On Oct. 27, 2018, Portugal. The Man played its second sold-out hometown show at Alaska Airlines Center, a 5,000-capacity arena in Anchorage. It marked the end of a globe-spanning two-year trek promoting Woodstock, the band’s 2017 album that yielded its Grammy Award-winning crossover hit, “Feel It Still.” But as soon as the celebratory finale ended, frontman John Gourley was crying in a bathroom.
“I just broke down in tears,” he remembers. “The second we got offstage I was just realizing that emotionally, we took on so much for an introvert [like myself] who just prefers being at home. And being thrown into all of that, it was really intense. But we didn’t realize until that night, like, “Oh, wow. This is… difficult to do.”
He had no idea that the following years would prove even more trying. That after having the biggest hit of the band’s career, Portugal. The Man would nearly fall apart. And that, 20 years after the group formed in Alaska in the early 2000s, he would be forced to face his anxieties as a frontman who cringes at attention to prevent its fragmentation.
Today, Gourley is back where he feels at ease. At 42, a boyish wonderment consumes him as he walks his father’s woodsy plot of land in Wasilla, just over 40 miles north of Anchorage. There’s the main house and its attached garage with floor-to-ceiling shelves of construction materials — the family business — and a greenhouse in the back. There’s the detached garage that stores a motorboat. And there are two small guest homes, one filled with music memorabilia, including sleeves of vinyl albums that inspired Gourley as a kid: The Beatles’ Revolver, the Bee Gees’ Idea, Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation and dozens more. There’s a Portugal. The Man poster on one wall, and above the door frame, a life-size ticket stub from that last night of the band’s 2018 tour.
Portugal. The Man — a name inspired by David Bowie’s larger-than-life fame, contrasting the enormity of an entire country with a single person — initially formed as a side project led by Gourley and bassist Zach Carothers, both of whom got their start in the emo band Anatomy of a Ghost. The longtime friends and bandmates met at Wasilla High School and quickly started making music together — while also quickly realizing that to make it their career, they would have to leave Alaska.
“It was kind of my push,” says Gourley, who has since operated much like the Wizard of Oz, quietly leading from behind a curtain. “ ‘We’re going to leave Alaska and just keep going.’ So we bought a minivan and a rice cooker — we had no money at the time and probably spent more money on gas looking for a rice cooker at Goodwill. We found one for six bucks, went to the Asian market and got a 5 pound bag of rice and just went out on tour.”
By 2004, they had made Portland, Ore. — a 44-hour drive southeast of Anchorage — their home base, fleshing out the band with drummer Jason Sechrist and keyboardist Ryan Neighbors along the way. In 2006, Portugal. The Man independently-released its debut album, Waiter: “You Vultures!” and within months signed with manager Rich Holtzman (currently senior vp of marketing and artist development at AEG Presents), who helped the act establish a five-year plan.
Festival appearances at Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza followed, as did four more independently released albums, arriving annually. All the while, Gourley maintained an unusual relationship with his role in the group: As much as he could, he avoided being a frontman entirely. He leaned on Carothers and the other band members to help absorb the spotlight, even performing with his back to the crowd.
By 2010, five years into its existence, Portugal. The Man signed a deal with Atlantic Records. “I just felt that they were so original and didn’t sound like any band out there at the time,” says Craig Kallman, the label’s chairman/CEO. He was so impressed, in fact, that he brought another then-rising signee — Bruno Mars — to see the band perform at the tiny (and since-closed) Los Angeles venue Space 15 Twenty. After the set, Mars offered a pivotal piece of feedback to Gourley: “That show was so cool, but all I could see was your ass.” Gourley has played facing his growing live audiences ever since.
Portugal. The Man has released three studio albums on Atlantic: 2011’s In the Mountain in the Cloud, 2013’s Evil Friends and 2017’s Woodstock. But while all landed in the top 50 of the Billboard 200, Woodstock altered the band’s trajectory completely, thanks to breakout single “Feel It Still.” The groovy, uptempo song — which samples The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” a Gourley family favorite on trips by dogsled to the grocery store — became an undeniable, and entirely unexpected, career-defining hit, and ushered in a series of firsts for the band.
