Anytime Alaskans are coming together with a common cause I think it’s a great day

An interview with Portugal. The Man's John Gourley

Thanks for reading Hell World please subscribe so my brain can be quiet for a little while.

How much do you know about Alaska? I know precisely fuck all about it besides a couple things one of which is that my friend from college is from there and he seems reasonably normal. He has worked as “a teacher” in D.C. for years but lives in Ecuador now for some reason and we’ve always suspected that he’s in the CIA but he denies it which doesn’t help matters. If you ask a guy if he’s in the CIA it’s like the opposite of the joke where you ask a cop if they’re a cop and they have to tell you because in this case they literally can’t tell you. Long story short if I ever get kidnapped in another country someone call my buddy who used to be on the Holy Cross baseball team.

Another thing I know is that they have a piece of shit governor up there now and he’s maybe even worse than the famous one we all know about from before. This guy’s name is Mike Dunleavy and he’s not the Mike Dunleavy who went for 28 points in game four of the 1981 NBA finals only to ultimately lose the series to Larry Bird and the Celtics he’s a whole other guy with the same name.

One of the things this Alaskan Dunleavy is known for is a commitment to cruel austerity measures that will ruin the lives of his constituents which is another way of saying he’s a standard Republican. He recently added 182 line item vetoes to the 2020 state budget for a total of almost $410 million in cuts. Nearly a third of those cuts come from the University of Alaska system which is set to lose around $130 million or 41% of its total funding according to a Guardian piece titled “Alaska’s governor is trying to destroy its universities. The state may never recover.”

“Alaska's Trumpian Governor Just Threatened the Health of the Entire State,” another piece in Vice explained. One of the campaign promises Dunleavy made when he was elected last year was to restore the Alaska Permanent Funds that residents receive in the form of a check every year. Naturally putting money back in the pockets of residents means the money has to come from somewhere and like most Republicans Dunleavy wants to take it from the people — children, the sick, the elderly — who need it the most.

In addition to the cuts from the University he’s brought the knife out for Medicaid, K-12 schools, a senior benefits program and the Alaska Council for the Arts to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

"When you try and balance the budget, and do it primarily by landing on children and on people who are sick, people who are vulnerable, that says a lot about the values that you have," Anchorage mayor Ethan Berkowitz said.

Another thing Dunleavy did was cut the budget of the state supreme court out of spite because they wouldn’t toe his anti-abortion line and that seems bad to me does it seem bad to you? To start retaliating against the judiciary for their rulings? That seems bad but there no rules anymore and you can do whatever the fuck you want so who am I to say?

Vice explains more about the cuts:

Medicaid, which 184,000 Alaskans rely on, was especially hit hard; adults on Medicaid will no longer receive full dental benefits, only emergency care. In a letter urging legislatures to override the veto, the Alaska Governor's Council on Disabilities & Special Education wrote that cuts to Medicaid would be “devastating” for Alaskans with disabilities.

And the University of Alaska Fairbanks—where Dunleavy received his master’s in education—was also targeted. Guettabi said the $130 million veto to the University of Alaska budget alone would cut 1,300 jobs and return the state to a recession. “Once we account for the other cuts and their direct and indirect effects, the state will lose about 1,000 jobs for every $100 million of cuts,” he said.

This has wider implications for climate research. The university is home to the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, the primary academic research center for the Arctic in the U.S. And there could be a strong ideological influence here since Dunleavy’s opinions echo that the current administration: He dismissed the state’s Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team, which developed solutions for a rapidly changing climate.

Don’t worry about that climate shit though because Dunleavy doesn’t think it’s a big deal. This year he disbanded the state’s climate change response team set up by his predecessor. “I think we have a lot of issues that, in my opinion, are quite frankly and bluntly more important than the climate task force,” he said.

