Portugal. The Man on music, stardom, indigenous rights and playing only ‘live instruments’ at CRSSD Festival

The members of Portugal. the Man are, from left, lead singer John Gourley; drummer Jason Seachrist; singer Zoe Manville; bassist Zach Carothers; keyboardist Lyle O'Quin; and guitarist Eric Howk.
The members of Portugal. the Man are, from left, lead singer John Gourley; drummer Jason Seachrist; singer Zoe Manville; bassist Zach Carothers; keyboardist Lyle O’Quin; and guitarist Eric Howk.
(Photo by Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

The Alaskan-bred band, which became global stars with mega-hit, ‘Feel It Still,’ is using its fame to promote Native American rights


Portugal. The Man co-founder and bassist Zach Carothers didn’t blink when Atlantic Records told his band that its 2017 alternative-rock single, “Feel It Still,” had some Top 40 radio crossover potential. Instead, he rolled his eyes, dropped his jaw and expressed the kind of “Are you nuts?” incredulity any man might express upon being told he was nine months pregnant and should prepare to give birth imminently.

“It was super funny,” said Carothers, whose band headlines this weekend’s sold-out, two-day CRSSD Festival at San Diego’s Waterfront Park.

“Atlantic was talking about how they would try to push the song over to pop radio, and we met a whole different (marketing and promotional) side of our record label. We were like: ‘You want to sell us to pop fans?’ At that time, I was like: ‘I’m 36. I’m from Wasilla (Alaska). I don’t have a six-pack (physique). I don’t have a tan. I don’t know how this will possibly work.’

“But, hey. It worked!”

That it most assuredly did.

Credit for this goes to “Feel It Still’s” irresistibly bouncy groove, an infectious melody and such instant ear-worm lyrics as “Ooh woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks, now” and “Let me kick it like it’s 1986, now.”

The fact that “Feel It Still” was heavily inspired by “Please Mister Postman” — the 1961 chart-topper by The Marvelettes that became a 1963 chart-topper for The Beatles — only added to its aural allure.

That allure is so pronounced that the Jonas Brothers’ 2019 comeback hit, “Sucker,” strongly evokes “Feel It Still.” The Portugal. The Man mega-hit is also the song that callers phoning any Alaskan state government offices hear when they are place on hold or no one picks up.

A No. 1 smash in nearly 20 countries, including the U.S., “Feel It Still” has been streamed more than 650 million times on Spotify alone. In 2018, the song earned Portugal. The Man the band’s first Grammy Award, winning Best Pop Duo/Group Performance honors. It is that rare, dance-floor-filling favorite which cuts across stylistic formats and audience demographics like almost no song since Pharell Williams’ “Happy” in 2013.

Kathie Lee Gifford and Metallica

“When ‘Feel It Still’ came out, the first two people to talk about it were (‘Today’ show TV co-hosts) Kathie Lee (Gifford) and Hoda (Kotb),” Carothers recalled. “The next day, (Metallica drummer) Lars Ulrich said it was his ‘Song of the Summer.’ We were like: ‘Whoa! Between Kathie Lee and Lars, this song will be big!”

The success of “Feel It Still” made Portugal. The Man’s eighth album, 2017’s “Woodstock,” the biggest of the now 15-year-old band’s career. It also inspired the previously under-the-radar, neo-psychedelic sextet to poke fun at its own success by selling T-shirts on its website that read: “I liked Portugal. The Man before they sold out.” That was before they co-headlined the 2018 Coachella festival in Indio.

The band is now at work on its ninth album, the group’s first since “Feel It Still” became an international hit and made them a major headlining act. Is trying to top “Feel It Still?” remotely realistic?

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Carothers replied. “Because — obviously — you try to follow that up (commercially), and you can’t, but I’m confident we can write a better song.

“And we still open our shows by playing a Metallica song (‘For Whom the Bells Toll’), so kids can hear where we came from. We embrace our roots, for sure.”

Any band playing any Metallica song at the 21-and-up CRSSD Festival will mark a first for the twice-yearly electronic music marathon. A homegrown success story, the event debuted at Waterfront Park in 2015 and this weekend stages its 10th edition.

