Who’s the Man?

By Arrissia Owen

Posted May 3, 2012 in Music

John Gourley may not be convinced but his role in Portugal. The Man earns him best vocalist

John Gourley is a guy, the very one behind the voice of Portland-based band Portugal. The Man. The gender may seem obvious the moment you hear the name John, but it wasn’t always so straightforward.

The first time Gourley attracted label attention for his music he was ecstatic. However the scenario didn’t quite mesh with his getting-discovered daydreams.

“Hey man, who’s the girl singing?” the record label guy asked. Gourley, whose celebrated, high-pitched vocals have graced stages at Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, was crushed.

“I stopped singing after that,” Gourley says. “I was like, ‘Everybody thinks I’m a chick. I guess this isn’t what I am supposed to be doing.’” He wasn’t exactly aching to front a band anyway, so he accepted defeat. Plus, coming from an Eskimo village, rock star ambitions seemed unlikely.

Gourley, who grew up with dog musher parents in an isolated area on the northern coast of Alaska, relied on AM radio for much of his musical upbringing. As he got older, Gourley saw how newer bands were recreating the past.

“Rage Against the Machine made me want to play bass,” Gourley says. “Oasis and Nirvana proved you could write really good songs still. I didn’t realize people could still do The Beatles like that. It was amazing to hear.” He started playing music with friends up until his early retirement.

Thankfully, Gourley’s childhood friend Zach Carothers coaxed the self-conscious singer away from building houses with his father to lay down some tracks. Carothers, who ditched Alaska to attend college in Portland had formed the band Anatomy of a Ghost.

Despite his reluctance, Gourley was looking for an escape after a particularly harsh breakup. The collaboration took hold, which led to the band with the odd name and even more puzzling punctuation.

Portugal. The Man recorded its first demo in summer 2004. The group hasn’t slowed down since. The band—its current lineup also includes guitarist Noah Gersh, keyboardist Kyle O’Quin and a touring drummer—works at a frenetic pace. It released six studio recordings in six years.

That urgency finally faltered after the band’s first major label release, 2011’s In the Mountain in the Cloud, on Atlantic Records. It’s been two years since the band entered the studio to record the critically acclaimed album released last July. Gourley says he still owes the album its due touring.

The workload has been intense, and not without its casualties. Portugal. The Man lost members to burn out, family issues and side projects—one touring drummer even quit mid-show at New Orleans’ House of Blues in early April.

After a whirlwind European tour with The Black Keys and a string of additional stateside dates recently—they stop at Pomona’s Fox Theater May 4—the band isn’t itching to hunker down in the studio anytime soon. Gourley, an admitted perfectionist, is ready to slow down to make sure they get it right, he says, and without making everyone insane.

It’s that old Alaskan stubbornness, the charismatic frontman explains. Gourley approaches music the same way he tackles building houses back home. So one might imagine that when someone piles on the accolades that he’d start taking victory laps and high-fiving. Well . . .

When the call came informing Gourley he was voted AP Magazine’s Best Vocalist of the Year back in 2008, he was more than humble.

“I think I said, ‘Didn’t Paul McCartney put out a record this year? Grizzly Bear?”’ Gourley recalls with a laugh. He kept naming off singers who he felt deserved the honor instead.

“They were like, ‘Just accept it.’  I said, ‘OK, I’ll take it, but I know these people are better singers than me.’ I wish I had the confidence to just say to them ‘Yeah, of course I won. Yeah, that’s me, best vocalist. I figured,’ and then just hang up.”

At least others know—he’s the man.

Portugal. The Man with The Lonely Forest at the Fox Theater, 301 S. Garey Ave., Pomona, (877) 283-6976; www.foxpomona.com. Fri, May 4. 8pm. $22.50.


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