FESTIVAL SEASON 2017: PORTUGAL. THE MAN @ AUSTIN CITY LIMITS
Photos/KRIS FUENTES CORTES
“It’s not about the beat, it’s about the lyrics, end of story. It’s all about lyrics and telling your story. Tell your story, be honest, be true. Don’t give me another song that just says exactly what you think you’re supposed to say. There’s no time for it, there’s no point. I already have all that music.”
That’s Portugal. The Man’s lead singer John Gourley’s take on how sharing authentic experience, not just the story you’re supposed to tell, leads to really great songwriting. And he would know. The band is currently #1 on Top 40 Radio, platinum certified, a Billboard mainstay. This is probably what thwarted my attempt to catch their set at Austin City Limits. They played to the largest crowd of devotees I witnessed the entire weekend, some of which settled for obstructed views just for the chance to hear the band’s rock/pop/folk/hip-hop/psychedelic-tinged sound.
I met with Gourley at Austin City Limits to discuss the current state of rock and roll (spoiler: Cage the Elephant is doing it right, The Killers were once, but were thrown off their game), the folk tradition of passing down music from town to town and generation to generation (but also paying your dues and giving credit– looking at you this time, Future), and how throwing away the trappings of rock and roll stardom led to the ingenuous crafting of their latest album Woodstock and crossover hit, “Feel It Still.”
You had a small break between this week and last week’s show, how did that feel?
If felt really good, we’ve been nonstop for the past 31 days or something like that. I do have to point out that our management and agent, who are standing right next to me right now, tried to tell me that we had a day off on the tour, but it was a travel day. We were flying from Europe back to Chicago and then driving to the next show.
Just a casual day on a plane from Europe.
Yeah, that was a day off? No time to deal with jet lag. But I mean, that’s kind of what it’s about. You just have to be able to roll with that stuff.
Are you excited about tonight’s set? The word on the street is that it was scorching hot last week.
No, we were cool. We were cool last weekend.
That’s a positive way to look at it, everybody has been saying it was so hot.
Other bands man, try too hard.
Trying too hard to be cool. So this tour and album campaign…compared to your previous, what’s the biggest marked difference in how people are reacting to the music?
Well, I mean I think one thing that’s pretty obvious, we have a song like “Feel It Still”, which has done crazy well. You can’t really expect that. You can’t predict it. It definitely feels good that that song has come across the way that it has. I think the biggest thing that I’ve seen is just the difference between interviews today at radio. Everything is really exciting and really fun. Like we did Radio Disney, and Ryan Seacrest’s radio show, and I gotta be honest, I love that stuff. I watch some cringy interviews, artists that I really love, that you can tell they head into it with kind of an elitist attitude, like “oh this doesn’t matter.” Those people are so good at what they do and they’re so funny and so off the cuff and it just felt really good being a band and walking into that situation, as dumb as we are. We’re just not the type of people that come up with talking points and make sure you hit this, you don’t really have to do that with our band. So it’s been a lot of fun.
I appreciate that because I feel like when people get into the situation that you’re in with a hit like “Feel It Still” they can get jaded when they have to keep talking about it.
Yeah, what’s the deal? We’ve come up listening to bands, bands that we love and I mean I’ll name them, like Nada Surf has made a crazy good come back obviously, but they had that song “Popular” and I remember that being something they didn’t want to play. Harvey Danger with “Flagpole Sitta,” didn’t want to play “Flagpole Sitta” and tried to avoid having this smash hit, by naming it “Flagpole Sitta” instead of “I’m Paranoid” or whatever he could’ve named it. It’s that idea that if you can craft a song like that, craft a song that connects with people, on so many different levels, and across the spectrum of what the mainstream is, and mainstream isn’t just pop music. I mean it’s just this very broad spectrum where it leads to the middle, and that’s pop culture, to become part of that is such a huge thing and I think to just completely throw off this idea that you’re good at songwriting? Like, hell yeah.
Do you feel like it’s more important to lean into that, or to push against that success to keep things fresh, new, and interesting?
It depends on the artist I guess. Like MGMT, they put out an amazing record eight years ago, or whatever it was, it was so long ago now. We have mutual friends and everybody’s like “oh well they weren’t trying to write this massive thing, it just happened,” and that’s true, I don’t think you can really try to do that. But when you’re given an opportunity like that I just feel like it’s really disrespectful to your fans to be like “oh that was a joke, that thing that you all loved, that was a joke.”
Right, that song that made you cry? We were just kidding.
Your elitist fans, your fans that are like “oh we’re a weird art thing.” I always want to be an artist, but you know what you’re a fucking great artist, you’re a fucking great artist that wrote some really great songs, and not trying to come in and meet that pressure? Yeah you get a lot of pressure. This is the problem with music right now. You see something like that, you see the success, Jet is another example of crazy success, you put out a sophomore record with no hits as MGMT and Jet did, it doesn’t mean they’re bad at songwriting. You know like if you pull it back away from it, MGMT obviously is a different thing from Jet, they’re still a band, still doing really great things, really interesting things, a really really great group, but the one thing that I miss, the one thing I want from them, is to change it. To change the mainstream. That’s the whole point.
