By Nate "Igor" Smith
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Portugal. The Man likes spontaneity. In fact you might even say the Alaska quartet does 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 group records the drums last — in stark contrast to the standard practice of getting the drums down on tape first.
This time, for its third and forthcoming album, Censored Colors, Portugal. The Man increased the spontaneity factor by going into the studio straight from touring. The quartet allotted itself just two and a half weeks (about half the band's usual recording time) and brought in a pair of other musicians as producers. "Going into it, right away we knew it was going to have more instrumentation," Gourley explains. "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 where, 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. "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.
But even the casual rock fan knows bands tend to be terrified by the prospect of writing from scratch in the studio. It's practically a staple of VH-1 documentaries to feature a moment in which a band talks about feeling pressured to come up with material and looks back with regret. 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. "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."
And what about adding 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? "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."
On further reflection, Gourley offers some insight. "I guess everything before this new album was pretty much sampled, in a way," he offers. "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 that we made the whole album with a drum machine," he says. "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 began as Gourley's pet diversion while he was still fronting Portland posthardcore outfit Anatomy of a Ghost. Gourley and Carothers, high school friends who grew up in Alaska, had relocated to Portland to play in that band, and Gourley was beginning to feel stifled creatively. His 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.
The band's high-pitched vocals and modern twist on prog warrant obvious comparisons to acts such as The Mars Volta and Circa Survive. Still, PTM's sound stands apart thanks to a distinctly boogie-rock feel that nearly saturates the music with the aroma of the Seventies, but never veers into overt retrophilia. For the new album, PTM simultaneously refines and expands on the sound it achieved on Church Mouth. And while Gourley and company have filled the music with more instrumentation, they've clearly taken on a bigger sense of space. Unsurprisingly, some of the songs arose from on-the-spot improvisation.
Portugal. The Man's affinity for playing extemporaneously stems from an initial European tour where the band arrived with 25 minutes of music prepared, only to discover it had been booked to play for an hour and a half each night. And 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 musicians who live in that particular city. Gourley says this keeps the group on its toes. It also ensures audiences are getting something special every time they see the band live.
"We really get a kick out of letting [guest performers] jump onstage and letting them figure it out on their own," Gourley says enthusiastically. "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 would do just being thrown into our music." To pull that off, PTM has to set some parameters in advance. Gourley cites James Brown's "one time, two times" cueing method as a big influence, and insists PTM has no interest in being self-indulgent or losing the audience. "We can jam all night long onstage, but it loses its dynamic when you just wing it."