Portugal. The Man Interview

Source: AMP Magazine Online

Alaskan band digs into numbers and easy going to channel their sound

Combined, John Gourley’s bandmates possess a more formal music education than he does.

To Gourley’s class credit, Portugal. The Man is a consistent learning experience, and with each album, he’s getting closer to graduation. For the Alaskan vocalist/guitarist, and the rest of the band, Zachary Carothers (bass/vocals), Ryan Neighbors (keys/vocals), and Garrett Lunceford (drummer), building a landscape of sound is one self-taught lesson at a time.

Sitting in the green room of the House of Blues in New Orleans, Portugal. The Man are currently on their headlining “Gold Tour” in support of their third full length release, Censored Colors, which contains a track of the city’s name, as well as its atmosphere.

Self recording their album on the band’s new imprint Approaching AIRBalloons, the band have inked a deal to distribute their album through Equal Vision Records. Tracking from the far North to the deep South, the band are showing the East and West coasts what they are capable of off record– an even grander live show.

John Gourley (left) and Ryan Neighbors (right)

John Gourley (left) and Ryan Neighbors (right)

With the house lights cut out across the venue, the floodlights are as simple as the mindset of all four band members when it comes to musical construction– they flicker on simple beats and float through the band’s consistent progressive march.

“I played sax for about 11 years,” says Carothers, whom then breaks out into a laugh. “Then, I’ve forgotten everything I’ve learned. It’s completely different from playing bass. Well, different from the theory I learned.”

Gourley admits the only formal training he ever had was learning trumpet in the 5th grade. He says he was too shy to play it though.

“It’s pretty funny to look back at some of these records,” he says. “I don’t even get it. It’s on the spot, and whatever works, works.”

Constructing the band’s records is all but unintentional, Gourley says. Gourley isn’t a simple idiot savant either. He does admit his wood boards and red brick and mortar are based around numbers, which his band members agree he is amazing at calculating.

“I’ve always been really good with numbers,” says Gourley. “But all the time signature stuff is really basic though.”

Gourley also admits his learning process he calls a band has the tendency to piss other bands off unconventionally. Carothers laughs at that fact and says the band have been known to simply restart songs if they horribly mess up on stage, and gets a kick out of seeing the looks on tourmates’ faces when they do it.

Restarting a song and restarting a direction in sound are two different ballparks though.

(L t R) Zach Carothers, John Gourley, Garrett Lunceford

Censored Colors is another step in a different direction for the band. After ditching the drum machines on the band’s debut, Waiter: “You Vultures!”, the band stripped itself to a blues throwback on their sophomore release Church Mouth. To add another path, weeks prior to recording their third record, Gourley entered the studio after picking up a Beatles’ songbook.

Shifting gears from riff repetitive compositions to a chord based construction, the new album contains ballads (“Created”), late 60’s jams (“Hard Times”) and psychedelic rock freak-outs (“Never Pleased”).

What’s more interesting is the idea behind the album– an idea that the band didn’t think would happen.

Cut into two halves, like the reemerging vinyl medium, the first half of the record is the “colors” followed by an “intermission,” which leads into the blending of the “colors.”

Due to the short two and half weeks of studio time, Gourley says he didn’t think there was any way to pull it off.

Carothers was also as skeptical. “I said, ‘Good idea John,’ and then I knew we never really were going to do it. Then it just ended up happening and we knew we were going to string [the last tracks of the album] together.”

For the tracks that blend into its predecessors (“Sit Back and Dream,” “Our Times” and “Our Way”), Gourley says they were just ideas that worked with the other tracks but not on their own.

“Everyone has fears and some thought as to where they take things,” he says, explaining his idiot savant writing and recording method. “It’s pretty simple to just take those ideas and that sound of music and just do it yourself.

It’s not that intense of notes. We’re not playing anything difficult as far as technical playing goes. It’s more of understanding the sound.” Laced with harmonies, cello lines and a barrage of choruses, the band still think they have a ways to go in another direction.

“The idea has always been having a straight forward composite of music,” says Gourley. “But maybe we could do a record like Abbey Road, where you move song to song, with different styles all the way through.”

“Different styles” is something the band’s discography and car rides are evident with. The past few days have seen the van’s radio have an onslaught from Weird Al Yankovic’s back catalog, according to Neighbors.

The band also has a knack for linking their “different styles” across a set list each night as well. Dressed, in what they call their normal everyday outfits, the band don’t don the normal shirt and jeans most bands are accustomed to. Instead they dress in button down shirts Neighbor’s has been wearing since high school and one of ten of the same style of pants Carothers has bought.

John Gourley

With natural style, seems to come a natural live show as well. Sometimes the beats slow down, or every bell and whistle of the album isn’t picked up. When studio replication lacks, the band naturally weave in and out of a twelve song set list consisting of parts of other songs in their catalog connecting the set together like bumps in the larger part of the Lego block set.

The band are not sure where the next step on the scale will take them, but this is nothing new. Carothers says Gourley doesn’t even come up with the lyrical lines until the tape starts to record, often harmonizing or scatting his way through ideas that blossom in practice.

Gourley is sure of one thing though, “I love records that you can’t use any of the songs for mixtapes. Where you immediately finish the song and it goes into the next track. [Censored Colors] is the just the closest we’ve come to achieving that. I’m sure at some point, we’ll make a record that’s one solid piece.”

[photos: Adam Pfleider]

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