“Feel It Still” scored Portugal. The Man its first Billboard Hot 100 entry, peaking at No. 4; it became the band’s first No. 1 on several charts, including Alternative Airplay, Hot Rock & Alternative Songs and Pop Airplay; and it earned the band its first Grammy nomination and win for best pop duo/group performance. (Gourley gave his trophy to Holtzman.) To date, “Feel It Still” has racked up 1.21 billion on-demand official U.S. streams and generated approximately $25 million globally (in recorded music and publishing royalties) from track sales, streams and radio play, Billboard estimates based on Luminate data. It’s also a go-to among music supervisors; the song has been Shazammed over 20 million times, earning key synch placements in the trailer for the film Peter Rabbit and shows including Love, Simon and Riverdale.
Though Gourley often refers to the hit vaguely as “that song,” he’s grateful for the success it brought the band. “ ‘Feel It Still’ gave us so much,” he says. “We have houses, I have a car… it feels so special and I’m just so gracious of everything that came along with that song.” But “emotionally, it was really difficult. It was this really stressful period for the band, just having that crossover success.”
Even so, the band believed it was ready to hit the ground running with its ninth album and hoped to return to the frequent release schedule of its early days. Mainstream success afforded the group its pick of producer, and the band ultimately landed on Jeff Bhasker, whom Gourley had dreamed of working with since Bhasker produced Kanye West’s game-changing 808s & Heartbreak. What was on track to be a two-year project became three, and then five, with the band finally turning in the album last December — and along the way, everything changed.
During that five-year period, the band members variously faced personal loss, addiction, a potentially career-ending health issue and an “aggressively progressive” diagnosis, all of which happened amid the isolation of the pandemic.
In 2019, Chris Black — a close friend who, after meeting the group in Los Angeles in the 2010s, became its unofficial DJ and MC — died suddenly. Black always kept the band members laughing, quick to crack a joke or put someone in their place. “It’s not common for a band like us to have an MC, but it made me feel really good,” says Gourley.
“He was also the glue for all of our friends,” he adds. “The thing that I miss the most is the way he held that friend group together… it just slipped away a little bit, and I think it’s difficult, recognizing that.” Coupled with the fact that, for the first time, the band members were living apart for an extended period of time through the pandemic, a natural rift formed — or perhaps widened — within it, leaving its lineup in limbo. Portugal. The Man has a long history of revolving musicians — its Wikipedia page includes a color-coded timeline of 13 past and present members’ histories — and Gourley and Carothers are the only two who appear on every album; the current lineup consists of Gourley (vocals, guitar), Carothers (vocals, bass), Zoe Manville (vocals, percussion), Kyle O’Quin (keys) and Eric Howk (guitar). (After rejoining in 2016, drummer Jason Sechrist has exited again.)
With the band members — who, up until Woodstock, had lived together — now by necessity living in the separate homes they only recently were able to afford, they were left alone with more time on their hands than ever before. By the end of 2018, Gourley was experiencing the worst pain of his life. He broke his jaw (the left side, he learned, had actually been broken for years; the right side snapped from the resulting pressure) and later split two teeth. He was bedridden for months, largely unable to sing or perform for over a year.
Then, in 2021, Gourley and Manville (who married in 2017) learned that their 11-year-old daughter, Frances, had a rare neurodegenerative genetic disease known as DHDDS, which shares symptoms with both dementia and Parkinson’s (she is one of only six known patients with her specific mutation). By June 2022, Howk, Carothers and O’Quin had all battled different addictions and entered rehab.
Now, come June 23, Chris Black Changed My Life — the album that began with Bhasker almost five years ago — will chronicle the band’s turbulent last few years following the runaway success of “Feel It Still.” Though the album is finished, the band is still working itself out — and determining in real time how to juggle what comes next, from promotion to touring. With the band members’ relationships and finances riding on this album’s success, Gourley is now embracing the role he has long avoided: an actually-front-facing frontman.
“Everybody has their personal things going on. We finally understand what has been happening with Frances,” he says. “The stakes have changed. The motivation has changed. The reason I’m doing this — it has all changed. I can’t be the anxiety-ridden kid anymore. There’s this moment of adulthood and growing up or whatever it is… It’s stepping out and taking on that role in a way that I haven’t in the past.”
“Who the f–k is Portugal. The Man?”
