Interview: Portugal. The Man

I would call John Gourley a fine young man. Unbeknownst to me before my chat with this fine young man, I had later found out that he had wandered into the homes of drug dealers and grew up like Satan. Without the tail. He also happens to be the singer for Portugal. The Man, who knew?

Nellie: So hi, can you say your name and what you do in the band?
John: Hi, I’m John, and I play guitar and sing.

Nellie: You seem to like our shores, as you were here only in July, is touring one of the most attracting aspects of being in a band?
John: No, not at all actually, not one bit. It’s purely music and purely about playing. Not performing, playing. Cut out performing.

Nellie: Do you favour it, though?
John: You know, to be fair, I know we’re in England right now, but there’s something to love about everywhere. England is amazing to me because that’s where basically our whole civilization is from. It’s strange to be in an English-speaking place that’s so different at the same time. Language-wise, it’s the same, accent – well we’ve all got our accents – we’re the ones with the accent now. London’s an amazing city; it reminds me a lot of New York on a smaller scale. More localized shops, I guess we need more localized shops in New York. The world is so much smaller when you start moving around lots. We were just in New York yesterday, it’s ridiculous.

Nellie: You recently released Satanic Satanist, and I noticed the characters on the artwork have three eyes. What does that symbolise?
John: There are a lot of Alaskan references and Alaska is a pretty strange place. You have to imagine, just thinking about it I like to escape a lot things. There a lot of people that are out for adventure or out for money or whatever is happening up there or just escaping. There’s a lot of the escaping. We grew up in a really small town, so we’d find these people living in these shacks, like serious small shacks.

Nellie: So, basically, you strolled into the woods and found shack habitants?
John: Yeah, we’d get really weird stories like people who live underground…they’re not true stories though who know? It’s possible, I mean it’s Alaska. This is gonna sound awful but it’s like homeless people, they’ll give you stories every now and then if you let ’em. [laughs] There was a lot of imagination as a kid, there was a lot of thinking beyond the snow, thinking beyond the darkness.

Nellie: What album would you recommend first to listen to from your discography to new fans?
John: You know, I would say Censored Colors, each album had its own thing. The first album was just an explosion of ideas and it was very much excitement and it was me just being overly excited. Every song has 5 or 6 parts and all the verses are different. I just went back to listen to it just to hear where I came, something I feel you need to do from time to time. I didn’t know how to play guitar and I didn’t know how to sing really, I just really wanted to write music and I definitely wanted to play it. I sang all the vocals sitting down on a couch and it was the most fun I have had in the studio purely out of excitement and purely out of Casey Bates as a producer. He and I had the most fun

Nellie: So, it was all spur of the moment?
John: Yeah, it’s always been that way. Censored Colors is the best example of fun instead of being spontaneous and just doing it. It was a serious introduction into song writing. I had been so afraid of major chords, as I should be. You have to be very wary of major chords, the second you play a major, you better have some serious lyrical content coming up. It cannot be fake, you fake shit and people can tell. Melody becomes very obvious when you’re playing a major chord, I don’t know why that is. If lyrics don’t back up the melody, it just doesn’t work. Censored Colors was written in two weeks, literally a song a day. It was one of those really cool moments that you don’t expect to happen because there was no finger picking on the record and that was always the producer’s favourite thing that we’d done, so he was like “Hey man, you need a song with finger picking.” and I don’t know why but I had just played a riff and so I decided I have something right now. The song was created in half an hour, we just walked in and recorded it. There were mistakes in that and they were all edited out afterwards. It was a really great moment for the band because it gave us a better understanding of songwriting, which is something we’d always been about. All the lyrics said something very serious, this is the way I grew up. Period. And with Satanic Satanist, we applied the best example of song writing we had but Censored Colors, I think is probably the best.

Nellie: If you had to pick a song that you relate to most form your childhood, what would it be?
John: Probably Colors, that song for me, it reminds me of telling my dad I was scared of war, holocausts, apocalypses, all of that shit. Every time I saw it on TV, I’d always freak out.
Nellie: Well, they have that new 2012 film coming out…
John: See, that stuff doesn’t scare me any more like whatsoever. I could die today and see another day, it’s not something that really worries now and I just remember telling my dad this everyday and just being like, “What’s the matter, if a bomb goes off, what are you gonna do?” As a kid, I was like, “Dad, can’t we just go to the woods or something?” and in the end, it’s like, “Right, what are you gonna do?” So, yeah, what’s the worst that can happen?

Nellie: So, the recording of American Ghettos is all finished now, which was really quick. When do you plan on releasing it?
John: We’ll see how it comes out and everything, I kinda wanna let it just happen, that’s something I really wanna just let happen. Much the same way It’s Complicated Being A Wizard came around and it was recorded the same way. I went out to Boston by myself and then put it together and we just made the record. That was another two-week album, you can never forget those roots. It came out really great, I’m so excited about it.

Nellie: Is it going to go down the same avenue as Satanic Satanist with a more of a pop sound or will it follow the more experimental sounds with the previous albums?
John: When it comes down to it, it’s so much harder to write a song and it’s not really given the actual credit because of what we were talking about, not having the lyrical content to back up what you’re writing. That’s what made every band what they are, that’s what made so many bands work. American Ghetto is probably the most negative thing I’ve ever written. [laughs] I wrote it and it was supposed to be about my high school years and I was thinking about the state of everything. I kinda went back to the high school years when my friends were all getting into drugs and I don’t know if you know, but the suicide rate in Alaska is crazy so, um, a lot of my friends died killing themselves.

