Portugal. The Man – On Satanism And Alaska

Interview By: Jim Markunas

Check Out The Album Teasers for “The Satanic Satanist”

For 2008’s Censored Colors, Portugal. The Man spent two weeks in Seattle with their friends in Kay Kay and the Weathered Underground making an album Gourley says he wrote in tribute to the music of a youth spent tuned to oldies radio as his parents drove around Alaska. One of his earliest musical memories, finding a tape of Abbey Road in a box of his parents’ cassettes, resulted in Censored Colors’ second side where all the songs are strung together in an epic suite.

For The Satanic Satanist, Gourley and his bandmates—Zachary Scott Carothers/bass, and Ryan Neighbors/keyboards, and the drummer for the album, Garrett Lunceford—flew to Boston’s Camp Street Studios to work with Paul Q. Kolderie, whose previous clients include both the Pixies and Radiohead, with additional production help from Adam Taylor (The Lemonheads, The Dresden Dolls) and Cornershop sitarist/keyboardist Anthony Saffery.

This was a big step for the band. From the time Gourley started the group in Wasilla, Alaska as an outlet for his growing fascination with tape loops and sampling—as captured on 2006’s Waiter: “You Vultures!” through the soulful yet art-rocking swagger of 2007’s Church Mouth, and then to the richly textured majesty of Censored Colors—the band had always recorded with friends.

But the group, now based in Portland, Oregon, was clearly ready for the next big step. Historically, the band waited until they actually entered the recording studio to begin writing music or lyrics; this time, they did some pre-production.

We caught up with John Gourley for an interview.

CWG: An album a year is very impressive. How do you guys stay so prolific? Did you make a deal with the devil? (Rim-shot)

JG: Ah, yes, dear old Satan. I back where you are coming from.

To put it into perspective I will tell you that my family builds houses in Alaska for a living. They build multiple houses a year, houses that people grow old in, houses that people raise families in. My family doesn’t build multiple houses a year because they need to but because they love what it does for the community. They love working and learning and creating something where there was nothing. It is just how they work, and this band is much the same.

I feel like we would be a sorry excuse for artists if we didn’t want to progress and to learn and to try new things. Honestly if we had more time in the year we would do more. A year of life is a long time in the present and as they pass they are surprisingly short. In retrospect any amount of time can be condensed and summarized. I think it is best to use the free time we have from tour to do something we all love anyway, writing and learning. We are just using the time we are given the way we want.

CWG: What’s the story behind new album, “The Satanic Satanist?”

JG: I didn’t have the heart to tell you earlier, what with the devil jokes and all, the record is sadly not about our worshiping of Satan but more the stories of the escape my family as well as many others found in Alaska.

The idea behind the music of this album was to really focus our songwriting and give our take on Motown and Soul and classic rock and roll… Classic as in CLASSIC, not “classic rock.” It was the idea of stripping things down to the best possible points and above all doing so with substance and value. There is a definite “Science” to these things and we did our best to avoid the easy roads.

In the end we are pop kids who love oldies radio and sing-alongs and we made a record to match the influence. “The Satanic Satanist” as a title is a representative of the lyrics as well as a contrast to its sound. It’s all about contrast.

CWG: What was it like growing up in Alaska as a musician (as opposed to a hunter, Eskimo, or Ice Road Trucker)?

JG: I worked construction for half of my life and it is all I have done outside of music, which at the time was more of a hobby that followed me around. Music and art were just never something that I felt I could do with any confidence. I was very shy growing up and it took jumping in head first and throwing everything out the window.

That is the reason I am here doing this. It was just leaving and doing it. I am happy with the decision but definitely miss Alaska and my family very much and I am lucky that they back us and give us the love and support we need to continue

CWG: Do you feel Alaska big enough for you and Sarah Palin?

JG: I don’t think Alaska is big enough for Sarah Palin. She has moved on to a different world at this point. I assume her leaving the spotlight may be the Alaskan in her just needing that space back, but really, we all must assume it is another view into the political genius that is Sarah Palin. She has a strategy that only she understands.

Who knows what she is thinking…

CWG: You wrote an interesting article on downloading. Can you share some of your views with our readers?

JG: Downloading is massive for artists like us. Massive. We just got done playing a couple shows in Finland and in England and are heading to Portugal as well. They were places that we don’t have distribution and we have never played before. It was amazing to see people singing along with all the words and just knowing the music and having found our music without any sort of major national press.

It proved the power of bloggers and online writers and file-sharing sites. I will tell you that there is a certain connection lost in downloading. There was a time when we bought albums, a time when we waited months and years for our favorite bands to release new music. We worked for it, we put in time and got back memories in exchange.

True, music hit a point where we, as music fans, were taken advantage of and it ruined our idea of what music is and what art is but I honestly feel that the industry has been broken to some extent. There are bands that can’t be bought or sold. That being said, it doesn’t mean that they don’t need to be supported or to make money. It is just like anything else in the world, so long as “success” doesn’t corrupt the art it can only be good for the world.

Thank you, Beastie Boys, Beatles, Flaming Lips, Radiohead, Primus, Wu-Tang, and so on and so on, for the perfect examples. I am glad these bands are here and gave us what they did and I am glad we helped champion them to the top and to the point where they have total control of what they do.

CWG: The funk/soul/Motown influences are prevalent in your songs. Name your top 4 soul/funk bands. What about them influenced you?

JG: When it comes down to it I was raised on oldies radio, not necessarily albums. I have favorites as of now that influence in their own ways. Cee-lo is a bad motherfucker, Curtis Mayfield is superfly, Isaac Hayes was the black Moses and Funkadelic was, well, Funkadelic….

I only have one suggestion for Cee-lo – Within this list of legends you really have to be conscious of your collaboration choices. Dangermouse for Gnarls Barkley gets a thumbs up, Asher Roth not so much (did I spell that right?). Sorry for the tangent but God, I absolutely hate Asher Roth.

CWG: A large chunk of “The Satanic Satanist” is about your life from 1987-1993. Can you tell us a little bit about your life at that time?

JG: We moved around quite a bit during these years. Around 1986 (I was 5 at the time) my dad decided that he wanted to run the Iditarod, a one thousand mile dogsled race through the Alaskan mountains, tundra, and space.

He took us out of our home in Knik and out to Trapper Creek where we lived in Icy Lake… Well, it was literally an icy lake, not just a clever name. We lived in a small cabin and took baths in a tin tub. From there, we went back and forth between our home in Knik to Cooper Landing and Healy, places where I went to school in two-room school houses with only 2 other children in my grade and the other grades crammed into the same space learning relatively the same subjects.

This was all connected by oldies radio. The constant being our music and our sing-alongs. I loved it and love it more now. I appreciate so much what my parents did for us. Even our home in Knik, outside of Wasilla, we were two miles from our nearest neighbor and lived on Cook Inlet where we got to witness the migration of Beluga whales once a year through the gray silt of the waters with their pale white backs popping up from the dark waters and their songs echoing through the woods. Pretty amazing to be handed all of that.

CWG: How do you guys feel about being labeled “the next big thing” from your appearance at Bonnaroo, and what does that mean for you as a band?

JG: I wish I could gauge things like that but really it is best that we just play shows and do what we do. I am very thankful that we have made it to this point with one thousand shows under our belts and some experience and understanding to fully appreciate what these festivals offer. It was a fantastic experience and we are very happy with the way it all came together.

CWG: What’s next for Portugal. The Man?

JG: Make a new record, right? Thats the plan.

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