Few days before Portuguese band The Gift will gave three concerts in Spain, we talked with John Gonçalves (bass and keyboards) about their latest album Altar (2017), about how was working together with a myth like Brian Eno or about the current situation in Portugal.
The Gift – Photo made by Hans Peter van Velthoven
– After two consecutive albums like Explode (2011) and Primavera (2012), almost five years to listen again new songs from you. What has driven The Gift to launch "Altar" (2017) now?
J: Altar is a record made in several years that we started to record I think in 2013… In other words, the process is slow because we had to work with the timings of a producer like Brian Eno and that always slows down the process. In addition to that situation, for the first time we advanced the record to the public with three singles that came out much earlier than the album. All these situations lead to premiere the album in May 2017!
– What has meant for you as a band to collaborate with a myth as Brian Eno and in what do you think that he has contributed on this album?
J: For us it was the greatest and best music studio experience of our life, that simple. Brian on this record, besides being a producer, writes also the lyrics and songs with Nuno and Sonia, plays and sings throughout the album and therefore it is obvious that he is another element when it was time to compose, playing, giving ideas and at the same time he was above all a producer, in the strongest essence of the word. It was the one that oriented the boat of name Altar with Nuno, and that is a great difference with respect to what we had before, where Nuno was the one that mostly made everything alone.
– Telling you honestly what I think, and recognizing that in songs like "Malifest" or "I love it all" Brian's hand is quite clear, in most of the songs the essence of The Gift is kept, which speaks very well of the level of rapport producer-band. Has it been easy to achieve that balance?
J: The truth is that it is very difficult for anyone – whoever – to remove the essence of The Gift because that is the most important thing in a band. Your identity, your art and your way of thinking. Brian from the outset didn’t want to change everything, only work with us, enjoy the experience and together produce something with which we feel at ease with it. That balance you say is something that happened every day in the studio, because if Brian gave us a good idea, we would do it and if Nuno opposed a good idea of Brian with a better idea, Brian accepted it with joy. The relationship in these almost 60 days at the music studio with Brian was balanced, artistically a challenge and very quiet, because we are not children working for the first time on a record. We have more than 20 years of experience as a band and Brian much more than that, so with the respect we have it was obvious that we were going to keep the essence, but I agree that "Malifest" has aesthetic features that closely resemble his style.
John Gonçalves from The Gift – Photo made by Hans Peter van Velthoven
– Do you consider that the presence of Eno will have opened extra doors to the band on the English-speaking market?
J: This question of the English-speaking market is something that we do not think much, because before Brian we’ve toured several times in America, alone or with bands like The Flaming Lips or with artists like Anna Calvi, but I understand that the press pay now more attention to a Portuguese band who before that before was already known but not with as determination as now. Now Brian Eno isn’t the famous producer of 15 year old guys, many of the 18-20 year old music journalists know Brian Eno but for them it is not the reference he means to us. In addition, always talking about opening doors in a very specific market, a smaller market, which is not the same as U2 or Coldplay, with whom Brian has worked. The truth is that in a few months we played in Amsterdam, Groningen, Austin, London, Brighton, Berlin and Central Park in New York, which was a dream we had for some time, and that we are only beginning to present this new album. I imagine that 2018 will be the year that more people from outside the Iberian Peninsula will see The Gift live.
– After several listenings to the album, it seems that the songs are completely independent between them, without a nexus of union, getting also that the 10 songs look like tracks with a lot of rhythm that would work great as singles. Is it just our impression or has it been a something deliberated?
J: That means the recording sessions of Altar were aesthetically very open, that The Gift are a group with a strong identity, with a voice and some musicians among the best of the scene, but without a unique defined artistic way and that Brian promoted that without worrying much about what could be an album with "Clinic Hope" or "Vitral", because both come from the same aesthetically open, wide and free environment. In my opinion, I think that when you listen to the entire album you feel there is a unit, which is the open essence of The Gift. What for you can be "something without a connection", for us is the greatest essence of The Gift, an opening style that we are very happy. The fact that all the songs can be singles means that the composition and the way Nuno, Sonia and now Brian have to make songs, is one of their strongest points..
– Another of the surprises of this new albums a greater presence in general of the electronics, leaving a little aside those almost epic dark orchestrations of your beginnings. Is it an evolution that you have been planning for some time?
J: I think Nuno wanted being some way out of that epic aesthetic that The Gift has – and will have for sure – in our music. Brian also had the real interest in presenting a less epic album, more restrained, and in the end we made a record more focused on the instruments and the 8 musicians – with Brian – who were always in the studio during the recording. Brian, when he arrived to Alcobaça, our town, and he saw the enormous Cistercian monastery, one of the largest in Europe, he said that now he understood why Nuno's songs had such an epic charge. According to him, it was impossible not to think big growing up seeing that incredible monument!
