Interview // John Gourley of Portugal. The Man Talks Musical Origins, Individual Style and The Sneaker That Started It All

Photography by Maclay Heriot

It’s night time (precisely 8:15 PM) in Austin, Texas, and a crowd of 50,000+ people in Zilker Park are starting to get impatient. Their jitters are accumulating; voices becoming louder and louder. Suddenly, everybody stops — the stage lights darken, and the crowd roars.

The stage lights turn red, and Portugal. The Man takes the stage to shred a cover of Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” — and the crowd loves it.

Portugal. The Man, by Maclay Heriot.

Portugal.’s frontman, John Gourley, is one guy keeping the rockstar bloodline alive and he’s doing it in style. The Alaskan born, Portland native is one of the biggest ambassadors for streetwear and sneaker culture in his genre. Let’s just say it takes a special kind of rockstar to perform on live television wearing a pair of Off-White x Nike Air Max 97s before they’d even released. People notice that shit.

Fresh off of his 2017 Grammy nomination, John took some time to talk with us about his earliest encounters with sneakers and streetwear, and how he’s managed to merge his sense of stylistic individuality with his ever-lasting rockstar appeal.

Check out our full conversation below.

Portugal. The Man, by Maclay Heriot.

Nice Kicks: You’re no newcomer to the culture — you actually grew up with an affinity for hip-hop didn’t you?

John Gourley: Yeah yeah, that’s kind of how I got into music. I was into a lot of artists at the time but I’ll just give you the one — and I’m sure it’s a lot of people’s one — and that’s Wu-Tang. Hearing Wu-Tang for the first time as a kid really opened up my eyes to all of this. Just, what was happening in the world and the whole changing of the guard of what was happening in music at that time. What connected with me was the production. It was RZA more than anything. It is the group — and the whole group mentality, like the family mentality — that I had grown up with, so right away I had this connection of just family and togetherness. How everybody gets their verse, and it all centers around this chorus, where there’s this stomp or whatever it is.

Nice Kicks: It’s not very often you’ll hear a rock band who’s biggest inspiration was Wu-Tang.

John Gourley, by Maclay Heriot.

John Gourley: It was the production man. RZA just… ok, so — myself having done this before — you don’t know you’re doing it while you’re doing it. RZA captured something really amazing in sampling the soul records that he went into. What he was capturing was something that resonated with so many people, across all cultures and all genres, because he was sampling this era of music that everybody is familiar with. It was so nostalgic in a way. You wouldn’t need to know what song he’s sampling. What you were hearing was a really limited amount of amplifiers and mics and guitars at the time, and you’re hearing the mic that was used on those old Motown recordings. It may not be a Motown sample, but it was the same mic that was used on a Motown recording. Same type of amplifier, same type of guitar.

He was capturing all these tones that were very nostalgic for me, being a kid that grew up with oldies radio and Motown and soul and The Beatles and things like that. He was capturing a lot of these tones so it was just something that was immediately familiar to me. Immediately nostalgic. Then suddenly, so was this whole, new sense of community. Of cool, flow, vibe and just… Fuck it. [laughs] I don’t give a fuck, it’s my verse, I’m gonna say what I want. Even if it doesn’t relate to the verse that came before it — it’s my turn. It was just really exciting, it was really eye opening to see this approach to music that doesn’t necessarily relate to the chorus. It just revolves around it; that this is my experience and my life, revolving around this centerpiece.

Nice Kicks: Was this while you were still in Alaska?

John Gourley: Yeah yeah yeah. Everybody in the group of friends was… Oh, I’m RZA, My buddy is Ol’ Dirty Bastard, my other friend is Raekwon. Like, We got The Chef! That was all of our group of friends, and I’ve met so many people who have the same thing within their group of friends. So we’d joke, Which one of you is Method Man? You know?

Portugal. The Man, by Maclay Heriot.

Nice Kicks: Was listening to Wu-Tang and other rap artists how you got into street culture?

John Gourley: Yeah, I would say so — obviously like Beastie Boys, Run DMC… LL Cool J was Kangol and Adidas. It was just kind of a part of it, you know? Granted, I grew up in Alaska so you have to understand too, we don’t have stores! We don’t have the same shops that they do in New York or LA, or any other city. So we were really like, kids, out trying gather these different pieces that we would find to just try to dress that thing, to do that style as best we could. You could only get so far but we made it work.

