Portugal. The Man recently started selling a T-shirt on their website reading I Liked Portugal. The Man Before They Sold Out. It’s a jab at critics and old fans who have turned on the group since “Feel It Still,” its crazy-catchy Motown-indebted single, hit the Top Five.
It’s rare enough for a rock band to have a pop smash in 2017; it’s even weirder that it happened to an arty midcareer band from Sarah Palin’s hometown. “I’m 36, I’m from fucking Wasilla, Alaska, and we’re right behind Taylor Swift right now,” says bassist Zachary Carothers. “What the hell?”
Carothers and frontman John Gourley moved from Alaska to Portland, Oregon, in 2004, and spent a decade touring a brand of psych rock that earned them fans on the jam-band circuit, playing wild shows where they cover everyone from Weezer to Pantera. Seven years ago, they signed to Atlantic and recruited producer John Hill (Eminem, Florence + the Machine), then started moving away from meandering psychedelia and focusing on hooks.
Hill helped them craft “Feel It Still,” which took shape when Gourley started singing a melody inspired by the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.” “I had that line, ‘I’m a rebel just for kicks,’ for years,” he says. “The rest was me riffing on the spot.” The band knew it had something special, but never expected a pop hit. “They’re crafty songwriters, but it’s not always easy to hang your hat on a Portugal. The Man song,” said Bruce Warren, program director for Philadelphia’s WXPN. “This is a song we’re going to throw down for.”
Now, Gourley is seeing fans far outside the band’s usual college demographic; recently, an elderly woman stopped his dad in Alaska while he was working. “She asked if he was related to me,” the singer says. “This older lady knows my music. That’s when it really hit me.”