Nellie: So, you’ve dabbled with drugs?
John: I never really got into them, I was never really a crazy addict. I never really had any rough moments, I just liked to hang back. We’d go to drug dealers houses and I always got along well with drug dealers because I don’t think they never really knew what to think of me, because I’d always be cracking jokes and they’d have guns on the table and shit and I’d be like, “That’s a cool gun, man.” [laughs] I’d always talk about the shit that they wouldn’t want to talk about. So, I started writing about that stuff and I got to the end and was like, “Holy shit!” Censored Colors was pretty family-orientated. That record totally ran with American Ghetto, for sure.

Nellie: Will we be feeling sad upon listening to this?
John: You won’t feel sad, I mean, you’ll have to hear it. It’s very tight on a song level, very structured. I’ve gotten so obsessed with that because as scary as it seems, to me it kinda gives you an unfair license to do whatever you want. It wasn’t easy to say but I feel like I’m dragging on.

Nellie: No, no, you’re fine. Anyway, Satanic Satanist generally had quite a mellow, happy sound so if that was the case with a satanic Satanist, what kind of sound would a heavenly heaven person/Christian have?
John: I guess they’d have to be negative, right? I feel like they’d have to cancel each other out. The idea of a Satanic Satanist as a title and a representation of the album was about a stage. The album was about a stage about my family, it was about Alaska, it was about being removed from society and removed from the things we see on TV everyday. The music itself sounds so positive so it almost needed that contrast of, “Yeah, I was an outcast but I also liked being with myself.” You live in your own world, much like Satan. [laughs] So, I grew up a lot like Satan, I guess. Just in my own world, king for a day.
Nellie: Amongst a fiery abyss, pitchfork…
John: Tail. I don’t know, would he have a tail? He wouldn’t have a tail. I don’t know how I feel about that, I don’t know, obviously, I didn’t really give a shit.

Nellie: You being from Alaska, I would like to know if you frequently indulge in Baked Alaska.
John: Baked Alaska? What is that again? Is it like a chocolate cake?
Nellie: It looks like cake but it’s not fully cake.
John: You know what? I’ve had it before.
Nellie: If you didn’t, I’d be kinda shocked, then again, I haven’t to my knowledge eaten London Cheesecake.

John: Growing up in Alaska, you get this sense that there’s just so many tourists up there so you avoid all things that make you feel like a tourist. So the baked Alaska is kind of a touristy thing so it makes you avoid things that you should be for. Alaska’s about community and it’s actually had a hard time because of Sarah Palin. I wrote this blog about Sarah Palin and getting interviews and radio-play is impossible so the interviews that I had gotten, I’d talk to them and they’re like, “Yeah, you wrote that blog, it’s fucked you up a bit.” So I was like, “You know what, fuck everybody in Alaska.” because Alaska is about voicing your opinion, it’s about doing what you fucking want. So you know what? I support my community in Alaska; I just don’t support her ideas.

Nellie: Where about in Alaska are you based now?
John: Well, my family’s in Willow which I’d say I’m in a lot and it’s amazing. It’s pretty much a fire station, a gas station and a bar. There’s a post office out there, I guess, as well. Maybe a coffee shop, but, yeah, it’s a really small place and there’s hardly anyone around.

Nellie: Do you think that if you grew up in a city, it would’ve later in life stifled your musical ability?
John: I don’t know, didn’t Radiohead grow up in a city, like are they from?
Nellie: [shrugs shoulders] I have no idea…
John: Who knows? The reason they sound the way they do is because of where they’re from, the reason we sound the way we do is because of where we’re from. Nickelback is a shitty band, Limp Bizkit, same fucking thing. [laughs] It’s bad music because they grew up around it and they were so close to the industry right away. Definitely shitty bands because they were raised for where they were and lived by what they saw in the media. Which I’m gonna be honest, in Alaska, that’s all we got for a long time. It wasn’t until I saw real club shows, I should be doing what I wanna do. I shouldn’t be writing for someone, I don’t work for people.

Nellie: Is the myth true that it always snows in Alaska?
John: It doesn’t always snow, I mean imagine Alaska in the summer, the sun’s always out. It’s pretty amazing to see, let alone live in. I think I connected with it quite a bit because my friends really didn’t. It wasn’t something they were excited about, trying to sleep through daylight. I always loved it, I’d go to bed at 3 or 4 in the morning then wake up at 6 or 7. That’s just the way I’ve always worked, in the winter I’d always sleep more, there was an obvious difference but not a lot more, I’ve always been an early person with late nights.
Nellie: Early bird catches the worm
John: Yeah, I’m on it, very pro. [laughs]

Nellie: Change the record, who should we be listening to?
John: I’d say Fever Ray, I love Fever Ray, amazing band. I really love the band Drug Rug, we were just on tour with them. I know it’s so unfair to talk about bands you just toured with but, yeah they’re a really good band, really good rock band. Erm, yeah, I think that’s it.

Nellie: So yeah, I should think we’re done now, thanks for doing this and hope everything goes awesome tonight.
John: Thanks, you’re fine.

Nellie Owusu.

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