How family ties have helped Portugal. The Man with the career highs and personal lows that get thrown its way

click to enlarge How family ties have helped Portugal. The Man with the career highs and personal lows that get thrown its way
Maclay Heriot photo
Portugal. The Man is feeling it... still.

What's the opposite of an overnight success story?

Whatever term of art you apply to such situations, Portugal. The Man stands out as a textbook example.

Rising from the ashes of the emo band Anatomy of a Ghost in the mid-2000s, the group from the remote outpost of Wasilla, Alaska, started making waves with the release of its debut album Waiter:"You Vultures!" in 2006. The group's sound did stand out from the pack — feeling rooted in an alt-rock edge and indie rock coolness while radiating a funky psychedelia beyond that of its peers, thanks in large part to singer John Gourley's sweet vibrato-laden falsetto voice.

Over the next decade and change, the group proved to be a consistent and successful force in the alt-rock scene, putting out seven acclaimed albums and touring relentlessly. The band had carved out its niche, but the situation was closer to being a slightly hidden gem for hardcore musicheads than to being bonafide rock stars.

It was during those early days of Portugal. when Gourley made a long-distance connection that would blossom into a life-changing one. The singer also is a visual artist — one whose trippy work on album covers and merch help defined the band's aesthetic — and in those early MySpace-era days of social media, an art pal connected the Alaskan with a graphic designer and illustrator from northwest England by the name of Zoe Manville.

The pair struck up a digital friendship and even eventually met up in the U.S. when Manville was visiting her father who'd moved Stateside. A singer in her own right, Manville moved to Dublin, where she was working on music for a while. At the same time, Portugal. The Man was conveniently building up a substantial European fan base.

"I was playing shows and doing that stuff in Dublin, and then Portugal. would go and do tours in Germany — like very, very often, like every three months or four months. It felt like they were there all the time. So for me being in Europe, that was very easy," says Manville. "John being John was like, 'Come join the tour!', which he does all the time... still. I was like, 'What?!?' But I just went along for the ride. It was a lot of fun being in Switzerland and France and Germany. I'd say it was like a five-year-straight kind of block where we were just over there all the time."

After years of hanging around the Portugal. crew and providing backup vocals and percussion on a part-time basis, Manville eventually became an official member of the group. Her relationship with Gourley also grew into a long-term partnership. In addition to creating more stellar music, the couple also collaborated on bringing a human into the world with their daughter, Frances, arriving in 2011.

Then something unexpected happened. Eight LPs and 13 years into its career, Portugal. The Man suddenly became omnipresent. The first single from the band's 2017 album Woodstock kind of came and went. The second single? That tune became an inescapable cultural phenomenon.

With a deep groove, sly falsetto bliss from Gourley and a riff on the melody of "Please Mr. Postman," Portugal. The Man's "Feel It Still" slowly became an out-of-nowhere megahit. The bonafide jam topped six different Billboard charts including a record-setting 20 weeks at No. 1 on the Alternative Charts and ultimately peaking at No. 4 on the Hot 100 eight months after its release. The single went at least platinum in over a dozen countries across the globe, won the Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance and has been streamed over 1.2 billion times on Spotify alone.

"Honestly, I think that that was pretty strange. I think when you're in it sometimes you just don't really realize what's going on," says Manville with a laugh. "I think during that time we didn't really have space to think about it. Now, looking back at that... it's crazy."

"Sometimes [John] is like 'I knew that song was gonna be big!'" Manville adds. "But I can't tell if he's joking. He knew it was a fun song, but I don't think he thought for a second that it would be on the scale that it is — billions of plays and just on so many commercials."

The sudden next-level fame only pushed the band to be more relentless with their touring to maximize on the moment. But their long journey to the top also meant they'd long ago become a tight-knit, almost familial unit, and success wasn't going to change them overnight. While the group now calls Portland its home base, Manville credits the band's Alaskan sensibilities for the communal vibes that it continues to radiate.

"It's in everything John does. He thinks about things in terms of his home and his community and how he grew up. And he applies that to probably every facet of this project," she says. "I mean, even just in me joining and the way that happened — it's just very John, it's very Alaskan. He likes helping people out, but he also recognizes when people are really good. John's just all about family. And I think that's really at the root of everything and every decision that he makes — it's all family- and community-based."

Even when the band's momentum took a hit with the world shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they tried to find the silver lining in the grim situation.

"We talk about this sometimes... I think that we needed to stop," Manville says. "This band has always been known for just going and going and going, and that was a lot of fun. But you also realize when you stop, how hard you were going and what little rest you were getting mentally and physically. It was a strange period, but I think we were pretty lucky we got to just stop for a minute and just kind of replenish a little bit."

Portugal. The Man did eventually follow up Woodstock with last year's Chris Black Changed My Life. The album doesn't deviate from the high-energy groovy fun that fans have come to expect, but for all the ace musicianship on the album, there's one thing that Manville adores the most about the album — her daughter, Frances, sings on two of the tracks ("Ghost Town" and "Time's a Fantasy").

"I love that our child is on it singing," she says. "She will grab a mic and sing at the drop of a hat. She's got no, no fear; no inhibitions whatsoever. It's just cool that she's on that forever."

That lack of fear in Frances has come in handy as she and her parents have had to deal with her difficult medical issues. Frances has an ultra rare genetic mutation called DHDDS. There are reportedly fewer than 100 documented cases of the disease worldwide. That being the case, there's very little info for her musician parents to go off to help her.

"The simplest way I can put it, it's just the slightest change in your genes that throws everything out of whack. For her that looks like seizures and tremors and learning difficulties and mood disorders and muscle pain. It kind of affects pretty much her whole body, and there's a wide sort of scope to the severity of it," Manville says. "That's something that we found out in the pandemic as well. So it was a pretty, pretty rough time trying to just get the seizures figured out. When you're told, 'All you can do is take seizure meds,' and then you take those and they make everything just awful, it's like, 'Oh, my gosh, what am I doing? What else is there?' And they're like, 'Nothing.' It's pretty rough as a parent to be in a situation where [a doctor] just shrugs at you and says they don't know."

Portugal. The Man has long been a socially conscious band with a penchant for fundraising for important causes, so it's no surprise that Manville and Gourley have thrown themselves into raising awareness and funds to help support DHDDS research. They've set up FrancesChangedMyLife.com, where folks can learn about DHDDS, Frances' story, donate to Cure DHDDS USA, buy special Frances-approved fundraising Portugal. The Man merch and more.

Manville and Gourley know that a magical cure for their daughter won't emerge overnight. But if Portugal. The Man has taught them anything, it's that the long, slow grind can eventually lead to unexpected, blissful success. ♦

Portugal. The Man • Thu, May 23 at 8 pm • $45-$175 • All ages • Knitting Factory • 916 W. Sprague Ave. • sp.knittingfactory.com

Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ken Carson, Irontom @ Gorge Amphitheater

Fri., May 31, 7 p.m.
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Seth Sommerfeld

Seth Sommerfeld is the Music Editor for The Inlander, and an alumnus of Gonzaga University and Syracuse University. He has written for The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Fox Sports, SPIN, Collider, and many other outlets. He also hosts the podcast, Everyone is Wrong...