There is something to be said about the spotlight that Portugal. The Man grabbed in the Alternative Rock scene in 2017. They’re a band that has been around for more than a decade, but if you didn’t listen to them in high school, it’s guaranteed you’ve heard their hit single “Feel It Still” by now.
But the hit tune caps off the end of a longer story. For newer fans, let’s start with what’s familiar. Let’s use the words and lyrics to “Feel It Still” to guide us through the events that got Portugal. The Man to where they are now. From their start in Alaska, to their adventures across the world, to returning home as rock stars, and wading their way out of a rut to sucker punch onto a number one on the Billboard charts.
“Can’t keep my hands to myself”
Over the years the line-up morphed the band’s faces changed, save for two: John Gourley (vocals) and Zach Carothers (bass). They played together in high school, but once their original band broke up, the music had already taken its toll and Gourley couldn’t keep his hands still. The energy shifted to a side project that was just the two of them until they found a drummer and packed their bags in 2005 for Portland under the new name Portugal. The Man.
“Am I coming out of left field?”
“It’s an interesting name,” the band said, when interviewed by Blank five years ago. Although unusual, the band promised that they had had a reason for the name. The first part of the represented a group of people, a collective, kind of like a country. “Portugal” was the first to come to mind in the spur of the moment. Then there needed to be a period, a placeholder for the pause that framed the dramatic entrance of “The Man.” The last part referred to the idea of being one whole unit, an enticing sentiment, if anything. “We have regretted it ever since that day,” they laughed.
“Kids in the middle, move over ’til it falls”
Since their first album, Waiter: You Vultures!, released in 2006 on Fearless Records, the band’s journey had been on an upwards trajectory, laying down the bricks of their alt-rock kingdom with each album and live performance. In 2007, they released Church Mouth and set off to criss-cross the planet touring around the United States and Europe. Fired up from their adventures, they said goodbye to Fearless Records, before moving on to independently produce Censored Colors in 2008 and Satanic Satanist the following year (which was leaked early, but didn’t slow the group’s momentum). For 2010’s American Ghetto, they cautiously signed with Atlantic Records, and staying true to the social media tactics of their MySpace days when they had streamed Satanic Satanist before its release, Evil Friends was announced in 2013 through cryptic Instagram posts and tweets that revealed the album art and title. The “Portugal” part sealed and defined (at this point, the band had achieved international recognition), it was only a matter of time until they would live up to the latter part of their name: the period, the pause that needed to happen before their next creative era.
Is it coming? / Is it coming? / Is it coming?
What had been going on in the background was revealed in an interview with Time. The band’s unreleased follow-up, Gloomin + Doomin, had the glamour of a star-studded cast and featured a production credit by Mike D of the Beastie Boys. Yet for some reason, the band was running out of steam, and among the promises that piled over the three years, they were stuck on unsatisfying retakes and unfinished songs. Portugal. The Man, who had burned brightly like a star in the past half a decade, had started to flicker in and out of relevancy when their album was postponed.
Ooh woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks, now
During this period of hellish pseudo-hiatus, Gourley and Carothers hung out with Gourley’s dad. Over beers, he asked his son and friend what was taking them so long to release new music. They had what they needed after all: a guitar, drums, a studio. There was no excuse for the long wait. Despite his exasperation with his father (who seemingly thought that it was easy to write music), Gourley let his father’s perspective sink in. Maybe it was time to go against the glamour and the sparkling frivolity that had come with being rockstars? It was time to hunker down and just make music.
Let me kick it like it’s 1986, now
They went back to work in the studio on Gloomin + Doomin, until Gourley said he needed a break. Chilling in a separate room, they experimented with a bass line that had been running through Gourley’s head, only to be interrupted by Asa Taccone from Electric Guest. He asked if he could record the line and then hassled Gourley for lyrics… The frontman tested out “rebel just for kicks”’ and from that moment on, the rest of the words streamed out, as he sang it to the melody of the 60’s jive “Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes.
It wasn’t an odd pairing. Music from that era hadn’t been too far off in Gourley’s mind. Among his father’s memorabilia, he had found a ticket stub from the Woodstock music festival in 1969. Finding it had struck a chord, as it dawned to him that music could still be played for the same reasons it had been decades ago. It still threw the spotlight on societal unease, and put political commentary in a language anybody could understand.
The tune from that era snapped into Gourley’s lyrics that day. The jam session continued on with rigor, and the album that had been in the works for three years was forgotten.
“Feel it Still” wrote itself in 45 minutes.
Might be over now, but I feel it still
The song was released in March to overwhelming critical acclaim. The track smashed Billboard’s Adult Alternative Chart at the number one spot, and achieved rank among the top 10 of the Alternative Songs chart. The follow-ups to “Feel it Still,” “Number One” and “Live in the Moment” were met with success and the result was a long awaited album titled “Woodstock”.
As the new year begins, the alt-rock anthem of 2017 still holds true to the political and social stew that 2016 had began to boil. It is clear that “Feel it Still” not only played a role in Portugal. The Man’s journey by shifting their perspective and defining themselves as a force to be reckoned with. It also reminded the scene that music had the power to enable much-needed discourse about society. It brought listeners back down to earth with an impact that will echo throughout 2018.