Sonia Tavares from The Gift – Photo made by Hans Peter van Velthoven
– The last time we met in Barcelona in early 2012, Sonia was pregnant and told us her feelings when performing the presentation of the album in her state. This is the first album that is published after her motherhood, and sincerely, after Explode and Primavera where her voice did not have the protagonism of previous albums becoming camouflaged perhaps too much with the other instruments, now she returns to the foreground in most of the songs of this one new record. What has the birth of her child contributed from the musical point of view?
J: The birth of her son Fausto was of great importance, especially in the recording of Primavera when she was pregnant, and even more in that tour of which you speak therefore Sonia towards a very long concert with two very different parts – Primavera and Explode. Now after almost 6 years since that last concert in Barcelona in early 2012, I imagine that it will have changed a lot in Sonia's life, but not so much from the musical point of view. There is eventually a greater sensitivity as a mother to some subjects, but I never understood the birth of Fausto as an important nuance in the aesthetics of The Gift or the way Sonia develops her voice in the studio or in her live shows, although maybe in the letters she writes he can influence. This album is a very important record in our life, we are very proud of it and of course we want to show it to the greatest number of people live, but everything is part of a major work that is the trajectory of The Gift. What will remain for eternity is a set of albums that we have and if someone in 20 years listens to them, they will feel a bigger life’s work, where they can analyze the musical aesthetics, the aesthetics of Sonia singing and the aesthetics of the two – voice and music – together.
– It is very surprising your small number of shows in Portuguese and Spanish festivals in a year in which you have published new album. What has caused this situation?
J: I think it is necessary to understand the phenomena of Spanish, Portuguese and international festivals that often do not match the release dates. For example, in Portugal we made just one festival in 2017 because the album came out late for what is the festival's program, which closes in November, December of the previous year. It is impossible for a band that has a new album in May to play in a festival last summer, a month or a few weeks because for that to happen, the programmers should already know that album many months before. What happens is that we decided to present this album in theaters around the world in 2017, and in 2018 we hope to be in a lot of Spanish, European and also American festivals, because now people already know The Gift and this album. This album is something that has to be show to people until the end of 2018 and that's what we're going to do.
– Little by little, it seems that Portuguese music is gaining more international recognition beyond fado with bands such as Captain Fausto, fusion of Fumaça Preta or even the mainstream recognition of Salvador Sobral on Eurovision. Do you think that the Portuguese scene is now more solid than in the past? Are not you surprised by the return to the majority use of Portuguese, when in the 90s-00s most Portuguese independent bands did it in English?
J: I am not surprised by the use of Portuguese because this is our language and people mostly use their mother tongue when it comes to composing. The Gift is a band that decided 23 years ago to use mainly English, Portuguese in some songs, and what is more important for me is the vitality of a very eclectic Portuguese music, of great quality, for many tastes, for many audiences and that obviously has to be listen outside Portugal to become bigger. There are many Portuguese artists who are sure now sound in various parts of the world, and if possible, they will play around the world to help their promotion. Every band or artist you speak – and so many dozens of others – are very different from each other, and the most striking thing in Portugal today is that we have one of the most eclectic scene in Europe, and that is the mark of Portuguese music today – diversity, quantity and quality that we all hope to attract more international attention to each of these projects.
Sonia Tavares and Nuno Gonçalves from The Gift – Photo made by Hans Peter van Velthoven
– Following in that line, can you name other Portuguese bands that would you recommend to a neophyte in the music of your country?
J: Well, as you said Capitão Fausto, Tiago Bettencourt, Savana, Nice weather for Ducks, Surma with new album, Moulinex, Luis Severo, Norton who already played in Spain several times, the new fado with Gisela Joao, Rita Red Shoes, hip hop of Slow J, White Haus who were this week in France, First Breath After Coma with whom we played in Amsterdam and are playing very much in Europe, Noiserv, You Cant Win Charlie Brown, Linda Martini, Paus, David Fonseca, Memória de Peixe, Plastic People which will play in two Spanish festivals this year and I could tell you more 20/30 band names that have nothing to do with each other, which shows the vitality and eclecticism of Portuguese music in 2017. Of course nobody likes all Portuguese bands because they are very different aesthetically, but I also know that there are several audiences for each of these bands.
– Do you have any explanation for the little collaboration and ignorance that exists between the musical scenes of two neighboring countries like Portugal and Spain?
