Toward the end of last year, I picked up the album The Satanic Satanist by Portugal. The Man and fell in love with it. Now, a few short months later, they’ve released their follow-up record American Ghetto online and are almost done writing the next album (as well as a pair of EPs). Lead singer John Gourley was nice enough to take some time two days after the release of American Ghetto to chat with me about following your passion, keeping up their prolific pace and being afraid to write in the major key.
MP3: Portugal. The Man – Dead Dog (from American Ghetto)
Portugal. The Man :: the You Ain’t No Picasso Interview
YANP: So, I’ve been following you on Twitter for a while and trying to keep up with American Ghetto, but I think I didn’t start following and keeping up with the band until you guys were already done with this album, so I sorta missed out on the story of how it was recorded and the time line and everything. When exactly did you start recording American Ghetto and where was it recorded?
PTM: Well American Ghetto was basically born out of how we put together the Satanic Satanist disc. … We had really done pre-production for the first time ever when we made that album. We had never sat down and done demos or anything like that. So, I guess we had Satanic Satanist pretty much rounded out by the time we went into the studio; we’d had it for about a month, a month and a half. So, anytime we’re getting ready for the studio, there’s just a lot of excitement, a lot of inspiration comes out of that excitement. So, I guess for lack of a better word it just got me really excited to work on the new material and try new things…I just start kinda piling up ideas, and started working on what became American Ghetto. There was no pre-drafting to it; I didn’t really do any demos, but our manager Rich just sent me out there for 10 days and we started tracking some things with our friend Anthony Safry, who did production on Satanic Satanist as well.
YANP: Now, I’ve not really read about you guys having any ties to Boston, so what brought you there?
PTM: It was just mainly Paul. But actually when we finished the album about two years ago now, we decided that we really wanted to do this mix for it. And it obviously never went to that finished stage, but we started sending the album out to different producers– we wanted to let them produce the record without having us around, just to see what they would do. I’m a big fan of collaboration and just seeing what new people would do with our music. That’s why we have guests on our album and have guests musicians live from time to time. I just like to hear the way that people interpret it. So we sent Censored Colors out to a bunch of producers with the idea that they would mix and do a final production. But Paul Kolderie is just so cool and so laid back and really positive about everything and he just understood that we weren’t too precious with the band. Once the songs have gotten your – our contributions– to the art it’s kind of done and it’s fun from that point on. You know we get to mess around with delays and reverbs and song structure and things like that. Paul was just “the guy.”
YANP: Nice. And then he was the one that you worked on Satanic Satanist with, right?
PTM: Yeah, so we went up to Boston made Satanic Satanist with him. We had talked to other producers…
YANP: Oh ok, sorry, I didn’t catch that he was in Boston.
PTM: Oh yeah, so sorry. his studio is out in Boston.
YANP: Awesome! So you went back there to work on American Ghetto as well?
PTM: Yeah. That was pretty much a few weeks after Satanic Satanist was completed that we went back up to Boston.
YANP: And now I’m missing my reference points. So when was Satanic Satanist completed– when would you have been back in Boston?
PTM: Satanic Satanist was, I think, January 14th until somewhere around February 20th. And then I came back out on the 28th maybe?
PTM: So, that was at the beginning of March, and we were there for ten days. It’s one of those really great things– something really special that’s born out of those spontaneous moments. Jumping into it and putting deadlines on things and just seeing what you can do in that amount of time. There were a lot of ideas– just being inspired by all the different instruments and there was a lot of experience being built up … just no real demos. It was very fun for us, just to dive in headfirst to see what we could do. I think there’s also something to be said for practice, preparation and pre-production; time that I think is probably necessary to albums like Satanic Satanist. But American Ghetto was just born off that freedom to just do what we wanted.
YANP: So how much relief did you feel finally getting to release it almost a year after it was finished?
PTM: I felt like this album needed to be released in this way, from the very beginning I think we knew what Satanic Satanist was– it’s definitely our most focused album and it’s more of a band record. It was all of us in the studio together, jamming. And I’ve really obsessed over songwriting lately, in the last three years I’ve just really been obsessing over songwriting and trying to have a lot of fun with it. And Satanic Satanist, it was obvious to me while on tour for it that I didn’t want to throw anything out there that would stop what that record was doing. You know, we were playing Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza and we didn’t want to confuse everybody by throwing out multiple records out of nowhere.
But yeah, I guess it just happened the way it needed to. I’m not to precious to those things. The main thing that I love to do is just make music. I love to be able to go into the studio and get it all out of my mind and move onto the next thing. So at my favorite thing is sorting out in a business sense and to actually understand why and when everything should come out. And we have a really, really great manager who handles a lot of that– or pretty much all of that. I just kind of trust him with all of that and I just kind of make music.
