Portugal. the Man Speaks on Music, Portland, Launching the PTM Foundation, and Indigenous People

By now, you’ve likely heard the music of the Portland-via-Alaska-based band, Portugal. the Man. The group has a number of hits, but their most ubiquitous is, “Feel It Still,” which seemed to run the world for months on end in 2017. To date, the song’s video has racked up nearly 300 million YouTube views. But what you might not have heard is the poignancy and urgency with which the band’s front man, John Baldwin Gourley, speaks about very real and very serious problems – namely, those that have to do with the treatment of indigenous people and the general welfare of the human race.

To help, the Grammy-winning band, which has already won the Legend Award at the Native American Music Awards and the Public Sector Leadership Award from the National Congress of American Indians, has recently started the PTM Foundation to highlight the plight of indigenous people, tell the stories that are rarely told and offer aid where little or none has been offered prior. We caught up with Gourley on July 24th, just a few days after the jarring Portland, Oregon riots, to talk about these efforts and what inspires the PTM Foundation’s important work.

Hi John. How are you doing? Relatively speaking, of course.

I’m good. Chillin’ at home, I guess. I’m trying to figure out how to write music and it’s difficult right now.

Are you in Portland?

Yeah, we’re in Portland.

I’ve spoken with other songwriters recently, including Ben Gibbard. And he talked about having a difficult time writing now, too. Because living isn’t the same as it was before, the stimuli are just different. Is that the case for you?

Yeah, we’re all such dweebs, we don’t know how to deal with it! [Laughs] No, for me, honestly, the reason I’m having trouble writing at the moment is we kind of grew up – we’re Weird Al fans. We’re nerds. Like, we like the Dead Kennedys. We’re very satirical the way we right. “So American” is a song about how funny it is when you see people thinking that they’re, like, more American than the next person, you know? Or, “Purple, Yellow, Red & Blue,” is that idea of ego and “I want to be a movie star and get all these things.” But it’s kind of hard to find humor on either side at the moment. And that’s where it’s difficult for me. I don’t really know how to write about it. I’ve never been a super serious person, you know? Like, I’ve never been like that. I mean, I’m a serious person in real life. I’m not super funny. But that’s where my writing goes.

Before we talk about the Foundation, let me ask, when and how did you first come to music?

We grew up pretty unconventional compared to the Lower 48 and I think even for Alaska. Because my dad got into dog mushing and ran the Iditarod, ran the Yukon Quest. Both my parents were in the Iditarod together. So, we kind of just – we grew up in this little cabin. Like, my first memories are of us in a cabin on an icy lake. It was just room. We did that a lot growing up. We lived in these, like, really small spots. In, like, a garage. And the cabin had the most impact on me because I think I was just so young. Up until I was six, we were in this cabin.

My parents are pretty funny. Like, they’re – just the way they both came to Alaska. Everybody at that time was kind of just looking at Alaska like – it’s the tagline. It’s the last frontier. It was, let’s go figure out where we come from. It’s the idea of getting off the grid, I guess, in a pretty major way. But the things that we had growing up were oldies radio. That was the staple. My parents came up to Alaska in ’70-71. So all my music is pre-60s out there. We had these LPs that we could look at. We could just look at them because you can’t ever – you weren’t carrying a record player out there. I don’t know why we had these records.

But we did have an encyclopedia set. And I remember looking, just listening to music and kind of looking to read the encyclopedia set. Even as a little kid, I always found humor in music. Like, “Here Comes The Sun.” Like, “Doo-doo-doo-doo.” Just picturing George Harrison doing this, like, kind of nerdy thing, writing the song. And thinking about how crazy it is that we live in these cabins. This music was made so far away. It was made in London. It was made in England. I listened to music that was made in Detroit, in Nashville and Memphis. It was my connection to the outside world. That’s how I was hearing everything. And I remember having a sense of this, like, “Wow the best music that’s ever been made has already been made. That’s all that will ever happen. It’s all we ever need! All we need is The Beatles, Motown, Sam Cooke, Elvis, Roy Orbison. This is all we need!”

