Portugal. The Man certainly stood high among the list of the bands I was impatient to see live in concert. I must tell you of my level of joy of finally catching these gloriously curious birds performing live at this year’s NXNE where they played an outdoor set in Dundas Square just before the The Flaming Lips awaited appearance. Unfortunately, Alaska-bound now Portland-based lads have rarely made it to Montreal during their numerous extensive tours, but the situation is about to be resolved with an opportune visit to Osheaga. Over the 6 records that were launched in as many years, Portugal. The Man has unanimously generated a bright enthusiast everywhere their music was heard, being referred to as one prominent band impressively mastering some unique made-up music aesthetics. To put it in other words, magic comes alive through this unique psyche-pop blend made of rich-sounding gimmicks and wholesome sing-along choruses genially laid down, and John Gourley’s incredibly pitched falsetto vocals. I was lucky enough to meet bassist Zachary Carothers and guitarist Noah Gersh at Yonge Street’s Hard Rock Café, not before running into Wayne Coyne’s and his semi-god aura in the staircase of the restaurant, and blessed as well to spend a great moment with these talented, generous and beautifully smart musicians. Story of a trip to Portugal.
IX: What is the story behind the name of the band?
Zachary: We really liked how the name of solo projects sounded, especially people with those kind of big statement names - take James Brown for example, you can just picture it, it paints an impression. Unfortunately, none of us have names like that. We decided to create ourselves an alter ego, thinking of that idea of having a fake plastic fictional character that can get away with anything. We wanted the one name of our fictional character to represent the name of our band, not just a person. The name of a country is one that represents a group of people with one voice in the world, and we randomly thought that Portugal would be a cool name for a guy.
IX: As an independent band, you have reinstated yourself as one of the most hard working bands in the business by putting out a new album every year. Now that you are signed to Atlantic, is that going to change?
Noah: We still work as hard! (laughs). I think the idea is to work as much as possible. It becomes a bit harder especially with trying to make better records every year. I think it’s rather the band ethic in which we subscribe in, not necessarily a constraint.
Zachary: The goal was not necessarily to get something out in a year. We never were going to rush anything just to fit in that year quota if we may have to wait to make it better. But like Noah said, we are all just working hard. If we don’t absolutely put an album a year, we will definitely put out an EP or DVD and be sure to make a major release every year.
IX: Portugal. The Man was formed back in 2004, toured several times around America, reached Europe and Australia. How difficult would you say it is for an indie band to get known in the industry?
Zachary: It took quite a while, but things have been looking really good lately. It was really all about putting the time in it and focusing on getting better with everything we do when it gets to recording music, doing videos or putting together a touring act. It has been a very nice, gradual growth; it seems like we just kept touring around the United States, Europe and a few times in Canada. And every time we play a show, it seems like every time people came again and told a friend or two.
Noah: I think the actual model in which bands are growing up is the blogosphere. Internet at this time does it all. For instance, these kids have been making records in their bedroom and all of a sudden Pitchfork loves it; all of a sudden, there are five hundred people at our show. The notion of putting in so much work has not changed; you have to try beyond all of this - unless your ultimate goal is only to reach 200 people. Here I think we hope more to create a legacy, to make a mark in time, and all of this takes real hard work, pushing yourself way past what you think you can do. We don’t really have a clear definition here, but something is working.
IX: So many songs were written over your career. How does the creative process for composing work for you?
Zachary: John, our singer, is the main songwriter. He is just a very creative guy, always got a million things going through his mind. We are lucky enough to have him, he always comes up with a lot of ideas, and he is constantly working on songs. Luckily for us, most if it is good. In the studio, he will start writing down ideas and chord progression and come up with different melodies. We have gotten real quick at jumping out and doing things at the first instinct, filling in the songs. Thus, we don’t really write songs when we’re outside of the studio. The last time spent is on lyrics, which are always last minute as the last thing we do before getting off the studio. We sort of do everything backwards. For instance, we will have songs recorded with barely any lyrics over melody, knowing that they won’t be final until the very end; they don’t really matter at the time. As working titles, we come with random Beatles songs or even Wu Tang Clan, or just some other words with no meaning.
Noah: You learn to become detached to what you hear and what is going to become a song. It gives a difference to have different lyrics over all ten songs of the record, then you can figure out what works and which melodies you like better.
IX: Then, how would you know a song is final, since it’s always changing?
Zachary: You just have to stop.
Noah: Stop. Step back. Nobody touches it.
