Usually we don’t like to make grand and sweeping statements about music festivals (since we go to quite a few), but this year’s Austin City Limits Festival lineup is one of the best that we’ve seen in a long time. From the headliners to the first timers, many of this year’s ACL artists have graced FILTER’s pages (and web pages), as well as cover—including our latest: FILTER 53. We’re proud to team up with ACL this year to give you a closer look at some of this weekend’s performers not to miss, through the FILTER lens.
Outward Exposure: Portugal. The Man Stakes Its Claim
Adventure is something that runs through the blood. Its slow churn can be contained for only so long before boiling over to manifest itself in the actions of the brave. Go ask John Baldwin Gourley, lead singer of Portugal. The Man, for instance. An adventurous spirit was his birthright.
In the 1970s, Gourley’s father joined forces with Robert A. Durr, a Syracuse professor and Terence McKenna associate, and the two took flight from their lower-48 lives to seek the unknown in “the last frontier” amid the awesome peaks of interior Alaska. The resilient senior Gourley would spend three entire years living off the land and cutting his teeth in one of the harshest climes on the planet—enshrouded in total darkness for months on end—before finally migrating south to outside Wasilla, a small city 50 miles north of Anchorage. But he was by no means yet ready to settle. Gourley’s father then built a cabin for Iditarod race founder Joe Redington, whose end of the barter came in the form of a fully appointed dogsled team. The senior Gourley would hone his mushing skills well enough to eventually compete in the Iditarod himself, as well as other major dogsled races.
With such an extraordinary context preceding his life’s ground zero, it’s a welcome relief to find that John Baldwin Gourley speaks affably and humbly, with an even-keel affectation that suggests he is a man rattled by very little.
“We had whales, beluga whales, in the inlet behind our house,” Gourley explains over the phone. “I mean, you could actually hear whales. I remember having kids over to the house and they’d be freaking out. ‘You know, you’ve got whales back there!’ And I would be very dismissive, like, ‘Yeah, man, we got whales back there, so what? Let’s go play in the woods.’” Aside from the fantastical wildlife and utopian natural surroundings, Gourley spent his childhood immersed in his parents’ record collection and “oldies radio.” He was a Beatles kid all the way. Required reading? Jack London, of course, the exploits of whom he never regarded as particularly unusual.
“Growing up in Alaska, that’s what you read,” he says.
Presently preparing for Portugal. The Man’s upcoming summer tour, Gourley acknowledges that he’s been loaded down with press and promo chores behind the forthcoming Evil Friends — the weirdo-pop outfit’s seventh record, and second on Atlantic—while his cohort has been out enjoying the sunshine. That don’t befront Gourley, though. His outlandish childhood and daunting genetics have informed that unflappable demeanor, which has doubtless played a hand in establishing Portugal. The Man’s business in the spotlight from the very beginning. The band originally formed while in high school back in Wasilla, as an evolution of bassist Zachary Carothers’ cover band. Described by Gourley as “probably the most popular kid in the school,” Carothers and company would play occasional sets during lunch period, performing Cannibal Corpse, Rage Against the Machine and Black Flag covers, among others.
“I just remember watching that stuff and thinking—it was very ignorant and naïve—‘If you can play their music, you can write your own,’” Gourley says. He linked up with the group, and before long the boys were writing songs of their own. Gourley’s crowd-approved frontman chops and polished voice didn’t hurt matters, either. While he describes his bandmates as more technically sound musicians, Gourley himself claims no formal training.
“What makes you a good player?” Gourley poses. “Is it technical ability, or is it taste and what you bring to the song? It’s always about what you don’t play.” This piece of wisdom may approach the cliché, but a lunchtime cover group from Alaska does not go on to put out seven albums in as many years void of a solid ethos.