“Don’t call it a comeback,” cautions Eric Howk, one of the members of indie rock group Portugal. The Man. But for a band that has put out about an album a year since its inception, the upcoming release of its first LP in nearly four years — Woodstock, which arrives Friday — is a welcome return.
Howk, Zach Carothers and John Gourley sit comfortably in an artist lounge at Atlantic’s office in Manhattan, half-eaten bagels and an ashtray sprawled on the table in front of them. “We hate everything when we’re doing it,” Carothers tells Billboard, perched on the edge of a couch. He explains that despite the long stretch of time since the band’s previous album, 2013’s Evil Friends, they never stopped writing. “We tried the Prince approach to writing music — how he would just write 100 songs for an album — and realized it didn’t totally work for us.”
Some of it did work, though — so much so that the band put together an album called Gloomin + Doomin that they later scrapped. Carothers worries most about time and money spent, but says after a nudge from Gourley (“I stress everybody out in the band, that’s what I do really well,” Gourley admits) he agreed that they needed a fresh start.
“We went back [in the studio] and were really focused,” says Carothers. “We had an idea, we had a name. I realized the other day that we’ve always named an album first, and then we go in and make it. That’s what we need.”
During a visit back home to Wasilla, Alaska, from their adopted home of Portland, they recall Gourley’s father showing them his old ticket stub from Woodstock in 1969 and telling his son, “You’ll get a kick out of this.” Their focus then became clear: make an album based on the same principles of that time — frustration, rebellion and social commentary. They immediately knew they would call the album Woodstock.
Carothers, Gourley and Howk have never shied away from speaking their minds — see the band’s 2009 album Satanic Satanist or tracks like “Modern Jesus” and “Plastic Soldiers” off Evil Friends, or “When the War Ends” from American Ghetto. They each freely speak their minds about “what’s his name” (Donald Trump) and say that Woodstock documents their experience of watching everything unfold.
“We have a platform, we get to travel the f—ing world and experience different cultures on a weekly basis,” Gourley says. “So for people to make the argument that we shouldn’t make political statements and should just be entertainment is silly.”
Gourley says once they decided to record the album under the title of Woodstock, it made the most sense to work with a producer like John Hill, “somebody who’s so cynical about music today and so on top of production,” Gourley says of Hill, who worked with the group on 2011’s In the Mountain in the Cloud (the band’s major-label debut with current label home Atlantic). They also worked with Beastie Boys’ Mike D, Danger Mouse and Ammar Malik (Maroon 5, JoJo, Ed Sheeran).
Carothers describes recording with Hill in Los Angeles as “a brutally honest setting” that allows for a strange openness. “You get shit-talked so much that you really don’t care. You’ll throw out an idea that’s absolutely crazy, like some of the lyrics we came up with, and everybody will be like, ‘That’s cool, let’s do that.’”
A collective favorite is the line “Trippin’ like a cartoon slippin’ on a banana,” off the riff-driven, high-energy “Keep On,” but the most compelling story behind a song is the inspiration of “Rich Friends.” Gourley remembers being at a friend’s birthday party when Harry Styles showed up — “Who the f— do we know that’s friends with Harry Styles?” he questions — and gifted their mutual friend a 1950s Gibson guitar. “We were all sitting there, the dickheads in the corner, like, ‘I could use some rich friends.’ All the stupid shit we say made it onto the record.”
Carothers knows that the band’s authentically goofy persona might not resonate with everyone, and he doesn’t want it to. “I ride the middle a lot in life — my role in the band is to mediate — but when it comes to what we make, I don’t want that at all. I want people to either really like it or really hate it.”
On the cusp of its eighth LP, Portugal. The Man has built a faithful fan following who, by now, are onboard with all the band has to offer: fleshed-out, dense and driving production; intensely relatable and oftentimes dark, lyrical content; and trippy visuals during the band’s live shows and on all its album covers. Up until now, that is.
Unlike the band’s previous albums, all of which were decorated with detailed illustrations (often done by Gourley), the artwork for Woodstock features a photograph of an old Rolls-Royce in flames — a real photograph taken by a friend of the band while driving with his family from Los Angeles to Anaheim.
“Like the ticket John’s dad showed us, [the photo] hit us hard,” Carothers says. “Sometimes you look at something and it connects. That f—ing photo, when I saw it was like, ‘Oh shit.’”
Howk says two aspects struck him most about the image: “I don’t think it would be as powerful if it was a new car, it’s a Regan-era, old-money car. It’s also not the engine or any of the mechanics that are on fire, it’s the interior, which makes it seem like someone threw some gas in there, lit a match then walked away like, ‘F— it.’”
While the vintage aesthetic ties in well with the album’s overall theme of revisiting the past, the flames are what resonate most with the album’s underlying message that the current political climate is “a f—ing mess,” as Gourley says. That notion comes through strongest on the album’s lead single “Feel It Still,” a song they say was written by accident in a side session with Electric Guest‘s Asa Taccone.
Gourley says they were “just f—ing around, we had some time to kill” and built the song around the fiercely funky bass line first, followed by of-the-times lyrics like “I’m a rebel just for kicks now” that came quickly. With the addition of a horn section and a steady drumbeat, “Feel It Still” earned Portugal. The Man its first No. 1 on the Triple A airplay chart (where it has remained for eight consecutive weeks) and also landed the group its first top 10 on Hot Rock Songs (currently at No. 6).
While “Feel It Still” was written with the album’s new direction (and title) in mind, a handful of tracks originally written for Gloomin + Doomin ended up reincarnated on the album — soulful and synth-heavy opening track “Number One,” and Danger Mouse-produced tracks “So Young” ([that song] is just us being a band, sitting in a room and jamming. That’s the reason it made it [on] Woodstock” says Gourley of the sultry slow jam that sees Carothers dip into his lower register) and the disconcerting, somewhat sparse “Mr. Lonely.”
After over thinking things for so long, Carothers, Gourley and Howk appear eager and energized for Woodstock’s release (even though they cite the few hours of sleep they had the night before). As Carothers reclines on the couch, he shares how this album made them acutely aware of a process they have followed all along, even if somewhat unintentionally: decide on a name, write a song in an hour, get it done. “We’ve been doing this for a long time. We know what to do. We just tell ourselves we don’t.”