Public Lands Heroes - Rooted Rock

Photo: Portugal. The Man

How Grammy-Winner Portugal. The Man Is Making a Difference With Its New PTM Foundation

Maybe it’s their roots in Alaska. The band Portugal. The Man, whose hit single “Feel It Still” won a Grammy Award in 2017, has a special connection to the outdoors. Frequent escapes into the natural world—camping between gigs and sneaking out for fishing trips via packraft—manifest in their music as well as their work to create a larger movement beyond it. They recently formed the PTM Foundation to help protect our planet’s precious places and the people who grew up using those lands.

The nonprofit supports Indigenous communities, mental health, environmental issues, and disability and human rights by donating concert proceeds to grassroots organizations devoted to these causes. The foundation also fosters community involvement, advocacy, and philanthropy through a grant program, all in an effort to make the world a better place. The Native American Music Awards and the National Congress of American Indians certainly noticed the activism, honoring the band with a 2019 Legend Award and a Public Sector Leadership Award, respectively.

Public Lands caught up with band co-founders and frontmen John Gourley and Zach Carothers after a pair of September shows in Pennsylvania (including the Public Lands grand opening of the store in Cranberry Township, outside of Pittsburgh) to hear more about how they sustain these complimentary outdoor, creative, and humanitarian interests.  

PUBLIC LANDS: What was the inspiration for the PTM Foundation?

JOHN GOURLEY: It started with land acknowledgements. We wanted to give some visibility to Native and Indigenous communities, which morphed into the foundation. From growing up in Alaska, you understand that if you're on the coast and you need to survive, you're talking to Tlingit people. If you’re up north, it’s Inuit. If you’re in the central areas, it’s the Athabascan language group. We needed these people to survive in the outdoors and do the things we enjoy doing today, and that's been lost in the last hundred years. We wouldn't know how to grow corn if it wasn’t for these folks, we wouldn't know our relationship with these lands. So the foundation is about bringing back some of that knowledge.

ZACH CAROTHERS: The foundation helps support anything that hits close to home for us and aligns with our values. Among other things, it’s designed to elevate Indigenous voices and community resilience, but also help get youth back connected to land and protecting both water and our planet. So much can be learned through the teachings of Indigenous voices.

How did growing up in Alaska help?

JG: Alaska was the last stop for colonialism. The damage is so surface-level there. You can still see the cuts and the wounds—they’re not even scars yet. And it was growing up around the idea of subsistence, which is taking what you need to survive from the earth, not the grocery store. That’s still how a lot of these communities live.

ZC: As with most Alaskans, when you want something done right you do it yourself. So, we started our own foundation to support the causes we believe in. We’d been wanting to do it for a long time, but we’re artists so it’s hard. We launched it right when COVID started. Since we weren’t doing any shows then to help support it, it taught us how to think outside the box with regards to fundraising and partnerships. We now have an amazing network of partners helping with it. We do a lot of benefit shows and work with a bunch of different nonprofits. We probably have 75 or so different projects in the works, some big and some small, all helping elevate awareness of these issues. 

Zachary Scott Carothers paddles a raft while fishing Photo: Portugal. The Man

And what about your newfound love of packrafting?

JG: I've gotten into it over just the last few years, through friends I grew up with back home. I grew up going down to the Kenai River in Cooper Landing—that's where my love of rivers really started, watching massive king salmon runs.

ZC: I grew up around rivers in Alaska my whole life. Now John and I both live along the Sandy River in Troutdale, Oregon. I can float from his house to mine in about 45 minutes. Usually, we do it in packrafts. A lot of people come over to visit so we also organize trips for our friends. I’m a huge fan of Alpacka [Rafts]. Being from Alaska, we’d heard of them and then reached out to buy a couple. I was like, ‘This is a boat? How is that possible? It’s the size of a one-man tent.’ They’re amazing and open up a whole new world. My Ranger can fit me and my dog, and it has a zipper that lets you store gear inside the tube, which is amazing. I love it and float in it all the time.

And you guys have a special penchant for fishing also?  

ZC: I love fishing my local rivers around Wasilla [Alaska] like Montana and Goose creeks, throwing egg patterns for rainbows. I thought I was a great fly fisherman; but then I moved to Oregon, where there’s a lot more people and a lot less fish, so it turns out I’m just from Alaska. It’s way harder to catch fish here. But I love going back up to Alaska and going to all the rivers I went to all the time as a kid because I’m way better.

We played the Alaska State Fair this year and afterwards went to Lake Iliamna near Kokhanok. The sockeye run was incredible. Then we floated three days down the Gibraltar River fishing from our Alpackas. At one fork we were supposed to go right but there was a big grizzly bear there so we went left where a big strainer went across the river. It snapped my Winston rod. We caught a lot of salmon, but gave away most of what we kept. We actually trade concert tickets for fish quite a bit.

Does touring ever get in the way of being outside? 

JG: Work definitely got in the way of getting outside for a while. Honestly, the pandemic was great for me and my family as far as getting outside. We were fishing the entire lockdown, and turned it into this big reconnection with nature. We really recognized how much that time fills out buckets. My daughter would get out of school and we would just float and fish from my house to Zach’s house every single chance we got and then have a barbecue.

We camped a lot in the beginning of the band, partially because we couldn't afford hotel rooms but also because we just really wanted to camp and reconnect with nature. We were so busy that it helped keep us going. But we were always the weirdest band wherever we went because we’d always stop and look for little critters and things that were indigenous to each area. Or we’d be driving down the highway and stop and go climb something or check out some stream.

ZC: I grew up living in the outdoors, doing things all Alaskans do, which gives you such a unique perspective on the environment. But we lost a lot of that and we missed it. We got out of it and became city kids for a bit and it was wrong and we realized it. So, we’re getting back outside a lot more now, and making an effort to do it. getting back into fly fishing, running rivers and things. It’s so much fun and a whole new way to be. Our souls are 1,000 percent better now. 

How does the outdoors factor into your music? 

JG: We have whole albums about the outdoors. Censored Colors is all about growing up in Alaska and in nature. Nature, to me, is community—this reciprocal relationship; tree feeds the deer, the deer dies and feeds the tree and the other animals. The circle of life is community. And all of our music is about the philosophy of community. That's at the root of everything: supporting each other and creating these opportunities to experience the outdoors for everyone. I was always fascinated when these people would kill a whale. How it could feed this entire community. And how thankful they were for that.

ZC: We grew up with Nirvana, but we always try to sneak in references to the outdoors. In our first few records we have references to mountains and streams. It’s not blatant and hard to find specifically, but it’s there. It’s important to us.

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