As any native Portlander will tell you, the City of Roses is changing — and not always for the best. An influx of wealthy tech types and people attracted by Portlandia have some longtime residents fearing for the soul of "Old Portland" as the city evolves. But not all new arrivals are keen on turning our fair city into a playground for the rich. Many of Portland's newer arrivals desire deeply to respect and maintain the city's uniquely DIY, creative and community-minded punk-rock soul — and perhaps no one represents the best of "New Portland" better than the members of Portugal. The Man.
The group has been repping Stumptown loudly and proudly around the globe, whether they're playing the Blazers' theme song at Coachella, helping donate $35,000 in instruments to Ron Russell High School, or volunteering to play the March for Our Lives rally downtown, Portland and its community have seeped into the band's soul. Given that the city has meant so much to them, we sat down with frontman John Gourley to discuss the idea of giving back to the city.
G!G: It's clear Portugal. the Man truly loves their adopted hometown. How has Portland helped shape the band and their philosophy?
John Gourley: Really, this band wouldn't have existed without Portland. Doing things like going to see shows at Meow Meow [a now-defunct DIY all-ages venue] with 20 other people and seeing these bands work so hard was really inspiring. The city opened our eyes to this whole DIY culture and lifestyle, that you don't need all this money to make music and be a band. We realized we could put a down payment on a minivan, buy a rice cooker and a 5-pound bag of rice and go and do our thing. And that to me is what Portland has always been about: You can be yourself and you can do it yourself. I feel like we owe the city so much.
And you've been giving back for a while — back in 2015, for example, when the band helped the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation donate $35,000 worth of musical instruments to Ron Russell High. Those kids were blown away.
Yeah that was great. Music was so important to us growing up in Alaska. We moved around so much. I mean, my parents were both dogsled mushers, and music was the one thing that went with us everywhere. Things like bringing musical instruments to schools when arts and music programs around the country are being cut — that should be our goal as musicians. I think more musicians (and people) should be doing that — and that's the thing about Portland: People here will be the first to jump on something like that.
Another thing that's been so inspiring about Portland is the care and craft people put into things. It's kind of become a jokey thing to be "artisan" now or whatever with Portlandia and everything, but you see that DIY spirit in things like food carts where someone has taken something they're really passionate about and made it work outside of traditional norms.
Portland puts its money and time where its mouth is, generally speaking, and that's very motivating.
There's only a couple of cities like this left in the country. I mean, Portland is still punk. You can gentrify certain areas, but you can't take that spirit from this city. Portland is still going to be Portland. You see it in the creative directors around town. You see it in massive art projects people are undertaking. You can see it in someone who might not be this big chef but wants to make quality food for people and starts a food cart. You can even see it in some of the Nike execs. The city draws a certain type of person and work ethic.
Another time Portugal. the man got involved with Portland's youth was playing at the March For Our Lives earlier this year. The kids' thrilled reactions to that were fantastic.
Political issues aside, this is about kids, and they were just amazing. They really have something to say — when I was growing up, if I had questions or something to say, it would be suppressed and it would never have a chance. Kids are afraid. Kids should never be afraid in school, you know? Never. We gotta listen to what these kids have to say. I thought it was a beautiful thing — and they organized it themselves! We just hit them up and asked if we could play.
And you got hip-hop artist Black Thought to come out.
Yeah! That was very Portland. He was staying up the street, and I just shot him a text explaining what was up and to see if he was down, and of course he was. It was amazing, Tariq — one of the best MCs of all time — just coming up on stage and absolutely killing it. He freestyled all that! And it was all for those kids and the energy they were bringing.
The band seems to really make a real effort to connect with every type of listener and person, and your charity work seems to reflect that.
Definitely. We want to make music everyone can listen to. Music that crosses religion, race, political views — to make music that brings people together. If I can get one who believes something different than me but digs our music to maybe think about things a little more and a little differently, that's all we want. That's beautiful. Same for any sort of altruism; politics shouldn't matter when it comes to helping others in your community.
That sense of community is really vital to what makes Portland such a special place. People truly care here.
People really believe in things here and that rubs off on you. The Portland thing is, it's this big, real city that actually cares about each other, that actually tries and supports the people in their community. Where I grew up in Alaska, there were only 300 people, so of course you're going to support each other, you don't really have a choice [laughs]!
It seems like you and the band really feed off of that spirit of community almost as much as you do the music scene here.
That's being in Portland and watching people we admire being dedicated and go through struggles to become successful and still work hard and still care about community. We thought, "If they can do, we can do it. And we should do it." We want to inspire others the way we were inspired.
With all the acrimony and divisiveness in America right now, sometimes it seems we're losing that sense of "we're all in this together," that sense of community and fellowship.
I feel like we get so caught up that we miss — I don't like to view things as left and right — the power of community. The power of people coming together and supporting the less fortunate and the people that are in need. It's a very powerful thing, community.
Connect with some of Portland's most impactful non-profits at giveguide.org.