Awakening Our Minds and Potential Through Music — An Interview with Eric Howk of Portugal. The Man

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Music has the power to bring about incredible change to both the minds of those in the world and the world itself. Portugal. The Man is an Alaskan based psychedelic rock group that uses the power music has provided them to inspire change within the world’s younger generation. Similar to the political and social revolutions brought about by the protest music of the 1960s, Portugal. The Man is awakening young minds to see the immense potential for change we possess if we work as one collective group.  

One member of the Portugal. The Man collective who, to me, symbolizes the potential one possesses when they focus their mind is their guitar player Eric Howk.  At Shaky Knees Music Festival in Atlanta, Georgia I had the honor to sit down with him and learn about the obstacles he has overcome in his own personal life and how he keeps his mind focused to gain the most of what life offers. In addition, it was fascinating to hear the stories as well as truly see the inspiring results that come from working together as one for a larger cause.

Jonathan: With Portugal. The Man there seems to be large element of spirituality that influences both the music and the appearance of the band. Can you give us some insight into the spirituality and the Alaskan culture and how that played into the music?

Eric Howk of Portugal. The Man: Oh man that’s a hearty question. I guess you can say we have elements of mysticism, of sort of self-reliance in terms of spirituality. That comes up a lot in songs like “Modern Jesus” or even the element of “The Satanic Satanist”. We are not saying that we are Satanists on the nose but to me Satanism gets sort of a bad rep. You are not a devil worshiper. I don’t know if you have ever read the Satanic Bible, a lot of it is kind of Buddhism with benefits almost. It’s self-reliance and things like that.

Alaska is magic in its own right. John and I grew up pretty deep into the woods, hunting families, hunting fathers. You are eating off the land. You are relying on the land to keep you alive. Then there is sort of that element of holding the land to a premiered spiritual kind of place. In that same way it can kill you just as easily as it can give you life. I think if you are reading into that- elements of mysticism or a like greater thing- I think it’s just we put a lot of power in the land and in the energy that surrounds that and comes from that.

Jonathan: Would you consider yourself a practicing Satanist? That is a term most people do not bring up very often.

Eric: No. I am not a practicing anything. I know it is right there in the band name and John would give you the same answer – we weren’t raised in any doctrine or theology but I do think we’re all fairly cynical of anything organized whether it is religion or political powers. I think it would be really hypocritical for me to say I am a practicing anything including Satanist. I am a very devout Agnostic.

Jonathan: In the music of Portugal. The Man there is a lot of political commentary that brings up different political and social issues. How do you use the music to inspire people to bring about change or issues in society?

Eric: Well see, we’ve been getting asked this a lot. It’s been coming up. What we are talking about with things like “Feel It Still” with our interactive video where it gives you links to things. We are not forwarding a political agenda. We grew up loving Rage Against The Machine. No one is going to do that better than they did. No one is going to be a better political or conscious band than the greats or anyone who did protest songs in the ‘60s or Rage Against The Machine. What we are fighting for we consider to be more social justice issues: equality, clean water, civil rights. Those are things that I don’t think should be politicized. Like equality or clean water, those should not be a political issue. They are in this climate that we are in. You are on one side of the coin or the other. But for us it’s just their are things that we care about. Growing up in Alaska we have a really unique perspective on climate change and the environment. There are glaciers that are melting off the mountains that we are looking at everyday. Our roads get screwed up ‘cause you get frost heaves from the permafrost thawing and swelling up the roads. So, we are not forwarding a political agenda but we do think that similar to Woodstock and similar to the ‘60s we’re in a new era of what should be a conscious kind of era of caring about your surroundings and trying to make the best world for yourself and the people that you care about.

Jonathan: The next album that is coming out is actually called “Woodstock” so why don’t you tell us a little bit about that?

Eric: Well, the story’s kind of crazy. We were up in Alaska and hanging out with John’s dad, John Gourley’s dad, whose name is also John Gourley. We were really deep into recording at this point. This was about a year ago. He just gives us this dad talk. He’s a very matter of fact kind of guy. He’s a carpenter and construction worker by trade. He builds houses. So for him practicality comes into everything. He point blank is like, “What’s taking so long with the album? Don’t you just go into a room and record some songs and call it that?” For him it’s just – you go out, you build a house, you get your materials, you get your guys and that’s it.

So at that point that was a little bit of an awakening. It’s nice to have someone have a practical point of view on something that you’re taking way too seriously. At that point we had written and recorded about 40 songs and the idea was to use the Prince or Michael Jackson approach of writing as many songs as you can and then boiling it down to the best elements. But you lose all of your perspective when you try to do it that way. With a guy like Prince or a guy like Michael Jackson, they can kind of take that grand artistic license and start sculpting out and shaving out the best parts of that and build a narrative and a through line. For us, we just lost the focus on it.  There were arguments like people fighting for certain songs to make the album or certain songs not to. It’s all about ego and mixed emotions and stuff like that. So, we went back and refocused and were like “these are going to be the best 12 songs that we write and those are the songs that are going to be on the record.”

