ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Portugal. The Man had it all going.
The Wasilla-rooted band was riding the wave of their worldwide breakout in 2017 with their chart-topping hit ”Feel It Still,” which spawned massive tours, spots on late-night TV and a Grammy Award.
And almost as fast as everything in their world was launched into hyperdrive, everything stopped.
“We went from absolutely everything to absolutely nothing,” bassist Zach Carothers said.
The band arrived in Hawaii in late February 2020 to play a private show for a multinational corporation. The audience included people from all over the world.
“We did a meet and greet, sharing whiskey bottles and shaking hands from like two people from every country,” Carothers said.
By the time the band returned to the mainland in early March, signs of the pandemic were already encroaching.
“It was like March 7. And we went to the airport, and people were wearing masks and it was like ‘oh sh--, what’s going on?’ ” Carothers said.
The band almost immediately canceled upcoming tour dates in Mexico and, as much of the country did in spring 2020, went into quarantine.
Despite being sidelined for much of the past 16 months, the members of PTM are optimistic. They’ll return to their home state to perform a pair of shows at the Alaska State Fair on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 20 and 21.
‘I lost it’
Carothers and PTM singer/guitarist John Gourley had toured together virtually nonstop since the band’s inception in 2004.
Gourley said the band was used to taking a yearly step back from touring, when they’d regroup for a few weeks, consider what they learned about playing and writing music on the road, and prepare to record their next album. As the group’s popularity grew and the tours became longer, those breaks evaporated.
“We did so much of this hands-on learning the first five to six albums, that when things start getting more spaced out, you get into this weird routine,” he said. “It’s not real life. You start living in hotels, and they can be nice hotels, but I’m not used to living in nice hotels. In the beginning we slept on floors in one hotel room, whatever we could afford. And I feel like that stuff gets out of hand. That’s where you start to lose track of where you are and what it means.”
When that routine was halted, they had a strong urge to get back to their Alaska roots. Both moved from Portland to Troutdale, a more rural Oregon community a dozen miles east of the city along the Sandy River.
Gourley and Carothers both did a lot of fishing and working on projects at their new homes.
“We’ve all got those, you know, squeaky door hinges around our house that you’ve been meaning to fix,” Carothers said. “In our bubble, the excuse ‘well that’s just how it’s always been’ didn’t really fly anymore.”
For guitarist Eric Howk, who is based in Seattle, the break was more difficult, and it took a toll.
Unmoored from his routine after years touring with the band he joined in 2015, Howk struggled. He found himself browsing through Craigslist listings from Boise, Idaho, just for a reason to get back on the road.
“I lost it,” he said. “I absolutely lost it. I did not have an OK time as timelines kept getting extended. ... I drank myself to a super unhealthy point. I actually ended up checking myself into rehab. A lot of momentum ground to a halt and obviated a lot of issues that were going on with me. Right smack dab in the middle of all this stuff, I kind of took a look at what was going on and did a whole lot of maintenance. I’m still kind of in the middle of that.”
Meanwhile, Gourley was having health issues of his own. A broken jaw that he suffered in high school had deteriorated, and by the time the pandemic started, he said, he was barely able to talk and eat. Singing was even more problematic.
“Not being able to sing and not being able to speak, I really didn’t know what was going to happen,” Gourley said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it again. I was worried.”
Gourley said despite the issue, had it not been for the pandemic, he would’ve continued business as normal with the band. It’s an attitude he traces back to his parents, both dog mushers with unswerving work ethic.
“I’m Alaskan,” Gourley said. “I don’t think we would’ve stopped. I think I would’ve kept going until my jaw broke completely and I would’ve needed a really intensive surgery to fix it.”
‘This band stands against exploitation’
In 2020, the band members increased their already substantial profile for advocacy. Long outspoken allies to Indigenous causes, they established the PTM Foundation to be “focused on building community resilience, empathy, and awareness through music, stories, art, education and connectivity.”