And it was coming to the “city,” which was actually a really small place outside of Wasilla, [Alaska] where I started going to school and playing hockey. And I remember hearing Oasis for the first time. I heard Nirvana for the first time through Weird Al because our neighbors listened to Weird Al. They were more conservative and Christian but they listened to Weird Al. And that’s something that I think is just amazing, Weird Al’s connection to the music world. His contribution is really massive in this big connection. He connects groups that probably never talk to each other. We all think he’s funny. My most radical friends, my most radical political advocates, all these people, activists, everybody can agree that Weird Al is kind of the greatest thing ever.

But I remember hearing Nirvana through that and thinking, like, “Wow, this is John Lennon.” With Oasis, “This is The Beatles.” That was my connection. Hearing oldies radio and 60s music my whole life and then discovering that they can still make music today and what music really is about, which is about progressing. And I take what you did and I add my trips to it. I add my flavor to it. From there, it went to Wu-Tang. What really made me want to make music – because I had never picked up guitars, myself – it was hearing sampling and this group of nerdy folks getting into a room together. I mean, I probably shouldn’t call Wu-Tang nerdy. But they’re fucking nerds, man! They are comic book kids, movies, Kung Fu. It was really exciting to me.

Everything I listened to growing up – because the mic selection was so small at that period, you know? During the 60s, the studio, the equipment you could get, there was just a handful of these techniques. So, when you would hear Wu-Tang, you don’t have to know the song but you connect with tone. You connect with the warmth and it’s, like, wow, you took something that’s been made and you created loops and you made something new and fresh and totally unique to what I grew up with. Nirvana, same thing. Kurt’s like, “I can’t sing like John Lennon. I like metal, I like the Melvins. So I’m going to play it just heavier and louder.

But when you sit down and play those songs, it’s like, “Wow this is pretty technical. This really is The Beatles at the heart of it.” The Beatles, Motown, Sam Cooke. All that stuff is existing in these current, contemporary artists. And it was across the board. Music shouldn’t be, like, genre-based. I think it’s really silly that we even went that route. Especially the more obscure genres. You start breaking it down in a way – it’s not really the way music is supposed to be. Like, I just listen to fucking music. I like hip-hop. Hip-hop is punk. Hip-hop is more punk than any fucking punk band today. The second you start thinking that punk is a leather jacket and a fucking hair cut, you’re not punk. You’ve lost the point, you know? That’s not what it’s about.

Given this experience growing up in Alaska and your work with your band, when did you know you wanted to start the PTM Foundation and what was the reasoning behind it?

As an artist, I think all musicians get this: you get asked to play charity events. You get asked, “Hey, come play at my foundation!” And you show up at these things – and, first of all, getting offered way too much money. You get offered too much money. It always made me feel really gross. And I don’t how artists do this shit. Again, it goes back to that punk is not a leather jacket. I kind of equate all artists – you’re punk in some way. It crosses over into the capitalist idea here and there but it’s weird. And we get offered like crazy amounts of money to go play these, like, green events. These events that we believe in. We believe in this. But, like, what do you mean pay us $100,000, $50,000, $30,000? Shouldn’t that money stay in the foundation? Shouldn’t that go to charity?

So you start to realize that’s how they spread money around and it’s just frustrating to watch, honestly. I never wanted to start a foundation, I never thought we would. I don’t even know where the idea really came from outside of that I stand for something. I know we’ve always stood for something. We’ve always given a shit about these issues. But it was watching that and turning it down and watching other artists do it. And saying, like, “What is our focus?” It took touring through Occupy – I think that’s what really opened our eyes to all of this. Touring through Occupy. You see a lot of what’s happening right now, which is lack of leadership. We would travel around and every city we’d go to, we’d go to the Occupy gathering at, like, City Hall where everybody was camped out. Zach and I would say, “Hey, we want to sit down with the leader. Who should we talk to?” And they said, okay, there’s fucking eight of us. There’s like eight people you’ve got to talk to. And everybody’s got a voice. And that’s great, cool. I’m all for equality and offering the stage. But there is no focus.

So, it would be – here’s what we stand for. We are LGBTQ! We’re gender. We are race. We are environment. We are climate change. Everything. Every issue would come at you from person to person and I remember sitting there, thinking, “There’s absolutely no way this is going to happen.” It’s cool. I appreciate the gathering and getting together to make your voice heard. But there’s not a reality in that. And it’s also very ego-based. And we see a lot of it right now, too. A lot of these things take generational – it’s integration, it’s little pieces. You got to move the pieces. You can’t just say, “Oh, I want it all!” Because that’s what they’re saying, “I want it all!” and “I’m the focus!” You start to identify as your issue.

