Catching Up With Portugal. The Man
Portugal. The Man has to be one of the busiest bands in the business. It’s only been a year since the group released American Ghetto and they’ve already prepared another full-length album. Upcoming release In The Mountain, In The Cloud put the group in some difficult situations but they persevered through them to create what lead singer John Gourley says he considers the group’s best album so far. We talked to front man Gourley about the new album, what inspires him and exactly how cold 50 below feels.
Paste: Can you tell me a little about the experience of making In the Mountain, In the Cloud?
John Gourley: As with most things we do, it starts out in Alaska when I go home, I go back to my bedroom at my parent’s house and sit down and write. I think a lot of what makes that is we get to go out, we get to see all these different places, all these new places and learn so many things. Honestly, in the last five years of touring and traveling Europe and the U.S., I feel like I’ve learned more than I ever did in school. I actually got to see how sheltered Alaska really is and I think a lot of small towns in the Midwest are the same way and even big cities for that matter and even in big cities for that matter. Especially in big cities you don’t really get the experience that I got with my parents being dogsled mushers and building houses and things like that. I think those are really great skills that I was very privileged to learn up in Alaska. So I kind of bring it all together when I get back home. It’s more about relating what I just saw to what I know and what I was raised in.
Paste: How much of the album is based in that experience in Alaska?
Gourley: I think I wrote seven of the songs from the album up in Alaska. And from there we were in Seattle and we went into pre-production. And honestly, it was just a total mess. The band wasn’t communicating and I wasn’t expecting that to come right away. But we were just in and out of the studio, we’d work for hours but it was just pretty much one person at a time and we weren’t really talking about it. It wasn’t because we hated each other or anything, it’s just we hang out everyday. It just got to that point where we needed some space.
Well, that just continued. We went on tour from there, went to Texas for the first recording session. Originally, we had planned to do sessions and we went in there and again there was no talking. We decided that we needed two different studios to work so we could work two different groups at the same time, which again, was a mistake. We know it now. We ended up coming out of Texas with this very disjointed group of songs and maybe two close-to-finished songs in three weeks. We’ve made an album in 12 days before. 10 days with American Ghetto, 12 with Censored Colors. I don’t know what it was, we just couldn’t get together.
From there we went to New York to try and salvage these recordings because it was awful. It was awful, awful stuff. But I think, just so you know before we get to the end of this story, I think it was good for the band. I think I’m really grateful for this awful experience that we had because it gives me a way to deal with it next time around or just avoid it altogether. There was just no communication. And this happens to every band, I’m sure every band goes through this. We just got lucky to not deal with it until our sixth record.
Paste: So what happened from there?
Gourley: So we continue on, we go to New York, we try to salvage these recordings and [producer] John Hill and I were having the craziest fights. It was just he and I in New York and we were working serious hours, sleeping maybe two or three hours a night, one hour some nights and just sitting in the studio. There was one point where we were just yelling at each other, we’re sitting on the steps, this huge stairwell, members of every fucking cool band you can think of in Brooklyn is walking in and out of the studio. We’re just sitting at the door screaming at each other. I’m saying “fuck this man, I don’t need this fucking record. I can build houses. I can just live in Alaska and be fine.” John Hill said, “well yeah, I can record other bands too.” And we’re just yelling at each other, cool people walking by us. We’re not especially cool or hip. So they just had to watch that going down.
Paste: How’d you turn the whole experience around?
Gourley: Before leaving New York I had this really really great talk with Craig Kallman, head of Atlantic and we talked about songwriting. I was a mess. As you can imagine, I wasn’t sleeping at all so there was this exhaustion that was mental and just physical stress. I was not sleeping enough and walking everywhere I went in New York. I would walk for an hour after the sessions to go stay with friend. That’s another hour of sleep lost. It’s pretty exhausting.
So I had this meeting with Craig and we were going to talk about songwriting and why we play music and I went in there, I ended up just talking to him about my favorite bands and why we wrote the songs that we do which had kinda taken out what we loved about [those bands]. So it’s really cool, I love Motown and I love songwriters. I love people that just know the formula and try and understand what’s different than that formula and what the Beatles did who obviously knew the formula. You know, trying to see the difference between Motown and I guess a lot of those other artists, Bowie. There isn’t really a difference; it’s all soul music at the end of the day it’s just whoever sings it with the most heart. So we talked about this and as I was leaving Craig’s office, he says “Hey know what? great conversation. It was a really great conversation about music but forget everything we just talked about and make the record that you want to make. That’s what we’re here for, we’re not here to tell you how to make a record or tell you how to write songs, go and do what you want.”
Paste: So how did that conversation change things for you?