That’s the question Jeff Bhasker found himself asking in 2017, when he randomly browsed iTunes after a period where he had tuned out popular music. “No. 1, ‘Feel It Still’ by Portugal. The Man,” he recalls. “Just the name of their band was kind of arresting and makes you curious. It got me really interested in who they were.”
About a year later, the group showed up at his door. “We were traveling around L.A. doing the tour of producers that wanted to work with us post-massive song and they’re all like, ‘They must have another one in there!’ I’ve written a hundred songs, dude. I have one,” Gourley says with a laugh.
To determine who should produce its next album, the band decided the best approach was to just get in the studio and write. Bhasker was at the top of its wish list — but when the band members arrived, instruments in hand, at his house, he proposed they have a conversation before jumping in. “We just listened to music and talked about Alaska and experience and clicked as people,” says Gourley.
“I like to let the artist tell me who they are and meet them where they’re at,” Bhasker explains. “It was so interesting hearing about the white van and the rice cooker — just on the highest level of being a broke band. I love the way they describe their progression of like, ‘Well, on the first album, we learned how to play our instruments.’ ”
Bhasker says the years that followed — pandemic aside — felt like an “Usain Bolt-level sprint to finish the album,” with the band clocking hours at studios in Los Angeles, New York and Portland, as well as Bhasker’s studio in Malibu, Calif., and Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas, where Portugal. The Man recorded its first album with Atlantic over a decade prior.
After first signing with the label, Gourley explains, he’d felt the need to bring his bandmates into the studio for his mostly solitary writing process. (Through In the Mountain in the Cloud, the sole writing credits on the band’s albums are his.) “It was just this feeling of like, ‘We’re a band — everybody comes in,’ ” he says. “And I think it was also the expectation of producers a lot of the time. They always think, ‘Stick Portugal. The Man in a room and they’ll just jam and sing.’ That has been the process every single time, and we had never done it pre-Atlantic.”
For the band’s ninth album, everyone left the studio at first — “It felt more personal,” Gourley says — though O’Quin eventually joined most sessions, and Carothers and Manville are credited as co-writers on several tracks.
Gourley recalls his first recording session while still rehabbing his jaw, working again with Electric Guest’s Asa Taccone (who co-wrote and co-produced “Feel It Still”) on four tracks that made it onto Chris Black Changed My Life. Looking back now, he says the brooding and downtempo “Plastic Island” stands out most because he can hear himself literally singing through his teeth, since he still couldn’t open his jaw all the way. On the song, he wonders: “Is it the end, my friend?” The album’s pensive closing track — the nearly six-minute-long “Anxiety:Clarity” featuring veteran songwriter and ASCAP president Paul Williams — opens with the line: “I’m not supposed to be here.”
“That’s the way I was feeling coming out of everything and finally getting to express myself after two years of like, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do this again,’ ” says Gourley. “I laid in bed thinking I would never be able to do anything ever again. I thought I was going to die. I thought about Frances, and what’s she going to do? I was depressed.”
Frances herself appears on the album, singing on “Ghost Town” and “Time’s a Fantasy”; Gourley calls the latter, which also features Canadian rapper Sean Leon and Bhasker, one of the album’s heavier songs. “We had just found out that Frances has this very rare genetic disease,” he recalls. “Zoe and I were just bawling in the studio with Jeff and Sean, and Frances ended up singing on it. She must have felt some spiritual connection to this song because it’s so slow and emotional, but she would hear it and loved singing [the line], ‘I got a feeling it’s gonna be just fine.’ ” (The band recently launched a donation page called Frances Changed My Life to raise money to fund both multimillion-dollar research and treatment for her.)
Bhasker says nailing down the album’s subject matter was understandably difficult. “It’s all about John’s anxiety, and all of them and everything they went through and are all going through as a band, as a family, as people who just struggled to achieve a dream — and achieved it,” he says. “And then maybe questioned, ‘What are we doing here, and what do we really stand for?’ ”
Both Bhasker and Gourley recall their time at Sonic Ranch in the fall of 2022 fondly, mostly because that’s where a thematic track list started to take shape. “To see the album kind of emerge, and most of all to see a smile on John’s face… it was kind of like a ’70s movie where they would just shoot endless footage and hope there’s a movie in there,” says Bhasker. “And then to see the movie unfold and work was the most satisfying moment.”
