"Created" blends the band's occasional prog tendencies with catchy finger-picked folk, striking a reflective tone that keys Portugal. The Man's third album, Censored Colors. Frontman John Gourley's willowy Robert Plant-ish tenor flutters like a kite catching wind, and a cello enters after the first verse, enriching the mix.
Gourley notes our brief tenure ("cars just passing through"), urges fellowship ("help out all those friends that helped you too") and acknowledges our weakness for possessions ("everything you own that owns you too"), but it's not judgmental. "'Cause we do as we please/ that's all we can do," he sings. "Created" closes with one final gilded choral reprise which, sweet as chocolate, is welcomed like a rich relative. Like a pep talk, it coaxes acceptance and encourages the pursuit of our soul's nourishment in whatever form it may take.
We spoke to founder Gourley about the song, "Created," last year's album, Censored Colors, and the band's forthcoming release, The Satanic Satanist, due July 21.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How did "Created" come into being?
JOHN GOURLY: To me, that came out being my favorite song on the album in the end for a lot of reasons. A lot of it was the way it came together, as with anything on Censored Colors. It was all written in the studio. We went in for two and half weeks, and just made a record. "Created" was one of the last songs that we did and Kirk Huffman, who was producing the album, actually came into the back room while I was working on "Out and In and In and Out." He pointed out that there were no songs with finger picking on Censored Colors, which was something that had been on all the records in the past. Something he always liked was when I did the finger picking stuff, and I had just been messing around with that riff. My brother had just had a kid, all this stuff had come into my life, and I just really wanted to write about it.
That song came together, I think, within 30 minutes. It's crazy to think about. That mindset and that time—it's just how people work. Whatever had to happen we would just do it. That song was no different. It was the most spontaneous and the most thought-out at the same time. It was thought-out in the sense that we just kind of had to leave in the mistakes and let it go where it needed to. There are a couple spots in that song where the pre-chorus kind of repeats itself, and it was actually a mistake in my playing, I just played through from start to finish two or three times, and that was the one we kept.
You've obviously done a lot of work with samples and pre-recorded material, but this one was more "best live-to-tape take."
We've always kind of done that to an extent. I know this is awful to say, but [Censored Colors was the] first record where we are actually playing songs from start to finish in the studio. It worked really well, especially with that song. "Out and In and In and Out" was kind of the same way. We did some things in editing, like make certain notes very precise after the fact, and I think it gave a really cool mixture of that sample element that's not necessarily noticeable when you just listen to it.
It's a very reflective, easygoing spirited song. What prompted this "peaceful, easy reeling," to steal sickly from the Eagles?
[Laughs.] Everything on the record was about life and death and, I guess, everything that I've always been afraid of my whole life. It all came back. I'm positive now, because it all kind of traces to when my grandfather passed away. Just my whole experience with that, and the way my family kind of dealt with that. My uncle passed away the year before. So I think I have just been thinking about that a lot, and I just realized that last moment it was how my family really worked, which is just: You can't stress that stuff. You can't worry about it. The second you let that worrying about dying and worry about war and worrying about worse things, you kind of lose track of yourself.
Usually when people talk about the things they own or that own them, it's a very negative, pejorative thing. It doesn't seem that way here.
We moved out of Alaska a little while ago—five years ago—for the sake of this band and touring. Growing up in Alaska there is so much money to be had. There are good jobs if you look for it. I had always been around that growing up and I had never really fully taken those lessons to heart that my parents had thrown my way, which were the fact that they left a home in New York and moved to Alaska straight out of high school basically, and lived out in the woods. It definitely helped me do what I wanted to do and not worry about things like money, just getting rid of everything and taking a step back. I think that's where that came from.
So you're saying this change in outlook only happened after you left Alaska.
It wasn't until I left that I stepped out and I realized that I needed to do what I really want to do with my life and to write about the things that I want to write about and just live rather than work for somebody else. Those aren't bad things either. I will say there is something that gets lost when you're touring as much as we do. Having no home and no place to go is pretty heavy as well.
What kind of impact did Alaska have in shaping you as a person?