How do people going about doing that, though? How do you acknowledge that you need to do that, and how do people even know that’s something they should be doing?
Well, you just be yourself. You’re the same person who wrote that song. You wrote those songs, and you have to understand all those people connecting with your music. Like, I have asshole friends that try to tell me like, “I’m not into the new stuff, I’m not really into that” and I hear that every now and then and I’m like, that’s cool man, that’s cool. I’m doing what I love and I’m going to keep doing that, and if there’s even a chance of being able to write another song like “Feel it Still” of course I’m gonna do it.
Where did “Feel It Still” come from? Did that just happen organically? Was there any inkling when you were writing it that people were going to vibe with it?
Yeah, definitely when I was writing it, but it wasn’t intentional, and that’s the whole point of what I’m saying. What I’m saying about Jet and all that, just because they put out a sophomore record or a record that people didn’t connect with, doesn’t mean they can’t write songs, those are great songwriters.
They’re still the people that wrote those songs.
That is so huge. I think what we’re missing right now is what The Beatles and The [Rolling] Stones, and Pink Floyd, people like that did. Like all of our heroes they would just write albums, they would just write records and just put them out and if there’s a hit on it, cool. If not, cool. You know, we’re gonna choose this song it’s my favorite song on the record.
But do you think that’s kind of the situation we put ourselves in with modern technology where there is just like this instant feedback loop all the time so people don’t give certain artists and albums a chance?
Oh yeah. I saw the reviews of our album when it came out.
You read those? I’d be so scared to do that.
Yeah, I like to check it out. I’m for it. We’re pretty indifferent to criticisms and all that stuff and sometimes there is a good point made, and that’s why I read it. Sometimes they do make a good point. But a lot of the stuff I saw, in the beginning, was a lot of, it was a basic, ‘sounds like these guys are swinging for the fences and falling short’ and I just gotta say, “Feel it Still” definitely that’s a home run. That’s a Babe Ruth.
I know “So Young” is a nod to Oasis, and we’ve talked about a few other contemporary artists, do you see any other bands that are doing it the right way? Still pushing themselves, and just doing what they enjoy and having it resonate with people?
I think Cage The Elephant, honestly, having toured with them and having hung out with them. I remember three years ago, I believe it was three years ago we all went to dinner, it was before we really knew each other. I run into them all the time, we run into each other in elevators at hotels, parties. I remember we got dinner with Cage after one of the festivals we played and I was sitting next to Matt [Schultz] and we’re talking about music and he says, “you know I just want to write the biggest songs I can, I want to do something great for rock and roll” and I said, yeah you know what, me too. Same page. And I like having a band in rock and roll that I feel competitive with and they’re going to push me to write better songs and I hope we push them to write better songs, but outside of that it’s just kind of a tough thing to look at. No, I don’t think The Killers are writing their best music, but it’s still good, you know?
So you think they had moments when they were writing their best music?
The biggest. Those bands all wrote some of the biggest songs ever, and this is something I always try to stand back and look and go, what is that thing? What is that thing? What is the thing that throws you off your game?
Yeah, I see how that’s kind of part of your job to analyze that.
Honestly I saw it with us working on this album, and it was a really simple hit. It was so subtle I didn’t even notice it until two years deep into it. We were working with Mike D and Danger Mouse [Brian Burton], two of the greatest musicians and artists and producers of our time, and the thing that we got was two producers you can’t pay for. You can’t buy them. You can’t say “hey we’re Elektra Records we’ve got $2 million,” Mike will say “do I like it” Brian will say “do I like it? No, ok, I’m not going to to do it.” So I think the thing that happened was we were recording at Shangri La, Rick Rubin’s studio in Malibu on the beach drinking smoothies every morning.
Living your best life.
We were writing some of the best creative music we’ve ever made, it was all so rad and so cool but it was completely open-ended because we had producers you can’t buy, so the note from everybody was just work. When you’re finished you’re finished. You get this rope, the second you have a hit you get this rope let’s take it as far as you want and the thing that I saw happening was where is the hunger? Where’s my reason for writing music? I’m living literally exactly the dream life of rock and roll, in Malibu on the beach, like how do you make a record? It took throwing out all of that stuff, which that is what it is. Like there’s some really cool stuff, writing with Mike D, that dude will push you in the craziest ways. He’d be like, “sing about what you ate for breakfast today,” and I’m thinking about it going, you can’t actually do that, but you think about Beastie Boys and you go, “I’ll stir fry you in my wok” they’re just rapping about food, like that’s their night out. I was watching Star Trek last night so I’ll throw in some references. It’s a weird thing. Writing music is just kind of a crazy weird thing and having a reason to do it, I think that’s the hardest part. I think that’s probably the biggest struggle with artists like that, they’ve written some of the best music of all time, like these are some of the all-time records and I don’t envy the pressure that goes along with it, but I also wonder how it’s being taken on.
