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Published: 2011/12/16
by Mike Greenhaus

Entering The Stratosphere with Portugal. The Man

Of all the current crop of bands fusing psychedelic music with more modern pop and more traditional rock structures, few have reached as wide an audience as Portugal. The Man. Formed in Alaska and current residing in Portland, OR, the psych-rock quintet has slowly massed a strong, loyal following by touring like a jamband and releases a series of well-crafted experimental pop albums (featuring artwork created by frontman John Gourley), After six independent releases, Portugal. The Man signed with Atlantic Records, who released the group’s well-received breakout album In the Mountain in the Cloud this past summer. Not ones to sit still, the band hit the road with Alberta Cross for an extended run that included their biggest headlining gig to take, a sold out performance at New York’s Terminal 5 during CMJ. Shortly after the show, Portugal keyboardist Ryan Neighbors discussed the band’s steady rise and latest release with Jambands.com/.

Could you start by giving our readers a quick synopsis on how you guys came together? I know that you’re originally from the Oregon area, but the band formally started in Alaska.

John [Gourley], our guitarist, and Zack [Carothers], our bass player, started the band in Alaska five or six years ago. At that time it was all Alaskans. They moved down to Portland, OR ‘cause they couldn’t tour out of Alaska—starting every tour with a drive from Alaska to the lower 48 costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time. So they moved down to Portland and started doing some tours. The other dudes ended up quitting because they wanted to get real jobs and touring just wasn’t worth it for them [Laughter]. Jason [Sechrist] joined the band right before the first record so he’s been there since the beginning of the recording process. He’s a Portland guy. So they did Waiter: You Vultures! and Church Mouth. My band went on tour with Portugal right before the Church Mouth tour so I was rehearsing those songs live. And after the tour they asked me to record Censored Colors with them, which led to them asking me to join the band full-time four years ago.

What kind of music were you playing with your other band that first introduced you to the Portugal family?

It was kind of electronic weirdo rock. I guess that’s a good way to describe it. I played keys and guitar and then really decided to make keys my main thing once I started touring with Portugal. The Man. It was like, “There’s some real opportunities here if I stick with keyboards.” So that’s what I’ve been doing since.

From what I’ve read, Portugal really started as a vehicle for John’s songs and creative vision. As the band’s lineup has solidified and you have all spent more time on the road together, have you felt the group has developed into more as a band of equals, creatively at least?

John brings the skeleton. He writes on an acoustic guitar—the structure and the vocal melodies, usually not the lyrics so much—except the chorus. The chorus’ lyrics are usually the first things that come to mind. Then he’ll send mp3 demos of the songs to everybody. This usually happens when he and Zach are in Alaska through the winter, where he’s got solitude and can just sit in his room, playing an acoustic guitar without feeling pressure. And then he sends it over to us and we start to get ideas on how we’d like to color-in the song. Everyone writes their own parts, but for the most part John does the structure and the chord progressions.

Your songs are very scripted in a certain sense, but in a live show they take on a looser, more psychedelic quality. Is this an element of improvisation or is it the intensity in which you guys play that gives it that feel?

Live there’s quite a bit more improvisation. We extend the song by a couple of minutes— we add new jams, and we do covers. A lot of times with those jams it’s just like, “you know, maybe I’ll try something a little bit different here, a little more colorful.” We try not to overplay because if everyone’s just jamming it gets a little too much. But there is definitely a lot of improv in the live set, though the jams have a structure. We know for the most part where we’re going to start and stop. But what we do within those eight measures sometimes is much freer than other evenings just depending on how everyone’s feeling. I really love doing the live jamming because when most people start playing music, it’s like punk rock and rock music. Those heavy moments are just great to get back to. Like, “Oh yeah, I remember, I used to like rocking the fuck out. It’s pretty fun.”

When we’re in the practice space writing a jam, we usually head off the first day of tour with a very loose idea of how the jam’s going to turn out. We usually figure it out after a week of shows, and we’re finally like, “alright, we got this. We know where this is going now.” We’re pretty good at jamming with each other. We’ve been doing it for a long time so everyone knows how our jam will grow whether it’s a cue, a head nod, or a foot stomp. It’s just like, “Alright, we’ve got to explode here.” So I’ll switch to a beefier tone and Zack will kick on a bass distortion. We’ve gotten good at just knowing what one another will do. “You know that one thing that you sometimes do? That here? That’s cool.”

It’s a lot of fun and really cool. I got a bunch of new equipment, too—after Lollapalooza, our van and trailer got stolen. Much of the equipment got recovered, but six guitars and three keyboards didn’t. I was able to replace all my missing stuff with new gear that got me really excited ‘cause it was all brand new synthesizers that I have never played before. It’s still an adventure for me actually. I’m lovin’ it though.

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