-songwriter, and his band, who've been stuck in town with tour bus problems. We're joined inside by Manville and PTM keyboardist Kyle O'Quin, as well as Krule, his band and more friends. Drummer Jason Sechrist, whose wife gave birth to their first baby 12 days ago, is here as well, though guitarist Eric Howk is at a wedding. (A paraplegic since an accident 10 years ago, he grew up with Carothers and Gourley, and has been playing with PTM since 2015.)

Food and beer arrive. Then more food. And more beer. On a bigger such night – at an afterparty PTM threw for Arcade Fire in Australia three years ago – the action reached a fever pitch that involved PTM's tour manager proclaiming, "The Lords of Portland are in town!" The name stuck; the band and crew now have Lords of Portland tattoos, and the band plays occasional club gigs under the name. "We thought it was funny to create a gang mentality," says Carothers. "Because Portland is such a pacifist town. We can just take it over."

The Lords of Portland are a beneficent gang, though. Talk turns to a tour a while back that saw the destruction of dressing rooms, though not at the hands of PTM. Gourley remembers seeing the guitarist of one band about to hurl a bottle of red wine at the wall. He offered a word of caution. "He looks at me and says, 'Rock & roll!' Smashes the bottle against the wall," Gourley says. "And I'm like, 'Someone has to clean that up.'"

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The band onstage in October. “It’s like there’s a nationwide gas leak,” Carothers says of PTM scoring a Top Five hit. Credit: Dana Yavin

The next morning, after a late breakfast, Carothers and Gourley get haircuts. They're leaving in a day for Spain, where they'll play an awards show organised by Europe's biggest Spanish-language radio station. At one of Portland's many throwback barber shops, Carothers and Gourley sit in facing chairs and try not to look at each other.

They've had plenty of practice. Both 36, they've spent half their lives together, give or take a year or two. Carothers was one of the most popular kids in high school, Gourley a painfully shy kid who did a year and a half of home school rather than endure middle-school bullying. They talk about Alaska with a mix of reverence and relief to have left for somewhere less isolated. "We'd watch Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and we were like, 'What the fuck's a neighbourhood?'" says Carothers.

Gourley grew up moving from one remote spot to another, as his father ran construction crews, building hotels for Princess Cruises. "We lived off the grid, as far away from people as we could be at any time," he says. Both of his parents ran the Iditarod, the long-distance dog-sled race, and when they lived on the Cook Inlet, beluga whales would surface off their backyard. "I was like, 'All right, yeah, I get it – the whales are back again. Can I watch that movie with the crazy sci-fi shit?'" Sci-fi and horror movies were his thing, and his childhood dream was scriptwriting. "I was supershy," he says; later he uses the phrase "crippling social anxiety."

Carothers' dad worked for Pepsi. "I was the city boy because I lived closer to the town of Wasilla," he says. "But I could walk out my back door and it would be two miles before I hit another house." At 12 he bought a Dead Kennedys "Too drunk to fuck T-shirt" (his mom wouldn't let him wear it to school) and started playing guitar, fueled by discovering Nirvana, the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine. "All at the same time," he says. "It was like Wizard of Oz – I saw the world in colour."

Carothers moved from Wasilla to Monmouth, Oregon, in the early aughts for college, then left school for a screamo band in Portland, recruiting Gourley in 2002. When that band broke up, it formed Portugal. The Man and toured relentlessly (the punctuation mark is an attempt to make the band feel like a bigger entity). Sometimes, live, Gourley would simply stop singing, forcing the band into a jam; he was calmer if everyone else onstage felt the same sense of anxiety he did, and his occasional panic attacks began to subside.

 

 

They made five albums from 2006 to 2010, making it up as they went along – proggy one moment, bluesy the next, glam-psychedelic the one after that. In 2010, they signed with Atlantic and began recording In the Mountain in the Cloud with producer John Hill, who'd worked with Santigold and M.I.A. The major-label-debut pressure almost destroyed them. Used to making albums in 10 days, they suddenly had too much time, and the songs underwent endless revisions. "That was the darkest time of our band," says Carothers.

