For Portugal. The Man, trouble began on domestic soil. Before the checked instrument ever made it on the overseas flight, a British Airways luggage attendant allegedly made off with frontman John Gourley's family heirloom Gretsch White Falcon guitar. Weeks later, on the final evening of the tour, a very fortunate thief in Madrid removed a security wall inside the band's tour vehicle and discovered laptops, equipment, and the band's entire tour earnings. Thousands of euros and their livelihood disappeared into the night.
Yet those are tangible possessions and utterly meaningless compared to the fate of Devon Hollahan, a longtime Portugal. The Man fan who traveled from Prague to Frankfurt to see the band, only to go missing after the show. Having spent time with Hollahan that evening, the band had dropped him off so he and a friend could go searching for a hostel. The only clue that remains is a backpack authorities later discovered. (As of press time, Hollahan has yet to be found.)
It was a tour that could break the spirits of mere men. With Hollahan's disappearance clearly weighing on the band—they've turned their fanbase into a motivated network of "Devon's Army," through which fans can assist in the search for one of their own—Portugal. The Man has accepted their fate despite their misfortune. The money and instruments were possessions, important to them, yet ultimately fleeting. But Hollahan is very real, his disappearance intrinsically linked to the band by an unjust turn of fate, and there is a level of indirect blame Portugal. The Man still carry with them.
"I personally feel responsible because he wouldn't have been in Frankfurt if we weren't playing. He came over specifically for the show," Gourley explains. "It's all we've been able to talk about since it happened. Even after [we were] robbed, we were like, 'Shit, that's just stuff. There's a kid missing. There's a person that nobody can find.'"
Outside of Hollahan disappearance, the band continues to move forward. Splitting time between Portland and Alaska (raised by parents who were both Iditarod racers, Gourley spent part of his childhood in Wasilla—Sarah Palin can see Russia from his house), Portugal. The Man just might be this town's most important rock band if they were ever actually within city limits. Or, as Gourley puts it, "We're on tour so much we're not really a part of a music scene." He adds, "I feel awful, because in seven years I've probably been in Portland for maybe six months. We've never been a part of the Portland music scene although we love it."
In lieu of resting on the crutch of their regional association, the band turned the calendar pages of 2009 by recording a pair of albums—The Satanic Satanist, their most successful release to date, and American Ghetto, due out next spring. All while still allocating time for 132 live performances, over a third of which were overseas, and included festival slots at Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, and Lollapalooza. The previous year saw more domestic dates, although as countless other bands can attest, touring in America lacks the privileges of European travel.
"[In America] every single day there's 10 bands in every city, you get tortilla chips and salsa, and you feel lucky. It's like, 'Aw, thank you. I can't believe you're having us here, and you gave us chips!'" Gourley continues, "Over [in Europe] they treat you like people and that's something we really forgot about in touring as much as we did. We just did it because we've always felt it's an art and you want to do it—you want to be playing music. You almost forget what it's like to live like a normal person."
While their peers roost comfortably in the pigeonholes of distinct genres and styles, Portugal. The Man are restless perfectionists. The band's entire existence is painstakingly crafted to bloom within a bubble they've cultivated; one where the band absolutely shuns compromise, ignoring outside influence, yet still evolves in ways other bands could only dream. This Portugal. The Man culture includes self-releasing their records, direct and constant interaction with fans, an art-before-commerce approach to complicated visual components (Austin Sellers' artwork for Satanist is a staggering array of die-cut panels and kaleidoscope colors), and a willingness to sacrifice critical acceptance—rarely has a band of such breakthrough success and artistic prowess received so little press. All in order to never waver from their open-ended musical direction.
Part of this direction includes a deeply engrained commitment to design, even going as far as to post the raw artwork from Satanist as free downloadable files, thus letting fans reinterpret the album's complex design. "The whole idea was the CD is so dead right now," admits Gourley. "I felt like if we had a chance to do it, we might as well run with it and give people something they either want to hold onto and look at, or just recycle. It's all paper; they could recycle it so easily. Or even toss it out the window."
Until the debut of American Ghetto, which won't see store shelves until next spring, the band is still making the rounds in support of The Satanic Satanist. With their classic rock roots—Santana, Pink Floyd—left exposed, their sprawling psychedelic arrangements are compacted into pristine, concise art-rock numbers that display a band always willing to dismantle and reassemble the parameters of rock. More direct than their previous three recordings, The Satanic Satanist is armed with a pair of singles (the organ-heavy opener, "People Say," and the cosmic ballad, "The Sun") and more than a few equally impressive soulful rock numbers. If the band had a modern equivalent outside of their vintage LP influences, it might be a less decadent Spiritualized.
Not tethered to music industry insiders, buoyed by press, or bankrolled by a label, Portugal. The Man represents a true anomaly within a structured industry not known for deviation. While there have been some deep-pocketed corporate suitors vying for the band's attention, Portugal. The Man still release their titles via their Approaching AIRballoons imprint (in keeping with grammatically confusing monikers). This includes the already-recorded American Ghetto, a more drum machine-based recording (similar to the band's 2006 debut Waiter: "You Vultures!") that conceptually centers around the cohesive mix of sin and poverty that plagues rural Alaska.
Explains Gourley, "I think we always made it a point with every record we make to say, 'Well, you know, we've done that before. Let's do something new. Let's do something different."