For me, personally, indigenous – just the idea of indigenous applies to everybody. When we started talking about this, I went out to Shishmaref [Alaska] in 2011 just to talk about how do we do a land acknowledgement. How do we properly represent the people of Alaska, how do we represent where we’re from? We don’t see Natives in the Lower 48. We don’t really see them. We don’t see the culture, you know? So, going out there was my idea to find out how we do this. And it just took a really long time to pull it together. Years. We just couldn’t find folks. We couldn’t connect.

And, later, going to Australia and our experience with Sunrise Television, how we dropped off Sunrise because of their comments about needing another “stolen generation” in Australia. And if anybody is familiar with the “stolen generation,” it’s basically like our boarding schools here in the U.S. It’s basically assimilation. It’s taking kids from indigenous families and aboriginal families and bringing them into white families. It’s cutting their hair, removing the language. It’s really basic assimilation. It’s something we obviously see in Alaska because, growing up, we were three generations removed. Barely three generations removed from boarding schools, you know? It’s just one of those things. We’re 1959 Statehood in Alaska. So, we got to see a lot of that.

So, it was a really touchy subject for us, being in Australia and that being brought up by our friends at Monster Children. Just some close friends who knew where we stood on this stuff. So we dropped out of Sunrise – that was a big deal. There’s a thing called “welcome to country” in Australia, which we were told about as we were coming to Australia. Before we dropped out of Sunrise, we had set up this thing. “Welcome to country” is basic manners and that’s what land acknowledgment is. It’s, “Can I cross your land?” In Australia, they actually have a web site for it. And that’s something we don’t have here. They have a web site where you just go on, make a donation, somebody shows up and does their welcome to country. Really, it’s just basic manners. That’s the way I look at a lot of this stuff. It’s basic manners.

This is an obvious and basic question but I think it’s important to hear the answer in your own words. When did human rights become important to you and why are they so?

I’ve just never been a profit over people type of person. I think it’s a problem with the world. I’m guilty of materialism. Everybody is guilty of, “Oh, man. I want those Nikes. That shit’s dope!” We all do that but we don’t think about what’s happening behind the scenes to get you those shoes. In most indigenous cultures that we’ve crossed through – and there’s thousands and thousands. That’s where this becomes such a complex discussion because when you start talking about mascots and you start talking about teams. It can go, “Hey, I have a Native friend who is fine with it.” Okay, but what tribe are they with, what nation are they with? There’s thousands.

But when you talk about human rights, it is seeing the affects of settler colonialism on Alaskan kids. It’s growing up with Alaskans. But, like, Alaskan Natives who – I remember a moment that happened really early on in high school, hanging out with my buddy. We’re hanging out with people that we don’t know. And at some point, his race came up and they asked him if he was Native and he was like, “Oh, no. I’m Mexican.” I remember him saying that and talking to him afterwards and so naively being like, “Why’d you say you were Mexican?” He was like, “Oh, it’s just easier.”

Seeing things like that and traveling around – travel opens your eyes to a lot of this stuff. So, growing up with that in Alaska. Seeing the racism in Australia. Seeing how the aboriginal people are pushed out. How they’re looked down upon for having 14, 20 people in a household. That’s how they live. That’s their culture. Like, you’re talking about culture. Buy a house? How? First of all, how? You’re shoving them out. Then you go to South Africa, 90s Apartheid. They were dealing with apartheid in the 90s and you see – when we landed there, we went and hung out with this local band. And just going out to their house, you show up and you’re in a compound. There’s a big huge fence around the place with tree structures on the property. It’s a really beautiful home. I was sitting outside and, again, naively approaching these subjects.