Zachary: You will never be done. Adding things will just be taking you a different way and you will always want to continue. Sometimes we just build a song with a lot of layers and decide to take down everything on it and get back to the core song so we really know what we are hearing and we can build it up again. We do a lot of surgery on our songs, breaking them down, chopping around parts and moving things around. Pretty much, you have to decide when to stop.
IX: Portugal blends a lot of influences to create its own specific and unique sound. How would you define your sound?
Zachary: We have a hard time describing it - I mean, it is hard for anybody. John hates when I say this but I go with ‘psychedelic pop’. We do want to write accessible music, we want to make sense, we want people to be easily drawn by it and we do want to have substance.
Noah: However, our music uses a lot of abstract filters. This is pop music as seen through the head of five guys who are fairly well versed in music and culture, trying different things. It is simply what comes through, in other words, our version of pop music. The Beatles were pop music, David Bowie was pop music, Fela Kuti is pop music, Miles Davis is too. To understand what has been going on in music you have to be able to push it a little bit further. We are lucky to be part of that.
IX: Your music has been claimed to be inspired by one of David Bowie’s and has been drawn to a lot of comparison to T-Rex. Where does your position stand?
Kyle: We’re always listening to him or T-Rex and you can tell that is what we are reliant for. I think that’s cool. We record stuff, record relatively quickly, spending sometimes no more than six week in the studio, and it is sort of a snapshot into our lives at the moment. Lyrically, it states what is going on and musically, it displays what we have been listening to. Pretty much, the result stands for what has been happening that year and what has been going on with your lives during.
IX: All members of Portugal. The Man are impressively skillful musicians. Did any of you go to music school?
Zachary: None of us did. It all started with our parents having amazing record collections and we all grew up listening to music and loving it. All the parents of the band were very supportive of what we do. I never thought I would be doing this, having never set up for anything like that. I remember this feeling when we started out and went on our first tour thinking I have never been in any of these towns before. No one was coming to these shows, maybe between 7 to 30 people a night, depending of where we were. Then in one town I had never been to, I saw somebody singing the lyrics to one of our songs. I was wondering: how did that even happen? How did they find out about it? We did not have an album or anything yet. It is a really good feeling, making you want to keep doing that for as long as you could. Luckily, I took a gamble, dropped out of college, lost girlfriends, apartments, jobs and very well paid jobs to just be poor, homeless, and travel just to do music and hopefully, it is kind of working now. I’m never happier then when I play or when it’s all of us together.
Noah: It’s just what it takes, work and dedication. It means losing security, which is a very high price to pay for passion. Everyone in a band can give you 15 stories about how it has made their lives back home not as fulfilling, or not as full or real. I’m experiencing it kind of first hand right now. But as soon as we step on stage or whenever we are all together, it all makes sense. There is nothing like this feeling of knowing where you belong.
IX: You’ve been very connected a lot with your fans interactively. Is it something you want to keep doing?
Kyle: Definitively yes. That is important for us. We’re lucky to live in a time where social media is apparent. I think a lot of artists don’t really take advantage of it while some others are just very good at it. You get to know them some more than just their lyrics. For instance, I want to figure out they sense our humor or see what they’re really all about. Take The Flaming Lips for instance. Wayne is always going to a bunch of small shows taking pictures and that is cool. This guy just loves music and I really respect him a lot for that. Some artists I just respect less also. (laughs)
Noah: It is like a peak behind the curtain you would not be able to see. It does not replace a face to face, but it is the closest you can interactively get with fans or artists. It can be harsh for personal lives, but I only see it as a beautiful way to be able to talk to people about music. You can ask them what kind of guitar they were playing at the show, or what was the sound of the bridge in this song, or show them that crazy pedal you just bought.
Kyle: Most of all, you can still keep that space too.
Noah: It is the Internet man; if it’s invading your space close your goddamn computer! (laughs)
Kyle: I think it is fun. We’re very into it. It is another thing you can to do help and inform and it is right there, accessible to everyone.
IX What is your favorite song to perform?
Kyle: Right now, I would say “All Your Lights’’.
Noah: My favorite moment is when we turn a segment inside a song of our first record called “The Devil’’ into Helter Skelter, which is really fun. Then we do “Sleep Forever’’, and with the way that the song ends we do something else live - that will be a surprise. There is this really fun experience we do with this ending, we look at each other and smile - it’s “cute’’ (laughs). No matter what’s going on, at that point, this is the moment.
Performing at Osheaga - August 4th @ 14:15
Scène de la Rivière