Portugal. The Man likes spontaneity. The band also likes random punctuation in the middle of its name. You could even say the Alaska-based quartet has a knack for doing things ass-backward. For example: Even though the band writes music while on the road and works out the parameters of some of its live jams ahead of time, it prefers to go into the studio and compose albums from scratch. And although bandleader John Gourley makes demos with drum-machine beats on them, the band records the drums last — in stark contrast to the standard practice of getting the drums down on tape first. This time, for the group's upcoming album, Censored Colors, Portugal. The Man increased the spontaneity factor by going into the studio straight from touring, allotting themselves just two and a half weeks (about half the band's usual time), and bringing in a pair of other musicians as producers.
"Going into it," Gourley explains, "right away, we knew it was going to have more instrumentation. We added cello, violin, trombone, trumpet... a lot of instruments got used on this album. Working with other musicians, there were so many ideas getting thrown around the room."
Gourley describes a routine in which, after finishing his tracks for one song, he'd begin writing the next song to have it ready for the group to work on the following day.
Portugal. The Man
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"There was a lot of working until 3 or 4 in the morning and waking up at 8 in the morning to start all over again," he says.
Now, even the casual rock fan knows that bands tend to be terrified by the prospect of writing from scratch in the studio. So why doesn't PTM draw on its pre-existing material — especially when it always has a bunch on hand?
"It's the way I've always done things," Gourley says. "For some reason, my mind does not work in the way that it should. I can't remember anything. I'll write songs on tour and get really stuck in the groove of editing and overworking until the song is just garbage. I need to just throw something out there and leave it as is, use the melodies as they come to me. This time around, we had so many different people to jam with in the studio that it made it a lot more relaxed."
And what about doing the drums last? The challenge with doing so is that bands usually rely on the drummer to keep the tempo steady enough for the rest of the players to be able to record their parts. Surely there's some method to PTM's madness, right?
Well... not really.
"I have no idea how it works," Gourley confesses, laughing. "I feel like, if we question it too much, we'll lose it and not be able to figure out how we did it in the first place."
But on further reflection, Gourley does offer some insight: "I guess everything before this new album was pretty much sampled, in a way. I would sit down and play guitar, and we would copy and paste, and we would build songs more like a hip-hop producer would do it."
Gourley recalls a chaotic process for the band's first album, Waiter: "You Vultures!" By the time they hooked up with drummer Jason Sechrist, Gourley and bassist Zach Carothers had already done most of the recording on their own.
"We had gotten so into it," Gourley explains, "that we made the whole album with a drum machine. It was really funny having Jason come up and record over top of that stuff. Because, when you're using drum machines, you can do such crazy shit. There were high-hats everywhere and extra snares. Jason had to deal with a lot."
The drum-machine aesthetic isn't surprising when you consider that PTM started out as Gourley's pet diversion while he was still fronting Portland post-hardcore outfit Anatomy of a Ghost. Gourley and Carothers — high school friends who grew up outside of Anchorage — had relocated to Portland to play in Anatomy of a Ghost but were starting to feel stifled creatively. Gourley's initial intention was to wed the psychedelic texturing and pop richness of the Beatles to the driving feel and hard-hitting sonics of Wu Tang Clan. However, by its second album, last year's Church Mouth, PTM had evolved into a densely layered cross between psychedelia and progressive rock.
Although the band's high-pitched vocals and modern twist on prog do warrant comparisons to like-minded acts like the Mars Volta and Circa Survive, PTM's sound stands apart, thanks to a distinctly boogie-rock feel that layers the music with the aroma of the 1970s but never veers into overt retrophilia. For the new album, PTM simultaneously refined and expanded on the sound it achieved on Church Mouth. Unsurprisingly, several of the songs arose from on-the-spot improvisation.
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"For some of the stuff," Gourley says, "we just jammed live and then took pieces of those jams and wrote songs around them."
PTM's affinity for improvisation stems from an initial European tour, when the band arrived with 25 minutes of music prepared, only to discover that it had been booked to play for an hour and a half each night. Today, Gourley stresses the importance of stretching the songs out in concert, of expanding them beyond their familiar parameters. But again, this is yet another place where PTM approaches things a bit backward from the way bands typically tend to do things. Many songs on their touring set list, Gourley explains, have little to do with their most recent album of the moment. So chances are, when you see PTM live, you're going to be treated to new (and ever-changing) presentations of older material.
In keeping with its spontaneous approach, PTM likes to play shows with guest musicians, either pulled from the ranks of bands it's touring with or people visiting the band who live in that particular city. It helps keep the band on its toes. It also ensures that you're getting something special every time you see the band live. To pull that off, PTM has to set some parameters in advance. Gourley cites James Brown's improvisational "one-time, two times!" cueing method as a big influence and insists that PTM has no interest in being self-indulgent or losing the audience.
"We've played with so many people at this point," Gourley enthuses. "We really get a kick out of letting them jump onstage and letting them figure it out on their own. Sometimes it works out really well, but it's not always the caliber of the musician that makes that. It's really fun to see what someone else will do when they're just thrown into our music."