Gourley: I think that was really the turning point for the record, it was the turning point for the whole process, the whole last year. Outside of the recording, just the mental and emotional stress that I had been going through anyway. You know, we tour, we do the distance from friends and family, not really knowing how to connect with people on the same level. I’ve understood now as much as we tour, we live day-to-day so our lives are much different than the people who stay at home and go home every night. I know there had been a change around us… relationships had always been hard because I never really understood that. I didn’t understand that back home it felt like two months had passed where to me it was just, oh it’s the next day. I think all bands get that at some point, I imagine. I hope we’re not the only band that’s experienced that. It took a lot of realization. I think that meeting with Craig was really great in the sense that it pushed us to do what we wanted to do.
And from that moment on, I realized I had written these songs in Alaska and they were already there. That was the first real time recording any of our albums that I really felt like I could mess around a little bit more with tones and I didn’t have to play things so straight. I think we found some really great synthesizer sounds and guitar tones and cool rhythms. It did justice to the bands that influenced us. At least I hope so… I know everybody I’ve talked to says “I can’t hear any of that conflict, I can’t hear any of what’s going on.” I think it’s because we came out of it. Again, it’s good to have those experiences. If you don’t have negative experiences, you have no way to gauge the positive ones and you have no way to deal with it. So, again it was good for us to fight, it was good for us to go through it. In the end, I ended up writing four songs in the last three weeks of recording and it was just, it was fun.
Paste: Where were you guys pulling inspiration from for this album? It doesn’t sound at all like it was rooted in that conflict you were having. I can’t hear it anyway.
Gourley: Oddly enough, it was. I think the band is just becoming more focused—which is a good thing. It’s one thing to be scatterbrained genre-wise but it’s another to be scatterbrained songwriting and melody making and things like that. I think there’s still a lot of Bowie, T-Rex, Beatles. Newer stuff I would say The Knife has some of the best synthesizer tones of recent band. The Knife and Fever Ray. They’re just really great at finding those sounds.
Paste: I was going to actually talk about your visual art for a second. I picked up The Satanic Satanist because I was obsessed with the album art, I hadn’t really heard much of your music prior. You’ve very talented. What’s the relationship between your visual artwork and your music?
Gourley: Well, I guess as I was saying earlier, I think music is very visual. Growing up I just always doodled, which is the worst word for it. I would just draw things in class, get yelled at by my teachers, get my drawings taken away, that stuff happened all the time. People that have shown it really well have been people like Quentin Tarantino. Every bit of the music that he puts in his films is so perfect. Stanley Kubrick. Basically great directors know how to combine music with the scenes that they are working on. And I think, I don’t know if most people see it but I feel like I see it a lot. When I listen to music, I can almost feel the scene that was playing and I can almost visualize the scene that was playing out.
[But drawing the album art,] it was just kind of a necessity. At the beginning we couldn’t afford an artist to come in and work with us. We couldn’t afford a place to live until a few years ago. Our band works as kind of a community as a family, not in the hippie sense but in the ‘realist’ sense. We just live together, work together and we like hanging out with each other so it’s cool. But as far as the visual art stuff, goes, couldn’t afford those things and I did it anyway. It was just a fun hobby for me and it grew into something more. I’m really thankful for it because I always wanted to do this stuff, I just never had the confidence in myself to go out and do it.
Paste: I’m just impressed by the fact that you have put an album almost every year for the past five years and you’re still coming out with really good, really original stuff. It’s great.
Gourley: Thank you, I appreciate it. It’s funny, I don’t know if I should say this to you but one thing that I’ve always really loved about it. Now people are writing magazine features about us and it’s funny because every year they say “well they just put out a record last year” and it’s just like “we didn’t write about that one either.” I think it’s good, it’s actually given us a lot of space to work and the expectations are only from our fan base so it’s been good for us. We’ve had plenty of time to play shows, we’ve played 800 shows and we just wanna play more at this point. I think that also with recording as frequently as we do, I think it keeps you more in touch with the previous album and it keeps you more aware of your influences, especially if you tour as much as we do. It keeps you very aware of what you’re doing. I hope it’s a good thing, I feel like the band is still progressing and it has room to grow right now despite this being our best album, really quite honestly the best we can do at this point.
Paste: I actually have one more question. What was the experience like filming the “Sleep Forever” video?
Gourley: “Sleep Forever” was filmed behind my house, where I live now in Willow and behind my old house where I had grown up, the two places where I had lived. We filmed it right out there. It was 20-below the whole time we were out there.
Being in Alaska you just go with these things. It’s just one of those stupid things that s beaten into you growing up, yeah, just go with it. I live in a harsh climate, lets do it. We went out there and it was cold. All of the ice that’s in my hair and on my face is real. That’s just the way you freeze when you go out there. I’ve been in colder, but 20-below is really bad. There is this one really unflattering shot where my face is just pink and puffy and swollen and there’s ice in my hair and in my moustache and I just look exhausted. It’s because that weather really does take its toll. I was exhausted running through the snow all day and my hair was just all frozen. It’s pretty intense. Its something along the line of Alaska’s respecting things and people. I think if you grow up there you really respect the weather and what it is.