Artist Q&A: Catching Up with Portugal. The Man

Artist Q&A: Catching Up with Portugal. The Man

By William Glanz

Fame came fast for Portugal. The Man. Millions of music fans discovered the band this year because of “Feel It Still,” the single they released in March 2017.

But 2017 represents just one chapter in a longer narrative. The band has been around long enough to produce eight studio albums, and its current lineup has been together since 2012. Still, if you just discovered Portugal. The Man this year, they’re okay with that and they have a lot of music for you.

Since the band released “Feel It Still,” the single has topped five charts at one time or another this year. It hit No. 1 on both the Billboard Pop Songs and Dance/Mix Show Airplay charts last week (dated Nov. 11). It also has topped the Adult Pop Songs, Alternative Songs and Adult Alternative Songs charts.

We caught up with Kyle O’Quin, the band’s keyboardist, to discuss the band’s long history, its rapid rise to fame and how their shows are different now that they have one of the most popular songs of the year.

SoundExchange: “Feel It Still” is your biggest hit to date, but you guys have been at this a while. Not to oversimplify it but, is it gratifying to earn recognition after so many tours, shows and albums? And now that people are learning about you, what do you want them to know?

O’Quin: It is really gratifying. We have been doing this a long time. It’s a big milestone to have the number one song. It’s something we didn’t expect. It opens up other doors for us.

It’s nice to let everyone know we’re a real band. We play our instruments, we don’t play tracks and that’s feeling more rare these days. That’s a quality we’re trying to keep alive.

SoundExchange: Your roots are in Alaska and Portland, Oregon. How does your background influence the band’s sound?

O’Quin: I think it’s a big influence. We all grew up on hip-hop and oldies. Cool stuff. Some of the guys are from Alaska, and it’s so isolated. Whatever records their parents had when they moved there in the 1970s, that’s all they had. So they had a bunch of oldies records.

And since it’s isolated and in the woods, it has a big impact on writing. A lot of our best songs have been written there.

And then growing up in Portland and Seattle, you’re in such a music scene. Until you get older and start to travel you don’t even realize it. You don’t realize not every city has a bunch of rad people playing music. You’re just around all these creative people and you don’t realize it until you step out of it. I grew up watching Blood Brothers playing for 40 people, and I thought ‘oh, this is how you put on a show.’ Then I realized that was just our scene in the Northwest.

I didn’t know how good I had it until I started touring.

SoundExchange: How did “Feel It Still” come together? Did you use a different formula compared to past songs you’ve written? Did you have new writers?

O’Quin: Our process is always changing in the studio. Songs come from a lot of different places. Sometimes it’s the melody. Sometimes it’s the drum beat. Sometimes it’s on the piano or from a bass riff.

We don’t have a set formula. “Feel It Still” was particularly weird. We were actually doing another session for a different song, and John Gourley was just playing that bass line on the side.

We worked on “Feel It Still” with our friend Asa Taccone of Electric Guest. He heard John and said ‘what was that? There’s something in that.’ The whole song came together in a couple of hours. The vocals in the song were the first ones laid down. Asa has really good energy, and he started patting on the table and making the drum beat and added the ‘heys’ and the little laughs.

Then we went in with another producer, John Hill, and finished up some production stuff. We really like collaborating, especially with our friends.

SoundExchange: When it hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Songs chart, how did you celebrate?

O’Quin: It’s kinda weird because when we’re on tour we’re in a bubble, so you don’t always know what’s happening with that stuff. We’re always with our Atlantic rep, so now when we’re on the road and we get any of the news [about the charts], we go out and get a little bit nicer dinner than normal and take out our whole crew. You gotta take care of your people, and we’ve got the best people.

SoundExchange: How are the shows on the tour different since the release of Woodstock compared to prior tours? Are the crowds bigger and more enthusiastic?

O’Quin: There’s most definitely been a better response at the shows. We’re playing about half the new record right now. We felt the same way when we started playing the Evil Friends songs compared to the older ones. They would get a better response from the crowd.

There’s a lot of new people at the shows, a lot of people who only know “Feel It Still.” They have no idea we have eight albums.

Our set is pretty crazy. We open with Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and we cover Pink Floyd. We play Wu-Tang over “Purple Yellow Red and Blue” [from Evil Friends] and Pantera. It’s different and it’s a pretty heavy set. I think some people are taken aback.

But it’s a cool opportunity. You only have one chance to win them over, and it’s an opportunity to let them know what we’re all about.

SoundExchange: Now that you have a higher profile, are you using the opportunity to play older music that people may not know? Or are you sticking with songs from Woodstock on the current tour?

O’Quin: Our set is always changing. We change the covers, too. Right now, we have over a hundred songs. We’re focusing now on the records we released since we went to Atlantic [in 2010]. Everything before that was just us learning how to write songs.

We’re just trying to get better at writing songs, and the ones we wrote later are turning out to be better songs. Sometimes we play old stuff, and we’ll always bring some stuff back.

SoundExchange: Was there any debate about which song from Woodstock you would release as a single? Or was everyone in agreement that “Feel It Still” should be the lead single released (recognizing that you quietly released “Noise Pollution” in December 2016).

O’Quin: It’s really hard every single time. It is something we think a lot about. We released “Noise Pollution.” We call it a street single. We released it because it was cool and it gave a cool impression of the album. And you never want to give away your best song first. If that doesn’t do well, you’re kind of like, ‘well, here we go.’

I had some friends who thought we shouldn’t release “Feel It Still” first. You just never know, honestly. We didn’t know it was going to be as big as it is. I don’t think you can really know that kind of thing. If you’re trying to figure it out, I don’t think you’ll get it.

SoundExchange: Things seemed to change when you signed with Atlantic in 2010. How has your affiliation with the label helped the band – creatively and otherwise?

O’Quin: It’s helped us immensely. Atlantic has been really awesome. It’s one of the classic labels, and it means a lot to us to have their name affiliated with us. We always kind of wanted to do our own thing. We’ve always wanted to write the best songs we can. They’ve given us backing to go record, and they’re really cool about hanging in there with us and promoting us. They’ve been nothing but awesome and have stuck with us through thick and thin.