NASHVILLE, Tenn. — John Gourley, lead singer of Portugal. The Man, has one heck of a back story.
He grew up in Alaska, the son of adventurous homesteaders and Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race veterans, rising before dawn to feed his family's dog team. At times, he went to school with just a handful of classmates and lived a lifestyle that in no way prepared him for the rest of the world.
"It's pretty bizarre, right — that a band actually came out of there?" Gourley said. "Being born and raised there you really, really take it for granted. People who live in New York City really take it for granted, too, I guess. We would go there and visit and just see all the things we never got to see growing up. We would watch 'Sesame Street,' people with these tall buildings living in apartments. I had no idea what that life was about."
It's been seven years since the 30-year-old Gourley and his band mates left Alaska for Portland, Ore. Only bassist Zach Carothers remains with Gourley from the original Wasilla crew, but the Last Frontier still resonates in Gourley's songwriting. The title of the band's sixth album and first for Atlantic, "In the Mountain in the Cloud," is a reference to Mount McKinley. And the group's psychedelic bent, reminiscent of the spacier sounds from The Flaming Lips and Built to Spill, recalls Alaska's open, airy vistas.
The band reinforced the association with its first video from the album for "Got it All (This Can't Be Living Now)." It offers a dark, apocalyptic vision played out with Gourley — hatless because the director wanted to see his face — on the runners of a dog sled. Gourley spoke with The Associated Press about that particularly cold shoot, how dog mushing applies to rock 'n' roll and his band's struggles with its latest album in a recent phone interview from Portland:
AP: The new video was shot at your parents' home?
Gourley: It was 25 below in our back yard while we were shooting this (laughs). ... The loose idea was obvious — OK, let's take out the dog sled and mush around and all that. When you get back home you just do that anyway, so let's film it. It was freezing cold. ... Frozen hair, frozen beard, mustache. At the end of the day my face would just be pink and swollen.
AP: How did your family end up in Alaska?
Gourley: My dad just left high school in '69, went to Woodstock and, after half a year of college for architecture, just took off for Alaska. He bought a van and went straight into the mountains and built a cabin. He didn't even have the $50 for the deed to the land. He really worked his way through all of that and found my mother along the way in the same town, in Wasilla, and found out they both came from Morrisville, N.Y., in almost the exact kind of way — just out of high school and going to Alaska. Their parents knew each other and they knew each other's parents, but they'd never met. So just a really amazing story.
AP: Why did you give up dog mushing for rock 'n' roll?
Gourley: I think the best experience I ever had was also the worst and the one that turned me off of it. We were going to do this long run, you know a three-hour run. We're riding around and we go out on the tundra. I'd never really been out there. ... We were riding along next to these herds of caribou. It was just amazing. But all the way along I'd been taking it in, my hat had kind of blown back and it was ... cold, and my ears just froze really bad. It hurts really bad at first when it's freezing, but it's nothing compared to the thawing.
AP: How much does dog mushing still stick with you?
Gourley: I found it's really just fascinating the way it applies to the business world or what I refer to as the "real world" — because Alaska's just something different. It's just helped me understand things a lot better than I would have growing up somewhere else.
AP: The new album has been received positively, but you've said it was a difficult process with some conflict in the band. How did you work it out?
Gourley: The record was a mess and falling apart because we ... were thinking Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones for this record. We were beating ourselves up trying to make this crazy record and we had a meeting with Craig (Kallman, Atlantic chairman and CEO) about why we play music and songwriting and I wanted to know what he liked about our band. ... As we left he said, "You know, just make the record you want to make and we'll put it out." That felt good to hear.
Contact Chris Talbott at www.twitter.com/Chris_Talbott.