John Gourley of Portugal. The Man

by Greg Prato

On "Feel It Still," the Woodstock moment when he saw it was OK to sing up high, and the album Oregon City Sessions.

With touring on hold for the majority of rock bands in 2020, some found other ways of being productive: drive-in concerts, livestream performances, and also, going through their musical archives. And in the case of Oregon-by-way-of-Alaska alt-rockers Portugal. The Man, they went for option #3.

Back in 2008, the band decided to document the songs they had been performing on tour in a recording studio: Supernatural Sound in Oregon City, Oregon. In addition to having "the tape rolling," they also had a film crew on hand to capture the performance visually, but it was never properly released, as the group instead opted to work on their album, which turned out to be 2009's The Satanic Satanist.

In April 2021, the group finally released the aforementioned session under the title Oregon City Sessions (solely the audio portion, however, as the video accompaniment will be perhaps appearing later on at some point).

Portugal. The Man's co-founder, songwriter, lead singer, and lead guitarist, John Gourley, spoke with Songfacts the day before the release of Oregon City Sessions, filling us in on the album, the stories behind several P.TM classics, and how he feels about their Grammy-winning hit, "Feel It Still." As he explains, its video caused a bit of controversy.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Why did it take so long for Oregon City Sessions to be released?

John Gourley: We record a lot of shows, but we've never been a band that looks backwards a whole lot. It's always been about the next thing and just keeping moving. And with COVID and the lockdowns and everything that happened with the pandemic, we were looking at the body of work and it gave us a chance to sit down and look at all those old folders we had sitting around. It was nice being off the road for a second and being able to objectively take in a show that we did so long ago, and say, "Oh, there are some really interesting things in here that we haven't done in a long time. It's a cool thing to share."

Songfacts: Is it just the audio that is being released, or will the film be released, too?

Gourley: I don't think we've really talked about that. There's coin holders1 that get to view the video and we did a premiere-type thing. The video is really hilarious for us to watch, just because of the era - it was 12 years ago.

Yeah, I'm sure we'll be doing something with all of that stuff. There's so much video and so much content over the years that we just haven't had a chance to look at.

Songfacts: What do you recall about the song "The Devil"?

Gourley: "The Devil" was an afterthought for our first album. It was kind of a riff that we would play at live shows. I think it might have been one of the first songs I ever wrote for Portugal. The Man – as far as the riff goes. Just the thumping riff that happens in it. It was something that I would just play messing around, trying to learn how to fingerpick. It got to the album's completion, I tagged it on at the end, and it became a 7-inch B-side for that album.

A still from <i>Oregon City Sessions</i>A still from Oregon City Sessions
We did this crazy tour in Germany. We never expected to travel outside of the US, let alone be playing sold-out shows in Germany. And I remember when we got over there, we showed up with a 35-minute album, and the first show, we didn't realize it was going to be sold-out, didn't realize it was going to be a big deal or anything. We show up there, and they're telling us to play for an hour! At least an hour. This is a SHOW! You should be playing an hour.

I remember the first night we played, it was so embarrassing because we finished, and people were asking for an encore. We're like, "Shit. I guess we'll play the same songs again?" And we played the same songs again! It was so embarrassing for us to be like, "I don't even know any other songs."

So the next night we started pulling out this B-side. And as I would play that B-side, I thought about how there is an outtake of "Helter Skelter" that I always connected with, and I started singing "Helter Skelter" over the thump of that bass. And it kind of just morphed into this different thing. It's just a live song that is unique to this band. That's how we did everything.

I think it's just a great representation of what this band is. We're a "fuck-it band" – you're on stage, people are here to see you, just do whatever feels good. You don't need to work within the structure and the confines of what it sounds like on the album.

That song to me represents the freedom of this band: Go out and play a B-side. Throw in "Helter Skelter." Do your thing with it. Make it fun. Let it breathe. Wear your influences on your sleeve and show people where all of this music comes from. Because it all comes from somewhere, it doesn't matter who you are. Whoever it is, they're all pulling from their favorite artists, and artists that had a huge influence on them.

Songfacts: "Lay Me Back Down."

