Recently I got the chance to chat with John Baldwin Gourley of Portugal. The Man. I'd like to thank him very much for his time and for being so open to all my questions. I'd also like to thank Heidi Ellen Robinson Fitzgerald for setting this up. Make sure you all check out Church Mouth, out in stores July 24th on Fearless Records!
What are some challenges youíve faced being a band from Alaska, and how has that influenced your music?
A while back I had sent out demos while we were actually in Alaska to labels and all that, and the main thing everyone was saying was that to do this you need to leave Alaska. Itís so far away from everything that with constant touring and everything that goes into being a band itís just borderline impossible for the band starting out, you know?
Yeah, I could imagine!
Yeah and I mean thereís not an especially large music scene up there either (laughs), the cities are fairly small by the lower 48 standards, so there wasnít a whole lot going on in the way of music up there. There were random bands every now and then, but nothing could really be taken seriously until we left the state. And honestly, leaving the state and then coming back, has been a huge influence on the music. Itís been just really, really good to realize how small Alaska is, and how separate it is. I mean thatís something I never understood before leaving the state. I mean we have cities, and we have towns, and we have stores. Itís how you would assume everywhere else is growing up there, but going back itís really nice to see how different it is. You know you can go out into the woods and just camp and be away from everything if you want to, thereís not that option as easily down here.
Thatís awesome that it was such a great learning process for you.
Yeah definitely, I mean now we have the internet and everything, so itís not that hard being a band from Alaska; but at the time of us starting out and playing shows it wasnít as big of a thing and definitely harder to get noticed.
So what was the writing process like for Church Mouth, and how was it different from the process you went through for Waiter: ďYou Vultures! and Itís Complicated Being A Wizard?
Well I guess when we went to the studio with Waiter; we had a bunch of just random beat based songs before that point; so going into the studio was a really spontaneous thing. We brought Jason in to play drums and Zach and I just played the best we could. It was the first time I personally stepped out with a guitar with the intent of playing it in a band, so it was really a lot of getting there and going over songs, wondering ďcan I play this live?Ē We were really held back by my abilities on guitar and I was really, and I still am actually, really nervous when it came to vocals.
Yeah, itís never been something that I was very confident in and even at this point Iím not the most confident in my singing. Even with this record, everybody had to leave the studio while I did vocals. And I guess that was a big change, the last record I pretty much sat on the couch and just sang all the vocals sitting down, which is mainly because we didnít have a drummer at the time, so I was just singing to guitar. So the vocals were a big change. Casey (Bates) had come and seen us live and I sing a lot louder live, I donít know why I just do. Casey just forced me to sing as loud as I could. He did a lot of really good things with the new record as well as the old. He just pushed us to write better songs and even with things like lyrics, which I really appreciate. Itís really good to have somebody that actually has some thoughts on what youíre saying. He would say things like ďthat worksĒ or ďthat doesnít work,Ē and a lot of producers from what I understand donít put that much attention on lyrics. And then obviously the vocals, which was a really huge thing, Casey was really big on this record. A lot of the more organic sound came from us touring Germany. I donít know if a lot of people know about our tour in Germany, but when we got there we were told we had to play an hour and a half every night. We seriously showed up with a 30 minute set that we had been playing for the last 6 months.
Oh no! How did you guys handle that?
I mean here, I havenít been on tours where the headliner here played an hour and a half! And we show up there, having opened every show weíve ever played, and we were just thrown into playing an hour and a half long set every night. And half the time there wasnít even an opening band, it was just us, so we had to play that long. So we just jammed a lot, and we realized that we didnít necessarily need the sequences anymore. I mean, I will probably do that on EPís in the future, but as far as the band goes, the rhythm section is just so good. Zach and Jason, the way they play, thatís like the best rhythm section Iíve seen in a band. Theyíre just really locked in and really on top of stuff, so we kind of ditched the sequences due to that.
As far as Itís Complicated Being A Wizard, I recorded that directly after Waiter was done. And it was just something that I started recording and just snowballed and became eventually 23 minutes, which is really funny because I actually set out to make it 23 minutes long after I got past 10 minutes.
Really? You aimed for that exact time?
(laughs) Yeah! Itís so weird because I got to 10 minutes, and I was going to write 3 songs, and just make 3 longer songs for fun, just something that I wanted to listen to, just to get a feel for drum machines and everything. It was more of a learning thing for me. And when I got to 10 minutes it just felt like it needed to go further, so I said ďah Iíll just make it 23 minutesĒ and with times changes and everything somehow it ended up being exactly 23 minutes!
