John Gourley and Zachary Carothers may be Alaska natives, but no indie rock band has repped the city of Portland over the last decade as much as theirs, Portugal. The Man.
Back in 2008, before they were a household name in indie rock but already three albums and hundreds of yearly shows into their career, Gourley, Carothers and their rotating cast of bandmates were still trying to discover who Portugal. The Man was. Late that fall, after finishing another grueling trek through small clubs nationwide, they holed up in a house studio in the forested, rural part of Oregon City, a Portland suburb, and recorded themselves playing a typical live set.
It was a no-frills performance, overseen by filmmaker Graham (Baclagon) Agcaolli and engineer-mixer Jacob Portrait (later of Unknown Mortal Orchestra). It was four musicians—including Ryan Neighbors and Garrett Lunceford—playing songs. There were no retakes. The band embraced the occasional missed note or wrong sound.
And then, Portugal. The Man disbursed for holidaying, with Gourley and Carothers going back to their families in Alaska. A few months later the band hit the studio to record what became its breakthrough record, 2009’s The Satanic Satanist.
The Oregon City Sessions sat unused for more than a decade, its legend growing thanks to the band periodically leaking a snippet or the rare song online. A few fans were lucky enough to have the film shown to them by the band after a show.
That all changed last week when Portugal. The Man finally released the 15-song set in full as a live album, preceded by a livestream of the film. In a call on the day the album was finally released, Carothers spoke about the recording of the live album, Portugal. The Man’s next album, and the band’s social justice work through its PTM Foundation, which kicked off in 2020, partnering with organizations like March for Our Lives, Keep Oregon Well and Protect Our Winters.
RIFF: Set the scene for me: Where was the band when you decided to record your live set In Oregon City?
Zachary Carothers: The whole reason that we’ve recorded music or video or any of that is to just document. We’ve always just been a big fan of documentation and just having things laying down. It’s always keeping the tape running, always having the mic on. We definitely wanted to record something special, and we didn’t know really what. We’ve done a couple of things before this and never put them out. We did several things after this and never put them out for different reasons.
I think we’re a little insecure about things. By the time everything gets mixed and mastered, we kind of feel like we’re in a different place, like, “Oh, we’re not playing those songs that way anymore,” and we’re kind of moving on. So it took us another decade to be able to release it, but the idea for this was pretty much just kind of capturing what we do together when there is no audience and how we jam when we’re just in a room looking at each other.
For a while, it was a little vulnerable and intimate for us, a little too vulnerable and intimate. We kind of found something really rad in there. This is just us not trying to perform or make people dance, and it was really cool to look back on this much later.
I presume the pandemic presented the perfect time to release an already recorded live album. Where there any other reasons behind your timing of this project?
Totally, yeah. We’ve been talking about releasing this since 2008, and I think it just finally got to the point where we were OK with it. Especially in this time, we did want to give our fans something to do, but we didn’t feel like putting out anything new during this time. The world’s moving so fast. We’ve done a couple of livestreams, and we’ve watched a bunch of livestreams, but so few are done right. So finally, this is like, “All right, let’s just let’s do this; we’ve been talking about it forever. Now is the time. Let’s get going.”
We’ve shown [the film] to a couple of people, and we’ve released little snippets, but never in its entirety. So we finally streamed it live. We had kind of—I’m air-quoting—a backstage hang with folks on Discord. It was really cool. We just sat around and had beer and made fun of how everybody was dressing and playing. It was really a good time.
Where in Oregon City was this recorded?
I remember where it was in the woods right by [Highway] 212, maybe, and it was a really cool little setup, just a house studio in the middle of nowhere and in the mossy woods. It had this really cool vibe. … It’s very unsuspecting, it’s down some backroads.
In the lore of your band, Oregon City Sessions has been a kind of golden goose. Even fans who’ve never listened to it knew about this recording. Why is that?
It was probably just that, because people always want the unattainable, the forbidden fruit. Somebody says you can’t do something, and that’s all you want to do. People knew that it exists, and that wasn’t smart marketing or anything by us. We leaked out little bits of it, and people knew that there was more, and so a lot of our own fans just wanted to hear that stuff. It was really cool to revisit.
The lineup of your band has changed quite a bit over the years. [Neither Neighbors nor Lunceford are with Portugal. The Man now. The lineup currently includes Kyle O’Quin, Eric Howk, Jason Sechrist and Zoe Manville]. Did you talk to Garrett and Ryan to get an approval to release it?
For sure. We’re all about that. I haven’t seen Garrett in a long time, he lives in Seattle. Ryan Neighbors, were still very close with. He actually joined on for the livestream and virtually did the backstage hang with us. He is still definitely one of our good friends. We’ve had a lot of people come and go from this band, and for the most part, we’re on very good terms with all of them. We take a lot and it’s a demanding thing. We’ve gone through a lot of people, for sure.
Do you have a favorite song from the Oregon City Sessions set?
I always love to play—especially at that time, and I still do—”New Orleans.” I don’t know what it is, because it’s not even a super good song, or one of our best, by any means. When it comes to playing live and not having to worry about the vibe of the whole show, just as far as playing with my friends, “New Orleans” is a really fun one to do. In this particular session, we got real deep with it.
What’s next for the PTM Foundation in terms of projects?
As far as our upcoming projects, we’re still at a point where I can’t totally share them yet because we’re still working out some details. But yes, especially throughout the last year, we mainly focused on the PTM Foundation, which is based in new resilience, uplifting business voices and knowledge, and supporting Indigenous communities. We kind of started this right before the pandemic hit. And so, our plan was pretty simple: to just play shows and raise money that way. Since we have not been playing shows for a long time, we’ve gotten to think outside the box on how to raise money and support grants. It’s been really fun and challenging, but we got to really dig in over the last year and learn a lot and adjust through some really hard things.
That’s been most of our day-to-day focus for the last year and a half or so, and it’s been really amazing. We’ve gotten to meet some unbelievable people and grow a network of like-minded people with a lot of love and respect for each other. We’ve heard some amazing stories. Yeah, we do have some events coming up, or some projects. And once we start playing shows again, it’ll get even better.
You haven’t released an album in four years, which for you is a pretty long time. Do you have a follow up to gold-selling 2017 album Wooodstock, and 5-times-platimum, Grammy-winning single “Feel It Still” done?
We’ve been writing a lot of music. We’ve been working on an album for the last couple years and, once again, we just had to overthink it. We strip stuff away; we throw away sessions—kind of like we always do. But we are getting very, very close. We’re getting to the last few weeks. We’re still writing new songs and stuff. We have a real easy time starting songs and incredibly difficult time finishing songs. When it comes to something like this, nobody knows when the song is done. You just have to stop at some point. And we’re getting very close to the stopping stage. But no one can really tell when that is. I know that we do want to get a little bit more on the grid before we release anything, and … kind of figure out the world that we’re coming back to.
I love all the partnerships that you guys have done with the Portland Trail Blazers. Do you have any favorite experiences with them other than recording the Rip City anthem and playing it at Coachella?
The theme song was pretty cool. I gotta say it would probably be us playing the theme song live at one of our home shows out at Edgefield [outdoor venue], and the Blazers dancers just came out, Dame [Lillard] came out was shooting the T-shirt cannon. It was … a really special time, especially for a hometown thing.
Any future partnerships in the works?
We’re constantly cooking up stuff but, once again, sadly, nothing I can talk about or that’s been decided. But yes, we are trying to get something together right now, and I think there will always be something. We like them, they like us, we’re friends in the same town and we both support the city. I’m sure we’ll be doing a lot more with them in the future.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.