But the Woodstock thing, on that same trip up there he was telling us a story where he had loaned out a toolbox to one of his buddies in the late 70s. Again, construction worker, so he loans this guy a toolbox. This was in Upstate New York. Then a year and a half ago his buddy was cleaning it out and he finds John’s dad’s original ticket to Woodstock, says “Friday morning, 8 bucks.” It’s in a little plastic bag just sitting there covered in dirt.

So all those things sort of come together and we were like “alright we need to focus,” and now we had our story and what we were focused on. I think there is definitely similar things going on now in terms of the political climate and social awareness and consciousness very similar to what was happening in 1969. I think we have come full circle on that a little bit. Woodstock, and the music that came out of Woodstock and the ideas that came out of it, obviously none of us were alive for it. But what it meant to our parent’s generation and how it reverberated in terms of what we grew up listening to and what we cared about — that influence is so huge and we would not be doing what we do without it. There would be no Shaky Knees Festival. There would be no music festivals if it wasn’t for Woodstock. We put of a lot of reverence into that. It’s kind of our way of saying thank you to that generation and that moment in time.

Jonathan: This is your first album recorded with Portugal. The Man, correct?

Eric: Yea, I’ve been kind of on the fringe for awhile. Again, growing up with them I’ve been playing festivals. We all live in the Northwest. I live in Seattle and they’re based out of Portland right now. So basically I was touring with bands back in the day and anytime we were in the same spot I would play. I played Sasquatch Festival with them a few years ago. I’ve jumped up on the stage with them a few times but yea this is the first time they really got me. I’m like stuck in a bus, eating what they eat, sleeping where they sleep. It’s been a blast!

Jonathan: When I was reading up on the name Portugal. The Man articles were saying that it is this alter ego that the group takes when they are on the stage. I was wondering with you being a performer what do you feel you are capable of accomplishing through this alter ego that you might not be able to do on your own?

Eric: I think calling it “The Man” we are obviously more than one person. In the same way that a nation represents many people and many ideas but with a singular voice, we feel like what we put out through this band in terms of our music and our performances is our collective voice as a collective and what we are able to accomplish and say through collaboration and all those kinds of things. If it was just our five first names as the band you would have conflict and all that kind of stuff but it’s definitely a great way for us to keep in check and recognize the fact that we’re all trying to get similar points out even if we have differences, even if we have contradicting opinions on things it’s a way for us at the end of the day to figure out what we want to say and say it.

Jonathan: So a buddy of mine has been in a wheelchair for most of his life. He has brittle bone disease. I was wondering if you have been in a wheelchair your whole life or if this is something that came about later?

Eric: I actually just had my ten year anniversary of it. Long story short, it was a construction accident. I fell into an unmarked spot where someone was digging out the foundation so mine is spinal. So yea, it’s been about ten years. I’m sorry to hear about your friend.

Jonathan: For people who are facing obstacles that might cause them to be seen as having a disability what advice do you have to inspire them to keep pursuing their goals?

Eric: For me just being out there and not hiding is the best thing I can do. Like being on stage or going out and putting myself in situations where I might not be comfortable or it’s a festival out on a beach where there is staircases and sand everywhere. I’m still gonna find a way to do it. I think it would come off as disingenuous if I was out there preaching an agenda or saying things like ending the shows with “Thank you! You can do anything!” I don’t know if that would come off right but I do get people coming up to me all the time because I feel like everyone has a sister or a brother or a parent or a grandparent or they know a guy. Everyone has some sort of a connection to someone that’s having a harder time than other people and I feel like with it being a physical disability it’s out there and it’s in front on you, but you never know what anyone is going through by just looking at them. You never know how hard their life could be or any of that kind of stuff. I do get people coming up to me and just thanking me for being there and for me that’s the best thing I could do – just continuing to do it and not giving it any more ammunition than it needs. The second that I start thinking that I’m at a disability or that things are harder for me, that gets into my head and that makes me not want to go out and do it because suddenly it becomes a struggle. But, if I just play every single show and do every single fun thing that I can think of to do in the city that I’m in and get back on that bus and do the same thing in a different city the next day it doesn’t give me a whole lot of time to feel sorry for myself. I think for me that’s been one of the more driving things in my world. You never know what anyone’s going through but I love what I do and it honestly doesn’t even enter my mind 90% of the time. I’m used to having three or four guys lift me up onto a stage or lift me up staircases. I don’t even think about it anymore. I’m just like “Lifts down. It’s up two flights of stairs. Let’s get it going. Let’s do it.” You get out of your comfort element a little bit but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love what I do!

Jonathan: That’s really inspiring! I think this goes back to that alter ego, you taking that stage and not giving anything that could hold you back power is just giving that alter ego a way of inspiring other people to do things that they need to do.

Eric: Well gosh I sure hope so man, I sure hope so!

Written by Jonathan Gerstl

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