It’s not as if the bearded indie rockers with the quirky band name ever planned on being a Top 40 act.
In fact, the lack of planning that went into their hit song “Feel It Still” actually sort of aggravates the members of Portugal the Man, since it’s now so ubiquitous that you hear it in grocery stores, at junior high dances and in Vitaminwater commercials.
“There are many songs of ours we literally spent a full year working on,” groaned Zach Carothers, co-founder of the suddenly mainstream Oregonian/Alaskan band. “And that one — our biggest one ever — only took us about an hour. It’s crazy.”
You probably know the song, even if you don’t recognize the title or the group’s mouthful moniker.
Over a beboppy bass groove and a falsetto that many listeners have mistaken for a woman’s voice, Portugal the Man singer/guitarist John Gourley sings, “Ooh, I’m a rebel just for kicks / I’ve been feeling it since 1966 / Might be over now, but I feel it still.”
After a decade of kicking around clubs and midafternoon slots at summer music fests, Portugal the Man is suddenly the kind of band seen at last month’s Grammy Awards or at some of the Jingle Ball Top 40 radio concerts around the country in December. And it’s all because of that one song.
The Portugal men and backup singer Zoe Manville (Gourley’s partner) have seen a lot of dramatic changes since “Feel It Still” first cracked the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in November. It’s still going strong, too, at No. 27 on the chart last week.
The bassist and co-writer who formed the band with Gourley in their native Wasilla, Alaska, in 2004 (before relocating to Portland, Ore.), Carothers had a lot of funny but admirably uncynical things to say about how pop success changed the day-to-day goings-on for his band.
They learned just how big their record label is. “We started meeting people at the label [Atlantic Records] we’d never met before,” Carothers said. “We were always close to our people there, but there’s this whole other level and floor at the company you get introduced to from the moment they get the first whiff of Top 40 potential.”
They’re doing a lot of Top 40 radio shows. “The DJs take some getting used to. They all seem very excited about their jobs. But they’re really all very professional and work hard to do what they do.”
They’re famous now (sort of). “We’re used to only getting recognized by the kids in the Tame Impala T-shirts at the festivals, or whatever. Now, we get recognized in random places by a lot more random people. But for all the people who know the song, a lot of them still won’t know what the hell you’re talking about if you said, ‘Do you like Portugal the Man?’”
Predictably, they’re already being called sellouts. “On one hand, you really want to tell those people to shut up. We’ve worked very hard for a long time to get where we’re at. But you really just have to laugh, because it’s absurd to think we were trying for this. We knew we had a fun little song on our hands, but we never imagined it’d become this.”
BLAST OF INSPIRATION
The way Carothers remembers it, they really weren’t even trying to write a song when they worked up “Feel It Still” in the studio with producer John Hill. During a break in the session, Gourley started playing around with the bass line to “Please, Mr. Postman” when Hill (who has co-writing credit) urged him to keep going.
“It was really all by accident,” Carothers remembered, laughing about what he said was “John almost being annoying about” pushing the band to turn an impromptu jam into a real song.
“He was like, ‘Let’s get a beat going. Do you have any lyrics?’ We came up with the lyrics so fast, we didn’t even write them down. It started to become really fun, and that’s when we kind of knew we had something. We would’ve never gotten it if John hadn’t intervened.”
Ironically, that lightning-blast moment of inspiration followed a couple of years of lengthy and ultimately stalled studio sessions working on the album that would become “Woodstock,” PTM’s eighth full-length record. The band had worked with super-producer Danger Mouse as well as Beastie Boys collaborator Mix Master Mike, but most of that work was shelved in the end.
Calling two weeks ago from Los Angeles — where the band had taken its first step toward working on its next album — Carothers said they probably won’t make the same mistake this time.
“We won’t be banging our heads against the wall as much as we used to when it comes to making a record,” he said. “We’ve learned to just go with what sounds right more, and not overthink everything — to take a more relaxed and fun approach to recording.”
One thing that hasn’t changed: The band is still treating its tours and live shows as its raison d’être, and has another full year of dates ahead. Carothers talked warmly about all their past trips to the Twin Cities, even when the cold sometimes took him and his fellow Alaska native Gourley by surprise.
“It’s the only place we regularly play where it’s often warmer in Alaska than it is there,” said Carothers, who remembered coming to Minnesota in his youth to see a cousin play hockey for Shattuck-St. Mary’s high school in Faribault: “I think that’s the coldest I’d ever been up to that point.”
Still, he proudly noted, “It’s one of the cities where people have been supporting us a long time.”
It looks as if that’s another thing that won’t change for the suddenly almost-famous bands.
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