Gourley exhales, taking in the towering snowcapped mountains of Hatcher’s Pass, just north of Wasilla. These are the mountains he would ditch high school to snowboard with Carothers. The same ones he recently carried Frances up while she napped on his shoulders. And the same ones that today are prompting him to wonder why he ever left. “I just miss Alaska so much,” he says with a sigh.
In a recent clip on Instagram — part of the band’s Knik Country Broadcast series, in which Gourley answers quick-hit questions — Gourley said, “Everything I’ve ever written is about Alaska.” It’s also fair to say everything that Portugal. The Man does is for Alaska.
In 2020, while still enjoying the “Feel It Still” high, the band launched the PTM Foundation — the acronym is a double-entendre that also stands for Pass the Mic — which advocates for human rights, community health and the environment, with a particular focus on Indigenous Peoples. (In 2022, the foundation raised $93,000 in grants given to 40 different tribes, impact organizations and community groups.) The band was always intended to serve more than itself, operating with curiosity and care for the surrounding world — and questioning its place in it.
When Bhasker started working with Portugal. The Man, it had been a while since his last collaboration with a band (by his estimation, it was with fun. on its 2012 smash hit, “We Are Young,” featuring Janelle Monáe). “It was definitely a challenge to navigate all the dynamics and all the growth and all the changes they had been going through — and especially during COVID, when everyone was going through all kinds of existential changes and being faced with a lot of really deep, personal struggles and revelations in their lives.”
As Gourley sees it, the success of “Feel It Still” — paired with perhaps too much time apart — amplified and exposed those individual struggles. “I think with that song being so successful so late in our career, it’s a rare thing,” he says. “Eighth record, a song like that? There comes complacency: ‘I’m content. I have a house. I don’t have to do this.’ But I still feel very hungry.”
Playing so many festivals, in particular, he believes, can be “the death of a band… I was forgetting lyrics to ‘Feel It Still’ because of the monotony — and I love that song. I love that song more than any song we’ve ever written. I have never been built to show up and play a setlist, and we got stuck in that for a long time. I think people want comfort, and I feel like comfort is actually not the best thing for creativity.”
Portugal. The Man relentlessly toured through 2019 and resumed in 2022, co-headlining arenas with Alt-J. But this year, despite a new album, its schedule is significantly pared down. In June, it returned to Bonnaroo and in August will play Lollapalooza Chicago followed by the Austin City Limits festival in October. Otherwise, it has booked only a handful of headlining shows at iconic venues in key territories, like Colorado’s Red Rocks, New York’s Radio City Music Hall and Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl. The band’s live lineup adds four new musicians to the mix, including a new drummer.
When speaking of what the band’s present — and future — looks like, it’s clear Gourley isn’t entirely sure what to say, or how. He’s cautious not to speak only for himself but also not for anyone else, often seesawing between “I” and “we.” (The band’s other members did not speak for this story; for this album cycle, Gourley has chosen to do press by himself.) He recalls a particular phone call with legendary musician and singer Edgar Winter, whose “Dying To Live” is sampled on the Chris Black Changed My Life track “Champ.”
“This is what I would say about the situation with the band,” says Gourley. “It’s a pretty easy way to sum it up: [Edgar] called me one day and said, ‘I’m going to tell you about the best band I ever played in. The best band I ever played in lived in Chicago in a one-bedroom apartment. We had all had success, but we lived in a one-bedroom apartment. We could all afford things, but we lived in a one-bedroom apartment. We ate together, we slept together, we had this experience together. As soon as we got our own places, we stopped being the best band I ever played in.’
“The thing is, no matter where I go, I’m still sleeping on the floor in that one-bedroom apartment,” continues Gourley, speaking in a slow, hushed voice. “For this band to keep going, you have to have that excitement constantly around you, so you don’t forget that we worked really hard to get [here].”
He already has his sights set on the album after this one. “I am so excited to go back into outer space and do the craziest [stuff] and experiment with structure post-this record,” he says.
But for now, he’s grounding himself where it all started — running around with his nieces and nephews at his father’s house, hanging from wooden beams like monkey bars. Fortunately for Gourley, he can always come back home. As his father fondly jokes, “When he started playing music, we lost our best roofer.”
After all this time, it seems a fair trade. Gourley found himself.