We’re sitting outside and I go, “Wow, what’s that buzzing sound? There’s a crazy buzz going on.” And kid says, “Oh, it’s the electric fence.” I go, “Oh shit, you got to keep lions out? You got to keep elephants out?” I’m just blown away. These animals are just around us because we’re in Africa. But no. People. They have to keep people out. And as you travel around, you start to see only people of color in service industry jobs. Pretty much exclusively people of color in the service industry. You see the dynamic of the Black liaison with the Black community, the African community and you see the dynamic shift, you know. You see how they talk to each other and how it gets broken down. No, these people are not treated equally. Yes, there’s a problem.

You talk about human rights. It’s those experiences that – if you’re open to seeing it, if you’re empathetic in any way. You see that. You see that there’s a problem. Like, why can I throw food away? And yet, I got to see a picture of a kid starving in Africa. Why can I do that? I scrape off my plate at the end of the night. And we always do it. We all do it. That’s not how we’re meant to exist. How do we treat Native communities back home? There’s a word “subsistence” that comes up often when you talk about Native communities. They talk about subsistent hunting and fishing in these communities. And it’s really just taking enough to survive. That’s what they’re allowed to take.

But we’re over here, you know, cooking these massive meals, throwing food away. Going to restaurants and throwing food away. And when I post – if I post on Instagram, and I’ve done it before because I find it interesting, the dynamic. I post a photo of my friends who got a whale and they’re butchering the whale. This is interesting for me and I like to post this and just share the Alaskan style, the culture. But who do you think attacks those photos? Who do you think flips out? It’s the Left. And I hate that we define ourselves by these, like, ideas of politics, Left and the Right. But the type of person that attacks that photo is the same type of person that would claim that they fight for their rights.

Totally.

That’s where human rights – it’s really complex. It’s so nuanced. It’s so much deeper than just, like, they can’t eat, you know?

We’ve talked about the impetus and the philosophy. But how is the PTM Foundation going to carry out the mission?

The idea is redistribution of wealth. Not being focused on communities that are in the public eye. That’s what’s difficult. There are a lot of communities that money goes to that don’t actually need it. What I want to see is just basic level cultural recognition and visibility. That’s my ultimate goal. That’s cool. That’s enough for me. It’s setting up generational change and integration. So, it’s going up to Shishmaref and the first thing you see is American flags everywhere. In the library, at their school. No books, no Native languages. That’s what I would like to see, books and language at schools.

They’re simple changes. You can’t want it all at once. Like, you need a well on your reservation? Yeah, let’s talk about that. Let’s try and get that happening. We’ve been through states where the reservation – and, I will say, how fucked up is this – we’ve gone through states where they have a reservation that’s an acre and to have any of the benefits from the government, you have to live on these reservations. You have to be in these areas and they do the blood quantum. Which we [the U.S.] break down over time because we stick two different tribes on the same reservation – with the hope that we can break down that bloodline. And that’s what we do. We try to break down their bloodline.

When I see things like that, it becomes, “How do we make the reservation two acres, how do we make it 10?” How do you put land in a trust? Instead of Elon Musk – I mean, I would like to make waves in this. How do you get Elon Musk to not plant a million trees but to buy the land that the trees are on and let that land be? Let the people of that land re-wild it. Let them clean it up. Let them take that land and put that in their trust. You want some real change? If you want some real generational change down the line – stuff that doesn’t even affect you and me – you have to make those choices. And you have to say, “Fuck man, I care about my kids. I care about my kids’ kids. And I care about you.”

I want to see that land not just be rows of trees, because we see that on tour. We see the rows and rows of trees – but no deer. No food. It’s juts a tree farm. It’s a meaningless act when they’re just planting trees. Everything is reciprocated. The circle of life is a very real thing [Laughs]. We all know the song! We’ve watched The Lion King. That idea is very real and very true. So, that’s what I want to see and I think that’s the ultimate goal of the Foundation. Making those discussions more public and speaking for somebody that’s not yourself, I think that’s important. In BLM right now, there’s a lot of allies, a lot of people who want to help, a lot of people who want to talk. And I do think it’s really important that we all prop each other up. It’s cool seeing people show up in support but that’s not why we’re here.

How has your status as a popular musician, and how you’ve risen in the public eye, helped you focus these goals and amplify them?

