John Gourley, The Man behind Portugal. The Man sits across from me at a deserted table in a back corner of Complex’s Manhattan office. "We just wanted to make something that was The Beatles meets Wu-Tang," he says, and begins laying out the storied past of the band that’s become his life's work. Just off the release of their eighth full-length album, Evil Friends—helmed by super producer Brian Burton a.k.a. Danger Mouse—Gourley seems settled, happy, and even a little proud.
The Alaskan native admits to a shyness so debilitating that at one time he couldn’t even place an order in a restaurant, but now, the 32-year-old fronts a band whose hip-hop minded indie rock anthems are selling out arena-sized venues internationally. He cites his home state, in part, for the spiritual undertones and expansiveness of the band.
"When you grow up in Alaska in the woods, you definitely look up and think, 'What the fuck is this?' It’s the brightest stars you'll ever see," he said. "It may not be a religious thing as much, like tied to any religion or being raised on any of that, it's just you really get a sense of yourself. You really feel like there’s a meaning to things and certain things happen for a reason."
John and his childhood best friend Zach Carothers both grew up in Alaska, or in John’s words "far from everything," and it was this relationship that formed the initial impetus for the band. After moving to Portland, the group has seen an ever-evolving cast of musicians, but Gourley and Carothers remain the heart of the collective.
Living in Portland, the two were part of a band called Anatomy of a Ghost that fell apart, and formed Portugal. The Man soon after. The idea behind the name was to establish the character—Portugal—as a man, not a country. "Portugal" served as an alter ego, something like Ziggy Stardust or Sgt. Pepper, that could work as a representative of the band's persona.
After stints on indie labels, and at one point even their own, Evil Friends is the band’s second release since they signed with the Atlantic in 2010, a sign of success that Gourely still counts as an honor.
"I have to say it's pretty fucking cool to be on the label of Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles," he said. "That shit for me is so massive. Atlantic has been my favorite home for the band—we wouldn't have made this record without them. I wouldn"t have finished the last record if it wasn't for Atlantic. I"m just happy here. I know other people don't need to be on labels and that's fine. But I really like the history of Atlantic and being a part of that is cool."
"I have to say it's pretty fucking cool to be on the label of Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles. That shit for me is so massive."
Historical connections aside, gaining recognition from a heavyweight like Atlantic has created larger-than-life opportunities for the band—not just putting out records on the same label that housed Motown idols—but the ability to contribute to a larger sonic tradition, to add to a sound that erupted in the '60s and has carried into the modern era.