A conversation with Portugal. The Man

By Elaine Short

Guessing Portugal. The Man’s genre is as tricky as nailing down its roster of band… Guessing Portugal. The Man’s genre is as tricky as nailing down its roster of band members.

The band’s music is too big for “sounds like” references. Its name, Portugal. The Man, represents both a “bigger-than-life” alter ego as well as a group that, even if its members change, remains a constant entity — much like a country, such as, say, Portugal.

Its albums are a throwback to what the creative process of making music used to be, and it’s are coming to Pittsburgh Saturday to prove just how enormous The Man, “Portugal” really is.

The Pitt News spoke with vocalist and guitarist John Gourley to try and pin down what this band is about — it wasn’t surprising to learn that Portugal. The Man cannot be walled up into a genre, a mission or a concept other than simply making great music.

TPN: How is the tour going?

Gourley: The tour is going really, really well. Surprisingly so, although I guess I shouldn’t say that. We tour a whole lot, but we just didn’t expect the tour to do as well as it did. Over half the tour is sold out so far. New York sold out a month in advance. Really, it’s exciting for us more than anything.

TPN: I have a hard time categorizing your music — how would you describe it?

Gourley: You know, to be fair it’s probably harder within the band to describe what we do … When we were talking to our label, that was the main question that I had: ‘What kind of band are we?’ Because within the band you can always say, ‘Oh, well we’re like Radiohead,’ and you think that’s cool. You think that’s what you’re doing, but that may not be. The safest thing to say is that it’s just rock ’n’ roll. It’s punk rock. We basically do what we want, we go into the studio and make the album we want to make.

TPN: Do you have any contemporary influences?

Gourley: I really love The Knife … I guess it’s an odd influence, but they’re one of the bands to me that are metal, you know, they are hip-hop, they’re punk, they’re rock. Everything about them is so great … There are no walls to what they do. It’s pretty amazing they can hold that down so well. I think as far as rock ’n’ roll goes it’s really hard to find influences today anyway because the genre has been so watered down, it’s become a throwback, and it’s become formulaic.

TPN: I read on your site’s “American Ghetto Thank You” that instead of leaking the material before release to your fans for promotion — like you did for previous albums — you kept American Ghetto hush-hush until the release. Can you explain why you did that and how it played out for the success of American Ghetto?

Gourley: We just wanted to try something different … We really wanted to just do something for the people who supported our band, and just put it out there and let it happen and see how it goes. I think it’s done really well and it’s been really great for the people who listen to our music. They’ve really chained it through their Twitter accounts and Facebook … It’s been good to see a community working around the band and working around the music, much the same way we grew up in Alaska. My dad would do his trade, he would frame up houses for people and trade with people who would do the plumbing for him and the electrical for him. It’s pretty cool, so we were trying to give something to the fans of our music and just make it a group effort.

TPN: Your new record is not a huge jump musically from your previous four — do you feel you have any loyalty or obligation to current fans to maintain a certain sound?

Gourley: This band is all about growing. It’s all about evolving and progressing and just learning in general. It’s always best to remember where you come from. I think every time we go into the studio we listen back to all of our albums one by one and now that we’re five albums in, we’re heading into the studio in May. That’s what we’ll do this time. We’ll sit down and listen from start to finish, and we’ll say ‘What made Waiter: ‘You Vultures!’ great, to us?’