Portland-based pop stars Portugal. The Man have been around for an incredible thirteen years.
Now nine albums down the line, the band still hasn’t reached UK fans in the same way that they have in the rest of Europe. I’m on the phone to frontman John Gourley whilst the band begins their US and European tour.
Woodstock is their newest attempt. Released on the 16th June reached 32nd in the Billboard 200 and 5th in the Billboard Top Alternative Albums chart. But it’s hard to imagine why or how they have never made it into the UK Official Charts.
You can tell that Gourley is struggling to know why himself; “It’s frustrating to watch it, what the fuck are they listening to, like what the fuck they listening to that’s different to everything else.” I joke that we’re all listening to Taylor Swift and we both just laugh. “I like that it’s competitive. I like that you guys keep it real like that.”
But with indie music being a big scene across the UK, Portugal. The Man are ready for that challenge. “The challenge is what it’s all about. I don’t give a fuck man, like we’re just happy playing music and we’re going to keep doing that.”
On their current US and European tour Portugal. The Man have sold out both UK dates in Manchester and London but are just struggling to push out of the small venues. “The thing is we’ve sold out all our gigs over there and that’s what blows our mind every time that we can’t seem to step out of those smaller venues and I feel really excited to get back over there and play some more.”
With that being said, Portugal. The Man haven’t connected to the UK in such a way as they have everywhere else in the world. “I just don’t think we’ve done the same leg work that we have done in the States and then there’s all those miss conceptions about the band.
“I have that feeling when I was talking to Danger Mouse when we first met and we were talking, and I kinda asked him – as he known the band for a long time but he didn’t know what we sounded like – what he thought we sounded like and he said ‘nothing like the way we sound.’ He had no idea what we sounded like but he did not think that we were the band that we obviously are. Maybe he thought it was heavier or whatever but I think there’s a lot of those misconceptions.”
Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps Portugal. The Man confused the UK into thinking they are a rock band when in fact they are more Indie Pop and Hip Hop. Which Gourley agrees with my opinion; “Yes! We wanted to make a record that’s everything we’ve listened to and I think a lot of people… especially today with all the different listening services and streaming services, who listens to one genre anymore?” I mean, I know I don’t listen to one genre.
Especially on their latest album, Woodstock, where I ask Gourley how the overall reaction from fans and critic has been. “It’s seems like it’s been well received by our fans I know we joke around about the ‘I liked Portugal. The man before they sold out’ thing but it seems like it’s gone really well.
“The funniest criticism that I’ve seen is that I saw a few reviews at the beginning talking about how it sounded like we were trying to make a pop record but we were swing for the fences but we fell short. So it feels really good to have ‘feel it still’ doing so well as it is. It’s just funny.”
In our society today, artists have been combining genres which they’ve grown up listening to. When you were growing up as a child did you listen to your mum and dad’s music as well as what’s in the charts? Gourley tells me that even his “metal head fans still listen to the Beatles and they still listen to early aspects like Led Zeppelin and things like that.”
“Everybody mixes it up. Why would be just wanna be a rock band?” He adds. Which is exactly my point, it would get a bit boring doing the same stuff over and over again. “Yeah rock ‘n’ roll should be about experimenting, it shouldn’t be held down by a leather jacket and a haircut you know. It’s just not what rock ‘n’ roll is.” Gourley puts it perfectly.
Now the question we’ve all wanted to know: How did ‘Feel It Still’ become a global hit? The simple answer is that it’s a fucking awesome tune. “You know people talk about that feeling you have in the studio when you come across something different. You know I don’t think anybody can really predict it and predict the success of songs.”
How would any artist know a song is going to become a global hit if the world hasn’t even listened yet. The funniest thing about ‘Feel It Still is how it wasn’t a song they had planned to include. “We sat down and worked on it. It wasn’t even a session that we were working on.” Says Gourley. “We were mixing ‘Live In The Moment’ I believe, at John Hill Studio and I stepped into a side room and I sat down and started playing a bass line.” But if it wasn’t for Electric Guest frontman Asa Taccone to be working in the studio too, the song may have existed. “He asked if he could record it… It’s just ridiculous how this stuff comes together. I mean you spend four years working on a fucking record and you step into a side room for an hour and you have ‘Feel It Still’.”
It’s crazy to think that spending so many years trying to write a record then it comes down to that one moment. That moment when you sit in another room and a second pair of ears from outside the band and you have a hit.
Personally, the songs snappy bass line and the good beat made it into the global hit that it is today. “You know the hardest thing is to do – nostalgia – it’s constantly discussed in the studio. How do you get your hands on that nostalgic feeling and do something modern and classic at the same time.
“Technically we did borrow 10 notes from “(Please) Mr Postman” [by The Marvelettes] which definitely helped with that feeling of nostalgia but it was the bass line too – it’s the groove of the whole track. Who’s to say it would have worked without the Mr. Postman melody but it just felt like it had all the right pieces. It’s just something that’s hard to come by, I don’t think you can really capture that.”
It’s not like you can sit down and write a pop song. You have to take a lot of precautions when so you can get it right. “It’s a really difficult thing to do.” Explains Gourley.
“Pop song writing is one of the most difficult things you can do in music and I’m saying this with huge respect for the artist that can go in there and somehow capture what a producer or a songwriter is trying to give them.
“Somebody like Rhianna having someone write a song for them. I can’t act, I’m not the type of person that can go in there and take somebody else’s lyrics and give it back to you in that same way. I have huge respect that, somebody who believes in pop music that much and they can sing somebody else’s words somebody else’s lyrics and somebody else’s music and deliver it with conviction and make you feel something when you hear it, I think that’s a big deal.”
‘Feel It Still’ is obvious Portugal. The Man’s y’know, defining song. But Gourley also mentions a few more tracks that have gone down well with fans. “I think we’ve had things like ‘Modern Jesus’ on the last record. That was another moment in the studio when we felt like ‘oh this could be something.’ Before that ‘So American’ and ‘Sleep Forever.’” Which John Gourley says to me that it is the “best song we’ve written.”
‘Purple Yellow Red and Blue’ is one of my favourite songs, which Gourley found amusing but for a good reason; “Oh that, see that was funny, Like I’m not sure you’ve even fucking listened to it but I wrote that song for this electronic artist called Dillon Francis and it was right before we went to the studio with Danger Mouse [to record Evil Friends] and it got turned down and my thought going into the studio was ‘alright I’m gonna make this mother fucker work’ and it will be our biggest song after you turned it down.”
But what is next for Portugal. The Man? I suppose the next step is to conquer England. “I think it is. I think it is. It is heading that way.” Says Gourley.
That’s the last thing they have to do but it won’t be easy. “We have huge huge respect for the music that has come out of the UK and the music that’s made there, all the bands there and fuck them it’s all about wanting it more.
“I don’t give a shit about your sound or what you think is cool, its song-writing and that’s the thing we’re gonna keep trying to get better at and were gonna keep going into the studio and making a record. I think it will be a fun song to chase, I’m under no illusion that I can come across another ‘Feel It Still’ but it’s a fun idea that we can actually write something like that.”
Words by Alex Pearson