They launched partnerships with campaigns like Keep Oregon Well, focusing on mental health as well as organizations that work on climate policy and gun reform.
At times the band’s activism has become politically divisive. But Gourley said they see their efforts as about being good community members and helping those in need, traits he views as intrinsically Alaskan.
“Growing up in Alaska, we were taught, if someone’s in the ditch, you go help them out,” Gourley said. “You wave to the neighbor. Politically, we’ve gotten to this weird space where people throw around (the term) social justice around what we do. ... Helping people out of the ditch, that’s what we were trying to do, help people out of a bad situation, an unfair situation. This band stands against exploitation. And that’s purely what it is. I stand against profit over people and exploitation of people.”
With music on the back burner, the band’s advocacy took center stage. When the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School Board banned five books, including many considered literary classics, Howk started emailing some of the parties involved and sat in virtually on the board meetings.
The ban was eventually rescinded but not before the band offered to send copies of the books to any Mat-Su student who requested them.
Carothers was quick to point out that the band, and the band’s future success, will determine how much impact the foundation has.
“If the music doesn’t happen, if the album doesn’t come out, we can’t do as much,” Carothers said. “And so while we’ve been focusing on the foundation, we’ve had to remind ourselves that we’ve got to get back to doing the things we need to do because that’s the whole reason that we have a platform.”
The band has been working with producer Jeff Bhasker and has completed recording for its next album.
The jaw issue that shut Gourley down for much of the last year changed the course of the album completely, he said.
“It forced a lot of reworking of the album, which is kind of fun in retrospect but daunting at the time,” he said. “Not being able to sing for six months kind of forced me to go back and rethink the way I was approaching music, and it ended up being a lot more fun.”
Gourley said he’s had an itch to put out a great alternative record, a throwback to the music that drew in him and his friends during long drives in Mat-Su.
“We’d drive 45 minutes to get groceries,” he said. “We’d have a two-hour drive to Fairbanks from Denali. That music was a huge part of our youth and our time in Alaska.”
All three Alaska members of the band talked about a desire to return to basics, to carry forward the same kind of freewheeling energy they play with when there are no crowds.
“If anything I felt like we just needed to get back to where we started,” he said. “Back to Zach’s mom’s basement. Back to Judy’s basement. I should be just all six of us with our instrument playing whatever song came to us, instead of these super-tight sounds that need to be perfect. The idea of perfect sound is a thing that has left me.”
Aside from the upcoming Alaska State Fair shows, the band has a packed fall, with a dozen dates booked including stops at Firefly Music Festival, the Governor’s Ball Music Festival and the Shaky Knees Festival.
“Coming back into the post-pandemic world, there is no normal,” Carothers said in an interview this spring. “We get to create our own environment. ... We can get deep. We can get weird.”
Howk says he’s in a better place and excited to get back to playing and touring on a regular basis.
“I need it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. I don’t know how to do anything else.”
‘Ties that bind’
The fair performances give the band members a chance to return home and visit family, something that was difficult for most people during the pandemic.
“I’m just excited to get back home and see family,” Gourley said. “I just want to come back home. That’s the place I miss more than anywhere in the world.”
Carothers and Howk both reminisced fondly about their youthful days at the fairgrounds, inhaling Husky burgers and exploring the rides and stands.
“I hope they’re playing ‘Janie’s Got a Gun’ at the Gravitron,” Howk joked.
“They always are,” Carothers retorted.
Carothers said logistically it’d be almost impossible for the band remembers to return to the state as residents while they’re as active as they’ve been the last decade. But he plans to return and build a cabin on family land when his music career reaches a decrescendo.
“I want to die here,” he said.
Howk said even if the returns remain as sporadic as they have been in recent years, Alaska will always be home.
“I’m getting married in Wasilla in August,” Howk said. “We still hold homestead in Chickaloon. My mom lives in Midtown (Anchorage). We have ties that bind here.”
Chris Bieri, The Associated Press