Portugal. The Man – Wasilla’s Censored Colors

Saying you’re from Wasilla, Alaska these days is like painting a giant bulls-eye across your face – you’re going to get stuff flying at you from every direction. For Portugal. The Man, the up-and-coming band from—you guessed it—Wasilla, this can be a wondrous thing.

Take their latest album, Censored Colors, as an example. Around its release, lead singer John Baldwin Gourley posted this blog to the band’s MySpace page, which centered around Wasilla’s most famous figure—you guessed it (again)—Sarah Palin.

“It was just a story that has really been a lesson,” Gourley told me over the phone.  “That story comes up in everything that I do; it’s a universal story. You just treat people right, and the land that you live in. Community is your land, it’s not just the people you have to interact with, you know?

The Hockey Mom from Wasilla Alaska.  I just don’t buy it! There just something really creepy about it. I was lucky enough to grow up in Alaska, and I can’t say I’m a true Alaskan – I don’t live out in the woods and live off the land. But, I was raised around those people, and I am really lucky to be a part of that part, to an extent.”

The blog post became an Internet hit with P.TM’s fans, as did Censored Colors, which was one of 2008’s underrated gems. The album plays out like Pink Floyd The Wall’s long-lost cousin at every turn – there are sounds and messages not fully heard or understood until repeated listens. It doesn’t work for every mood you’re in, but as Gourley told me, “This band has never been about the way things are supposed to work.” I’d have to agree with him.

Glide recently had a chance to talk with Gourley about the making of Censored Colors.

How did the songs off Censored Colors play out in a live setting on your last tour?

You know, it’s been something that’s really great to see and really fun to do. Ever since we did Waiter: You Vultures!, every one of my friends in music has been saying,  “You should try and write music with chords.” (laughs) Because it’s so much easier to strip things down…and I’ve always been just…honestly, when we started this band, I didn’t know how to play guitar wholly. It was mainly just writing riffs and a singer picking little parts, and I would sample things with drum machines. I would pretty much just post-production everything, and then we would go and figure it out! (laughs) But with this record, I actually learned some chords and went in with the intent to actually write songs, which is something we’ve always attempted to do anyway.  This band is fully made up of pop kids when it comes down to it, as odd as some of the music may come across.  But that’s always what we’ve been going for. So it’s cool to be able to add strings and trombones and trumpets, and then to be able to strip it back to the songs. It’s actually come off really cool live.

This album was recorded pretty quickly, wasn’t it?

Yeah, we got back from tour, and we went up to Seattle for a week or so to work on EPs, or just album demos. And we happened to record a couple of demos with Kirk Huffman and Phil Peterson, who ended up producing the record.  Zach and I went up to Alaska, and I called them while I was in Alaska, to ask if they wanted to make the album.  And we just had two-and-a-half weeks off, once we got back from there, and we had to make a record and get it done, and then go out on tour again. It was a really short period; there were only maybe ten days of real recording.

Did that pose some stiffer challenges, or was it a nice surprise?

I tell you what – I was so stressed! (laughing) The first three days went by and everybody was so excited and laughing and having a good time, which carried on throughout, but in my mind…it was like, “Holy shit! We have a whole album to do, and we haven’t written any songs!” Which is pretty natural for the band anyway – to go into the studio and do it.  But, we didn’t have anything written, and I realized that I had to write a song a night to even get through it.  So, there’s a lot of that pressure that was there.

How is that for you as a songwriter being put on the spot like that? Do you think you produce better work that way?

Yeah, it did – it always has for me. I can’t do demos. I’m the worst. Unless I record anything that is completely set, I end up over-editing it.  I can’t even write lyrics in advance.  If I write lyrics in advance, it’s the biggest mess. I’ll sit there and say, “That word doesn’t work!” (laughs) So, it just becomes what the band does.  I really want to try pre-production, just for the sake of trying to do it and see how it would work. And maybe pull off some of the jam stuff that we do live in the studio, if we can actually do an album like it.