Nice Kicks: That’s funny, I was curious how accessible sneakers were out there. I’d assume there weren’t very many sneaker camp-outs in Alaska?

John Gourley: No, no. There were not [laughs]. I remember the first pair of sneakers I ever got was the Jordan 7s. That must of been around 1992; they were the Cardinal 7s. I remember, getting those shoes and immediately after I got ‘em — again I’m a little kid, I wear like a size 8 — a story came out that somebody had been killed for their sneakers in Fairbanks, Alaska, for the same Jordan’s that I had! My mom was immediately like, Alright, well… you can’t wear these.

For some reason that story has always stuck with me, like, man they’re killing people for sneakers out here? Really? In Alaska? I just remember that story and going to the movie theater (where that incident had happened). Every time I would go to that movie theater I would just think about that horrible story like Oh my Gosh! and then — the Jordans my mom wouldn’t let me wear.

Nice Kicks: Did she ever let you go back to them?

John Gourley: Nope. I actually never got to wear them to their full potential, because I just really was not allowed to wear them. At the same time though, that experience kind of grew with me and developed my whole mentality on sneaker culture now. I know some people that like to buy sneakers and put them up on a shelf, and clean them up and do all that. But because I never wore — like really got to wear — my first pair of Jordans, the way I look at it is like… what the hell! Why keep them on a shelf? So now, whenever I get some shoes I want, I wear them. I just wear them, just like a kid would wear them.

Portugal. The Man, by Maclay Heriot.

Nice Kicks: Fast forward; how has your access to these types of sneakers / high end fashion changed since then? I saw you wore the Off-White Nikes on stage before they released.

John Gourley: Okay, so, obviously I live in Oregon now. So, I mean every flight I get on — basically every flight I take to LA — I’m riding next to Wex. Someone will say Jon Wexler’s on the flight [laughs], we just run into each other all the time. Like we’re tight though, he’s great, and he’s such a music fan! That’s something that I’ve always respected about Wex, is that he’s very, very aware of all types of artists. Not just hip-hop, he’s into everything. A lot of people don’t know that about him, but he’s from Chicago. The dude came up in one of the meccas of music, you know? And he’s punk rock. I love following him on Instagram because he just gets so many shoes.

Yeah, I get it you got a lot of shoes man! But no, he get’s everything. That’s what’s so exciting about him, is that he still genuinely gets stoked. He’s hyped up on everything he does and genuinely enjoys it and loves it.

That’s just one of the things that comes along with living in Portland. You have Nike in Beaverton, Adidas in Portland, kind of everything is just centered here so I have a lot more access now. It’s something that I really didn’t think about for a long time when I first came down, mostly cause I couldn’t afford anything! We started touring because we realized you could play shows for gas money. Like, if we get to the next city, we’re good! We’re gonna thrift shop! We’re gonna be at Goodwill and we’re gonna wear Chucks or whatever shoes we can get our hands on. But as we’ve come into the last eight years or so I’ve gotten back into the culture, kind of out of necessity. Just ’cause there’s like a practicality to what we do.

Portugal. The Man, by Maclay Heriot.

Nice Kicks: Do you ever find yourself inspired by anything outside of music?

John Gourley: Yeah definitely. Style, for sure. My love for streetwear for instance comes from watching movies, just growing up and watching a lot of films. I grew up in a place where it was cold all day long in the winter and dark all day long, I would watch three movies a day most days. That’s where my sense of style sort of comes from; basically watching a stylized version of reality, throughout my entire childhood. The style that was in the movies or in the music videos, that was the style that I was exposing myself to and being attracted towards.

Art for sure. Sneakers— people like Wex! There are just really inspiring people that we get to be around. There’s all kinds of things that inspire you in different ways. I like the sense of community, that’s what makes you want to come write music.

Or watching the Trailblazers, seeing how Dame runs the team and takes charge. It’s seeing that sense of community in different things outside of music, and seeing that style in things outside of music. If I were just following rock ‘n roll, I’d be wearing a leather jacket [laughs] and have a cool haircut. But that’s not rock ‘n roll to me. The Trailblazers are rock ‘n roll to me. Plenty of painters; Cleon Peterson is rock ‘n roll to me. Virgil man! Wex. These dudes are all punk. It’s just real.

Keep up with John and Portugal. The Man via Instagram and be sure to tune into the Grammy Awards come February!

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