Gourley: Those sessions were ridiculous – the sessions for Censored Colors. We were running a hundred miles per hour that whole time. We recorded that whole album in two weeks, so everything was just these pieces of, "I've got this piano line." "Oh, we should make an intro. I want to make this kind of 'metal riff.'" Like the stuff that we grew up with, which was Slayer and Pantera.

It was all this stuff that sounds nothing like that, but that desire to have a riff. That's what "Lay Me Back Down" is to me, because it mixes this big riff with like Motown, soul, and Beatles - that stuff we grew up on. It had this nice little bop to it.

Across the board, that album was [lyrically] just about family, and about Alaska. It's more about the references within the music and this desire to be back home with family. Like, that homesick, "I just want to drive around and listen to music." That's the content of Censored Colors as a whole, and "Lay Me Back Down" is just another piece of that.

Songfacts: "Purple Yellow Red & Blue."

Gourley: I started writing it for an EDM artist. I'll just be straight with you – what I was picturing was "Purple Hills," the D12 song. Just pictured this really colorful, visual song. D12 and Eminem were influences on me growing up.

But I was just trying to picture how all we want to do is have fun. That's all we're here for. And within the first lyrics, it's a more satirical take on the people that want to get into music to be famous, or get into acting to be famous, versus the actual love of it. That's like, "When I grow up, I want to be a movie star." It's stuff that's so far from us. I don't want to do that. And the outro kind of represents that, like, "I just want something to believe in."

Songfacts: "Modern Jesus."

Portugal. The ManPortugal. The Man
Gourley: "Modern Jesus" is pretty on the nose for the way I feel about everything. It was growing up with religion around us. I grew up with friends whose parents would read the Book of Revelation before bed, and it really terrified me – this idea that there's this weird set of rules that apply to people, whether they know it or not.

It's about that belief in each other. It's in all of us: Everything that is going to happen is going to come from you. And we can talk about faith, destiny, and all these things – they're different than the cult of personality type thing. You run into it outside of religion, as well.

Songfacts: How do you feel about "Feel It Still" looking back on it today?

Gourley: Oh, it's the best song we've ever written. And I mean that.

It was successful, and that's cool – that's great. It took me 45 minutes to write it. It's the quickest thing I've ever written and the closest thing to my heart because that "Please Mr. Postman" melody is every bit of the way we grew up.

I grew up with dog-mushing parents – which I know is a bizarre thing for anybody outside of Alaska. And even within Alaska, it's such a small community within the state. So I grew up around really long drives. We were off the grid our whole lives until I left. Like, an hour drive to town. Sometimes a two-hour drive to town. That's four hours, both ways. So we would just listen to oldies radio, and "Please Mr. Postman" is a staple.

I always wanted to sing something to that melody. It's a totally different song, and that to me is what music is about. What songwriting is about is paying homage and creating something new. It's no longer "Please Mr. Postman." Now, it's "Feel It Still."

And being able to talk about having a family now, "Rebel Just For Kicks" is on the nose, clear: "We're just messing around." It's hard to be a punk when you're thinking about your baby daughter at home. The verses are all about my baby daughter, but I'm out here being this rebel, messing around with people and trying to make a positive impact.

Songfacts: Did you come up with that riff to that song?

Gourley: You know it! Like I said, everything came really quick. The guitar riff was actually the very last thing.

To pull back the curtain, none of this was intentional – I wasn't sitting down going, "Oh, it needs a secondary melodic hook." But these are things that I had always found very exciting in music – that little thing that pops out. Like, "Oh my God, you've got to listen... you can hear him set down the tambourine!" Or, "There's a little twinkle on the piano." I always loved that.