“Governor Dunleavy’s focus continues to be on making Alaska safer, protecting the Permanent Fund dividend, encouraging economic growth and opportunity and putting Alaska on the path towards a permanent fiscal plan,” his spokesman Matt Shuckerow said at the time and that all sounds like great and very fiscally responsible Republican ass shit if you also pretend not to notice that Alaska’s climate has warmed at twice the global average over the past fifty years and that that change will cost them billions of dollars over the coming years.

Temperatures in Anchorage just broke records this month incidentally.

“Anchorage posted its hottest day on record Thursday, hitting 90 degrees, and then twice matched its previous all-time highest temperature of 85 degrees Sunday and Monday, notching its warmest week on record in the process,” the Washington Post reported. “To top or tie an all-time record three times in five days is practically unheard of.”

“Through Monday, Anchorage had hit 80 degrees or higher six days in row, doubling the previous longest streak of three. Its average temperature over the past 12 days is five degrees higher than any comparable stretch on record.”

Probably nothing to worry about.

One other thing I know about Alaska is the band Portugal. the Man grew up there which is information I possess due to being a consumer of popular culture but also because I am friends with their singer John Gourley on Twitter where he regularly posts about political issues facing the state and all other manner of shit such as the concentration camps we have now.

He and the band flew back home to Anchorage on Tuesday to perform as part of a rally against Dunleavy’s budget cuts.

I called up Gourley to talk about what the fuck is going on up there with Dunleavy, his personal engagement with politics, his commitment to issues facing indigenous people, playing in the band, and how touring the world has opened his eyes to ruinous capitalism making him bummed out pretty much everywhere he goes!

Which part of Alaska are you from?

We kind of lived all over but mainly Knik, outside of Wasilla.

Is that a pretty rural area?

Yeah. Everything out here is off the Parks Highway, so it’s never too far out. I was like thirty minutes from the city of Wasilla. For the most part we moved around, my dad was a dog musher.

Like a lot of people in the lower forty eight I don’t know as much about Alaska as I should. Is that something you find when you tour? That Americans in general don’t even know what Alaska is?

It’s changed recently. I remember going to my grandparent’s place and their friends literally asking us if we lived in igloos, which is ridiculous. They’d ask if we had stores. We’re showing up wearing Levis! I think it’s changed with the internet obviously. And travel. I haven’t been on a flight there that wasn’t sold out in forever.

Obviously one of the people that brought Alaska into the wider public consciousness was Sarah Palin. Did she do as bad a job representing the place as I assume?

It’s funny, Sarah Palin was our mayor in Wasilla growing up. Let me tell you about our first experience with her. It’s perfectly Sarah Palin.

We were all skateboarders, our circle of friends. We were getting kicked out of every business we skated in front of. As you can imagine, finding concrete and asphalt wasn’t the easiest thing to find up there. So we were skating in front of businesses and getting kicked out. It was becoming this big deal. No business wants skateboarders just hanging out in front of their spot. Zach our bass player and our first keyboard player Wes put together a plan with their parents to get a skate park built in Wasilla. They took it to Palin. It was going to be like $140,000 so she tells these kids if you can raise half the money we’ll get it built.

That’s a lot for kids to raise.

The thing she doesn’t understand though, and never understood about real Alaskans, is it’s about community. The same businesses, the ATV shop that was kicking us out, donated snow machines and four wheelers to help raise this money. All the businesses were donating items to raffle off. The money was raised, and I think within the first month or two they had $70,000. When they went back to Sarah Palin she told the kids it wasn’t in the budget anymore.

Motherfucker.

I was a really shy kid growing up, and I remember watching these punk kids, like missing teeth – we all had busted teeth – mohawks, like these dirty punk kids showing up at City Hall every chance they got. It took over a year to get the skate park built. During that time Palin built a second ice skating rink closer to her wealthier area, a $15 million ice rink, while these punk kids are trying to get $70,000 to build their park. That was our first experience with politics, and I think in that community, being punk kids, it felt perfectly like what Dead Kennedy’s and Minor Threat and bands like that were kicking back against.

