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Sled Case

Alaskan weirdness, cryptic lyrics and non-stop writing fuelthe rise of Portugal. The Man
MAN UP: Portugal. The Man plays the Avalon on Wednesday, Sept. 28, on the heels of their best album yet.

NORMAL" IS NOT a word that's used to describe Portugal. The Man. First of all, there's that period in the middle of their name. It's usually written off as a simple grammatical freak flag flown by the Portland foursome considered to be one of the 21st century's leading psychedelic alt-rock bands, though they themselves have explained it as an attempt to add some mythic drama to their moniker. Then there are the songs themselves, like "Head is a Flame (Cool With It)" and "Share With Me the Sun" from their latest album, In the Mountain In the Cloud—full of cryptic lyrics carried on blasts of complex, effects-heavy guitar work and catchy electronic rhythms.

So no, "normal" doesn't seem to enter into it. And yet, drummer Jason Sechrist isn't afraid to use the word when describing how singer and guitarist John Gourley pulls his songs from the landscape of his native Alaska.

"That's where all of his songs and lyrics come from, normal Alaska living," says Sechrist. "Normal Alaska living is still quite far off from everyone else. You're living with dog sled teams and having tons of snow all the time. You don't hear any traffic, there aren't tons of cars around. There's nothing like that up there."

However, when pressed, he admits that particular brand of normal isn't really normal at all.

"I went up there for three weeks once. I almost lost it," confesses Sechrist. "It's kind of the last frontier."

By the way, when he mentions dog sleds, he's not exaggerating. Gourley's father apparently rode dog sleds and even did the Iditarod, which was the inspiration for the short film filmed for "Sleep Forever," from the new album. We can only assume Gourley Sr. avoided the fate that his son (playing a musher) meets in the clip—after getting lost in the snow, he accidentally shoots himself and is chewed on by one of his own dogs as he sings the end of the song.

"It's a weird twist," says Sechrist, laughing. "I love it when people are kind of thrown off by that."

Gourley still returns to Alaska for months at a time during the band's winter breaks, during which time he writes a lot of his songs. And one thing his Portugal. The Man bandmates can count on him for is a flood of material; they've put out six albums in six years, beginning with 2006's Waiter: "You Vultures!"

"Some bands want to work like Tool and take two, three, four, five years, and perfect it and walk into the studio and track the whole thing out of memory. And then there are bands like us, where basically the songwriter is always thinking about a song or a little melody. Sometimes it's only ten seconds long, or a minute long. It's a constant, daily thing. It's like a snowball running down a mountain," says Sechrist.

After years on indie labels, and even putting out their own records, Portugal. The Man signed to Atlantic Records last year. The transition has been a slow, careful one for a band used to doing things their own way.

"They take a little longer just cause they're used to working on production and getting a way bigger thing out. It's just the way majors roll," he says. "When you're an indie guy, you can just go, go, go. Create your own disc and pass it out."

A bigger issue could be avoiding the pitfalls that so many indies have run into signing to a major. The fact that In the Mountain In the Cloud is their best, most cohesive album yet bodes well.

"You have to be true to your sound," says Sechrist. "If you're going to work with majors, you shouldn't take lessons from any group that existed after '85. You're going to cause problems for yourself. [In the 80s] there was excess of all types."

But if anything really threatens the band's frenetic output, it's more likely to be the theft of all of their equipment last month at Lollapalooza in Chicago. In what has to be one of the most brazen rock robberies ever, thieves made off with the band's entire 50-foot rig. After the story hit the news, detectives got a lead that someone was taking a huge amount of equipment into their building. They found about 70 percent of their gear stacked up in the suspect's living room; he claimed to have purchased it from someone else. Luckily, the equipment was recognizable because the band had marked all of it with their own symbol. Among the instruments not recovered were several synthesizers and five vintage guitars.

"We lost some really personal stuff," says Sechrist. "It was a wake-up call, hopefully to all bands. It's the first case I've heard of where they just cruised off with the vehicle and trailer. It was quite an ordeal."

PORTUGAL. THE MAN

Avalon in Santa Clara

Wednesday, Sept. 28, 8pm; $17.


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