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John Gourley feels good. Tired, but really good. His band, Portugal. The Man, is chilling in El Paso following a rollercoaster ride of TV appearances, festival stops, a tour supporting the ultra-hot Black Keys, a jaunt to Alaska, a crusade across Europe, and a seemingly endless series of club dates in support of its critically acclaimed major label debut, In the Mountain in the Cloud.
"There's a madness in us all," Gourley clarifies on the opening track, and given the whirlwind of activity since the album's July 2011 release, it's a fitting statement for the former Wasilla, Alaska, native. Gourley takes it all in stride.
"It's like another job, I guess," he says by phone during the much-needed break. "I built houses [with my dad] before music, and we approached building houses the same way. We just get up and go; draw up a plan and build a house."
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But a making a highly anticipated album in the studio (as the band typically managed in the past) isn't quite as straightforward as building a house. The journey to complete their Atlantic Records introduction became an agonizing, pressure-filled eight-month ordeal.
"I expected it to be a really simple process," he says candidly. "I thought I'd go into the studio and just write songs again. It's just that pressure I put on myself. It was unnecessary, and I wish I hadn't put that much on me."
The laid-back Gourley admits he "was flipping out" by the end of the recording process. "We didn't have that much time," he says. "But it made me think about everything we'd put into it. I think it made for a very dense album. I mean that in a positive sense."
Listening to In the Mountain in the Cloud (or most P.TM releases), it's as if Gourley's trying to pack a lifetime of lost-and-found music into each album. Growing up in a homesteader cabin in a family of dog mushers, Gourley was weaned on AM radio staples like sweet Motown soul, The Beatles, and generic folk rockers like Seals & Crofts. Getting a car meant "I could choose my own radio stations." Soon Nirvana, Oasis, and Blur changed his musical perspective.
"I might have missed the connection between then and today," he says with a laugh. "I'd hear something and think, 'Oh, people can rip off the Beatles like that?' That's cool. And then Oasis did these huge anthems, and Nirvana had these song structures that were simple but not really simple. Again, I had no idea people could do this. It opened things up for me."
With Portugal. The Man (which includes bassist Zach Carothers, drummer Jason Secrist, and keyboardist Ryan Neighbors), it all comes together in a nice, meaty multi-layered package of fuzzed-out guitars, heavy organ, classical strings, psychedelic swirl, and gospel-tinged vocals held together with gripping hooks. Each song presents its own carnival-like atmosphere.
"In the Mountain in the Cloud was really hard to make, but it's turned out to be the best thing we've done," Gourley humbly says. "It's close to what we've been trying to do from the beginning. It may not sound like our first record, or second record, but it has a lot more life to it, more of the music that we really really love."
And the stress, he concludes, has passed."I'm in a pretty good place mentally now," he says calmly. "I feel good. Really good."