Eric Howk is lounging on a Parisian sidewalk. One would imagine picturesque streets and romantic cafés, but the Portugal. The Man guitarist describes the streets as “full of motorcyclists and barefoot children,” and I’m doubled over laughing.
Howk and his bandmates have toured Europe for the past two weeks playing smaller venues than their stateside sets and performing on a few morning and variety shows to promote their upcoming record, Woodstock. The band’s eighth studio album is set to release on June 16.
“Coming here, we didn’t know what to expect,” he says. Though they’ve played just five shows in their Eurotrip, the rest of their time has been spent in seemingly endless interviews (They spent one day at a variety show sitting for seven interviews in a row from noon to 8PM) and exploring their surroundings.
The Alaska native jokes about the little things that take some cultural adjustment. Even the temperature measure gets tricky. “One degree in Celsius is a lot, you know,” he laughs. “I can’t figure out how it matches up. All I remember from growing up is that 40-below is 40-below, at that point we would match up with Canada and we could commiserate together.”
Aside from some language barriers and temperature confusion, the trip has been a great experience for the band. About mid-interview, it seems the fates decide to poke at us for laughing at America’s inability to understand an otherwise universal measuring system when Howk is suddenly cut off. “Oh shit!” he says over the phone. “My road manager is getting attacked by like six guys in the street!”
We fumble together, trying to figure out what he should do, stranded in a Parisian alley, as things begin to settle down. According to Howk’s brief synopsis, the men argue, take some space and walk away. He starts laughing. A mental picture pops of the alt-rocker shrugging in bewilderment on the other end of the phone. After a few minutes we settle on the conclusion that it was a simple misunderstanding and all is calm.
“Are you good, do you need to get off the phone?” I ask. “Nah, let me just find my train of thought,” Howk says nonchalantly. The guitarist is right back in it, describing the nature of Portugal’s songwriting style, particularly in Woodstock–an appeal to basic human rights that many music journalists have implied as political. Howk reiterates that the band doesn’t feel the need to be political, just to put out a message that we should treat each other–and our world–much better than we have. “We can’t afford to be anarchists,” he says.
Songs like “Noise Pollution” and “Feel It Still” from the upcoming release references current issues and unrest at hand–such as the Charlie Hebdo mass shooting in 2015, the live streaming of protests such as Ferguson and Baltimore, the clean water crisis in Flint, Mich., “fake news” and Black Lives Matter. Both singles have had great success and have left fans itching to hear more of what Woodstock has to offer. It’s something the band has had the unique opportunity to explore in these smaller European venues.
“In Hamburg, we played to this 200-person, smoke filled room. We get to take some artistic liberties in these space,” Howk said. “We’ve been getting pretty bold with the new stuff. We played ‘Rich Friends’ and considering they don’t know the song or speak English, a pretty good barometer has been to get people nodding their heads.”
The band is known for hitting the stage sans-setlist, reading the room and playing whatever comes to mind. Howk does tell The Alt they will still be playing off their widely popular In The Mountain In The Cloud album and other past albums in addition to the new hits.
“We’ve been playing ‘Feel It Still’ like, twice a show,” Howk says. “We get to really dig it on the second time around. By then, everyone’s loose and if they didn’t learn the words the first time around, they know ‘em now.”
The song–which has exploded for the band like few others they have released–was born from mindless strumming. While in the studio working on their latest record, frontman John Gourley wandered off into another room. From there, the band heard him humming to himself, playing the now distinct bassline of the hit. “I think the first and second verses we wrote in that moment, and the song was put together all in about two hours,” Howk says.
The hook of the song–that “rebel just for kicks” lyric that Howk describes as the ultimate “live in the moment” kind of phrase–was a line that had been floating around in the band members’ heads for about four years now. “We knew it belonged in a song,” he explains.
The tune has been such a source of inspiration for the quartet that they teamed up with Oregon growers HiFi farms for some revolutionary branding that Howk calls “out of left field.” The band has blended their very own strain of cannabis, aptly named “Feel It Still.”
“The idea came to us from Kyle [O’Quin], our keyboardist, who is a classically trained monster,” Howk says. “[He] had just done a seminar comparing different strains with famous classical composers.”
If you ever make your way to Portland to try it out, the band’s guitarist describes it as fairly mellow. “It lingers, but it’s chill and it’s really flavorful. I’m not a really huge weed guy but it doesn’t knock you out, it’s very nice.”
Catch “Feel It Still” — so nice they play it twice — and more hits to come from Woodstock when Howk and the band continue their adventures stateside.
Portugal. The Man with Electric Guest, June 2, 8PM at The Palace, Albany