Alaska doesn’t have a huge rock’n’roll reputation; in fact, the state’s geographical obscurity basically excludes it from the American music narrative altogether. Yet the core duo behind indie rock five-piece Portugal. The Man – singer-songwriter John Gourley and bassist Zach Carothers – are Alaskan natives helping to establish their state’s musical relevance.
In the last decade the band has issued eight full-length releases, culminating in 2013’s Evil Friends. On their latest record, Gourley’s and Carothers’ affection for ’60s and ’70s pop music is relayed with a distinctly modern edge. Recorded with revered producer Danger Mouse, Evil Friends has a shiny pop-rock sheen, but the psychedelic quirks of previous releases remain. Despite Portugal. The Man’s expansive psych-pop sound, Carothers explains there wasn’t a lot of music available to them when growing up in Alaska.
“We were very, very isolated up there. Before the internet all we had was oldies stations and Top 40 radio,” he says. “Luckily our parents had amazing record collections but we had no idea about underground music at all. If it was underground, it got up to Alaska about ten years later.”
In 2004 Gourley and Carothers relocated to the bohemian mecca of Portland, Oregon to enhance the opportunities for the then freshly conceived Portugal. The Man. In the last few decades Portland has given rise to many leading indie music figures, including Elliott Smith, The Shins and Blitzen Trapper. Carothers says moving to the city hastened the band’s development.
“When we moved down to Portland it was just crazy. I couldn’t believe that I was going and watching these amazing bands I’d definitely heard of that were playing some cool little bar for like three dollars. Seeing all these bands just get in a van and go travel across the country playing shows every night, it really inspired me to go out and do it.”
Portland maintains a strong underground scene, which Carothers believes to be a creative impetus. “You try to surround yourself with people that are very talented and it definitely pushes you. I grew up snowboarding a lot; John and I both did. We would always go with the older guys, the guys that are pretty much professional snowboarders in Alaska. They would always push us more to do everything, so I think that’s a big thing to have people that you look up to that are doing something right.”
After releasing six LPs through various indie labels, Portugal. The Man signed to Atlantic Records for 2011’s In The Mountain In The Cloud. Thanks to the major label budget the band has teamed up with some big-name producers and subsequently indulged the pop curiosity. The influence of Brian Burton (AKA Danger Mouse) on Evil Friends is evident in the record’s bass-heavy grooves. Carothers, however, reveals that the band’s continual rise hasn’t pleased everyone in its adopted hometown.
“A lot of those people in Portland, they don’t want to get big, they want to stay as this ‘cool small band’. And I don’t. I want to play for a lot of people, I want to travel as much as I can. You know, I get to go to Australia and spend a few weeks there travelling around the country playing shows. That’s fucking awesome.”
Portugal. The Man will be coming Down Under for the Big Day Out this month and Carothers says he’s particularly excited to see the headliners. “I’ve never seen Pearl Jam live, so that’s one of the ones that I’m definitely excited to see. The first time I took my own money and went to the local music shop I bought Pearl Jam’s Ten, when I was about 11 years old. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to that record.”
The Seattle Sound legends are a good example of a band that managed to craft its own unique sect within rock music while achieving massive commercial success. Carothers says his intention is to have Portugal. The Man follow a similar path.
“We’re trying to make music that’s successful because I want to make the mainstream cooler. I would love to be able to turn on any Top 40 radio station and have the Top 40 songs be awesome. There’s always been artists like that, that are good. Like David Bowie – how many hits does that guy have? Nobody ever questions his artistic intent. It’s stuff like that that’s really inspiring. The Beatles – listen to the ‘White Album’. That’s one of the most popular records of all time. You can write popular stuff and still have it be fucking amazing.”
Pop songs often rely on concision and a certain hypnotic quality to succeed. It’s a delicate balance and artists who miss the mark can be subjected to harsh scrutiny. Carothers offers his view on the nuanced craft of successful pop music.
“I’ve been in prog-rock bands, I love that kind of stuff, but writing a seven-and-a-half-minute epic prog song is a lot easier than writing a three-minute pop song. Take something like [Bill Withers’] ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’. It’s got pretty much one progression, one hook, one groove; it’s two minutes and thirty seconds long and it takes me so many places in that two minutes thirty seconds. I just think that’s beautiful and that’s hard to do. That’s what we’re striving to do.”
Portugal. The Man‘s new album Evil Friends is available now. They’ll be playing at Big Day Out in Sydney on Sunday January 26 at 1pm on the Orange Stage, and will also be playing a sideshow at The Hi-Fi on Wednesday January 29 with Toro y Moi.