In the mind of most fans the dividing line for Portugal. the Man is “Feel it Still.” There was the hard touring band who formed in Alaska in the early 00’s, and made their way on to festivals, blogs and alternative radio before that worldwide, 2017 hit and the unexpected, ubiquitous Grammy-winning pop sensation after. But for frontman John Gourley, there is another, equally life altering, line of demarcation.
“Chris passed in the middle of making the album, right before the pandemic, right before my jaw broke,” Gourley remembers. “We were making a totally different album.”
The Chris, who Gourley refers to, is the namesake of their new album Chris Black Changed My Life, WNXP’s Record of the Week.
Black passed away in 2019. He was the band’s touring MC and Gourley has referred to Black as the social glue who kept things together for the band offstage. Black’s death was followed by a wave of turmoil. The jaw injury Gourley mentioned nearly stole his ability to sing. Gourley’s young daughter was diagnosed with an extremely rare disease and the band nearly imploded as they dealt with the aftermath of “Feel It Still’s” success and individual, accumulated mental health struggles.
Gourley says the band had written and recorded hours and hours of new music before that time but very little made its way on to the new album.
“Part of it did start before Chris had passed. I had started writing pieces of this,” Gourley says. “And the songs that continued through were – ‘Champ’ was one of them – and it’s because I was already writing about what Chris brought to tour for me and what that friendship had meant and what these friendships mean. And the way we support each other.”
Gourley says, like the band’s story, the album has a dividing line.
“The second half of the album starts out with grief, like ‘What is happening? How do I deal with this these feelings? How do I deal with these thoughts?’ ‘Champ’ comes in at this point where your friends pick you up out of it, out of that grief. It was really perfect that I had been writing about Chris before he had passed.”
Gourley also shared his thoughts on other tracks and collaborators on the album.
The band invited lots of friends along for the making of Chris Black Changed My Life. The album sees everyone from indie groove kings Unknown Mortal Orchestra to Mr. “Rainbow Connection” himself Paul Williams showing up. One artist they met through the success of “Feel It Still” was Black Thought of the Roots. After appearing on Jimmy Fallon, the band became fast friends with the legendary MC which naturally extended to a feature on the song “Thunderdome (WTA).” Gourley says with someone as talented as Black Thought, it’s not like they really needed to give him detailed instructions.
“I just talked a little bit about what this song meant and what it means to us. Like on its face, I think it’s pretty clear what it’s about. It’s about the Chamizal region and it being Mexico and it being taken away (by the U.S.) in the 60s. Black Thought came in from this perspective of modern times, looking at what consumerism has become and where colonialism has come. I thought it was so, so interesting. I always find his perspective on things so great. He’s just so in tune with things. We definitely talk about that stuff. I mean, that’s the sort of thing you talk to black thought about. And then you also joke around and it’s like the nerdiest, dorkiest hang ever and then it’s heavier subjects. It’s what I love about him.”
The catchy, haunting sing along was inspired by the months, frontman John Gourley spent recovering from his debilitating jaw injury, which nearly threatened his career. Gourley says the song started in a very different place before longtime collaborator Asa Taccone, who co-wrote “Feel It Still,” came along.
“It was like this really heavy, sad track. We had this ‘duh duh, duh duh’ thing floating around. Then Asa was like ‘This song is wayyy too dark,’” Gourley recalls with a laugh. “And (Asa) was like ‘Why don’t we try this chorus?’ And he puts the 1234 (on it). I’m like OK paired with those feelings of you’re staring at the ceiling, it’s 4:00 AM and I’m wide awake. All of that stuff were these thoughts were a part of this darker, slower song. And (Asa) added the beat and was like ‘Let’s grab some of those things (like the duh duhs) that are nerdy and fun, because you guys are nerdy and fun.’”
“The present has a past.” There are many ways to interpret this lyrical theme which appears on the album’s opening and closing tracks. There’s the psychological concept of the present being confined by the past. The idea that what we think of as universal reality is actually informed, and sometimes overwritten, by our own individual past experiences. Buddhist teacher and author George Haas calls it pulling from “the perceptual database.” That’s one idea. When asked what it means to him, Gourley says he’s not entirely sure.
“I didn’t know what I was writing about. I think that’s the whole point you know? It was something that just came out of these feelings (about) generational traumas and that sort of thing. There’s always this history to people and I think being at like our age, with friends’ parents passing. It makes you think so much about how great these friendships are and how much these people have been shaped by (their parents). How involved these generations are in who you are.”
The drums on Chris Black Changed My Life sound soooo good. While the collection is stacked with special guests, rotating musicians and different one of the constants is the drummer, Homer Steinweiss. The man behind the kit for soul staples the Dap Kings and Amy Winehouse played on 10 of the 11 tracks. Gourley says working with Steinweiss opened his mind to a different way of recording and not just drums.
“I had never worked with him, I just always loved the sound of his drums. You go into his studio and he’s recording with one and two microphones. It’s like ‘Do you want more (hi) hats? Ok, I’ll play the hats a little bit louder,” Gourley laughingly recalls. “And that’s why it sounds the way it does. I always want drums to feel like you’re in the room with them. And that is a Motown thing and that’s the technique Homer is using. It’s all (recorded to analog) tape as well. It feels like you’re there with the drums. That’s a really special skill that Homer has perfected.”
“His drumming informed so much of the album too,” Gourley explains. “We re-recorded a lot of the synthesizers and bass and guitars, because, as we were hearing the drums were like ‘Oh man we have to rerecord a lot of this stuff to tape. I had never done that before and you just heard the value of it. I’m glad we did it like that. It changed the way I make music forever.”