Portugal's Man

John Gourley learns practice just might make perfect


Portugal. The Man—punctuation intentional—is an odd name for a band, but no odder than the names of bands they've been compared to: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. But that, too, is a little strange, says songwriter and high-voiced vocalist, John Gourley. Why is this little au courant band written about in the same reverent breath as some of rock's heaviest hitters? Gourley isn't entirely sure himself. He doesn't listen to either of those bands much and thinks those comparisons are far too lofty. Plus, he's more of a Beatles guy.

When they're not on the road, PTM calls Portland, Ore., home. Band members hail originally from Sarah Palin's almost-in-Russia small Alaskan town of Wasilla.

Both their native state and their adopted one shape the tone of their last album, Censored Colors. Lush bridges and choruses crescendo like cresting waves before crashing down on miles of gritty sand, and notes stretch on and on like a long Alaskan winter night. Emotionally charged lyrics are as gray as a Portland sky juxtaposed with lines of hope like rays of sunlight through fat cumulus clouds above a wintery tundra. Rich instrumentation is in part what has earned PTM their big name comparisons as is Gourley's singing, which has the timbre of a high-school choir girl's alto. It's startling and charming and one of the band's most unique features and at times, very Robert Plant-like. Even Gourley's speaking voice is high and a bit reedy, but that could be due to PTM's relentless touring and recording schedule.

PTM recently finished recording their fourth as-yet-unnamed full-length, due out later this year on their own label, Approaching Air Balloons. They recorded in Boston with Paul Q. Kolderie, Camp Street Studios' producer, mixer and engineer, taking some of the indie out of their previous all DIY rock.

"Paul Kolderie mixed Censored Colors, and he ended up being somebody we talked to quite a bit, so we decided to go [to Boston] and make another album with him," Gourley said. "Everything we've done before this new album has been with friends. It was stepping outside and playing with new people."

As is their habit, they sequestered themselves in the studio.

"Every time we've ever made an album, we've been so excited to make music together we just wake up, go to the studio, work until midnight and then go back and go to sleep and then start over," Gourley said.

"Scotty, beam us down some shirts. We're freezing." - PHOTOGRAPH BY EMILY DYAN IBARRA

But unlike their usual plan of hanging out, riffing around and letting the musical chips fall where they may, they enlisted the talents of musicians like Camp Street's Adam Taylor and sitar player Anthony Saffery of British band Cornershop to take the whole thing to a more professional level.

"This is a record we were really nervous about heading out there," Gourley said.

Though comfortable with Kolderie, PTM had never written songs much in advance, had never done any pre-production or demos and, again, had worked with friends, suggesting a far more relaxed atmosphere around the band's previous albums.

"Whatever happened, happened," Gourley said. "We all got caught up in how much fun it was and the idea of just throwing it out there and seeing where it goes."

The anxiety of working with Kolderie, who has worked with such musical luminaries as Radiohead and The Pixies, was soon quelled when the band sat down with him and listened to the songs in pre-production.

"We realized how much preparing and practicing really helped," Gourley said, laughing.

The result of all of this advance planning is an album that Gourley said definitely reflects the entire band's love and admiration of the Beatles. The whole process was an interesting dichotomy: Gourley really wanted to focus on song structure. The songs are all short and follow a classic verse-chorus-verse format.

"It was so much harder than I expected ... it's usually just playing guitar and seeing where it goes ... picking the right parts is so much harder than I expected, which I would have expected, I guess, if I'd thought about it," Gourley laughed.

And in order to adhere to a more systematic method of song creation, they had to squelch their tendency to let their songs wander. But because they had done so much work in advance, they were far more relaxed then they thought they'd be.

"This was the most easy album we've ever put together, which was so surprising," Gourley said. "Having practiced and gotten the songs ready, we had the basic tracks in about three days. It was just fun from there on out."

Thursday, March 12, with Dusty Rhodes and the River Band, 8 p.m., $10 through Ticketweb, $12 door. Neurolux, 111 N. 11th St., 208-343-0886. Visit for a PTM studio video diary.