Listen to Austin 360 Radio

ACL Fest 2010 preview: Portugal. The Man

Alaska's more than a home for leader of Portugal. The Man

Patrick Caldwell

John Gourley is homesick.

It's written all over the last two records from Portugal. The Man, the kaleidoscopic, psychedelic pop quintet Gourley's led since 2004. Gourley and bassist Zachary Couthers were both born in Alaska, and though they've toggled between Wasilla and Portland, Ore., it's clear that he misses the land its residents call ‘the Last Frontier.'

‘I have been a lot more homesick lately than in the past. I'm not really made for city life,' confesses Gourley. ‘We've been so busy for so many years, either always on tour or making a record; last year we finally got to the point where we were able to rent a home and settle a bit. And that made me start thinking about where I wanted to live, and where I wanted to be. It took me back home and made me miss being able to walk outside and just wander into the woods.'

Gourley formed Portugal. The Man in Wasilla, as a side project to his Portland-based hardcore band Anatomy of a Ghost. It became the main event after that band disintegrated. Contrary to Anatomy of a Ghost's screaming vocals and punk energy, Portugal. The Man was a fiercely catchy affair, with soaring rock melodies, waves of vocal harmonies and a liberal dose of synths, keys and strings. The band was fiercely prolific, releasing at least one album and one EP per year, starting in 2006.

Alaska was always a character, but it took center stage with 2009's ‘The Satanic Satanist' — in a bit of a bait-and-switch, the sunniest album Portugal. The Man ever released, title aside. Gourley sang lovingly of Alaska's perpetual summer sun, its woods, its status as his always-and-forever home, on the songs ... well, ‘The Sun,' ‘The Woods' and ‘The Home,' respectively.

Points for directness.

‘My dad moved to Alaska from New York with nothing but the change in his pocket. He got a job building homes for this tourist company, so we'd travel to these remote places all over the state,' says Gourley. ‘I went to schools that consisted of just one building, just one room, where there'd be just one kid in a grade. Everybody lived and worked together. I think that's a big reason I miss Alaska so much. I miss that feeling of community. You know everyone you run into.'

Those sunny childhood experiences informed ‘The Satanic Satanists,' but this year's ‘American Ghetto' — a more honest title — examined the dark side of Gourley's high school years, years riddled with drugs and suicide. Alaska, as Gourley is quick to point out, does have the nation's highest suicide rate.

‘I had a lot of friends who went down the wrong path. Not to be judgmental, but I have too many friends who fell into suicide or drugs or crime,' says Gourley. ‘It's pretty awful when you go back home and hear that two of the friends you went to school with shot themselves. I still love Alaska and want to end up there someday, but it's a complicated place. I didn't want to portray it as totally idyllic.'

Just as Gourley's songwriting has progressed from deconstructing his childhood to tackling his adolescence, Portugal. The Man's albums have grown shorter, leaner, meaner, less wildly experimental and more accessible.

‘When we started, there was just this level of excitement that was "Let's write as many songs as we can on the album and do all these crazy structures,'' ' says Gourley. ‘And as we went along, I started putting together my favorite albums, and I really started looking at it, and they were all 10 songs and 35 minutes. And I just started to think about my attention span, and I guess being more considerate to the listener in a lot of ways.'

That's a direction Gourley says Portugal. The Man will continue to follow — even as they toss in a bit more progressive rock experimentation on their sixth, upcoming studio album. It will be their first for Atlantic Records — and Gourley has a refreshingly optimistic, excited attitude toward being on a major label. Not that he always felt that way.

‘Of course we talked for like eight months before we actually signed and we were super punk rock about it. We were like "(Expletive) no, we can't take that deal,'' ' laughs Gorley. ‘We did our whole production because we didn't know what they wanted of us. But we eventually figured out they basically wanted the same thing we did. And come on, we're on the same label as Led Zeppelin. How cool is that?'

Portugal. The Man performs at 2 p.m. Sunday on the Budweiser stage.