Mike D remixed "Modern Jesus" from 2013's Evil Friends, offering the hip-hop-loving Carothers and Gourley a chance to meet one of their heroes. "They are music nerds the way I am," says Mike D. "When they started talking about themselves I realised that they were outcast punk-rock skateboard kids from Alaska. I felt a kinship." He booked Rick Rubin's Shangri-La studio, in Malibu, on the cheap – when Rubin was away or Kanye West didn't have it on lock – and they got to work on PTM's next album, knocking out the basics for five tracks in a week.

Sessions were stop-and-start, and as the recording budget dwindled, Mike D offered to let them stay at his house and use his home studio. But the variations on the tracks became endless, and Mike D's emphasis on song construction didn't gel with Gourley. "I was like, 'John, let's try and get some lyrics done,'" Mike D says. "He's like, 'Yeah, I don't really work like that. I kinda like to put the TV on in the background and my stuff happens.'"

In the end, the stuff happening on the TV in the background was the problem. As recording dragged on, the 2016 presidential campaign began going to darker and darker places. Gourley and Carothers thought the songs they had sounded too perfect, they didn't reflect the moment. "I feel like things need to be a part of the world – that snapshot of what's happening," Gourley says. "That's what I love about hip-hop. I couldn't be happy with something that felt so easy."

On a trip home to Wasilla, Gourley's dad gave them a pep talk: "What's taking so long? Just grab your instruments, go into a room, write some songs." He also showed them his ticket from Woodstock, which had turned up at the bottom of a tool kit he'd given a friend. Something clicked, and Gourley decided they'd start with a fresh vision: an album called Woodstock. "Everybody said, 'That's the fucking stupidest thing I've ever heard,'" he says.

One way or another, it worked. Released in June, Woodstock has tracks from four years of sessions with Mike D, John Hill and Danger Mouse. Its sound is strange and smooth at the same time, a product of the easy flow between the indie-rock and pop worlds that define session work in Los Angeles these days. The band played on hip-hop sessions Hill produced, as well as Hill's tracks for Elle King, and wrote with Ammar Malik (whose credits include Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger"). "Seeing how a real pop songwriter works – it reminded me of making our first record," says Gourley.

 

The version of "Feel It Still" that's been streamed more than 200 million times was an accident. Gourley was in the lounge at Hill's studio, messing with a Motown-style bass line. Their friend Asa Taccone from the band Electric Guest was there, and asked to record the bit. They looped the bass line, and Gourley latched on to the melody of one of the oldies he used to sing along to on family trips into town to get groceries, the Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman." Suddenly, a track he had been trying to nail down for years just clicked, and the basic work was done in less than an hour. The song's politics aren't exactly explicit, but an interactive video links to resistance causes, and the chorus references both 1966, the year the Black Panthers were founded, and 1986, the year "Fight for Your Right" came out. ("I did not know that," says Mike D, who recorded several early versions of the song. "Here I was in the studio with him – I did not even get the shout-out.")

Goosed by its use in ads for Apple and Vitaminwater, the song's success has been a happy shock. "It's like there's a nationwide gas leak," Carothers says. "Donald Trump is in the White House, Portugal. The Man is on Top 40 radio. America, are you OK?" Unlike the Nineties bands they grew up on, they love talking to Top 40 stations. "I think about all the interviews we heard where the rock band would be on a pop station, shutting down the DJ, just being dicks," says Gourley. "This is so weirdly fun for us." Gourley has chased his ambition more relentlessly, and successfully, than any rock songwriter in recent years, but he states it modestly: "I just want to write songs that Frances can be proud of when she grows up."

 

Night has fallen on the second cold day of November in Portland, and Gourley wants to check in at home before Frances goes to bed. He stops to gas up his car (except he's forgotten his wallet), then drops me off. As we say goodbye, he tells me a story about being a kid. He and his dad saw a moose by their house, and his dad suggested they go after it. He'd never been hunting with his father, and he was excited. They came up on the moose, his dad raised his gun, looked over at his son and asked, "John, should I get it?" He did this several times, and every time the answer was yes, with Gourley's sense of anticipation growing and growing. Finally, his dad put his gun down. "We're not going to get it," he said. "You know why? Because we don't need it." And with that Gourley is gone into the night, in search of just the things he needs.

This article features issue #795 (February 2018), available now.

 

Topics: Portugal. The Man   Hot List

 
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