Thatís really funny. So how did you come up with the tracking concept for Wizard? Was it meant to be one long song or was it intended to be a contiguous story line but taken apart track by track?
Yeah see thatís the thing I had actually wanted to do three separate songs that would be 10 minutes long.
But it ended up just being the one? Because I know on the EP itís actually on there twice; as one long song and then separated by track.
Yeah I guess the thought process on that one was that there are definitely different sections of the song, and I know a lot of people can be like, and sometimes Iím the same way, you just want to hear a part of it. It felt right to offer it as, hereís the song and here are the different sections within the song. But everyone needs to make sure that if theyíre going to buy it on iTunes; they get the whole song, because they have it listed as the 9 separate tracks. Itís just unnecessary to buy the whole thing separately.
That makes sense. So one thing I noticed on Church Mouth, was there is a lot less synth than on your previous efforts. Was this on purpose or was it just the way it progressed?
Itís kind of just the way it came out, thereís synth on there every now and then, but a lot of that was Wes. Wes did a lot of the synth stuff and a lot of it was him and I sitting down and just playing off of each other, and we didnít have a keyboard player to do that with this time around. And in the end the record really didnít need it; it really wasnít in need of a synth sound. Thereís organ on there and electric pianos and stuff like that. And the synth use which is so little, is so good; itís probably due to the fact that Kyle OíQuin actually played on the new record.
I was just going to ask you about that actually! Iím a big fan of Gatsbys American Dream and Kay Kay And His Weathered Underground. I was going to ask you how you have enjoyed touring with him and if you plan on doing it again in the future.
Yeah weíll definitely do it again in the future. He came on the Germany tour that we just did and the Poison the Well tour that we did just before that. Those guys are just such good friends of the band and all of them are amazing players. Kyle can play anything, and it was just the obvious choice to have a friend come and jam on the record. All the guys from Kay Kay actually came and played on the record at different points. So I mean that was cool itís really good to leave things open like that, just because weíre a three piece doesnít mean we shouldnít let our friends jam on the record.
Oh yeah definitely. Friends have a lot of influence on the way things go as well, especially if you share the same taste and vision, things like that. So I can see that being a real good experience.
Oh yeah, for sure.
So I canít help but notice that you seemed to have turned to a sort of bluesy-rock vibe on the new record. Was this a conscious choice or just a natural evolution for you?
You know, when we went to Germany we just started jamming, we HAD to jam, for you know an hour of our sets basically. And we worked ďTommyĒ into the set, somehow it just came out of the jam we were playing, it just happened to be in the same key as ďTommy.Ē It just started to feel really right. Thatís one of the most electronic songs on the last record. Feeling that out in a live setting, it just felt so much more natural; it just made a lot more sense to take that step.
Speaking about Waiter, can you tell me a little bit about the story of ďAKA M80 The WolfĒ and the character behind it?
(laughs) This is actually kind of funny. We actually havenít really been asked about this much, ever... (laughs again). Anatomy Of A Ghost, were out on our very first tour we ever did. We were just hanging out Joe (the guitarist) and I, and this dude comes up to us in this huge down coat, and he just starts talking to us about all sorts of crazy shit and eventually it gets out that yeah, weíre a band. It turns out this guyís a rapper, and his name is Maniac, A.K.A. M80 the Wolf. So heís M80 the Wolf, and he was just this really crazy dude, and I hope he never finds out that we named a song after him because weíll probably get sued or whatever (laughs). It was just funny cause as soon as we left I told Joe that eventually weíre going to name a song after that dude, even though it was 4 years later we finally got a chance to do it.
(laughing) Thatís really funny. Speaking of Anatomy Of A Ghost, how annoying is it to you for people to keep asking you about your older efforts when youíre really concentrating on Portugal?
Oh itís cool, itís not like we get shit. (laughs) The band really needed to go our separate ways. It wasnít making sense anymore. When we came together, it was really just the 5 of us coming together and just playing what we played. I brought the more Portugal-like groove based stuff to the mix, and Zach brought his bass playing, and Joe brought the more rock-n-roll side of things, just like crazy intense guitars, and Dewey brought the hardcore stuff. So I mean, after a year of playing that and realizing like, holy shit, weíre all playing what we donít want to play, weíre all just putting in what we want to do. It just didnít make sense anymore. Itís not like none of us liked each other or we hated the band or anything. All of the guys in Anatomy have played in Portugal now; theyíve come on tours and done things like that. I donít know if a lot of people know that but all of Anatomy have played with Portugal at one point or another.
