You see a lot of unexpected buzz-band hyperbole in this business. Most of it is little more than well-meaning, thesaurus-clutching publicists trying to earn their keep, but when you read the Wall Street Journal hyping up a band as bearers of the best set at this year's Bonnaroo (yes, that Wall Street Journal, and that Bonnaroo) well, OK, there's something slightly surreal afoot. Apart from the Wall Street Journal actually being at Bonnaroo...
This was the year when John Baldwin Gourley's indie/retro/experimental outfit Portugal. The Man actually leapt out of the shadows all high-falsetto soul and weak-kneed yearnful pop crooning and became, arguably, the most widely lauded Band From Nowhere since well, since the Wall Street Journal was still glibly peddling recession denial.
It was the year of the festival for the Wasilla, Alaska-born exile and his mostly Portland-based quartet. Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands. Actually, it isn't all that stunning the band has been cranking 200-plus dates a year for awhile now, toiling in relative cult-band obscurity, so you want to think they were probably overdue for brighter lights. But with the release of their fourth album, the sumptuous The Satanic Satanist an eerily cogent collection of '70s and '80s re-imagined blaxploitation, blue-eyed soul, hippy manifesto and Beatles-esque pop channeling with songs seldom exceeding three minutes in length this was obviously the year when P.TM was ready to bring the rest of us nearly to tears, one devastating confection at a time.
"Y'know, I think the biggest thing that happened this year," says Gourley, "was just going out and playing those festivals. Just kinda being there. We've never really been a part of anything. We've just toured, and that's all we've done."
These airplane-hanger stages and rolling seas of humanity can play on a band's ego and sense of self, but Gourley had enough lead-time find the right headspace.
"I think the way we went into it is the way you kind of have to go into it. As much as bands like to think it's about them even the Beastie Boys, bands like that it's so not. It's about the party; it's about the gather ing
It seems like it could be stressful, and it was in a lot ways for us, not having done it before, but it's also very calming. You're just there to be part of the weekend We didn't go out of our way to cram our band's name down everyone's throat," Gourley says.
It gets there eventually, though. The Satanic Satanist is the kind of record that can renew one's faith in the recorded art form: tight segues, crisp and marksmanlike arrangements. Gourley's vertigo-inducing vocals sail over deviously assembled arrangements, clean as a whistle, straining pure pop melodies through shifty time and key changes and incisive wordsmithing. And soul, soul, soul. From the opening Squeeze-ish bass/ organ line of "People Say," to the clubby mid-tempo throb (George Michael?) of "The Woods," the Sgt. Pepper shimmer of "Everyone is Golden" and the '60s family band anthem of "The Home," this stuff goes well past cheap and easy larceny. Its a deep dive into the pools of tradition that most bands merely splash their way through on their way to somewhere else. Gourley comes out drenched in it, takes a breath and dives back in.
"It's basically a mash up of my entire life," he says, a little proudly and a little bashfully.
"I guess, going in to make this record, specifically, all I could think about was [Bill Withers'] 'Ain't No Sunshine.' I was just thinking, 'How amazing.' One of the best songs of all time, and it's two and half minutes long. And it does not stray from that riff the whole time. It just rides the riff and sings the song, and that's that. And thinking about that, it just took me back to the car rides into town our car rides to get groceries and stuff like that were anywhere from an hour to five hours, depending on where we were living at any given time. On those rides, we would just listen to oldies radio. And I really tried to think about what made those songs so great, what made those songs such great family sing-alongs.
"And it's that structure, it's that formula that everybody knows, and I wondered why there isn't a lot of music today, at least in my opinion."
It's that whole pop-craft thing, how it's much harder to write a good three-minute song than it is to write a mediocre five-and-a-half-minute song. Gourley agreed. And while he admits that his childhood in Alaska formed the basis for most of these songs and their lyrical content, he and the band were relatively focused about what they were after.
Which, actually, is a little unusual for P.TM. "Basically, everything we've done up to this point, we just threw out there. We'd walk into the studio and go, 'Oh, lets make a rock record,' and everyone would be like, 'OK, let's do it,' and we'd write all the songs on the spot. This time around, we actually did some preproduction, as much as we're ever likely to do. So we knew the structures ahead of time.
"But yeah, it's so hard to write a good pop song Coming out of this, that was my biggest learning experience."
Having grown up in and around Wasilla, Gourley proudly claims and references his native Alaskan heritage (his parents were transplants from the East Coast in the '70s) and writes about the life and the ethic and the values up there, but he also has to fend off questions about Wasilla's other famous export the inimitable Sarah Palin.
We wondered if he and his fellow Alaskan exile, Zach Carrothers, have yet tired of the Sarah gaping.
"I think we got tired of it the second that Sarah got announced," Carrothers laughed. "But yeah... How crazy. That was probably the biggest surprise. And also one of those great moments when you say, 'Thank God, she's going to fuck everything up.'
"But she's also very Alaska, and I always respect that. "