YANP: Yeah, I just love that you guys couldn’t wait until the next day– you put it up at like 10:00 at night, the night before…[laughs]
PTM: [laughs] Yeah. We were talking about it and we said, “we could just do it. Can’t we just put it out? And we’re putting it out ourselves, who cares?” You know, we’re not relying on some SoundScan sheet to tell us where our band sits in the list of 5 million bands playing today. We weren’t even thinking about that. It’s a limited edition CD — at least it’s gonna be limited to the amount of copies that we put out there. It’s supposed to be fun– its for people to give out to people who helped support the band. All of last year was such a great year that it just felt right to just give it to people.
And it wasn’t a shot at– I know Satanic Satanist leaked a month and a half in advance or whatever, and it wasn’t necessarily because of that. But looking at it now, it is pretty amazing that it didn’t leak because friends of ours had it, we just didn’t send it out to the amount of people that we normally would. And we won’t do every record like this, but seeing how well it’s done like this, the fun that we had with it, I would imagine that we would do more releases like it in the future.
YANP: Awesome! You said something a little bit ago and I didn’t want to stop you, but you said you were getting really focused on song writing in the past three years, is that something that you would say almost that you would study when you listen to other peoples’ music or is it something that you just work on with yourself?
PTM: Uh, you pick it up everywhere. I think that it’s one of those things. I always get so caught up, just so scared of major chords, for whatever reason. Any time you start working in major chords with really tight song structures, everything becomings really obvious. I just got used to avoiding it, and I think that with Censored Colors we would jump in and see what we could do– see how we could change up songs. It got me thinking about bands like the Beatles, obviously my favorite band, anyway and bands like Pink Floyd and really great songwriting, really great musicians, really great atmospheric pop.
Yeah, I guess I would say that I study it to an extent, but mainly it’s something that you would have to find for yourself. And there are a million bands that do throwback rock n’ roll, I mean you can probably name 50 right off the top of your head that you’ve heard before. So, it’s something that you have to get to know yourself. You can study it all day long but until you put yourself into it, it’s pretty hard to find.
Continue reading the rest of the interview after the break.
MP3: Portugal. The Man – Work All Day (from The Satanic Satanist)
YANP: Now, I’ve read a couple of interviews to prepare for this and I’ve heard you talk a lot about being really passionate about what you do. I think you said that your dad has a construction or house building company in Alaska, you make music… how you’ve sort of discovered the importance of that recently.And given that and your touring schedule and release schedule, do you find it odd that most bands don’t write and record with the output that you do? Because it seems like if everyone is “in to what they are doing,” that’s the natural thing– to throw yourself in. Or do you think that you are an oddball who records two albums in two months?
PTM: [laughs] Um, yeah I dunno. I mean I’m around musicians and art every day. I’ll tell you what there are a lot of traits that go along with a lot of art and there’s a reason that people jump into this field; there’s a reason people jump into music, and it’s not always because they genuinely love music. I mean they love music, but they’re thinking about trying to avoid in some way that “real life” and that “real work ethic”…they just don’t keep it real! [laughs]
It’s not that we’re doing something that they couldn’t do; we just honestly really love making music. And I wasn’t stressed that American Ghetto wasn’t coming out for a year after it was done, because I knew that it would come out at some point. And the bottom line was that we got to make music, and that’s all I really wanted to do with it. It wouldn’t even have to come out. Just as long as I got that out of the way. We have such a lax job– it’s so relaxed. You can really do whatever you want. Actually, I’m very lucky to be doing what I’m doing because I love working on videos and working on a costume design or doing a t-shirt design and album artwork with my buddy Oscar and being able to do all of those things. I would have never thought I could do anything as an artist. So I think we’re in a pretty good position to just run with it. It’s not for everyone. I think that’s pretty obvious to say as well.
YANP: And there’s a lot of work involved even whenever you’re trying to avoid “actual work.”
PTM: Yeah! [laughs] I think my cousin sent me something about, “why you can’t pay graphic designers by an hourly rate.” And it was so true! It was the funniest thing to look at– it was just this chart and it said the biggest use of their time is trying to find inspiration and coming up with an idea. How can you pay someone for that? For something so big? Yeah, there is a lot of work. I don’t think a lot of our friends really understand that. I’ll come home and see my friends and they’ll say, “well, I actually gotta go do shit tonight,” and I’m saying I’m actually busy. Then they’ll say “No you’re not! You’re hanging out at home playing video games” [laughs]. “Of course, I’ve got to get into my own space!” So yeah, there actually is a lot of work in “not working.”