We’ve made missteps. How we came to all of this was that we care about it. We grew up around it back home. We’ve fucked up, too, though. We didn’t understand it. It took these eye-opening moments to get our heads around it. But winning a Grammy just gives you everything. When it comes to, like, “Oh, Grammy winners, alright!” Fuck, even being nominated, that’s cool! That’s great! That will get you anything. It helped make those connections easier. Like, we talked about doing land acknowledgement in 2011.

I just have to say that a lot of it also comes down to the experience that musicians have. It’s a very unique life in terms of American musicians. When you start out playing music, you play the poorest areas. You’re fucking poor, yourself. You’re eating out of a rice cooker. You’re sleeping on people’s floors. You’re that ignorant kid. You’re just trying to make it. It wasn’t even trying to make it for us. I just wanted to play music. That’s all we wanted. I wanted to get to the next city. I want to play music. I want to screen-print shirts because that’s super fun.

Then you have this realization, like, “Oh this is actually doing something. People are showing up.” But we go from the poorest of the poor to the Billionaire class that you never get to see. We never get to see them, either. We’re just in this weird world where everybody kind of wants to hang with the band. So, you end up in these different circles and you see how change can happen because they’re all just people. They just look at everything differently.

Right.

That’s how we’ve come to any of this stuff. You got to run the gamut to understand that there is – we do have the ability to change. And we do have the ability to set these wheels in motion. That’s why I have huge respect for, like, Mark Ruffalo and celebrities that speak out on this stuff. Because they don’t have to. They’re actors. But they travel in circles most people never will. They experience every bit of that world that people write conspiracies about. There’s a conspiracy about everything at that level. We actually get to see it. We get to go into those houses and they’re just fucking nerds, too. Buying up yachts the way we buy up ATVs. They’re the same. They just have more money.

It’s all these mistakes that we’ve made throughout history and correcting it is not an overnight process. It’s really about that awakening that happens – those kids who I went to school with who were saying they were Mexican because it was easier are now going back and saying, “Hey, I want to learn my language. Where do I come from?” If you start to look at that, the boarding school, histories and all of it – I equate it to, like, watching Maury Povich, these adopted kids are like, “I just want to know who my parents are.” Think about it. Generations of people are removed from who they are. There’s something inside of all of us that makes us want these bigger – something bigger than ourselves.

It’s why we’ve grasped onto capitalism. And we grasp onto Christianity and these other religions. It keeps us sane as we leave our land. It’s not to say that everybody needs to go back to their land. It’s that we need to just recognize what it is and where we’re coming from and the land that we’re on. If I could sum it up, it’s the idea of indigenous. The reason I wanted to take on the idea of indigenous is because it applies to everyone. Future Famers of America, the Historical Society of Alaska or Oregon or any state you’re in, it applies to all of these. You hunt? You fish? Everything you do is based on things we were taught by indigenous people. If you want to talk about the environment or environmental issues – indigenous.

We’re all aware of that river that runs through the city or that lake that you don’t eat fish out of because it’s dirty. We had that in Alaska! Like, how do we have that in Alaska? If it exists in Alaska, it exists in Kansas. It exists in Alabama. We’re all aware of this. I just think the idea of indigenous – when you go into a gun shop, you see Indian head logos on everything. Every single one of those people want to be that. It’s the reason why so many hunter friends growing up wanted to claim Navajo and Cherokee – “Oh I’m an eighteenth Cherokee.” It’s something we want to be. We want to connect with that. I think it really does apply to all of these folks.

The only thing it doesn’t apply to is Capitalism. Because the idea of wealth in indigenous communities everywhere we go – it’s like, “Hey, you’re cold, would you like one of my jackets?” Hell yeah! I made you warm! That makes me feel so wealthy. Because I had the ability to clothe you when you needed it. It really does apply across the board. And I believe another good point to encapsulate the need for this work is that these are future consultants, these kids. Indigenous knowledge. That is the way forward.

It’s in discourse. We’re all talking about. That’s all these movements are to me – they’re all just identity crises. We’re just searching for who we are. You can’t be me and I can’t know what it’s like to be you. So, we’re all projecting these ideas of what we think. Like, what skin color is and what we think police are and what we think it should be. And really, at the end of the day, it should be, “Focus on the ground you’re on.” Just focus on the people around you. Focus on your community. If you make your community better, you make the world better. It’s a slow process and it’s frustrating for people and it’s scary.

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