Confession: For the past four or five days, I've really only been listening to one song. In my defense, it's a really, really good song. Last Friday Atlantic Records sent me a four-song sampler of some brand-new stuff from Portugal. The Man's forthcoming sixth album, In the Mountain in the Cloud, including what will be the first single, "So American," an earworm of a song with an elegant melody bolstered by cellos and steel drums. (Yeah, steel drums.) (Unfortunately the song hasn't been released to the public yet, so you'll just have to believe me when I say it's great.)* I liked the song so much I had to get PTM's ridiculously lovable frontman John Gourley on the phone to talk about it. We ended up talking about more than just the song, like Motown, conservative talk radio, and the Palin kids. Read on.
Emily Dyan Ibarra
When's the new album going to come out? Who's been working on it?
Gourley: Towards the end of summer. Andy Wallace, who everybody should know--he worked with Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Slayer, Jeff Buckley. He worked on some of our all-time favorite records. Does amazing work . . . He is just on top of his shit. We kind of just gave [the record] to him knowing it was Andy Wallace, and I mean, fuck our notes anyway. Whatever he's going to do, he's going to do. He focuses and highlights all the band's strong points. Also one of the nicest guys I've ever talked to. I realized the other day--this was one of those really surreal moments--he had called me up and I missed his call, and as I open up my phone I hit his speed-dial number, and realize I have Andy Wallace on speed dial. He's one of the coolest and most respected people in music for all of us.
What did you write this album about?
Originally I was going to write about my grandfather passing away . . . He was my first close family member who passed away. It just made me think about life and death and how little it bothered me. For whatever reason. He was a great guy. But my family's always kind of been like this. It's not something that worries us or bothers us, if it happens it happens.
Well, the recording process was really intense. It was intense on all of us. We had just signed to Atlantic Records, and we wanted to deliver a good album. We wanted to write our best songs. We ended up putting so much pressure on ourselves, it just stressed out this whole process of recording, and the whole album just became all of my thoughts throughout that year and everything I was witnessing with the band and how we interact and how we interact with the outside world. I'll call it that because we really live in a bubble. We really live in a fucking van. So it just became so much more than that. It's basically just commentary on everything that we get to see. We travel around the world. I was actually thinking about this this morning, just because I was on Twitter and I was seeing Tweets from bands that were in Paris and Amsterdam, and I thought it was so funny that these people, most of them high-school dropouts, never went to college--why are these people given the opportunity to travel around the world? I hope they really appreciate it.
Are you a college dropout?
Oh yeah, totally.
So you were wondering that about yourself.
Do you like Portland better than Wasilla?
Um, I wouldn't . . . no.
Do you miss Alaska?
I honestly miss Alaska. Mainly because I just sit in the woods when I'm back home. I don't even leave my house really in Portland. It's just the way I am. I've never been a really social person. I have fun with people and I like being around people, but I kind of just watch nerdy movies and draw all day.
Do you know the Palins?
We used to hang out and talk politics. We have a lot of similar opinions on things. No, I would say we have different circles of friends.
Isn't it a small town, though, one of those towns where everybody knows everybody?
Oh yeah, it definitely is. Friends of friends have been at parties with the kids. They were kids when they were going to parties. Yeah, they were going to parties when they were like 14! Really young. We're old in comparison to them.
Really?! OK back to your record. "So American"--two questions. One, what is the song supposed to be about?
So, we're not a political band. I cannot stress that enough.
Yeah, well that's why I'm wondering.
Again, to go back, we travel around the world, and I always think about it, and I can't believe we're given this opportunity. We try to take in as much as we can. During the election, we were on the streets in Germany, and it was late at night, and we were out at a bar, and coming back to the hotel we stopped at one of those kebab shops on the streets. And we go up there, and right away, the guy calls us out as Americans. He's like, "Americans! You're gonna vote for Obama, right? Do not let Palin into the White House! Do not do this!" He was just yelling at us about this. And I couldn't help but think--no offense to hot-dog carts--what are the chances that some German guy walks up to order something, and they say, "Oh you're German, huh?" And then start talking about their politics, and what's happening in their world. I just found it so funny. It was such a bizarre experience.
And we would listen to conservative radio just because it's amazing. Like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage. We would listen to that stuff and hear them yelling about, "If I wanna drive my truck, I'm gonna drive my truck! I don't have to drive some electric car!" They go off about this stuff. It's just strange, it's because they're American. "Because I'm American," that's their answer to everything. "I'm gonna carry a fucking gun, I'm an American, it's my right!" So it doesn't matter how ridiculous it sounds to us, it's fine because you're an American. And that's what the song kind of became. Without being political, it's just us sitting back and saying, "Well, that's funny."
My second question about the song is, along with the other three songs I heard, it kind of seems to be toned down. Would you say that's accurate?
I would say so, from American Ghetto especially. I recorded American Ghetto right after we finished Satanic Satanist. I know it came out a year later, but it had been recorded for a while. Satanic Satanist was this total pop record, and we play in a rock band at the end of the day. And I think it had made me really self-conscious. Because we made this really clean record, I wanted to go in and make a dirtier record with American Ghetto and not really pay attention to song structure as much. It's a cool record, and it's great to have a record like that in our collection. I shied away from things that I realized going into this album were actually the strong points of this band. Songwriting and melody, the things that you get really scared of. Anytime you start playing a chord progression that you've heard before, you get really anxious. I don't know why, it gives me panic attacks. I'll be like, I know this melody, I've heard this before. You just don't want to do it. But like Motown, that's all Motown is, it's the same shit over and over again with a different singer, or a slightly different melody. And that's all my favorite music. I just realized that you can't really be scared of melody, you can't be scared of being repetitive, because at the end of the day, being worried about it will make you repetitive. You have to be true to the song you're trying to put out there. I felt like we did it the best on this new album coming out. It's the closest to the sound we want to make, the sound we want to present as a band.
*Actually there's this 30-second teaser**, part of "So American"'s upcoming music video, filmed in Alaska by Seattle's own Mike Ragan:
**You'll likely also hear the new songs when Portugal. The Man plays the Showbox at the Market this Saturday, April 30. The show is all ages, $16 adv./$18 DOS, and Telekinesis and Brainstorm are opening.