The world has been crazy lately. What role do you think music should play in times like these?
Well the thing that we musicians should bring to music, is just experience. I gotta say, I grew up, this is the great thing about travel and just humans in general, you grow and you learn, like no kid is born knowing his times tables, that’s just not how we are. You just gotta learn some of that stuff, some of it may be intuitive. I grew up in a really conservative place, like Alaska is where people go to get away from everything. The second I started traveling, and experiencing other cultures and meeting people, just worldwide with different political views, different religions, you just start to recognize things that you don’t get when you grow up in a small town. You don’t get to eat at the Ethiopian restaurant, sushi is like, you have no clue what it is. Like ‘raw fish, you’re eating raw fish? That’s ridiculous.’ I think that’s what it comes down to.
Musicians should be getting out and should be seeing things that’s the whole point of us traveling, that’s where this music started, that’s where folk music started it was traveling and taking your story from one city to the next one town to the next, and just sharing stories and that’s all it is. It’s not about ‘hey, baby is a word that works really well in pop music, let’s throw that in there.’ Throw it in if it works, if it doesn’t work it’s got no place. You gotta sing about your experiences.
Rock music seems so shook by what’s happening in hip-hop, that’s true storytelling. Hip-hop to me is exactly what folk music is, that is storytelling, from the most basic level. That’s Mike D, what you had for breakfast, that’s it. What did I deal with today, what did I deal with on the subway, it’s so built for that. And I see so many rock bands taking what they think to be like the psychedelic photo or the glam rock thing, and trying to write and compete with hip-hop and that’s not the point of what we’re all doing. Just trade places, hair metal was a huge thing for a while. I didn’t get it, I never understood it, I don’t get disco, it’s not my thing, but it’s just recognizing what those artists do. Like every hip-hop artists I know just to say this, they listen to rock and roll. They listen to Metallica, they listen to the music that you make. So quit trying to throw a trap beat on some fucking bullshit, and think that that’s what it is.
Again taking it back to Woodstock a lot of the response was “it’s called Woodstock but it doesn’t sound like Woodstock.” Well all those artists were all experimenting at the time, this is the birth of rock and roll, this is where everything is becoming, soul is becoming something different, R&B is becoming something different. It’s more than The Beatles, it’s more than just these single artist, like that stuff is really becoming this broad thing, and you saw that at Woodstock, and our album was meant to be what would Woodstock sound like today? Like when you got to ACL when you go to these festivals.
Right, like what would people be speaking about?
Yeah, what would be people be talking about, even things as simple as, “don’t eat the brown acid, brown acid is bad” like whatever it is. Where is our thing? Like we’re missing that, and to be a rock artist today I think it’s a really exciting time, because you should have a level of competitive spirit, like I want to step up and go, I see what you’re doing, let’s go back to where all of this comes from.
Look at things like Wu-Tang [Clan] and Beastie [Boys] and Run-D.M.C. you look at where Hip-Hop comes from and it’s all the same as folk music, it’s all Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, traveling from town to town, learning a song in Missoula and taking it to Idaho Falls and writing a new verse along the way, telling that story, that’s RZA sampling all that classic soul and all that R&B everything that hip-hop artist were sampling, that is sharing that music with a new generation and we should be doing the same thing.
We should be looking at it and going, we should be really upset, even rock artists should be upset with people like [Lonzo] Ball talking about Nas doesn’t matter and it’s all about Future and 2 Chainz like all that shit, like don’t talk shit. Like if you don’t know where it comes from you can’t be. You cannot exist.
That again is the beauty of hip-hop to me, just recognizing where you come from, and trying to find your own voice in hip-hop is such a sticky business. To do it you have to know the artists that you’re biting, that’s David Bowie. Kendrick [Lamar] to me is kind of a David Bowie, in a weird way, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about recently. He’s just kind of got this thing where when I first heard him, I heard a little bit of Lil Wayne but he still had this voice that was his own thing, and that reminds me of Bowie’s early stuff. I can hear when he’s pulling from T.Rex and The Beatles, and you can hear some of the show tunes-ey stuff just within chord changes, he’s doing some really cool things.
Kendrick is doing that, not to talk about Kendrick, cause we got Run The Jewels here and they kill it, as far as their views being spoken and just talking about music history, sampling from the right places. You can’t ever worry about production points and songwriting credits, and all that stuff, you can go to musicologist all day, and they’ll tell you what two notes to change to make that Bowie melody yours, and that Beatles’ thing yours, and it’s unfair, like it’s unfair to the artists we grew up with.
Don’t act like Future just came out of nowhere like don’t be stupid, like that shit, it comes from somewhere and if Future doesn’t know it, he shouldn’t be doing it. That’s just it at the end of the day. I’m sure he does know. I’m sure he knows.
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