Portugal. The Man
A polished Bentley sits abandoned on the side of the road with its hood popped and tangerine flames billowing from its windows. The image appears to be making a commentary on wasted potential and crumbling facades.
This is the cover art for Woodstock, Portugal. The Man’s 2017 release with Atlantic Records. It subliminally prepares listeners for a more self-assured sound from the Pacific Northwest rockers and harkens back to a day when musicians promoted social change. With poignant, call-to-action lyrics and bold ventures into R&B, Woodstock represents the the band’s best material to date.
After the release of Evil Friends in 2013, Portugal. The Man attempted a different approach to recording music. They spent three years working on a project called Gloomin + Doomin before lead singer John Gourley received some tough love that set Woodstock in motion.
“We tried the Prince approach,” Gourley confided, chuckling to himself. “It turns out, that approach really only works for Prince, Elvis Costello, or Paul Simon. We thought let’s put together 50 or 100 songs and we’ll pick out the 10 best. Every time we went into the studio and wrote a new song we’d be like ‘This is the best!’ and we just kept going down that road.”
It’s easy for any successful band to get caught up in their own hype. Thankfully, all it took was one trip home to Wasilla, Alaska, for Gourley’s dad to talk some sense into them.
“We’re back at home hanging out with my dad and he’s like ‘What’s taking so long with the record?’ But he said it in the way that a carpenter would say it. To him, it was just a matter of getting the right tools together and building what you set out to build. Like, don’t you just pick up your instruments and walk into the studio and record the song? It’s obviously not that simple, but at the same time that’s what we’ve always done.”
The title Woodstock is half inspired by and half tribute to Gourley’s dad, who he credits for always steering the band in the right direction.
“My dad is one of those people who has inspired everything that I do in my life and in my music,” he said. “In the same conversation about our next album, I noticed his ticket to the original Woodstock, just sitting on the shelf. The politics of his era and the way kids were getting out in the streets to fight for civil rights and social issues, it was just really poignant the way the entire thing came about. Zach and I were just sitting there with him like ‘Yup, you’re right. We’re going to go back into the studio and we’re going to write 10 songs and it’s going to be called Woodstock’.”
Gourley’s vocal range and the band’s mix of producers make it difficult to pin the band to one specific genre. On Woodstock, the group traces back to folkish Americana roots, then surprises fans with soulful tracks like their punchy single 'Feel it Still'. The single just hit its record breaking 16th week sitting firmly on top of The Billboard’s Alternative Charts at No 1. ‘Feel’ became the quickest progression to the chart’s peak since Kings of Leon’s ‘Waste a Moment’.
Gourley gives credit to Danger Mouse for moving the band in a groovier direction and picking up the pieces after they scrapped Gloomin + Doomin.
“When you sit down with him, it’s not always about the most technical melodies or the most technical parts. We had a really great time working with him. It was just about going in and whoever has the best part makes the cut. He definitely pushed us in new ways, especially lyrically. He would be like ‘Why are you singing that? What’s the purpose of that lyric?’ or ‘Is that about the same thing you sang in the last song? Write something different’.”
From the cover art to its lyrical content, Woodstock implores listeners to pay attention to the metaphorical luxury vehicle burning on the side of the road. The interactive visuals for 'Feel it Still' serve as an example for how musicians can use technology to engage viewers. Made in partnership with creative agency Wieden + Kennedy, the video provides a toolkit for joining resistance movements, including a direct dial to the White House, a video explaining the legal rights of protesters, donation sites for Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, custom-designed protest posters, and stencil kits for resistance graffiti.
According to Gourley, “Art as activism has always been a huge part of why I play music. Those are all my favorite Beatles tracks and the reason why I love Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. It’s so important to people and I think it’s so strange when people have an aversion to that.
“When we put out the video for 'Feel it Still' we got bombarded with messages saying ‘You’re a musician, you have no place to be commenting on politics, you shouldn’t be talking about this stuff, just play music and be happy that you’re successful.’ That would be the typical attack,” Gourley laughed.
In fact, Gourley resists labeling their music as political at all.
“My response has always been that equality has no place in politics. Equality is not political. Giving everyone the same freedoms regardless of their ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, et cetera, shouldn’t be a divisive issue. It doesn’t matter what your political affiliation is, we should all support equality for everyone.”
At a time when the President of the United States regularly uses social media as a platform for temper tantrums, Portugal. The Man’s latest release soothes as a distraction while reminding us of our common human bonds. This summer, the band will hit the road in their biggest world tour to date. If their live renditions prove as inspiring as the new album, it’s not far-fetched to think that the band could incite movements not unlike the ones conceived in 1969, the year of Woodstock.
Written by Danielle Dorsey