You might say music festivals are in John Gourley's blood.
You might also say the voice and songwriter of Alaskan neo-psych band Portugal.
“He went there a day early and left a day late to help set up and help take it all down and clean up,” Gourley said of his dad in a recent phone interview. “He just wanted to be there and help out.”
This weekend, Gourley will be helping out with Norman Music Festival 5 when Portugal.
Other prominent acts topping the diverse bill include Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll, Ohio indie-rockers Red Wanting Blue and Stillwater cinematic rock experimentalists Other Lives, who are making a triumphant return to NMF after touring in support of Radio
“It's been a really inspiring thing for the band,” Other Lives leader Jesse Tabish said during a recent tour stop with Thom Yorke and company in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“To be able to play with Radiohead, a band that we've idolized for such a long time, to see how they put on a show and conduct themselves as a band, it's been a really great lesson for us,” Tabish said. “We've done other tours this past year that continue to kind of make us step up our game a little bit and kind of learn some things about ourselves. So it's been such a positive thing, I can't say enough about it, really.”
But coming back to Norman and their home state is a thrill, as well, for this band whose music on their latest album, “Tamer Animals,” ranges from intimate and autumnal acoustic folk to sweeping prairie symphonies.
“That's one of those shows where we're gonna be able to hang with all our friends and family,” Tabish said. “We've really enjoyed it in the past, and I think it's just gonna be a good old time, you know?”
Checking out Norman
Austin-based country-rocker Carll — who's been compared favorably with no less than Townes Van Zandt — is no stranger to Oklahoma either, having played such Sooner venues as Cain's in Tulsa and the Wormy Dog and Blue Door in Oklahoma City.
“I'm really excited about the Norman festival comin' up,” Carll said recently while on a ferry crossing from Seattle to Bainbridge Island for a gig at the Treehouse Cafe.
“I saw a lot of the bands that are on it. It's a great lineup,” he added. “We just stopped in Norman the other day and had a really good time. ... Last year was the first time I'd heard of it. My guitar player, Travis Linville, lives in Norman, and he told me about it. From all accounts, it's a really cool festival.”
Together 17 years now, alternative pop-rockers Red Wanting Blue will be performing in Oklahoma for the first time when they take to the Main Stage on Saturday night, after being sold on the Norman event by the owner of their label, Fanatic Records.
“We've heard like awesome stuff about it,” lead singer Scott Terry said from Akron, Ohio, where Red Wanting Blue had just played a benefit for the local NPR station.
“I've heard about how rad the town is. Our guy who runs our label, Josh Bloom, is also friends with the guy who runs a record store there (Guest
Portugal. The Man
Meanwhile, NMF5 marks the first time Portugal. The Man — newly signed to Atlantic Records — has headlined any music festival, much less played one in Oklahoma.
“We'll see how everything goes,” Gourley said. “But I feel good about the band. I feel like everybody's worked really hard and always tried to be conscious of what's happening around us. So hopefully we'll take some tips from the bands that we've seen headline festivals, like Black Keys, Flaming Lips, Arcade Fire, all that.”
Listening to the richness and warmth of the orchestral, Brit-pop inspired music from “In the Mountain in the Cloud” — their July 2011 Atlantic debut and sixth full-length album overall — it's remarkable to find that Gourley and co-founding guitarist Zach Carothers came out of the icy rural wilderness around Wasilla, Alaska, a frigid no man's land bearing few signs of musical life whatsoever.
“We really did,” Gourley said. “Like when I was a kid we lived in a cabin on an icy lake. I mean it was literally an icy lake. There was no town. It was just my dad had built this cabin on a lake. He went out there to train dogs, because he was going to run the Iditarod. And he eventually did.”
Fortunately, when Gourley's dad moved to Alaska not long after his Woodstock experience, he brought along his record collection, so Gourley's younger years were not devoid of musical nourishment.
“Pretty much all of the music he had with him was 1970 and before, even earlier,” Gourley said. “So we listened to a lot of Beatles, Sam Cooke, Motown, pretty much oldies radio stuff. ... So that's kind of what we've been.
“It's so closed off that you're not really introduced to things as quickly as people in the lower 48. ... So you kind of miss a lot.”
Alaskan work ethic
Of course, there was newer stuff to be found on the radio if you searched the dial in the right places, and eventually some of the better music began to catch Gourley's attention.
“I think it was in high school when I started driving myself and actually doing my own thing. And I discovered things like Oasis, Nirvana. I mean bands making really, really good music, and some doing it with just, in Nirvana's case, very extreme simplicity. Or what I thought to be simplicity. It's pretty obvious it's not as simple as that.
“It just kind of became what I wanted to do. It was hearing other bands. I guess Oasis was the most obvious, doing what the Beatles had been doing, and making something new with it.”
And a few “lower 48” bands sometimes did manage to come within driving distance of home.
“I had seen the Jesus Lizard there, which was crazy to me,” Gourley said. “There were 20 people there — maybe. And I was just standing in the background going, ‘Man, I hope that naked guy doesn't jump on me. I just wanna watch the show.' It was really intense. I'd seen things like that. I'd seen Pantera come up there. Mostly metal bands.”
Gourley and friends began tinkering with instruments and coming up with tunes, but after a while it became apparent that points south might prove more conducive to creativity, and maybe even some paying gigs.
“We thought, ‘You know, maybe this band is bigger than our parents' garage.' So we left, and it's worked out, man, but I think a lot of that was the work ethic that we got from growing up in Alaska. I think that's all you do is you work. You build houses, work construction, plumbing, be an electrician, and I think those jobs set us up to be very dedicated to whatever we put our minds to, whether it was music or, like I said, construction.”
The band took up housekeeping in Portland, Ore., and it was there that Gourley learned song construction, drawing inspiration from other bands on the city's lively music scene. In 2005, the band released an EP, followed in fairly rapid succession by “Waiter: ‘You Vultures!'
The band then financed their third record themselves, enlisting trombonists, trumpeters and violinists to fashion their most eclectic album up to that time, “Censored Colors.” In 2009, the song “People Say,” from the album “The Satanic Satanist,” found a measure of success on alternative radio, and in 2010 they ventured further into electronic experimentation with “American Ghetto.”
In addition to churning out an album a year, Portugal. The Man has made good use of MySpace and PureVolume to promote themselves, and they've logged an incredible 1,000-plus shows in their seven years together.
Now, that Alaskan work ethic has paid off with a major-label deal. And Gourley won't stand for any indie purists' accusations of selling out.
“It's the opposite of the idea that people have, which is ‘evil major label. They're just gonna bring you down and water down your music.'
“And it hasn't been like that. It's been me growing, and I feel like it's been such a positive experience to talk to people that love music and care about the music and let me really do more than a lot of the indie labels we've worked with allowed us to do. It's been really, really great.
“It's the ability to actually sit down and make the record that you wanted to make, which Atlantic allowed us to do,” Gourley said. “It was having the right resources to make our record, having the confidence to make the record.”
And it's the opportunity to headline festivals like NMF5.
When news went out that Portugal. The Man had signed to the event, Gourley heard from his friend Josh Berwanger of the Lawrence, Kan., indie band The Only Children, who was ecstatic.
“The second we got booked, he called us and was just sayin', ‘Oh my God, you're playing that festival,' and his guitarist had texted me as well, and they all seemed so excited. ... Josh gave us a little bit of a rundown (on the Norman event). I didn't get the history as much as it should be really cool and it'll be a lot of fun. So we've all been looking forward to that.”
Norman Music Festival 5