All photos by Maclay Heriot // Tank Dog art by Wes Hubbard
Portugal. The Man’s John Gourley talks creation with producer Jeff Bhasker
Jeff Bhasker has won a Grammy for Producer of the Year, amongst other things. John Gourley is the lead singer of the band Portugal. The Man (also Grammy Award winners amongst other things). Fancy trophies aside, Jeff and John seem to know a thing or two about patiently finding the moments that make the connection. These two were kind enough to sit down for Whalebone Magazine and share about their experience of bringing to life the PTM album, Chris Black Changed My Life and the importance of not forcing the moments—amongst other things.
Jeff Bhasker: You’ve actually been a big inspiration to me and supporting my greatness and also my journey into having more authorship or artistry—I’ve learned so much about that from you on this album. And everyone said you’re such a pain in the ass to work with, but you’re a joy. And now you’re one of my best friends.
John Gourley: I feel it, dude. I know I got really lucky leaving this record and being like, I think you’re one of my best friends. I feel so good about this. I think about the first day I met you and us doing this, it’s so perfect. I remember walking in, we had our guitars because we were doing the tour of producers who wanted to work with the band that did “Feel It Still.” We were traveling around, recording a song and just trying things out.
It was such a relief walking into your house and into your space going, “Yeah, of course, we’re going to talk about making music. What are we doing here? This means something to us.” It’s so personal and it’s so important that you have this connection before you walk into the room. That’s the thing that I learned from you, just letting things come out the way they come out and just letting it happen. It’s been my favorite part, watching you play music—you have such a unique approach to everything and that’s inspiring.
“And that’s music to me, is people capturing that moment on records, it’s the coolest thing. Every minute of pain or whatever’s happening in your life, it all pays off in that second.”—John Gourley
Bhasker: Yeah, I didn’t think about it like that, but I definitely always have to tell myself and remind myself, don’t rush. Rushing somewhere and not thinking about what you’re doing, doesn’t make sense, really. Also getting to know the people that you’re working with is kind of important. In the music industry, there is a very commercial aspect—like every songwriter and producer is trying to make the artist’s last hit, which, if you just take a step back from that, makes zero sense. You’ve got to find it and really think about what the path forward is and visualize where you’re going before you go there.
One day, I decided to just check the charts just to see what was going on. And it said, “Portugal. The Man.” And I listened to the song and saw the video and I was like, wow. It was so refreshing—something completely different. You guys were owning a space that had a message, had emotion, had a completely different point of view, and that was really inspiring to me.
Then we went on the whole journey of making the album. We did so many versions of the songs and we had so many different layers to the album itself that then kind of distilled into what it is, which is a whole identity. It was kind of scary at times for me. Maybe it’s what they say about sculpture—I know nothing about sculpture other than they say the people see the figure in it and then you take away until the figure’s there.
Gourley: Personally, I’m one of those people who paints on the canvas—we’re just going to use art metaphors for everything now. I paint on the canvas over and over and over until something reveals itself in there, and then I go, “Oh, that yellow is really cool. What if it went over here?” That’s my process. This journey working with you was absolutely so—it was just this huge moment for me, being around somebody who could actually see these things. And just those moments where I was like, oh, I was thinking something like this. And you taking the microphone and being like this, and you would take it to this next level that, to me, that’s what music is, it is this fully collaborative process. We all bring something to it.
Bhasker: We had to give each other a lot of space, or I had to give you space. I think everyone kept trying to throw you in the room and be, “Finish the album, John.” And I was kind of like, “Guys, give him a space to—you needed space to find it. It’s amazing the collaborative power of music and the instant power of music. And I think oftentimes, if you’re dealing with a lot of emotions and trying to dig deep down into the well and pull up that cold water that’s down in there, it might take time and you’ve got to have the space.
And I learned to say, well, why don’t you just wait and let John have his space, and you’ll find it when you’re ready. And we’re both parents, too, and we know both with our kids, at least I had to learn early on, don’t do everything for them. Let them learn how to do it. Don’t be afraid if they spill the milk; they’ll learn how to clean it up. We both went on an awesome personal journey and it also informs our friendship, and that was really beautiful.
Gourley: I think it was more of these personal journeys that became such a part of the album. Chris Black changed my life. Jeff Bhasker changed my life. Oh, who changed your life? Miles Davis changed your life. Who are the people in your lives that carried you through all of this? And also just recognizing change, and things change. Those friendships and those groups shift and it is this river of—it’s something new. There’s a new shore, there’s a new bank, there’s something new ahead.
Bhasker: Allowing yourself to stand in that cold river and feel the pain. Like you said, you were in tears with that, and I think a lot of the delving into your personal story or journey, and I feel like that’s one thing I learned in all the therapy I was doing during that time was trying to learn how to feel and how to sit in your emotion rather than deflect it or cover it up in some kind of cool sunglasses or something, or some cool fashionable clothing. It’s those things, the personal, those things connect with other people, and that’s the timeless link between us as humans.
I find you to be a really open person, because at your core, there’s something inside of you that knows, “This is going to be my project. I am going to put my stamp on it at the end, and I want to try all these things, I want to see how they resonate, but it’s not coming out until it feels right to me.” So there was a process of you swimming in different waters and trying things and being open. I think that’s such an important lesson for all artists: To be open to stuff doesn’t mean you’re going to lose control of it or somehow it’s not going to be authentic. You can still have the last word.
Gourley: I’m such a fan of yours. Doesn’t matter what you’re doing, I’m just a fan. I feel like there’s something inside of everybody, and if you just hit that thing, that’s the thing I care about more than anything. The dopamine rush for me is, wow, you found the thing inside of you and it’s so brilliant and it’s so bright, and I want to live in that split second forever. And that’s music to me, is people capturing that moment on records, it’s the coolest thing. Every minute of pain or whatever’s happening in your life, it all pays off in that second.
And yeah, of course, you have the final say. You have that. That’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for that moment for me. And I just love that you pushed me so much on this record, and I appreciate it so much and I appreciate those moments in Sonic Ranch.