YANP: Um, yeah. But you know, someone asked me the other day how much time per day I spend running my website and I was like “well, the weird thing about that is that my free time is almost indistinguishable from my job because what would I be doing in my free time? I would be looking for bands that I like– nerding out on that.” And so reading about you talking about being passionate about what you do, I thought, “Oh, that’s sort of the flip side of a coin for running a website,” which is find something you like to do and trick someone into paying you for it.
PTM: Oh yeah! It’s all so relative. I remember growing up, my dad– on his weekends– drawing up different architecture, different plans, custom homes and doing things like that just because he loved doing it. And he’ll go work on weekends, just because he likes doing it. We’ll hang out and he’ll be talking about the next house he’s building. And I always think that’s so great, when people are just really passionate about things. And I’ve said this a million times– a record a year is nothing in comparison to what people do on a daily basis. Or what you do, you know? You don’t just interview one band– or even ten bands. You keep going and you have to write your different stories every time around. Once you know music, it’s just keeping it relative, bringing in your everyday experiences and just writing and going. I mean, lyrics sheets are maybe three pages at most. Really? Three pages worth of words for two years of your life? That’s all you write? [laughs]
YANP: [laughs] Well, you gotta edit it down to the best three pages.
PTM: Yeah…well still, people write books.
YANP: Speaking of lyrics, I read that you typically write the lyrics to an album within a 2-3 day span. Is that, given how quickly you recorded American Ghetto, is that the case for this one as well?
PTM: Yeah, it all kinda works like that. I remember “When the War Ends,” the last track on American Ghetto, literally we did the music in one night at Anthony’s house– we went over there and did all of the music, probably in a two hour period, we tracked everything down. I did some melodies and he did some guitars, just some heavy bass stuff. And then the lyrics and melody and everything happened right in the last hour that we were in the studio. And I think I was probably a little bit scared of that song because it was such a pop song, which I was so excited about, but I had never really done anything like that. But it was the perfect ending to a record that is very moody and very melancholy in a lot of ways. It was something that needed to happen.
Lyrically, it doesn’t seem like it, but it’s probably the biggest downer on the record. I mean it was about suicide and all of our friends that just kinda gave up. So, it made sense to make it kind of a fun song to be about the things that we did together and wondering what was happening in their life that was really so bad. That song was done in three or four hours. It was production stuff that actually happened at the end of the actual record, but the writing sessionwent really quick. It’s really cool– I really love it when things like that happen. They were I think “Created” on Censored Colors was another one of those. We didn’t do pre-production with Censored Colors, we had two weeks in the studio and “Created” was just one of those songs with half an hour of us just sitting down. It’s all about being inspired and really catching that moment. We’re not the best at engineering or production, but we are pretty confident when it comes to taking advantage of that inspiration and really finding it and just going for it.
YANP: What is the hardest thing that you had to “grind out” — either lyrics or production or otherwise — on American Ghetto? It seems like everything went pretty smoothly.
PTM: Yeah it was really smooth. I think lyrics and melody were probably the hardest, just because we had just made Satanic Satanist. But about halfway through, the whole theme of it just clicked. I kinda knew what I wanted to write about, but I just didn’t know how to do it. I wrote about a lot of the streets that we used to drive down, I wrote about where a lot of drug dealers lived and a lot of friends who started taking that different path. So it’s always kinda hard to me because if your lyrics become overly specific, you lock yourself into something that sometimes doesn’t work out right. But it seems like it came together really well. There’s a lot of me in it and a lot of our friends in it.
YANP: Now, from what little I’ve heard of you kinda revealing most of what the past couple of albums’ songs have been about, it’s been about “childhood and growing up stuff,” what’s basically the most recent thing that you’ve drawn on to write a song?
PTM: Well, probably songs like “People Say.” They’re all very new ideas for me as a person. It’s been born out of traveling. We get to travel so much, so we get to see Europe and see what people think of our country and how people perceive what we’re doing. We get to learn a lot about other cultures and it’s a really great thing that we’ve been handed. You know we don’t spend the time trying to hook up with chicks and partying [laughs]. We always just take it in. And then we party every now and then…obviously, we’re in a rock band [laughs]. But, I think its been really great to see where our lives have gone.
I talk to my dad every single day, my mother and father — I call them. They say, “I can’t believe you’re in Houston right now, I can’t believe you’re in Texas.” And “do you remember growing up and living in this log cabin? Do you remember not having a phone until you were 16?” We didn’t have a phone in our house, we had a generator in our home, until I left. We didn’t even have electricity. So it’s pretty crazy to think of where I came from, where this whole band came from, how we all met. And I can’t help but think that a lot of those things happened for a reason.
