Portugal. The Man Guitarist Eric Howk Discusses The Band’s New Album, 'Woodstock'

(Image credit: Maclay Heriot)

It’s been quite a year for Portland rockers Portugal. The Man.

Having spent the better part of three years working feverishly on a new album, the band abruptly decided to change direction and scrap everything after front man John Gourley paid a visit to his father in Alaska. The encounter led to the discovery of an original Woodstock music festival ticket and the realization that a pattern of events from that era was eerily similar to what’s going in the world today.

Led by the hugely successful “Feel It Still,” the band’s latest album—Woodstock—addresses those concerns and more. It’s also opened the door to cross-over appeal and a monster touring schedule, which will see them in places like Europe, the Dominican Republic and beyond.

I recently spoke with guitarist Eric Howk about the success of the Woodstock album, songwriting, gear and more in this new interview.

The band had been working on a new album for quite a while when they decided to scrap everything and start over. Having said that, how has the reaction been to Woodstock?

That happened right around the time I started touring with the band full time. When I came in, it was around the same time all of those other songs the band had written were going out. Ultimately, it was the right call. It's a record with meaning and gravity and the songs are the best of the bunch. It was a good decision.

What prompted the sudden change in direction?

John Gourley's father is a gruff, unsentimental Alaskan dude and one night when they were hanging out, John’s dad showed him an original ticket from Woodstock he thought he’d lost for forty years. That coalesced with the current American political climate that none of the previous songs addressed.

In a lot of ways, Woodstock was a reactionary event that came out of fear-based, xenophobic, Richard Nixon/McCarthyism, politically-driven America. It's eerily similar to where we're at now. It all panned out, so Woodstock it was.

What’s the band’s writing process?

The majority of the time it starts with a groove, but it’s really all about the feel and finding something in the pocket. Other times, there might be a lyric kicking around and you'll try to find a way to shove that in. If we knew how the process works that would be great. "Feel it Still" came together in less than an hour while some of the other songs took seven or eight months.

You mentioned “Feel It Still”. Can you tell us how it came about?

We had been working on a completely different song when we took a break and John went in and started messing around with that bass line. It had a real Sixties, spy movie feel to it. Everyone thought it sounded cool so we threw a mic on the bass amp and recorded it. Pretty much an hour later all of the lyrics and everything else that you hear came together.

At the time, did you know it was going to be special?

This is a band that has always operated in the alternative/college radio world and we had hoped it would do well there. We knew it was going to be the single and even did the Babe Ruth thing and dubbed it "our smash hit single" before we even put it out. But having it now in the top of the pop charts is really special.

What can you tell me about the track “Noise Pollution”?

That's one of my favorite songs to play live. It's really rhythmic, pulsing, and driving and we get to sing “Beastie Boys” in it with call and response and shouting. It comes down to the fact that there’s so much fake news on both sides. Everyone’s got an opinion and an equal platform and people are bashing their heads into the walls because everything now is an argument. My advice is, don't read the comments because you're not going to win.

What’s your current setup like?

I’ve got a weird, Frankenstein Jazzmaster that I put together myself. It’s a 90’s Squire Strat neck that’s been shoved onto a Mark Jenny Custom Jazzmaster body. It’s got Seymour Duncan SJM2 pickups that are actually held up with kitchen sponges and cabinetry screws [laughs].

I’ve thrown it across stages, dropped it and even had it soaked in whisky but it stays perfectly in tune for 90 minutes every night. I have no idea how but it’s the most badass guitar ever [laughs].

I’ve also got a really simple pedal board that I keep mounted up on my mic stand. I use an old ProCo RAT2 and an Earthquaker Devices Dirt Transmitter to get that gnarly fuzz. I also have a Mooer Ninety Orange and an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail that all run through a Fender Deluxe Reverb.

Was being a guitarist and having a career in music something you always aspired to do?

My mom named me after Eric Clapton, so I had no choice in the matter [laughs]. My dad was a Hammond organ player who played in blues band so there was always music and guitars around. I started out as a drummer but one day my mom told me that if I could learn how to play the riff to “Layla” she would buy me an electric guitar. So, I stuck myself into it and a few days later figured it out. I played my first paying gig more than twenty years ago. I’ve always wanted to be in music.

What excites you the most about this next phase of your career?

So much of it is the travel and getting to experience something completely different every single day. I’m super-excited to check out new places and new faces. We’re busy right now in terms of shows and promotion but we’re also finding time to do a lot of writing and recording.

I’m excited to think about the future and touring and the number of doors this record has opened for us. It’s a pretty cool place to be.

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James Wood

James is a guitarist and freelance writer who's interviewed some of the biggest names in music. He is the author of four books and his writing credits include work for Guitar World, AXS and Yahoo! as well as for his hometown newspaper where he writes on a variety of topics with both passion and humor. As a guitarist, he's performed everywhere from local bars and nightclubs to some of the biggest stages in front of thousands of music fans.