In every way: Alaska's mentality has pushed me in so many ways. Everybody up there is so driven. It's definitely a construction crew state. Everybody works in some field of construction. It's actually a bunch of really driven people that work for what they get, and don't take it for granted—which I did, until I left. I'm sorry to say that. I didn't really get it, but the second I left I came down to Portland and was like, "This is exactly like my home." This is everything I expected, and then flying back to Alaska I realized Alaska is a different place completely.
Tell me about working with Paul Q. Kolderie (Pixies, Radiohead, Dinosaur Jr.) and how you approached this forthcoming album.
We had spoken over Censored Colors, and he was just the funniest person I talked to. When I called him up, he immediately launched into his—which I find now is his joking around, his sense of humor—but he launched immediately into, "How do you want the record to sound? Do you want it to sound scary? Big? Soft?" and went on. I said, "We don't know how to mix a record. That why we're calling you." And he's like, "All right, fair enough."
It was so cool, so funny. Everybody else we talked to, they were great producers and respected people, but I didn't get that vibe of, "Fuck it." He was so funny recording this new record. It was the most fun we've had in the studio. It's crazy to think about it that way because we've always gone into the studio with friends that we've known. We didn't know Paul and we really didn't know [Cornershop keyboardist] Anthony Saffery and Adam Taylor (Dresden Dolls, Lemonheads) all that well. I'm so blown away with how smooth everything went and how laid back and carefree everything was with three producers in the room and everybody having input.
That sounds like it could be chaos.
You would think so, and it should've been. I feel really lucky again. Every time we do something new I feel so good for the group of people that I play with because everybody is so laid-back. That was something Paul pointed out to me when we were in there, how laid-back everybody was. I feel like a lot of bands get into that kind of pissing contest with each other.
How much of that laid-back feeling was the fact that you'd already demoed the songs? Before this, you've gone into the studio to write. There's certainly some stress in that.
Yeah, for sure. This was the first time we've ever done pre-production. It was fully because it was Paul. We were stepping into a studio with a major producer. He's crazy as shit, and I didn't want to go in there and give him something we weren't fully conscious of before the fact. I didn't want to be winging it in the studio, but in the end we actually kind of did, and it worked out in the best way. For the most part, the songs were there, but just having Paul say, "Go in there and play it, guys," put the pressure on us to play it and change things that needed to be changed on the spot.
As I understand it you've always set out to make a soul album. Have you succeeded? And what is a soul album to you? Will this sound like a soul album to other people?
It did. I think it worked out in the best way possible. Coming off Censored Colors, we had finally touched on songwriting a bit, and it was something we'd never really done in the past. I mainly just riffed around and tried things out. It was something we all wanted to do, and I think approaching the songs, it just made sense to go for more of the Motown song structure and just think of songs like "Ain't No Sunshine" where it's the same riff the whole song. It's one of the best songs ever.
That was the whole idea. We went in and did the songs. It went crazy in the best way and became a rock album and a pop album. It became everything that it needed to. The only way it could have been changed was if we had done the things we have on the last record, which were strings and horns on every track. That would, I think, be taking a step backwards, for us at this point. We'll probably do that in the future. It just didn't make as much sense coming off Censored Colors.
I wondered about that since bands usually zig after zagging on the previous album.
It's always been a conscious effort in the band to make something new each time out. To try and improve on everything we've learned the last time around. I think to an extent we've been rethinking a lot of it lately, which must sound weird because the new record's not out yet. Just doing all that and seeing everything come together, you start to notice now that we're four albums in. You notice the things we've completely forgotten from the first album, which is not all that long ago. But it's going to be cool to step back and do some older things and use our improvements to help those as well.
It seems like there are themes of faith and salvation that run through the new album.
I think with Satanic Satanist, it wasn't about religion at all. It was more about that escape my parents found in Alaska. And a lot of people have found escape in Alaska, which pushes you to work for something more. It's something I got to see early on, just because my dad was building hotels for this company and we would go out to these really small towns, and he would run dogs. He ran the Iditarod quest, and camping trips. It's more about how I got to see that stuff early on, but it really didn't settle in until later. The Satanic Satanist is more about the escape from everything. Once you break free from all of that and get away for a minute, it's harder to bring yourself back. It's a lot easier to see all of your faults. I feel like we're happy with what we've done and where I am as person.
Portugal. The Man plays Cat's Cradle Monday, June 15, at 9:30 p.m. with Tin Star. Tickets are $5.