And everything is going up. That song, it's pretty difficult to sing. It's a very high vocal. But it's always this forward momentum: Everything is pushing forward and heading up. It's this really bright melody. And when I sat down at the end, I knew it needed something else. It was the last thing that I added to it, after the arrangement. It needed something to walk it back, to bring you back into the verse. So, it's this run that walks back down the scale versus going up with everything else. Real smart, huh? [Laughs]

The "Feel It Still" video was released in March 2017, just two months after Donald Trump took office. It's filled with odd characters, strange environments, and John's distinctive dance moves. But what made headlines is a 3-second clip of a man in a turban reading a flaming newspaper called "Info Wars," a play on the very pro-Trump outlet Infowars, run by Alex Jones. Infowars took the bait, posting an article with the subhead "Communist rockers demand censorship of alternative media." The interactive version of the video, posted at feelitstill.com, has a #resist toolkit that displays the message "Fight Fake News" to accompany this scene.

Songfacts: Memories of filming the song's music video?

Gourley: That was a blast. We have some really good friends back home in Portland at Wieden+Kennedy,2 including Jason Kreher, who is a creative. It was a lot of fun working with them. It felt like old-school music industry, like what you expect when you sign to a major label. You expect these big videos, getting the outfits right, all this stuff. It doesn't always happen that way. Usually, it's just in our hands to go and do it.

So that might have been our first experience of making a video with a team of people [Ian Schwartz is listed as the video's director] – versus our director friends, who are incredible – some of our best friends are great directors. But this is our first step outside of that, and we still use our same director friends. Mike Ragen has directed a bunch of our videos.

But the standout is probably burning Infowars – the way Alex Jones came after us was pretty hilarious when you look at his platform. Just the amount of people that came after us, accusing us of being devil worshippers or whatever Alex Jones was pushing at that moment.

When Alex Jones went after us, he was kind of accusing us of thinking that we had a Muslim burning Infowars, but it's actually a Sikh. We didn't know our friend Juggy is a Sikh, and the way the whole thing came about was somebody else was actually supposed to burn the paper. It was just happenstance. That person was in the bathroom or eating lunch, and Juggy – our Sikh friend – was the closest person there, so he went and burned it.

Looking back, everything that he rattled off about us was untrue, and you see how easy it is for conspiracy theorists to do their thing, because it's shooting from the hip: There are no facts behind it. There is no basis for anything he is saying. There was no intent to imply that it would be a Muslim burning the paper, and even the fact that it is a Sikh burning the paper, it has nothing to do with it. It was a joke that he took very seriously.

Songfacts: Who are some of your vocal influences?

Gourley: They're probably all female vocalists with the exception of John Lennon. And I love Bowie. I always loved female vocalists. Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, The Marvelettes. These were everything I loved growing up. But this is an Alaskan speaking, and Alaskans are like, "We're men! We're tough!"

So, singing in a falsetto never really made sense until I saw the video of Woodstock, and saw the back-up singers on Joe Cocker's "With A Little Help From My Friends," and it was guys singing the back-ups. I was like, "Oh my God. Men can sing like that, and it's totally cool." It was very liberating for me to see that I can sing there. I can sing like Gene Pitney and Frankie Valli, and that's cool. It was like singing in the cool sense.

Another still from Oregon City Sessions

Songfacts: Lastly, does the mustache make the man?

Gourley: I think at this point, it does, right? There's plenty of social media profiles that would tell you that style works. So yeah, we're just sticking with it.

My dad always had a mustache growing up. There's a point I think with most dudes growing up where they're like, "I'm just going to grow that 'ironic mustache' for a second." I grew it, and I was like, "This is just a part of me." I think I was 21, and it was just, "Yep. I guess my dad was right. Stick with it."

April 28, 2021

A good place to keep up with Portugal. The Man is on their Facebook page

Further reading:

Death from Above 1979
Nothing More
Mew
I See Stars
Otep Shamaya

photos: Maclay Heriot (1), Rich Holtzman (2, 4)

Footnotes:

  • 1] In January 2021, the group launched PTM coin, their own cryptocurrency. Unlike Bitcoin, Ethereum and the like, this is a "creator coin" - also called a "social token" - targeted to fans who want access to goodies like unreleased music and the Oregon City Sessions video. (back)
  • 2] Based in Portland, Wieden+Kennedy is an independent ad agency known for edgy campaigns like Nike's "Just Do It" and ESPN's "This is SportsCenter." In an industry dominated by four giant publicly traded companies, their irreverent work stands out. (back)

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