I always look through albums and — this is a tangent, I’m sorry– but I always wonder, “where do these albums come from?” Like My Morning Jacket’s record Z, hearing that for the first time was really exciting for me, it was like this band was coming out of nowhere and they’re going to be the next Pink Floyd. I think they’re a massive band but they definitely took a different direction, with Jim James doing Yim Yames and Monsters of Folk and all of that. So [garbled]. I always wonder how these bands meet and how that special combination comes out of nowhere and just nails it. They nailed it, you know, with that album. And other bands carry on and they keep doing it. You know Radiohead, or the Flaming Lips or those big bands of today. Some bands can really just do it and hold it down– the Beastie Boys, holy shit! [laughs] the Beastie Boys did it and they’re still doing it.
YANP: Does it feel like you guys will be able to keep going at the same rate for the foreseeable future?
PTM: You know, I can’t really talk about where the band is, I’m a part of it, but it’s really hard to figure out where the band is when you’re in the band. I can never listed to our records and say “oh, that’s a great record.”
YANP: Oh no, I meant carrying on with the touring pace and everybody’s on the same page…committed and everything.
PTM: Yeah! I think so. I know everyone has their different things that they do. Ryan actually is a really great songwriter. I imagine he’ll wanna do some of that at some point, but I’d really like to do some of it together as well, which I have never really done. So it’d be fun to try to learn that. But everyone brings such a huge part to this band. You know, Matt’s a great bassist and Jason’s a great drummer– a really amazing drummer, he has a really great ear for music. I think it’s a really good combination of level-headed people. That’s the biggest thing that happens, you kinda forget where your band comes from. I think our goal has always just been music. I think we could be on any label– just be anywhere and we’d still have that as the goal. Just to make music and just to be able to make music.
PTM: You have to be conscious of where you’re going. You have to be conscious of what the band is and what you want it to be.
YANP: I’ve only got one of two quick questions for ya and then that’ll do it. Did I see on Twitter that like a month of two ago while you were in Alaska that you started demoing for the next record. Is that true?
PTM: Oh yeah, we did pre-production in Seattle about three weeks ago.
YANP: Oh man
PTM: And it’s not like….I mean I’m so pumped for this new stuff, I’m so excited for the new record, we’ve actually been talking to labels recently. I’ll be perfectly honest because I don’t really give a shit. But we’ve been talking to the labels recently and I think that they might be helping me with the band and I’m actually really excited for where the band can go. We’ve done so much on our own and we really pretty much controlled every aspect of this band to the point of no matter who we work with there’s an opportunity to amplify what we’re doing. And I think we have a pretty cool record right now with the newest album, not American Ghetto, but the next album. We have stuff that’s pretty cool to put out there.
YANP: Awesome! Are there any names that you guys have been kicking around for that one or do you want to save it?
PTM: For producers? Or for the album title?
YANP: Yeah– album title.
PTM: Yeah, I had a few album titles. I haven’t really been set on anything. I know eventually we’re doing a two EP set that’s gonna be “Mexico City” and “Panama City.”
I know how that sounds and I know how that’s gonna be.
YANP: You mean you’ve already envisioned how you want it to sound or you’ve already started writing for those EPs?
PTM: Well, we have some of it. Like we have a shit ton of demos and jams and things that we’ve done. No, not the demos, but like put them on recordings or anything. But yeah, generally at any point, we have the following three albums somewhat ready to go as far as what we want to do with it. And I think that’s another thing that’s really great about this band is that we always talk about these things. We made Satantic Satanist and these really tight songs and the follow up American Ghetto is a little bit more moody and it’s more drum machine driven. And the next time we really want to do something that takes all of that in and I always want to focus on songwriting, above everything. Songwriting translates to instrumental jams as well, it’s not just lyrics. We’ll see where everything goes, again I feel pretty lucky to be doing what we’re doing. It’s just amazing.
YANP: Awesome! Now, last question and I just came up with this half-theory. What does your songwriting “trash bin” or “editing bin” look like? Do you tear through and scrap a lot of stuff along the way or is it pretty much everything you write ends up getting used?
PTM: We use everything. We’ve only had like four B-sides ever… You really wanna talk about everything, I’m sure, you know, “how many songs is this album going to be?” You know, what is every song going to sound like? I’m huge on taking notes, we’re a nerdy band, so it’s really fun to sit down and whether its in your head on paper and say, “this is how the album sounds from start to finish; how do the songs work together, how do the lyrics transition?” And it may not be fully focused to that extent, but it’s always in the back of your head, how well it sounds. Yeah, we write songs and we just kind of go for it. I say “go for it” all the time because that’s pretty much all we do.
YANP: [laughs] That sounds like a good place to stop then!