Years later you’d see her come around and you’d be like yeah this is just who he is.

So the park got built?

Yeah it did and it is pretty hardcore. Pretty Alaskan.

Tell me about the rally yesterday. What was the scene there?

It was cool, man. Anytime Alaskans are coming together with a common cause I think it’s a great day. It is a conservative place. There are forward thinking people trying to bring new ideas, but… One of the things we’ve been talking about a lot the most is Dunleavy is trying to cut the education budget and Medicaid. This is another Alaskan who doesn’t understand Alaskans. Elders are so important to us. I don’t care what your parents believe, I want to support the people that got us here. That’s what we talk about. I want to teach my kid how to build a fire and live off the land and do all these things that are so Alaskan. But you’re going to take education out of it? How are we going to come up with new ideas?  The lightbulb is American, the internet, cars, these are American ideas. I think the second you start cutting education when you’re throwing around these wack slogans like Make America Great Again you’re completely missing the point.

I didn’t know too much about Dunleavy. He looks to be the typical Trumpist asshole. I had to make sure he wasn’t the guy that played in the NBA.

Well he’s a big dude! His thing is he’s Trump Jr. It’s stressful being back home even thinking about all this stuff going on. Part of the thing he’s trying to get rid of is the silver hand stamp on indigenous art. It’s how you authenticate a piece of art made by an indigenous person. This is the only source of income for some of these communities.

Why would he do that, just out of cruelty?

I think it’s just spite and pettiness. Again there’s this weird side of Alaska I’ve never understood, the Palins and Dunleavys and that crew just kind of fits in that pack. Lisa Murkowski is kind of an oddball in that she kind of stands on the side of Alaskans. She’s not great, but is a little more thoughtful in what she does.

I’ve noticed indigenous causes are important to you did you grow up around a lot of those communities up there?

Well my family were dog mushers. Both of my parents ran the Iditarod together. I think they were the second couple to ever do it. So we grew up with Joe Reddington and Herbie Nayokpuk, the founders of the Iditarod. We grew up with Herbie Nayokpuk as a hero. Racism is such a strange thing to me, especially leaving Alaska. You ride the bus with people who believe different things, different ethnicities. I think it’s so important that everybody do that at some point.  

I saw that you wore a garment that a local artist made at the show yesterday?

Amber Webb, an artist, makes these kuspuks, a traditional Anarak style jacket, where she puts portraits of missing and murdered indigenous women on them. It’s our way of keeping it in the spotlight and keeping their memories going. It’s so easy to get lost in the shuffle. Violence against women in indigenous communities… I remember growing up around that. Another person gone. They disappeared. And a lot of times they would just disappear.

I don’t know what the solution is. It’s one thing to wear it and talk about it. It’s another to actually try and change what’s happening. I think just putting it out there does a lot for it, but I don’t know in the smaller communities in rural Alaska out in the bush… it’s kind of a difficult one.

I notice you’re really political engaged, which is why I wanted to talk to you. There used to be this thing, and you still hear it from the worst people alive, like stick to sports or stick to music. Are most of your fans receptive to this stuff or do you get pushback?

We’ve always had a really diverse audience. I don’t know why that is. We kind of get stuck with the fringe groups of every group of people. I think people have always been really receptive to it. It’s cool to have that. We do get the stick to music quite a bit though. I think to really break it down for people, you know this, musicians travel more and experience more cultures than politicians. We travel more than any politician, and we experience these different groups. We’re not the type of band that sits on a bus or a green room either, we like to go out and meet people.

Honestly I don’t really care about a lot of politics and all the stuff that goes into it. I care more about people. That’s why we do the indigenous stuff. I saw the racism happening and I saw anger and frustration in these kids that have this beautiful culture, and respect their elders, and this really great oral history that we get to hear about when we sit in. It’s such a cool thing, and never really understanding that, while seeing the pain, has been really difficult. You see it everywhere you go in the world.