J: That is the question that we have been answering for 17 years since we played for the first time in Spain. I think this has to start with the promoters of festivals, because I imagine that with the record companies we can no longer rely on them. The radios didn’t go for a different style on new aesthetics, increasing their time on very similar mainstream formats, so I think that the festivals have to schedule 2, 3 or 4 projects each year from the neighboring country at each festival. Vetusta Morla played last year at NOS Alive, which is the biggest Portuguese festival, and this year has a closed date in the main concert hall of Lisbon such as the Coliseum. If they are there it is because the promoter of that festival and that concert decided to bet on that group. It seems to me that with so many festivals on both sides of the border, betting on music in each country is the solution!
– After almost 25 years of career and having played in the most important stages throughout the world, which dream do you have yet as a band?
J: There are always many dreams to fulfill, but the main thing now is to bring the greatest number of people to the concerts of this weekend in Pamplona, Zaragoza and Barcelona. We have not played in the north of Spain for many years and this is the main challenge of the week. Then I tell you that our main objective for 2018 is to play this albums in all the venues, to tour with other bands in Europe and America until spring and then to be able to play a lot of this album by turning to Festivals that can help this album reach more people . This is our dream for 2018, and that is what we are dreaming about today. We are not a band that dreams of projects to 3 or 4 years, but we do it with the immediate, Spanish tour until December, Brazil before the end of the year and all Europe and America in 2018. We feel it is our obligation to fight for this album and to play it in as many places as possible to bring it closer to more people.
– In recent months, Portugal has been world news for two very different situations, the improvement of the economic situation as a result of political change and fires. Regarding to the first one, do you consider that the model proposed by the Portuguese progressive parties can force the European Union's to rethink its position on the famous PIGS and the economic crisis?
J: What happened in Portugal is an example of fulfilling the constitution and in that Portugal gave an example to the world. The elections were clearly won by a party that did not have parliamentary support, and our constitution allows the three left-wing parties that did not win the elections to unite in a pact, forming a government that until now is stable with that parliamentary majority and is making its work. In terms of progressive Portuguese political parties, I do not know if we can be an example for the world because the truth is that ideologies may be very different from those of the past, but politics in 2017 is not just ideology and we have to wait and see if reforms that are being carried out are successful or if the bill for these reforms will not be paid by the Portuguese mass in some years. I am an optimist and I think that Portugal as a country is at its best, but I do not really think that European Union will rethink its position regarding the economic crisis that is being experienced today on all sides only because in Portugal there is a government of left political parties. In politics everything changes very fast in 2-4 years. Notice that Obama was an example and look who is there now…
The Gift – Photo made by Hans Peter van Velthoven
– With regard to the fires, which in the last wave affected your hometown Alcobaça and which have also hit Spain recently, What can be done as musicians to help those who have lost everything?
J: There are two things that can be done and I think they are being done right now. The first thing is to think that the government has to help the families of the more than 100 dead by the fires, as well as to help economically the companies and people who were left with nothing. That's why the government exists, so they have recently decided on a package of policies that will help those people. Second, the people, musicians, civil society, it will help as it has always done and did all summer after the first big fire, opening up bank accounts to help financially the reconstruction, to organize civic groups that can help the replanting of all the forest that burned, especially the Pinhal of Leiria next to Alcobaça, and to support in the human part – fundamental- all the people who were close to this tragedy.
This summer we were playing at the United States. And for the first time in Portugal there was a solo concert with live Portuguese bands from the Meo Arena – Portugal's biggest Arena – for all Portugal, with all three live TV channels. Never a single program had been broadcast live for all Portugal on the 3 biggest TV channels, and the musicians and the TV channels gave an example of union, also being able to raise money for the victims with the tickets sold and through the telephone donations. Musicians and artists are always the first to set an example, but in Portugal there is a very supportive society of all this tragedy and we are very united for each one to do everything possible to help everyone and not to repeat this again in the next 1000 years.
Quick questionnaire, try to reply with the first thing that come to your mind.
1. What is your “Desert Island” album? For this year's tribute, which marks the 50th anniversary of its release, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles
2. Drawing or writing? To write
3. If only you could review a movie at a time What movie would it be? Today, Jackie Brown. This week I turn 43 and I love the way Tarantino talks about middle age. Tomorrow would be another, sure, that I am passionate about cinema.
4. With which instrument do you feel most identified? Bass.
5. When you play in a new city, what is the first thing you search on the Internet about it? First of all, the room where we will play.
6. A place to get lost.. I always have the concept of a city like New York to get lost and enjoy a thousand experiences.. But today I'll answer something radically different, a beach with a forest next door, in which you have no idea about what adventures, discoveries or dangers, there behind, with that pure air that exists in the sense of being next to nature. Losing yourself in nature!
7. If you had to define the music that The Gift does in two words would be.. Elegant and challenging