By Adam Lovinus
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When Portugal. The Man first arrived in the lower 48—they’re from the same town in Alaska that delivered to the world Sarah Palin, a place singer/guitarist John Gourley delicately describes as “conservative”—they came with a lot of enthusiasm and not much else. They had an especially mini minivan packed just shy of the roof with all their gear, and all five of them would sleep in the foot-tall gap between the equipment and the ceiling; your average no-frills coffin offers more elbow room. And they’d sell T-shirts. Well, they wouldn’t sell actual T-shirts because they didn’t have any; instead, they’d sell the act of silkscreening on whatever people happened to bring to the show. They took particular delight in screening their own designs on other bands’ shirts. (“Fucking awful—I’m sorry!” Gourley says now.)
But now it’s five-plus years later, and Portugal. The Man not only have their own T-shirts (with band-made art and bundled with albums), but they’re on the same label as Led Zeppelin, jetting over the Atlantic Ocean for special confabs with the Atlantic label and touring several hundred days per year (with enough room to sit upright). Gourley was even named Vocalist of the Year by Alternative Press, whose demographic dovetails perfectly with Portugal. The Man’s high-energy, genre-smashing, post-At the Drive In punkishness. What happened? “I have no idea,” says Gourley. “Actually, I have every idea.”
As a kid in Alaska, Gourley would have panic attacks when he got called on in class, he says. His friends soon learned to jump in and grab the questions for him. Even now, he says, he still hates being the center of attention. (Hard to believe, for such an incandescent front man.) He never got into Radiohead, not even the Pixies—instead it was a steady diet of ’90s radio rock. But when he finally moved to Portland (after abandoning his scheduled career as an architect), he discovered a whole world of bands who don’t touch the radio.
“I went and saw a show every single night of the week. I didn’t care if it was music I didn’t like. I was just so fascinated,” Gourley says. “You could do whatever you wanted. I’d be one of five people at a show thinking, ‘This band is from Michigan, and they’re out here playing music?’ Being a fan of math, I thought, ‘These guys can’t be making any money.’ And then it clicked: ‘They AREN’T making any money! So let’s get a minivan and get the fuck out of here!’”
That’s what’s kept Portugal. The Man going, he says—a Black Flag-style capability to grind and a Minutemen-style dedication to making exactly the kind of music they want to, plus enough confidence to let the finances collapse where they may. After five albums (and enough EPs to collect another full-length or two besides) that tear apart what’s nominally a modern take on hardcore, reassembled with electronic drums, synthesizers, bells and even banjos on last year’s all-acoustic The Majestic Majesty, Gourley says they’ve preserved that same sense of devil-may-care determination that put them in that tiny minivan in the first place. When they met with Atlantic, he asked his would-be label bosses what kind of band they thought Portugal. The Man was, and he got just the answer he wanted: “Well, fuck,” said a rep from Atlantic’s German division, sprawled out in the back of the conference room wearing sunglasses and a cowboy hat, “You’re YOU!”
“My dad taught me that you gotta go out and do something,” says Gourley. “Who cares if you live in a van? As soon as I did that, my perspective changed completely. Even when Atlantic came in, the first thing I said is, ‘We don’t NEED money.’ We didn’t need money five years ago—that’s probably the wrong move for me in negotiating. Some people said that’s a mistake. But fuck it! We want the rights to our music and to be trusted and to do the best work we can. We need to do our thing. Fuck everything else—we just need to make the music we’ve been making.”
Portugal. The Man perform with Builders and Butchers and Morning Teleportation at the House of Blues, 1530 Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.hob.com. Sat., 8 p.m. $18.50-$21. All ages.
This article appeared in print as "Going for Broke: Portugal. The Man settle on their priorities: Music, room to sit upright and, maybe, money."