49th State Blues
"I wanted to do this Beatles-meets-Wu Tang thing," says Portugal. The Man front man John Gourley of his band's ambitious beginnings. "Both of them had these insane lyrics—at least later Beatles did. The idea was to put together these crazy beats and write songs over them."
The result these days may not sound much like the Beatles or Wu-Tang—more like Led Zeppelin, Jack White and other honky blues primordialists. But the band's existence, beginning as a guitarless sample project five years ago and evolving into the can-I-get-an-amen? rock revivalists of their current disc, Church Mouth (on Westminster-based Fearless), is as ambitious as it is unlikely. Portugal. The Man, see, hail from Wasilla, Alaska, a bumfuck town "in the crotch" of the 49th state, as Gourley puts it.
Growing up in Alaska is great, just not for being a band. "It's a three-day drive to the lower 48 to play shows," Gourley explains, adding that that's through Canada, over mountains and ducking Rush tribute bands. "We tried living with our folks and just being a band, but it didn't work. There's just nowhere to play and no one to play with." The band record in Seattle, and when they're not touring, they stay in Portland.
But the Alaskan vibe, the wide-open spaces and the weirdoes drawn to them populate their songs and, even more, Gourley's flannel-zen world-view. He recalls his only time going hunting with his dad: "I was 10 years old," he begins. "We saw this moose, and my dad points the gun at it and looks back at me, like, 'Should we get it?' And I'm like, 'Yeah!' And he says, 'No.' And I'm like, 'Why?' 'Because we don't need it,' he says."
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Portugal. The Man don't pull the trigger—literally and figuratively—because they don't need what's on the other end. "We're not very competitive," Gourley says, laughing. "We invite other bands to play with us—and not just the guitar players." They tour, by default, with bands way heavier than they are, like Circa Survive and Rocky Votolato, and have lived to tell about it. "I just think of us as a rock band. Even when we had drum machines, we were just a rock band."
The don't-pull-the-trigger thing makes even more sense coming of age in Second Amendment-happy Wasilla. "Any party you go to in Alaska, people have guns," Gourley laments. "We're the only people I know of who have had guns pulled on us multiple times."
Bassist Zach Carothers even has this story about meeting a guy at a party who invited him to come over and hang out. They start drinking, the guy gets loaded, and he starts getting all emotional, saying, "You know, I killed my wife. I videotaped it." Zach's heading for the door, but he and Gourley's other friend say, "Okay, let's see this tape," and the guy says, "It's downstairs with my wife's body."
Can you blame Gourley for writing back-to-the-land lyrics like "Down down to the river/Because I don't believe in medicine" (from "Children")? Growing up the way he did, how could he not? His dad designed resort hotels; the family could spend months at a time in a cabin with nothing but a generator out in the middle of God's country, far away from crap radio and dudes killing their wives and drunkenly confessing it to teenagers with whom they've drunk beers.
"My mom had a tape of Abbey Road that I used to listen to over and over," Gourley says. "Even now, that shit is untouchable by anybody. I couldn't even pick up a guitar to even try to play those songs."
The White Stripes comparisons that dog Gourley are kind of funny because, he's the first to point out, he's not much of a guitar player. "Our first record [Waiter: "You Vultures!"] is all loops. I never intended to play live."
Perhaps the most telling talisman of the band's free-spiritedness is their Alaskan facial hair. Gourley had a mustache before he had a guitar. "I grew it five years ago when it definitely wasn't cool. Now, it kind of tells people we're not punk rock."
They are primal soul-blues rockers who are nothing if not inspired, as Church Mouth amply evidences. There's an intuitiveness fleshed out through falsetto wails, lunging and lusty guitars, and rhythms that rise out of the primordial ooze of the best groove-rock. "Telling Tellers Tell Me" has the same riff as a Red Hot Chili Peppers song. "[O]ur manager kept telling us it sounded like their song. And I was like, 'Great, we're keeping it' because I never heard it." How cool is that?
Portugal. The Man perform with Thursday and Circle Takes the Square at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us. Tues., 7 p.m. $17-$20. All ages.
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