By Kyle MacKinnel; photos by Hayley Young on July 9, 2013
Adventure is something that runs through the blood. Its slow churn can be contained for only so long before boiling over to manifest itself in the actions of the brave. Go ask John Baldwin Gourley, lead singer of Portugal. The Man, for instance. An adventurous spirit was his birthright.
In the 1970s, Gourley’s father joined forces with Robert A. Durr, a Syracuse professor and Terence McKenna associate, and the two took flight from their lower-48 lives to seek the unknown in “the last frontier” amid the awesome peaks of interior Alaska. The resilient senior Gourley would spend three entire years living off the land and cutting his teeth in one of the harshest climes on the planet—enshrouded in total darkness for months on end—before finally migrating south to outside Wasilla, a small city 50 miles north of Anchorage. But he was by no means yet ready to settle. Gourley’s father then built a cabin for Iditarod race founder Joe Redington, whose end of the barter came in the form of a fully appointed dogsled team. The senior Gourley would hone his mushing skills well enough to eventually compete in the Iditarod himself, as well as other major dogsled races.
With such an extraordinary context preceding his life’s ground zero, it’s a welcome relief to find that John Baldwin Gourley speaks affably and humbly, with an even-keel affectation that suggests he is a man rattled by very little.
“We had whales, beluga whales, in the inlet behind our house,” Gourley explains over the phone. “I mean, you could actually hear whales. I remember having kids over to the house and they’d be freaking out. ‘You know, you’ve got whales back there!’ And I would be very dismissive, like, ‘Yeah, man, we got whales back there, so what? Let’s go play in the woods.’” Aside from the fantastical wildlife and utopian natural surroundings, Gourley spent his childhood immersed in his parents’ record collection and “oldies radio.” He was a Beatles kid all the way. Required reading? Jack London, of course, the exploits of whom he never regarded as particularly unusual.
“Growing up in Alaska, that’s what you read,” he says.
Presently preparing for Portugal. The Man’s upcoming summer tour, Gourley acknowledges that he’s been loaded down with press and promo chores behind the forthcoming Evil Friends—the weirdo-pop outfit’s seventh record, and second on Atlantic—while his cohort has been out enjoying the sunshine. That don’t befront Gourley, though. His outlandish childhood and daunting genetics have informed that unflappable demeanor, which has doubtless played a hand in establishing Portugal. The Man’s business in the spotlight from the very beginning. The band originally formed while in high school back in Wasilla, as an evolution of bassist Zachary Carothers’ cover band. Described by Gourley as “probably the most popular kid in the school,” Carothers and company would play occasional sets during lunch period, performing Cannibal Corpse, Rage Against the Machine and Black Flag covers, among others.
“I just remember watching that stuff and thinking—it was very ignorant and naïve—‘If you can play their music, you can write your own,’” Gourley says. He linked up with the group, and before long the boys were writing songs of their own. Gourley’s crowd-approved frontman chops and polished voice didn’t hurt matters, either. While he describes his bandmates as more technically sound musicians, Gourley himself claims no formal training.
“What makes you a good player?” Gourley poses. “Is it technical ability, or is it taste and what you bring to the song? It’s always about what you don’t play.” This piece of wisdom may approach the cliché, but a lunchtime cover group from Alaska does not go on to put out seven albums in as many years void of a solid ethos.
In approaching the recording of Evil Friends, Portugal. The Man had forged a stubborn internal resolve to produce the record themselves. Such was the prevailing mentality all the way down to El Paso’s Sonic Ranch where recording commenced, at least until a budding rodent problem reared its not-so-minuscule head and shook things up for the better.
“Yeah, the Danger Mouse thing just kind of happened,” Gourley explains. “I got a call one day from our manager, Rich, and he was like, ‘Hey, man, Danger Mouse wants to meet up with you. You fly to New York tomorrow?’ I said, ‘What the fuck are you talking about, man? I thought we were making the record.’ You’d have to be stupid to say you’re not going to do it. It went from me being annoyed that I was going to have to go interview producers to being interviewed by the producer.” Despite his initial qualms, Gourley recognized an offer that he couldn’t refuse, and got on the plane to New York.
It’s not the first, or even third, Portugal. The Man record that sounds fully-formed, but there’s something about Evil Friends that sticks out as a sort of statement piece. Gourley’s songwriting is as distinct with modern nuance as it’s ever been, the playing is tight and influences keep greater distance than on past releases. It would be easy for the casual observer to chalk this up to working with a sonic architect as esteemed as Danger Mouse, but that would be selling a talented young band with a preternaturally bold figurehead short.
“I definitely said everything everybody told me not to say,” Gourley says of the producer interview. “I showed up to Brian’s place, and he almost immediately was like, ‘I don’t think I want to work with another rock band. I work with The Black Keys.’ I kind of felt this relief, because I was so annoyed coming out there, and [suddenly] we’re on this level field. I wasn’t having to act a certain way.” Danger Mouse would book the gig.
Unsure of what to expect, Gourley was pleasantly surprised to find that working with Danger Mouse was less about the producer bringing anything of his own to the table and more about acting as a sounding board, with the intention of stretching out the band’s limits.
“He offers this challenge to you as an artist,” Gourley says. “It can seem vague at times, like we don’t know what we’re looking for, but in the end it’s all the most positive experience, because he’s just saying, ‘No, I think you can do better.’ There’s no bag of tricks, no Danger Mouse plug-in, no rack that he runs everything through.” This organic, gimmick-less, dialogue-based approach won Gourley and the band over, and what results on Evil Friends is a very strong pop record, built on the basis of trust.
So if you think you’ve got Portugal. The Man figured out, think again. That solidarity you perceive is little more than a byproduct of confidence. Exploration is built deep into the DNA of this band, and with the intrepid Gourley standing front and center, the future looks bright.
“There’s this weird thing going on with music,” Gourley says, undertones of defiance in his voice. Always undertones. His pacing is nonchalant, his words delivered with earnestness, like a man freshly down from the mountains, full cup in hand. “It seems like everything is really dark,” he continues. “I like that. That’s cool. But I like to keep it light.” F
This article is from FILTER Issue 52