Produced by San Diego’s FNGRS CRSSD, the festival is a celebration of techno, deep house, neo-disco and other electronic music styles performed predominantly by DJs and producers (but not, by design, EDM, which tends to draw a younger and more rambunctious audience).

Rock bands, no matter how proudly indie or left-of-center, have been almost entirely absent from CRSSD Festival lineups. The only exception came at the event’s second edition in 2015, when Flaming Lips and TV On The Radio were the two headlining acts.

“Adding indie bands and rock ‘n’ roll to an electronic music festival is the direction we’re going, but we’re not going to do anything too commercial,” CRSSD Festival co-founder Johnny Shockey said in a 2015 Union-Tribune interview.

That direction proved decidedly short-lived.

The only time the 15,000-capacity daily attendance visibly dipped at the festival, which has otherwise consistently sold-out, was the year Flaming Lips and TV On The Radio were featured.

The members of Portugal. The Man strike a pose at the 20118 Grammy Awards in New York. From left are Zach Carothers, John Gourley, Eric Howk, Zoe Manville, Jason Sechrist and Kyle O'Quin.
(Photo by Evan Agostini / Invision / AP)

‘No computers, just live instruments’

Indie bands and rock acts have been persona non grata since then. That makes this year’s inclusion of Portugal. The Man all the more intriguing, especially since the band’s 2017 American Music Awards performance featured a backdrop that read: No computers up here, just live instruments.

The producers of CRSSD Festival declined several recent Union-Tribune interview requests to discuss this year’s lineup and their plans for the event’s next five years. They prefer, a festival representative said, “to let the music speak for itself.”

Either way, Portugal. The Man’s Carothers is well aware of just how much his band sticks out from the rest of this year’s CRSSD Festival acts — and from such past CRSSD headliners as Giorgio Moroder, Flume and Empire of the Sun.

“It is a little difficult, but we like the challenge and it make us think outside the box,” he said.

“We are just keeping it real. A lot of people think No computers up here, just live instruments is a stab, and it’s really not. I love electronic music. I love hip hop. We make a ton of electronic music, but we’re more (old-school) analog synthesizer-oriented”

“But, at festivals, it’s funny to see how many bands use computerized drums. We’ve never done that, although we’ve talked about it. It’s a lot easier to use computerized drums and it makes you sound better, but it’s not our thing.

“You can take our ‘live instruments’ statement several ways. Are we saying we’re not in touch with the things are kids listening to? I don’t know; we’re just saying what we do. ... ‘Feel It Still’ was so massive, but it allows us to reach a much bigger audience and that’s really cool.”

Reaching that much bigger audience has also afforded the members of Portugal. The Man the opportunity to shine a brighter light on social and political causes they support. The band is most devoted to promoting the rights of indigenous people in the United States.

“We now have a tribal liaison for the band,” Carothers said. “So, everywhere we go on tour in the U.S., we get First Nation people from local tribes to come out on stage and we give them a chunk of our set to say something. It’s been amazing.”

Carothers and fellow Portugal. The Man co-founder John Gourley both were exposed to the realities of First Nation people while growing up in the rural Alaskan town of Wasilla (which counts Sarah Palin as one of its former mayors).

But it wasn’t until the band’s 2017 world tour that they decided to commit their time and resources to indigenous people n a major way.

“The turning point for us was in Australia, oddly enough. We had the chance to sit down with one of the aboriginal elders there, who was super smart,” Carothers explained.

“We were able to talk about the problems they have and to hear about the cookie-cutter colonization in Australia, which was the exact same thing that happened in Alaska in the same villages we knew about.

“When you have an audience and a platform, I think it’s very important to use it for good. Having grown up in Alaska, this cause felt very natural to us.”

CRSSD Festival 10th edition

With: Portugal. The Man, FISHER, Hot Chip, Kaytranada, Richie Hawtin and several dozen other acts

When: Noon to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: Waterfront Park (next to the County Administration Center), 1600 Pacific Highway, downtown

Tickets: Sold out