the AU interview: John Gourley of Portugal. The Man (Portland)

One of our favourite records at the AU of late has been Portugal. The Man’s In The Mountain, In The Cloud – a beautiful piece that you’ve probably heard on the radio by now thanks to the catchy “Got It All (This Can’t Be Living Now)”. Larry Heath caught up with the band’s frontman, John Gourley, to discuss the record, touring, having their equipment stolen, the possibilities of an Australian tour and more…

Hello John! Where abouts am I speaking to you?

I’m actually (at home) in Portland, Oregon right now.

Are you getting a bit of time off?

It seems like it… but it’s constant rehearsals, and getting ready for tour. We actually just got robbed and lost all our gear while we were at Lollapalooza…

I do hear you’ve managed to get most of it back though!

Yeah, we got most of it back. Fender actually gave us all new guitars. And we got all of our irreplaceable stuff back, outside of three things: we lost a bass, my guitar and our touring guitarists guitar as well.

Well it sucks you guys had to go through that – but good to hear you’ve got some replacements ready to go. The show must go on!

It does. It does.

Apart from the mentioned, how did the shows at Lolla go?

Really great. I think it’s just so cool being at these festivals you heard about when you were a kid. Growing up in Alaska, we certainly knew what Lollapalooza was… it’s huge. It’s huge for us. Every festival is surreal, it’s own experience. You’re there with all these bands… and we’re nerds man, *laughs* we are not cool. And it’s in the best way… I mean I hang out with these guys all the time (the rest of the band), so I know how uncool we all are.

And that’s because we all get so excited to see these shows, and these bands. I mean we don’t hang with them… the other bands… we’re not a networking band. We just don’t really feel like that’s a part of music. Yeah, you should connect with people you love and work with them. And we certainly do that. But at festivals we feel like we should be giving everybody space. It’s almost more fun to hang with the production people, and here about how long it took to get everything together, setting the festival up…

And you mentioned that you are rehearsing at the moment, I imagine that’s much to do with the fact that you’ve got some shiny new instruments to play with!

Yeah we have to get used to them. I think that’s one thing that anyone who doesn’t play music really doesn’t understand. And that’s how different it is to play a new guitar. I mean you play these things every single day. So the slightest difference throws you off. I don’t really know what to expect from these guitars… but I know that they’re nice, and I’m totally cool trying out some new things.

Let’s talk a bit about the album you’ll be touring, In the Mountain, In The Cloud. How have you found the reaction to be so far?

It’s been really great. Up until now we’ve never really done national press. We just haven’t. No features. Nothing like that. So up until now the reviews have been mainly fan base. So when someone from Filter reviewed our record, it wasn’t because someone gave them it to review, but because they were fans. So up until now we’ve only gotten good reviews. So it was kind of refreshing being able to get this record out to everybody thanks to Atlantic Records. Everybody has to listen to it.

We just signed to a major, we’ve put out six records in five years, and so there seem to be plenty (of writers) who will look for any reason to tear it apart. It’s a great challenge for us to take on – in the least challenging way possible. Totally give us a bad review! It’s not good to get them, but it’s important for us to be able to take it on, and take these strides. I mean we play in a rock band. And in America it’s not necessary cool right now to play in a rock band. It’s all about the Animal Collectives and things like that… and rock and roll will always be that wild card. I mean Oasis were getting bad reviews when they were writing one of the best albums of all time. That happens. I think it’s good. And the response from our fan base has been really great, too.

I used to read rhetoric from you that “the sooner people hear our music, the sooner we can get back into the studio” – has that stance changed now that you’re signed to a major label?

I guess my mentality has changed a little bit, slightly, on that front… the way I want to put our records from this point. We figured it even before we signed to Atlantic. We recorded The Satanic Satanist and then I went right back into the studio and recorded American Ghetto. Kind of just for fun. I didn’t have anything else to do. I was going home for two weeks. So we recorded that and it just felt really good to make this album that had no expectations. Let’s just make it, put it out and see what happens.

Our deal with Atlantic still allows us to do that. We can put out up to three self-released albums every two years, free from Atlantic, if we want to. Atlantic is just a distribution deal. They put it out, and that’s where they make their money. So the ability to put out these records won’t be stopped by any sort of contract. It will just be stopped by whether or not I should be recording at the moment.

I think being with Atlantic, you really have to work harder if you want to accomplish something bigger with the album. But things won’t slow. And that’s what’s great with the deal with them. I’ll certainly take consideration on anything they say… but you’ll never be waiting three years for an album from us… at any point.

Now when it comes to the last album, you recorded it all over the place: California, Texas and England. What was the reason for the movements?

I guess originally it was just part of the plan. We were going to record in Texas and England – we had two producers, and one of them was in England. But he wasn’t able to finish the record with us, and in the end was only available to work on the first half.

But to be quite honest, the album fell apart when we went into the studio. We just weren’t working together. The band wasn’t listening; nobody was paying attention to what we needed to do. Nobody was cooperating. I mean this is Atlantic Records, this is pretty serious – this is Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones. And we just couldn’t get that out of our heads. At least I couldn’t, because I talked to these guys everyday. The rest of the band doesn’t deal with these sorts of things, but I’m in there discussing the album with them all the time, and I just felt this pressure and this stress that was undue and unnecessary for the situation.

I sat down with Craig Kallman, the Chairman of Atlantic. He doesn’t need to talk to a band. But we kind of became friends on this weird level, where he felt he could talk to us and tell us what he did and didn’t like about the record. And it’s really amazing, this guy is such a huge music fan. He owns one of the largest independent record collections in the world… this guy owns something like 300,000 records – three of everything. He’s a serious music fan. And his memory is extraordinary. He remembers who played on what record, what year it came out, every song on the album, who’s playing bass on the track… it was so cool to hang out to talk music with this guy.

And so this was while the record was falling apart… we talked about songs, about why we write the songs we do (in Portugal. The Man) and we had this great meeting. And as I leave he says “you know what, you need to make the record you want to make. Things have slowed down, but at the end of the day it’s your record. So make the record you want to make and I’ll put it out. We’re putting it out.” He really gave us this free reign to do what we wanted.

A funny thing happened out of this. I had written all these songs loosely in Alaska, when I was back home… the sort of minute long demos that producers hate to get. “Where’s the song man!?”. Well all the song structures we’d written at the beginning stayed exactly the same – save for the five we wrote in the last two weeks. So all that really changed was that (the chat with Craig) alone lifted this weight – and with it the stress and writers block – that was keeping us from finishing the record.

You had Andy Wallace mixing, too?

Yeah. He’s really really great. Always been great. Everything he’s every done has been great. He focuses the really great parts of a band. He did it with Jeff Buckley, he did it with Nirvana – even though Kurt hated that mix. He fucking hated it. He wanted it to sound like garbage… like it had just been banged out in the garage. But it does sound like that… what Andy Wallace did was show how great Kurt was with melodies, how great he was with song structures, lyrics… all of these things. Kurt I think had the sort of combination (of talent) that is found in so few artists. So few. I think one of the few that has it today is Jose Gonzalez.

So before we say goodbye, are we going to get to see you in Australia any time soon?

I think so! We’ve been talking about it. Australia’s one of those places that I really really want to go to. And I know how fucking good the rock and roll is down there… Tame Impala have proven that, they made such a great record. I do think we will be coming down soon!

In The Mountain, In The Cloud is in stores in Australia now, through Warner Music Australia.

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.