In November of 2014, the Portland, Ore.-by-way-of Wasilla, Alaska quintet known as Portugal. The Man entered the studio with Beastie Boy Mike D to record their eighth album. Until then, the band had been relatively prolific, knocking out seven albums in eight years and perfecting a shimmering blend of lo-fi electronics and sunny indie guitar-pop that was catchy and atmospheric enough to be used on TV shows like The Walking Dead, Shameless, and Silicon Valley.
Nearly three years later, the band still hadn’t finished their next album, and it had been through several potential iterations, from a double album to two individual releases back to a single record. On a break from nearly non-stop recording and re-recording, the band visited singer/guitarist John Gourley’s dad in Wasilla, and the elder Gourley had some questions for the normally speedy group.
“He just asked us what was taking so long,” says bassist Zach Carothers. “It was just kind of this ‘Dad’ moment. It was coming from a guy who builds houses, and he was like, ‘What, did you run out of supplies? I thought you just went into a studio, wrote songs, and recorded them. What’s the problem?'”
So what, exactly, was the problem? Well, it turns out the album was taking too much time, because the band had too much time. For once in the seemingly endless tour-album-tour cycle, Portugal. The Man found themselves with some time off, and a lot of different song ideas.
“We were constantly writing new material and changing stuff,” Carothers says. “We were overthinking it on an astronomical level. We did five or six versions of every song. We’d lost perspective; it’s like you’re doing a painting and adding every color you can think of, every idea, until it just becomes a gray, two-inch-thick blob.”
That unfocused situation became clearer when Gourley’s dad asked what the holdup was, and that simple question ultimately led to a dramatic decision. The band took the ever-changing album they’d spent the last three years working on, chucked almost all of it, and started over. The record that was once tentatively titled Gloomin’ & Doomin’ was gone. In its place would be a new work called Woodstock, a title that came from another moment during the band’s visit with Gourley’s father.
“He showed us his original ticket stub for the first day of the Woodstock festival,” Carothers says. “And I don’t know why, but something about that hit us really hard. I’ve always been fascinated with that festival and the movement of the ’60s and the psychedelic music and protest songs. That era was a huge influence on me growing up.”
Carothers says that the fearless musical exploration and expressiveness of psychedelia and politically charged protest songs had an influence on the band, but not in the way you might expect. “It made us think about how the songs had to mean something to us,” he says. “We’d lost the love we had for those songs. We knew that our first instinct is always the best, but we still spent a year working on songs that we wrote and recorded in one day.”
So, with just some skeletal bits from a couple of songs left, the band started over, working with several different producers including Mike D, Dangermouse, and John Hill (Florence + The Machine, MIA). The resulting full-length album will be out in June, but the first single, “Feel It Still,” seems to prove that junking the previous stuff was a good decision. The song is crisp, tight electronic dance music with just the right amount of gritty guitar and a tasty falsetto vocal hook about being a rebel just for kicks.
Carothers says that’s just one of the many styles that the band tackles on Woodstock. “It goes a lot of different places,” he says. “It’s more diverse than anything we’ve done, probably because we worked with several different producers. There’s no song that sounds like anything else on the album. It’s a melting pot of the way we’ve been feeling over the last couple of years. We embraced everything we liked.”
And just because the album is titled Woodstock doesn’t mean that fans should expect any heavy-duty “peace and love” lyrics thrown into the mix of styles. “We’re not very preachy in our music, we just needed to change it to make it right with us,” Carothers says. “We keep things fairly open and vague. We want people to think for themselves. We’re not Rage Against The Machine. We can’t do that stuff and we’re not going to try. But we needed to get down something that meant more to us.”
And just out of curiosity, how did Atlantic Records, the band’s label since 2010, feel about their decision to scrap a three-years-in-the-making album and start all over from scratch? “They didn’t like that very much,” he says with a laugh. “It was an expensive decision for sure, but they understand us and they do trust us. We needed to feel it, and they believed it when we said we could do better. Plus, we did it quickly. It was a little cringe-y when we had to tell them, but in the end, we’re happy with it, and that’s all that matters.”