Are you lyrics autobiographical?

It’s pretty well split between everything.  I’ll tell you pretty honestly that some of the time when we’re in the studio, I’ll just throw out a word sand say, “What’s the first thing I think of when I hear this word?” I’ll play that game; I like to play games with the words. It’s really fun to just take them and sit back and look at it seeing what kind of visions you can make by the combinations you can put together. I think that’s one of the best parts of writing – just doing whatever.

And also, for this album, the listener needs to spend some time with it, because there’s a lot going on. Was it your intent to present something this huge?

You know, it wasn’t really the intent in the beginning.  The whole record is completely different than what we expected it to be.  We just happened to be in the studio with such amazing musicians. We had cello and violins and trumpets and trombones, and it just made a lot of sense to make a record that’s somewhat for our parents, as a thank you to them for giving us the music that they did.  It was just one of those things where we felt we should reference as many of those points as we possibly can. And, I think within that, the obvious Beatles references that we deal with every album; this band is such a lover of The Beatles. We love all of that.  I think that more of anything, it’s just neat to put reference points in records; the whole last part half of the record is a fairly obvious Abbey Road record, with linking tracks and small tracks that need the song before it to work.

You mentioned the stuff your parents listened to and gave to you – do you still listen to that?

I’d like to say that (our tastes) have grown! (laughs) I really did grow.  When I went into high school, bands like Oasis and Nirvana and Marilyn Manson—things like that—were a huge point in my life that brought me to actually play music because I felt it was so simple! (laughs) This is as simple as music could get.  I always heard Sam Cooke and Smokey Robinson—all the old Motown stuff—and it’s so untouchable for a kid, or for a kid who is completely shy and never wants to be in a situation like that. But, I think that having gone through that whole part of my life that was hearing all these new bands and trying to make bands like that…we finally just got to a point where we wanted to have fun, and make records we wanted to make. The music that I listen to is all of that. And there are really great newer bands like The Flaming Lips – they’re undeniable. Just as far as the positivity goes – that’s such a cool band and fun band.

So when did you really think music was what you wanted to do with your life? Did it come that young?

No…I was scared. I was a really shy kid. I was shy when this band started, and I have been getting over it slowly. I still have anxiety attacks and things like that. There’s a point in everybody’s life when those fears will leave on their own.  I really wanted to do it, and I think that maybe why I wanted to do it was just seeing that whole lifestyle that was mainstream music of the 90s. It was so crazy and so huge. Once I finally left Alaska, I joined Anatomy of a Ghost like six years ago. And within a month the band got signed, we were immediately out on tour, and I didn’t even have to take a step back and say, “Wait a minute – here’s this whole new world of music with the understanding that these bands don’t make a whole lot of money.” You know? These bands are just people…we got to play with a lot of our favorite bands right away.  It really just brought us back down to earth to say, “We should just do something we want to do,” which is why that band broke up anyway. We just decided that we need to make music that we want to make.

Is it hard when you first realize that you have to go all in, or you’re not going to be able to do what you want? Maybe when you start to realize that it’s work?

Yeah! Zach and I are from Alaska, and if there is anything that Alaska is about, it’s about just working and not taking things for granted.  We’ve always done that. I always think it’s so funny that I get asked about the pace – because we go into the studio with no music anyway! If we went in every three months, we would be fine with making records. Just think about the amount of life that happened to you in the last three months. I mean, that’s a record’s worth of material right there.

Do you still spend a lot of time in Alaska?

No! (laughs) It’s frustrating answering that question. We’re on tour all the time – 300 days a year. I think the time is spent in Portland waiting for the next tour to happen or in Seattle recording the next record. And then Alaska whenever we have substantial breaks, which is pretty much Christmas.

Glide Senior Writer Jason Gonulsen lives in the St. Louis, MO area with his wife, Kelly, and dogs, Maggie and Tucker. You can e-mail him at: [email protected]

Colors – Portugal The Man

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