An Alter Ego Trip with Portugal. The Man



Portugal. The Man is an alter ego for a Portland-based psychedelic-influenced rock band made up of world travelers who have taken in everything that they’ve seen and put it into their music. With much of lead singer John Gourley’s influences coming from living in Alaska and traveling, the band’s songs are mostly observational about the places they have seen. The guys lived out of their van for three years, and dealt with it being stolen, along with all of their possessions, post-Lollapalooza this past summer. The guys in Portugal. The Man are just trying to keep the rock-‘n’-roll alive. Earlier this year, the band released In the Mountain in the Cloud, which featured some more politically focused songs. They even showed their support at “Occupy Minneapolis.”

We spoke with lead singer, John Gourley at the Ace Hotel during CMJ at the KEXP showcase about creating a job for himself, the alter ego of Portugal. The Man, and changing the world.

ILANA KAPLAN: Is this your first CMJ?

JOHN GOURLEY: We’ve played CMJ a couple of time. The Bowery, the last time we came through. It’s always a good time. Being from Alaska anyway, just being in a crowd of people is really unnatural for me. But it should be fun.

KAPLAN: What was it like growing up in Alaska?

GOURLEY: The whole band is from Alaska. It’s like growing up anywhere else. You take it for granted, somewhat. There were really cool things. There was an inlet that came up behind my house. It’s this deep gray salt water. Every day, the tide comes in and goes out. Every fall, beluga whales would come up and stay inland behind our house. My parents fell in with dog mushers as well. You’re still American, so you feel like you’re a part of everything in a weird way, because the place is just so detached from the rest of it. You just don’t know. I really didn’t understand. I took trips to New York and other parts of the country. I lived in Portland for a little while and toured around. I went home to Alaska. And in flying home, it just really hit me how much different it was. It’s amazing. I love Alaska.

KAPLAN: How did the transformation of your old band to Portugal. The Man work?

GOURLEY: This band started right before I moved to Portland. These guys asked me to come and sing for their band. Basically sort of do what they wanted me to do.   It came at the right time for me. I was really shy. I never wanted to sing. I came down and saw that cool music scene happening that was so much smaller than anything. I said you know what, I really want to know how to play music. That’s what the band has done, is kind of documented the growth of the band from not knowing how to write songs to become better at how to write songs. Unless you’re Dr. Luke, you’re not really so perfect with it that you do it every time. The group is really about dynamics. The band name is just… a country is an individual in the world that represents a group of people. We had talked about making this alter ego, like Ziggy Stardust or Sgt. Pepper. We decided to go with a country, and Portugal sounded the best. Portugal is like Ziggy Stardust. The period is there so you know that it’s not the country, it’s Portugal. The “Man” states: he’s the man.

KAPLAN: A lot of your songs seem to have political meaning behind them, like “So American” or “People Say.” Maybe they’re not necessarily supposed to be taken that way. What is your perspective on that?

GOURLEY: It is. It is political in a sense. It’s really just more observational than anything. We have an amazing job. We get to travel around the world and experience different cultures, and just learn so many things. I learned more in the last six years in this band than I ever learned in school. It’s not to say that I didn’t learn anything in Alaska because I [did]. [Especially] from my mom and dad—their views on things are so different. We never really cared about money. We’re all hard workers, so the times when we didn’t have money, we would just work harder. [But as a band,] we just get to experience so many things. An album a year is not a crazy amount of music. We play music every time of day. We should be able to write songs for a new album every six months. If you think about it, it’s not a crazy amount of writing. 

KAPLAN: Are you planning on releasing an album a year moving forward?

GOURLEY: We’ve always done that because it documented our growth. I’d like to keep that up now.  If something takes off with this record, and we need to do more tours and things like that, it will obviously get in the way of that. It’s up to us.

KAPLAN: So, earlier this summer, after Lollapalooza, your trailer was stolen. How did that affect you guys?

GOURLEY: It was the last time we were taking out the band trailer. So, I kind of half expected it. When I got the call about it, I just said, “Okay. I’m going to go reevaluate this and see where we’re at.” We put every bit of money that we made back into this band, in one form or another. We didn’t have a place to live for three years, three and a half years. We just basically lived in the van. When that happened, it was like, let’s look at everything and see what’s necessary and what’s not necessary. The cops actually ended up finding the stuff. Fender and Gretsch sent us a pile of guitars and amplifiers. We didn’t even have some of this stuff before. It was really cool. I feel very fortunate.

KAPLAN:  Your album, In the Mountain in the Cloud—what would you say it’s about?

GOURLEY: It was really about everything that happened during the recording process. It related a lot to the way I feel [about larger problems]. They think that these problems are the cause of a single person, but not really. It’s not a singular problem; it’s a lot of problems that need to be fixed. A lot of my friends are telling me they can’t get a job. Motherfucker, I created a job. It’s all about drive, determination and hard work. Your work ethic is what it really comes down to. It’s good that people are out in the streets. That’s where I get the album title, loosely. It needs to be organized. There are so many concerns. There needs to be a great speaker or a great leader. What’s happening on Wall Street is worldwide at this point because people are unhappy with something. They have to get together and go back and say, “This is how we fix it.”