Portugal. The Man Is Alaska Proud, Even with Major Label Success

Portugal. The Man is playing the Pageant this weekend.
Portugal. The Man is playing the Pageant this weekend.

The music video for "Noise Pollution," the lead single off Portugal. The Man's new album, begins with frontman John Gourley clinging to the trunk of a bare birch tree. As the song's electro-bassline kicks in, Gourley drops from his perch and does push-ups in a fast-flowing river. The video cuts intermittently to a snowmobile on fire.

The images are distinctly Alaskan, which is no mistake: The video was shot on the Susitna River near Wasilla, where the founding members of the band grew up together.

"I learned how to swim — or at least float — in that river when I was four," says guitarist Eric Howk.

Throughout the band's history its members have returned to Alaska to shoot videos, and even when they film elsewhere, they find themselves drawn to similar aesthetics, Howk says. For instance, the video for the band's groovy, swinging follow-up single, "Feel It Still," was shot in a junkyard in Oregon, but it pretty accurately portrays what it's like to walk into a subarctic hole-in-the-wall.

"The bars in Wasilla have the same vibe," Howk says. "You don't know whether there's a gas leak in there or if there's some sort of Fear and Loathing thing going on. Everybody is looking at you like they want to fight you."

Even as Portugal. The Man has become a critically acclaimed, internationally successful indie-rock band, the guys have taken a bit of Alaskan rowdiness with them. Bassist Zack Carothers explained during an April performance on KEXP 90.3 FM in Seattle that the group often plays small, unannounced shows under different names to test out new material.

"We just go play little bar shows and probably drink too much, get a little bit crazy," he said. "That's our way to really let loose."

Howk spoke to the Riverfront Times by phone ahead of Portugal. The Man's show at the Pageant on June 11. Currently in the midst of an international tour, the band will roll through St. Louis less than a week before releasing its new album, Woodstock.

Though Howk has played with the band off and on since its earliest days, he didn't officially become a member until 2015. He met Gourley as a student at Snowshoe Elementary School in the reedy willow forests outside of Wasilla, and he started a band with Carothers in high school.

"We were not good," he says, "but we were one of the only bands in town, and we always had a feeling that it was what we wanted to do — whether or not we were good at it."

After relocating to the Pacific Northwest, Howk pursued a career as a touring guitarist with various groups, including the now-defunct power-pop band the Lashes. In 2007, toward the end of that band's run, he was severely injured after stepping into an unmarked hole at a construction site. The twelve-foot fall fractured his vertebrae and left him paralyzed from the sternum down, but it didn't keep him from playing guitar; he has performed in a wheelchair ever since.

Meanwhile, Portugal. The Man steadily gained popularity, first with a major label debut album, 2011's In the Mountain in the Cloud, and then truly breaking through with hits "Purple Yellow Red & Blue" and "Modern Jesus," both off 2013's Evil Friends.

Howk was in and out of the picture throughout that period.

"Any time I was in the same city, or if I was playing the same festival with a different band, I would jump on stage with them," he says. "Now, the only difference is that I don't have the choice to say, 'No.'"

Woodstock is the first album Howk helped build from the ground up, and it was somewhat of a circuitous process. Drawing influence from hip-hop and R&B from the early 2000s, the band originally recorded about 40 songs with Mike D of the Beastie Boys, but eventually decided to steer the record in a different direction and worked with super-producer Danger Mouse. (About half the songs that made the final cut are revamped versions from the Mike D sessions.)

"We needed to focus on material that said something, that meant something," Howk says. "A lot of the songs didn't feel like the right messages to get out because they were about girlfriends or nature or whatever. We thought there were more interesting, compelling narratives that would come out at some point."

For example, beneath the hookworm melodies of "Feel It Still" the lyrics are about basic human rights — like access to clean water — and the Black Lives Matter movement. The song's buried message of resistance is given more context by the music video, shot in that Alaskan-style junkyard, during which Gourley writhes around, dances like a robot and sings that he's "a rebel just for kicks." Carothers, playing the role of some guy at the bar who wants to fight, lays him out with a punch to the face.

Musically, listeners can hear Howk's influence in the descending guitar run that gives the choruses in "Feel It Still" an exotic, Bollywood-style flavor. He also helps arrange vocal harmonies, but he's a guitarist first and foremost — as his bandmates can attest.

"They knew exactly what I do, and that's exactly what they wanted," Howk says. "I created a dream job for myself and got hired by my best friends."