How Portugal. The Man Went from Basement Band to Grammy Winners
When ex-Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer announced the Grammy Award for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance in January, a group of goofy Portlanders thanked everyone, gave a shout-out to the Trail Blazers, and hailed Satan. A psychedelic rock group with a punctuation-nightmare name, Portugal. The Man was as surprised as anyone.
“We thought, ‘Well, there’s no way we’re going to get it,’” says front man John Gourley. “We were like, ‘Are you sure?’”
It took Gourley and his bandmates a mere 14 years and eight albums to unlock fame with “Feel It Still,” a throwback dance hit with an indelible lyrical hook. You’ve heard it: “Ooo-ooo, I’m a rebel just for kicks now / I’ve been feeling it since 1966 ...” (In fact, you are probably hearing it now, inside your mind.) The song spent a record-breaking 20 weeks at no. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart last year, raking in 125 million YouTube views and 355 million Spotify plays. Aaron Paul dances to “Feel It Still” on a treadmill in a Vitamin Water ad, and its bass-y swing sells iPad Pros.
Sometimes, even in pop music, sheer dedication (plus a little well-crafted brilliance) can pay off. For Portugal. The Man, it was a long and winding road indeed.
From Wasilla, Alaska, Gourley arrived in Portland in 2003 to meet up with an old high school friend, bass player Zach Carothers. They hit upon a time-honored Portland idea: why don’t we start a band? The group the two assembled put out five albums in quick succession. German press attention stirred up a surprising Teutonic fan base. In 2009, they played Tennessee’s Bonaroo festival for the first time. (“You look backstage, Neil Young is hanging out!”) An Atlantic Records deal came soon after, more records—one of which had big-name producer Danger Mouse on board—lots more touring, a Taco Bell ad, and then last year’s Woodstock and the breakout hit.
Gourley says “Feel It Still” owes its existence to the 1961 Marvelettes song “Please Mr. Postman,” a clear (and duly credited) foundation of the song’s melody.
“That’s a huge part of the success of that song,” says Gourley. “There’s nostalgia. It’s the 1960s Höfner bass, it’s the Beatles, it’s Motown. It was me thinking about being in Alaska with dog musher parents.”
“If we had written ‘Feel It Still’ in 2006, yeah, I would definitely think, ‘Oh, I just write great songs!’” he says. At 36, he knows better. “I had that lyric ‘rebel just for kicks’ floating around for four or five years. I had thrown everything at it, and I thought I’m gonna keep holding on to this lyric. It’s gonna be something bigger. But it could easily have just slipped through the cracks.”