Where else have you seen this sort of thing?

We got asked to play in the Dominican Republic and it’s like this great thing Oh cool we get to spend a few days there and play a show this is going to be a great family vacation! You show up there and you see Hard Rock Café and Marriott, Sheraton, all beachfront property. And as you put these things together you realize we just took away any chance for people to fish there. They can’t fish their own water or sit on their own beaches. You see it in South Africa, you go there and it’s only people of color working any sort of labor position. I remember landing there for the first time. Our drummer actually missed his flight, there was some new rule that you had to have more than two empty pages of your passport, and we didn’t know, so he had to stay back. I was tweeting at people and I found a band that had a drummer that would sit in for our set. That’s a very Portugal. the Man thing. We’re dipshits. We’re like we’ll show up and see what happens.

We connected with this group and they brought a couple drummers. So we went to their house and when we show up it’s a gated community. We go in and it’s a really beautiful house and it has this huge guest house. Just the guest house is bigger than most houses my friends have, a pool, everything. I hear this electrical buzzing, and there’s an electric fence around the property. I’m thinking Oh we’re in Africa it must be for lions. No, it’s not. It’s to keep people out. And it’s not other white people.

You go out on safari and you’re on this 44,000 hectares of land. What color is the family that owns the land in Africa? 

That’s why I think travel is so important. You don’t even have to try when you end up in those situations. If you’re aware of what’s happening at all you’ll see it. It makes me feel bad any time we do anything fun in the world. Any time we’re looking forward to like that safari or that beach, you show up there and look around and see the locals cleaning up the buffet and there’s all this uneaten food. How depressing must it be to shovel platefuls of food into the trash? Watching people throw money around, throw food away?

You definitely sound like your cousin now! [NOTE: John’s cousin Aaron Perrino is my good friend and aside from being in my band no hope / no harm also is in one of my favorite bands of all time called The Sheila Divine. He’s pretty miserable all the time too lol sorry buddy]

Aaron’s very much got the I’m in a nice place but I’m still bummed out about everything here vibe.

He’s always been like that too which is so funny. It’s taken me a long time to really understand, but Aaron has always been that cynical dude in the corner pointing out the flaws. That’s what I’ve always loved about him. It cracks me up.

Well he always talks very highly of you and how proud of you he is, but how great is he by the way, as a songwriter and singer?

Oh he’s amazing. Hearing him sing… he’s the reason I started playing music ultimately. I think I was in eighth grade when his first record came out. He sent it up to us. I remember getting that CD and thinking… Aaron’s on a label? A family member did this? Somebody I know? This is as I’m piecing together watching friends cover other people’s music and thinking Oh if you can play it why can’t you write it? Aaron was the first one to show me that yeah, you can write it.

He’s one of those people that I admire so much in the sense that he writes so many songs. Songwriting is just who he is, and it’s something that — I grew up really shy, and putting myself out there was really difficult. It makes me overthink so much of the music I make, and seeing him just do it nonstop with like four different bands.

Speaking of other bands, it’s funny, I was thinking, Ah, I’m gonna interview the guy from Portugal. the Man but I was really thinking it’s really the guy from Anatomy of a Ghost.

Yeah!

I’m a big emo and screamo guy so I remember your old band. I was thinking Portugal has gotten to do a lot of cool shit but I was looking back and I saw you toured with Saosin back in the day? Now that is cool to me, never mind touring South Africa.

Oh right haha. That is quite the crew. It’s so funny the way all of that happened. There were so many bands you could run into back then that fell into that scene because of the crossing over of influences. That’s one thing I thought was great about emo. My first concert was Pantera. I was like, I want to play metal. Dewey grew up playing pop punk. Joe liked classic rock. Just the way those bands came together, I thought it was such a straight up democracy. Everybody has their piece they put in there and it created this really fun time.