Thatís great that youíre all still close and still work with each other musically. I know youíre very passionate about your artwork as well as your music. Which one is more important, and which one is more personal to you?
Iíd say they go hand in hand fairly well. All art is art, you know? Painting, writing; it all goes together. You could write something and there is always a visual that would go to it and music that would go to it. I would say theyíre one in the same, but, theyíre both personal in different ways. I wouldnít exactly know how to explain it.
A lot of our readers are big fans of your art and have wondered this; some actually go as far as to demand it. Do you ever plan on starting your own clothing company?
(laughs) You know, I donít know, weíre so focused on the band right now, and as with the Wizard EP, it just being sort of a solo thing for me, I think anything any of us do in the future is going to be pretty much based around the band you know? If we were to make a clothing line or anything like that it would definitely be through the band.
The Portugal. The Man clothing line?
Yeah, yeah! Exactly. I mean it would just be like the shirts without the name on it, which we tend to do anyway. Iím not all about putting our name all over everything so weíll probably just have shirts that just donít have our name on it.
Well thatís something to look forward to. What is your take on downloading and albums leaking prior to the release date? Do you think it helps or hurts the bands, and to what magnitude?
Oh it never hurts the band! (laughing) I think bands that complain about that are just completely awful for giving a shit. I mean, the whole point of our, and like progressive music in general; just the progress of music, is getting it out there and people knowing about it and people hearing it. If youíre writing awful records I mean of course youíre going to be bummed when your record leaks and everybody says ďoh this bites.Ē If youíre writing something you truly believe in then it really doesnít matter. Iím all about downloading. I mean, people should get the music as they want it.
Are you going about things any differently knowing that Church Mouth leaked almost 2 months before its release date?
(laughing) Iíd say if anything weíre all really happy. Itís just a relief to have something out there that we have been sitting on for 2 and a half months or whatever. Weíre just ready for it to come out. So itís more of a relief if anything. Iíd much rather just have the support going into something, which Fearless did with this record, which was amazing. They were completely behind us, they didnít ask for demos or any of the things that most labels do. There was just a lot of trust going into it and understanding in the fact that weíre going to make a record that weíre going to be happy with and Fearless enabled us to do that. I think thatís the way all labels should be when it comes down to it. It should be like, go and do what you like, weíre going to start promoting this now, and when itís done weíll release it.
I agree. If a label is going to sign you they should have faith in you.
Yeah! There should be a lot more trust, and if there was trust like that, it really wouldnít matter. Bring the band in 6 months earlier to record two songs, release those songs as like previews for the record or whatever they want to do, and then start promoting it earlier.
About downloading though, we honestly donít care. If people want to download it then download it. If people donít want to buy the record and get the artwork weíll do it regardless. You know? Itís not a huge deal.
So which song on Church Mouth was written first? And did it spawn others from it, or are they each their own story?
I think the first song that was written was probably ďOh LordĒ, but it was much different than it is on the record. When we sit down to write songs, or when I write song personally, itís never a, finished song, I guess? We go into the studio with minute clips, like, hereís a verse, hereís a chorus, more like, notes, I would say. I feel like going into the studio with nothing, helps you make the most honest record that you could. I think as far as somewhat finished songs it was ďOh LordĒ, then ďSugar CinnamonĒ, then ďSleeping Sleepers Sleep.Ē
Whatís your favorite song on Church Mouth, and which is the most personal to you?
Honestly, I know this is kind of avoiding the question, (laughs) but I really like all of the songs on the record. I mean, they all came out the way they should have. If anything, the song that I feel really strongly about is a song that actually didnít make the record. We have two b sides, and one of them is on the record as an extra, called ďSun Brother.Ē Those two songs didnít make the record just because they werenít fitting the flow, it wasnít necessarily because they werenít good songs, we all really loved the songs; I guess they just werenít the favorites out of the 11 or whatever.
On your earlier albums, it seems that a lot of the lyrics translated to other places in time; and everything on Church Mouth seems really fresh and new. What are some of the lyrical themes in Church Mouth? Does this signify a different place in your life?
