Where better to meet Portugal. The Man than in Portugal. The Country? The American band, whose core members are from Alaska but are based in Portland, Oregon, named themselves after the home of Ronaldo and custard tarts back in 2004, just because it was the first nation that came to mind. Then they added that awkward. Full stop in the middle to trip up anyone trying to read about them. Their first ever appearance in Lisbon turns out to be a great day in a long career that has only recently seen the sextet harvesting real rewards.
Firstly, they got to sleep in a hotel instead of on their tour bus. The band have played around 80 gigs so far this year, first hitting the road three days after their belated breakthrough hit, Feel It Still, won Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the Grammy Awards at the end of January. “I brushed my teeth in a sink last night!” gushes bassist and affable chief spokesman Zach Carothers. “Other times it’s a bottle of water in a parking lot.”
Then they met a senior Portuguese politician at a fancy gathering and hashed out a campaign for a Visit Portugal tourism promotion. People can send in their own versions of the latest Portugal. The Man single, Live in the Moment, and win the opportunity to perform at a music festival there.
Providing the theme tune for an entire country ought to make them a pretty big deal in the Portuguese capital, but as they take the short cut to their trailer through the centre of the waterfront NOS Alive festival, they go unmolested by fans. “Everybody knows the song but they don’t know us. I can still pump my own gas, which is fine with me,” says Carothers.
The song, though, is now very famous. Feel It Still can sit alongside other catchy, retro hits that have taken up lengthy residence in the charts while feeling one step removed from the rapidly dated fodder around them – Blurred Lines, Hey Ya!, Uptown Funk, Get Lucky – songs that sound familiar enough to become a lovable friend straight away.
“When we play Feel It Still at a festival, you do see this realisation coming over about 30 per cent of the crowd: ‘Oh, it’s THESE idiots! I thought that song was Pharrell.’ About once a week someone sends me a video of their adorable kid singing it from a car seat,” says guitarist Eric Howk from beneath a Pantera baseball cap.
This one sounds familiar for a good reason. Its funky bassline is played on the same type of Höfner instrument that Paul McCartney used in The Beatles, and the melody of the key line, “Ooh, woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks, now,” is lifted from Please Mr Postman by The Marvelettes (also covered by The Beatles). As a result they pay royalties to, among others, Brian Holland of Holland-Dozier-Holland fame.
The whole song was written in about 45 minutes, with the Please Mr Postman melody used as a “placeholder” until they could come up with something better. They never did. “Our legal team told us that if we just changed two notes, it would have been completely our song,” says Carothers. “But we didn’t like it without that melody. It had become part of the song. And maybe a 14-year-old kid who loves music but has no idea who The Marvelettes are will read this interview, go back and find Motown, and be inspired to make more music. It just keeps everything going.”
Unlike its conception, it has been a slow burner, first released in March 2017 and reaching its highest point on the UK charts, number three, in March this year. It ended up going four-times platinum in Canada and Australia and triple platinum in the US. Carothers says he realised it was going to be big when, in the same week, it was called “the song of the summer” on both the US morning programme The Today Show and Lars Ulrich of Metallica’s radio show. “If we could get the moms that watch The Today Show and Metallica fans, we were casting the net pretty wide.”
The band might not have been expecting much at this stage. Between us we can’t think of any other act whose first hit single comes from their eighth album. But they weren’t exactly small-time, either. Since their fifth album, 2011’s In the Mountain in the Cloud, they’ve been signed to Atlantic, the same major label as Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran. Producers on Woodstock, the album from which Feel It Still comes, include Mike D of the Beastie Boys, and Danger Mouse, who has also worked with U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Gorillaz. They made some of it in Rick Rubin’s luxurious studio in Malibu.
Yet no one anticipated Spotify streams now approaching half a billion. “There’s a dedicated ‘alternative’ team that has always dealt with us. The pop division is very separate, with its own offices that we weren’t allowed in, where the lightbulbs all work,” explains Howk. “When we put the record out, the conversation about crossing over into pop did not exist.”
And now they have crossed over, nobody seems to expect them to stay there. “I think we can write a better song,” says Carothers, who picks the six-minute long Sleep Forever, from 2011, as the band’s finest moment. “But if we had 10 million dollars and the smartest ad agency, I don’t think we could make this happen again.”
They’re lifelong outsiders, happy to visit the shiny world of the mainstream on holiday. Singer and chief songwriter John Gourley, who has spoken of his “crippling social anxiety” and skips this interview, is no Bruno Mars. Howk, a childhood friend who joined the band in 2015, looks different from almost every other musician, having used a wheelchair since a 2007 fall caused a spinal cord injury. “There aren’t a lot of touring musicians in chairs. It’s kind of new territory,” he says. “I’m working with advocacy groups, trying to find my voice in all of this, but basically the most important thing I can do is keep doing my job. There’s nothing on heaven or earth that would keep me from doing this thing that I love.”
These two, plus Carothers, are literal outsiders too, having grown up around Wasilla, Alaska. You may have heard of it because Sarah Palin used to be the Mayor. Carothers’ nearest neighbour was two miles away. At one stage Gourley’s family lived so remotely that they were just a few miles from the abandoned bus where Chris McCandless, the society-shunning wanderer made famous by the book and film Into the Wild, died.
That kind of childhood makes them a bit different from most. “We’re a knifey band,” says Carothers, opening and shutting a large knife he keeps in his pocket. “What do I do with it? Someone’s always asking for one. I cut off people’s festival wristbands. I ate an apple with it earlier and looked super cool. It’s not for protection, it’s a tool.”
When the band arrive in London for a headline show next week, he’ll be hoping not to repeat a 2009 visit, when Heathrow security found an illegal butterfly knife that he had forgotten about in his hand luggage, and he spent a night in jail. “The cops were cool. They knew I wasn’t a terrorist, I was just an idiot, but it took a while to sort out.”
You can take the boy out of Alaska… and as his band carry on around the world, from their Iberian namesake to the UK and beyond, it doesn’t look like one huge song will change them much. With their epitaph sorted, now they’re free to enjoy themselves.
July 24, O2 Forum Kentish Town, NW5. o2forumkentishtown.co.uk