Portugal. The Man is a rock band with a pop hit, a stop in Pittsburgh
The members of Portugal. The Man have made a habit of representing rock in spaces dominated by pop and hip-hop.
Last year its song “Feel It Still” — a maddeningly catchy number about being “a rebel just for kicks” — peaked at No.4 on Billboard's Hot 100 behind rap hits by Post Malone and Cardi B. In January “Feel It Still” beat “Despacito” and a Chainsmokers track to win a Grammy Award for best pop duo/group performance.
And then there was the band's gig on “Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve” amid the smiling likes of Mariah Carey and Camila Cabello.
“I remember the show people said, ‘Can you be really outgoing?'” bassist Zach Carothers recalled the other day with a laugh. “I was like, ‘This is as excited as I can look — I've never looked more excited than this.'”
Carothers and the band bring that excitement to Pittsburgh's Stage AE May 22.
With its processed backing vocals and swinging, tick-tock beat, “Feel It Still” — a streaming smash with more than half a billion plays on YouTube and Spotify — exudes a coolly modern vibe; ditto the bleary synth textures threaded through the rest of Portugal. the Man's latest album, “Woodstock,” which the band made with producers including Danger Mouse, John Hill and the Beastie Boys' Mike D.
“They followed every crazy impulse we had in the studio,” said Hill, known for his work with Shakira and M.I.A. “It was exciting.”
But the group is serious about keeping its music hand-played at a moment when many acts perform to prerecorded tracks — so serious, in fact, that its concerts often feature a large sign assuring observers that there are “no computers up here.”
That message led to a small controversy when Portugal. The Man appeared last year at the American Music Awards; some took the statement as an implicit criticism of the other artists at the pop-focused event.
“It was ‘Portugal. The Man hates programmed music,'” frontman John Gourley said over drinks on a Koreatown rooftop after a taping for Ellen DeGeneres' talk show. “And that couldn't be further from the truth. I mean, we started playing music because of the Wu-Tang Clan,” said the singer, who wore the influential hip-hop crew's logo on a chain around his neck.
“The reason we show that sign every night is to let people know they're getting a unique experience,” he continued. “If anything, it was a shot at rock bands — and I know three or four of them — that play to tracks, even when they've got six people onstage. That makes no sense to me.”
Gourley and Carothers, who formed Portugal. The Man around 2004, learned to play the hard way: by touring relentlessly for years. (Today the group also includes Kyle O'Quin, Eric Howk, Jason Sechrist and Zoe Manville.) And it's those chops, they say, that have drawn listeners, if only subconsciously, to the sleek but funky sound of “Feel It Still.”
“There's a certain pocket you just can't re-create with a computer,” Gourley said, referring to the subtle rhythmic tension found in a killer groove.
Added Carothers: “In music, human error is a huge plus.”
Mikael Wood is a Los Angeles Times writer.