Well I guess when it comes down to it we were doing it to the best of our ability with the first record, and it was really new to us to be in that setting, the actual studio setting, we had never gotten to that point. I suppose most of it was religion and politics and just all those random thoughts that came out at the time, but really all of our records were written the same way. As far as the lyrics went, I wrote them all after the record was done. Thatís just the way I personally like to do things. I think it gets more of an honest thought process like ďokay which song are we doing, Iím going to write the lyrics right now and the melodies right now,Ē and do everything right there on the spot. I mean it gets those thoughts out without reviewing, editing, and all that.
So youíre not over thinking it, itís more honest.
Yeah. I mean it was written much the same way and there definitely are reoccurring themes throughout the record. Itís just harder to notice because we definitely set out to focus more on the songs and the whole process of writing, you know?
Yeah, definitely. Now how were you even able to take the time out to record with all the touring that you had been doing?
Well, I guess the way that we record itís not really hard to tour right up until the record. We really only go in with just that handful of minute clips, so itís really not that big of a deal for us.
I know we were talking a little about this earlier, and aside from the fact that both of you had been working with the talented Casey Bates, are the similarities between Fear Before The March of Flamesí The Always Open Mouth and Church Mouth intentional?
No, you know what; Church Mouth was actually named directly after we finished the last record. I think it was when I was in Alaska that winter. I went into the studio while Fear Before was recording after we did the tour together, and they told me that was the name of their album, and I honestly just didnít say anything because I didnít want to change anything about what they were doing, I thought it was really perfect. There was just a total coincidence and just really random. Iím sure they had their song titles long before, as well.
How did you come up with the name Church Mouth?
It was just something that came out. I just said it about something, I think it had to do with the gay nurse thing, because that was a really big deal, and still is a really big deal because it has to do with basic equal rights, you know? It came out of that. Somebody was talking about it and it was just straight by the book, bible, constitution and all that and I just called somebody the ďChurch MouthĒ (laughs) and thatís how that came up.
Since 2007 is half over what are some of your favorite releases from this year thus far?
Thus far, that Shins record came out this year right? That was real good. I donít know, I mean I guess I havenít heard a whole lot of new bands this year that I would put on that list.
Anything else youíve been listening to lately?
I guess because we just finished the record Iíve just been mostly painting, and we havenít been on tour, so I havenít really been listening to anything; which is somewhat obnoxious I suppose (laughing). I havenít listened to any music really since we went to Germany, or since we got back.
Any plans for international tours again after the US tour this summer?
Yeah, Iím guessing weíll probably go back to Germany at some point soon. And weíd like to go to the UK, and Japan obviously. Weíd pretty much go anywhere around the world theyíll send us.
Australia? I know we have some readers over there that have been asking about you.
Oh of course weíd go to Australia for free, weíd be there in a second! (laughs) Weíll see what happens. We just have to get distribution there, an agent there, and whatever.
One of our readers asked this next question: What do you eat for breakfast? Is it Wheaties that makes you so awesome?
(laughing) You know what, I hate to answer this with ďI donít eat breakfast,Ē but itís true; I donít normally eat breakfast. I donít know, I just never think about it I suppose.
I had a feeling that was going to be your answer!
(laughs) Iím really big into lunch and Iím really, really big into dinner, but breakfast is a time I randomly get it or I donít.
I was hoping it was Wheaties, because I eat Wheaties every morning.
(laughing) Iím very sorry to disappoint.
(laughs) Itís okay. So any favorite foods then? Any recommendations? Alaskan favorites?
Alaskan favorites? Hmm, well I guess any fish from Alaska basically. But I guess if you were to eat ďAlaskanĒ in Alaska its like moose, and things like that. Itís really game-y. Itís really strange.
Would I have to kill it myself?
(laughs) Well, I suppose if you wanted to eat it you could find any random person with a refrigerator full, or a freezer full.
(laughing) As long as I donít have to kill it myself weíll be okay.
Yeah (laughs) youíd be cool.
So anything else youíd like to say to our readers?
Just thank you for the support! I know thatís cheesy and really typical, but weíre really lucky to be touring around and meeting people and just playing music and being able to play music. A lot of bands arenít really given that opportunity. Itís just really nice to come from where we come from and have people coming out, and hanging out and wanting to hear the music.
Portugal. The Man is one of the best bands around today... different from almost every other band and constantly changing and improving their music. And John rules... this whole band is made up of awesome guys to talk to...