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Music, Etc.: Portugal. The Man—In The Moment

Portugal. The Man (“Feel It Still”) keyboardist Kyle O'Quin talks studio life, staying relevant and becoming overnight sensations after playing almost 4,000 shows over the last 13 years.

Portugal. The Man is a workingman’s band, having released no less than eight albums since its inception in 2004 and maintaining a touring schedule of approximately 300 dates per year. Normally, the band’s mantra is to put out ‘an album a year’—but its latest album, Woodstock, took four years to complete as the group kept building an arsenal of new material and evolving the overall production. A stark departure from its previous album yet still instantly recognizable, Woodstock contains the smash hit, “Feel It Still,” which has hit Number One in the Billboard charts. Pro Sound News spoke to keyboardist Kyle O’Quin about staying in the moment.

On staying relevant:

In the past, we always did an album a year—we’d just get in the studio and do it, then put it out. The idea was to just capture the best you could do that year, and then go and do it again next year. While creating Woodstock, we spent so many months—over the course of this project, there were dozens of songs, and so many that we didn’t record—I can’t imagine how many hundreds of hours went into it. We essentially completed another full record we didn’t release called Gloomin + Doomin, which is super cool with stuff that is not on Woodstock. I think it is some of the coolest music we’ve done, but when you when you are sitting on older material, it’s not as relevant—especially lyrically. The stuff we were writing back then is not really reflective of the world around us right now, especially considering everything that’s happened with politics. The whole world has kind of changed. So we just got really focused and put together Woodstock instead.

On gear affinities:

There was nothing conventional about how we recorded this record. It was recorded in seven different studios, and while we were recording, we would just sit there and pass around instruments. It was kind of crazy, because we all kind of play everything. We had a lot of Teenage Engineering OP-1 synths on the record—we tend to carry these all over with us. There are also these old Gibson guitars; we used L-30s, which are from the late 1930s and pretty much the only guitars that we write on. Also, John [Gourley, singer/guitarist] also always carries around a Sennheiser MD 441, and he sung most of [our previous album] Evil Friends through that. There is always one of those in the bag, and that is a good mic because it is so directional and it doesn’t pick up a bunch of other stuff. When John is doing vocals in the studio, he’s not very formal about it. For instance, on our first record, he just sat on a couch and sang all the vocal tracks while he was sitting there holding the mic.

On deciding what to release:

We are a democracy and everybody can have his opinion. I would say that if John wants something a certain way, at the end of the day, that is how it is going to be. That said, if we go into a room and write down the eight songs we each want on the record, we will usually pick the same ones. Many times, songs that aren’t used eventually get turned around into ideas for other songs since we are always writing new stuff. It is an interesting question: Would you want all your old demos released? We were once on a plane a couple of years ago and our engine blew when we were 10,000-feet high. The crew was like, ‘Brace for emergency landing!’ People were crying all around us, and John was texting to our manager, giving instructions on what to release and what not to release in case we didn’t make it. You never know.

On ‘Feel It Still:’

I don’t think any of us could have anticipated the success of this song. Having a number-one hit on AAA, we were like, ‘Wow, that is crazy.’ We were trying to write a good song, but we weren’t trying to write a big hit. Asa Taccone, singer of the band Electric Guest, produced it. John was just playing the bassline in the song one day, and Asa recorded it on his phone with voice memo and immediately started pushing everybody on it. Then he started bouncing on the table and chopping together a drum beat with his hands, making all the ‘heys’ and the ‘whoops’ and then pitching them. He was trying to get John to write lyrics for the bridge, and kept asking ‘Is it coming? Is it coming?’ in the studio. So that stuck and he ended up leaving it. The vocals that we laid down that day are the same ones on the record, and most of the song was recorded within two hours. Now that it is out there, we are in the middle of it, so it is hard for us to get perspective on how big the song is. I can tell that the song is doing really well though, because I am getting weird calls from distant relatives: “Hey, it’s your stepmom’s sisters’ boyfriend!’

On Atlantic Records:

We are lucky because Atlantic is super cool and they have faith in us. Sometimes, this is not always the case between the band and the label. On this record, we missed several deadlines, but everyone was really cool and patient. This resulted in us making the best possible record. Their legacy is a big deal and we are proud to be a part of that—we want to keep adding to this legacy. So far, it has been seven years and they have really helped the band grow and invested in it. It is never a quick ride to the top, or if it is, it is going to be a quick ride to the bottom. They have been patient, super supportive. It is a great label and there is nowhere we would rather be.