I don’t know how we ended up doing anything as Alaskans. I have no real perception of what it’s like to send out demos and hope to get signed to a label and all that. When I came down to Portland I wasn’t in that band when they started. I had come down to visit my buddies Zack and Joe who played in that band. There was no screaming on that stuff I think it. They told me they learned a couple of my songs I had been writing.

They played a show when I was down there and I sang with them and I only did it because it was the opposite of what I ever would have done in my life. I was super shy, I did not want to be on stage whatsoever, but I had just gone through this breakup and I was like I’m going to do the last thing I would ever do. So I got on stage and sang with them. We ended up playing like five shows before Rise Records signed the band.

Wait so you’re telling me a guy joined an emo band after a breakup? Come on.

It is so perfect!

You wanted to say more about the indigenous causes though…

It was growing up around it and traveling so much for me. I remember one of our first photo shoots, they had headdresses. They showed up and were like You’re going to be Indians. I remember talking about it with our manager thinking this is really weird. We just ended up following through with it. Looking back on it, I think it was a year or two later, I think it was something with Wayne Coyne and Flaming Lips. Do you remember when there was something like a white girl was at his show dancing in a headdress and she got called out? Wayne gets in the middle of it and says it’s cool if she wears it, and starts dancing and doing the tomahawk dance with this girl? The guy was really upset.

Sounds familiar. I remember some headdress controversy they had.

Seeing that was important and for me — and this is a thing that’s missing with a lot of people — realizing this was painful for that person. I recognized that pain from growing up in Alaska and seeing that pain with native Alaskans and people making fun of them and where they come from. I remember seeing a lot of Alaskans not want to learn Yubik or represent their culture, wanting to be anything other than native Alaskans. It was something that I never really fully understood. Seeing that with the Flaming Lips sort of brought it all together for me. I hate throwing them under the bus, but it was really a shitty thing. Wayne should have recognized that, like, hey this is painful. It does not mean go harder.

If someone tells me something hurts their feelings, then I just don’t do it. Who cares?

That seems to be the opposite of what so much on the right is now. Oh they’re telling us not to do this? Fuck you, we’re doing it to own the libs now.

Right. After that I started to take note of the fact we grew up around this really rich culture, and I started to think about how we became a state in 1959. Colonialism and imperialism and all this shit is still kind of new in Alaska. When you go to Australia you’re like this is somewhat new….South Africa is the same thing with apartheid just twenty years before we got there. You see the effects of this stuff.

Going to Occupy Wall Street years ago, we would stop in on tour, and go into those tents and takj with whoever was leading the group. We’d talk to people about what are we doing here? Oh it’s climate, it’s money, it’s gender, it’s race, and all these different causes coming at us. It sucked because, I agree, I’m with you on all this stuff, but there wasn’t any focus. Without any focus we lose. …

There’s no one cause, no direction. I saw a lot of trash, like a lot of what you saw at Standing Rock, there was trash everywhere. It was a fucking mess. We’re supposed to be on the same team. You’re really going to come over there and trample everything into the mud and leave trash everywhere? There’s a lot of fake shit happening and its upsetting we can’t find focus.

And indigenous causes bring it into focus?

I think with indigenous people, I really feel like you have this cause… I saw hunters who understood. I have this crossover idea. I feel like you could get some farmers on board with it, you could get hunters, libertarians. We can all look at indigenous people and realize how badly they’ve been fucked. We can also look at what they’ve given us.

You’re saying indigenous causes are a way for all these overlapping issues to come together that nearly everybody would get behind if they actually looked into it?

Think about what falls under the umbrella of indigenous causes: Race 100 percent. Environmental issues. The effects of capitalism and imperialism. All of this falls under the umbrella and has crossover. I think that’s a lot of what we’re missing right now, like: same team. There’s a lot of fuck you but we have to find crossover issues and look at where we’re the same.