The old adage “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” rings particularly true in 2017. You don’t have to search hard to find parallels between the current sociopolitical landscape and the one that served as a catalyst for the counterculture movement of the 1960s. This observation wasn’t lost on the members of Portugal. The Man when it came to recording their eighth full-length record, Woodstock.
The follow-up to 2013’s Evil Friends was released earlier this summer, and its namesake is a nod to frontman and co-founder John Gourley’s dad. While struggling to find a sense of cohesion for a batch of songs the band had been working on, Gourley went home to Wasilla, Alaska. That’s when Gourley’s dad stepped in, wanting to know what was taking so long to finish the project. (Spending a few years on a record is a lifetime for a group whose output boasted one album per year from 2006 to 2013.)
Portugal. The Man
Guitarist Eric Howk (who grew up with co-founders Gourley and Zach Carothers in Wasilla) says Gourley’s dad put the group back on track. “[John’s dad] builds houses. He takes his tools, he goes out there and he puts it up,” Howk explains. “So he’s like, ‘Don’t you go into a room, bring your instruments, write some songs and record them?’ Which is what we ended up having to do.”
Around the same time, Gourley’s dad found his original ticket stub to the 1969 Woodstock music festival buried in the bottom of a toolbox. The relic inspired the band to scrap everything they had been working on and start fresh, with the sounds and philosophies of Woodstock as a touchstone.
“You name your album Woodstock; you start with the name and suddenly you’ve got a theme and that theme was sort of this new age of consciousness that we’re working with, and similarities to what led up to 1969 being, you know, Richard Nixon in the White House, McCarthyism, fear on a political level and just the sort of anxiety that ran through the country and seeing similarities of what’s going on today and just seeing people opening up their eyes and looking around,” Howk says. “And that’s all we’re trying to do, too. We’re shining a light and putting our hands up a little bit and saying, ‘This is bullshit; a lot of things going on are not okay.’”
Woodstock’s first single, “Feel It Still,” is bass-laden, pop-infused dynamite, honed to perfection with retro flourishes and Gourley’s falsetto. It’s become Portugal. The Man’s biggest hit to date, peaking at No. 1 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Songs chart. The accompanying interactive video makes good on the band’s desire to bring about social awareness—viewers can click on “tools of resistance,” hidden throughout, including a direct-dial to the White House, custom protest posters and donation links for Planned Parenthood and the ACLU.
“There’s no political agenda behind it; it’s more of a humanist sort of thing,” Howk explains. “… things like racial equality, gender equality, equal pay, clean water. These aren’t things that should be put to a vote. These are things that should just show our progress as a society and should just exist.”
Not only does Woodstock take up the mantle of music and social consciousness, but it also reflects the wide array of sounds featured on a festival bill.
“The sonic palette that we’re working with on this record, we actually wanted it to sound like a festival, where you’ve got, you know, Major Lazer on one end and Kings of Leon on the other end, and you’re just walking through,” Howk says. “We wanted it to sound like a CD booklet, you know, whatever you had in your first car growing up. You had those like, 64 CDs; you’ve got Motown and old soul and funk and then you’ve got Missy Elliot and Outkast and everything in-between that. We wanted it to be accessible but we also wanted it to be pretty diverse and I think we nailed it.”