Drag Queen Impersonators, Pastel Keyboards, and The Flaming Lips
These Portuguese trailblazers went indie before it was a household term, and after almost two decades of DIY, they're still #1.
Two encores deep into their set at Madrid Teatro Circo Price, the show was surely over. A third encore would try somebody’s patience. Somebody official.
But for 17 years, the Portugal band The Gift has been operating without a boss. Sans management or outside labels, they’ve grown famous in their home country and Spain by recording in their converted garage. Arguably, they’ve built a small empire around high-drama, English-language anthemic indie rock by garnering sponsorships, opening for the likes of Flaming Lips in the US, and becoming the “first Portuguese band to X” — X being everything (like getting a spot on MTV UK).
So with the venue’s blessings, the band hit the stage — again. The crowd hadn’t budged, since they’ve come to expect The Gift’s tireless showmanship. Frontwoman Sonia Tavares, a true diva who had crooned and high-kicked through a demanding hours-long set, said in flawless Spanish: “Do you want more? Make some space, because we’re going to play…” she pointed into the center of the audience, “there.”
Without help from security, the audience parted seas. Now microphone-less, the quartet and their hoard of musical guests strolled into the crowd, asking everyone to sit down and hush while they set up their acoustics for the final song. The entire audience — which extended over 20 yards in every direction — obeyed without a hitch.
The Gift had invited global press to the Madrid show in May, hoping to branch out from their west Mediterranean bubble. They’ve had their occasional international triumph, but they’re still holding out for an American breakthrough. At the moment they’re promoting their June 14 show at Bowery Ballroom in New York, along with their March album Explode, which hit number 1 in Portugal album sales.
“Usually we never get to first place, because there’s always U2 or Phil Collins. Now, I think The Strokes are up there with us,” said John Gonçalves, the bassist/keyboardist/closest thing to a manager.
It’s been a long road to number 1, but six albums and a full calendar of live shows didn’t kill them. If anything, their sound expanded from their late 90s electropop smash hits like “OK! Do You Want Something Simple” to positive, emotionally gripping rock tunes like the Oh No Ono-esque “Made For You” off Explode. Oddly, they ditched the frills of their former albums — like entire orchestras and countless guest musicians — yet the sound got bigger.
“I think, 17 years after our start, it’s good to try it all again from the beginning,” said keys/electronics master Nuno, John’s brother. “I think that a band with a long duration like us needs a record like this. For inspiration. It’s almost like an oxygen balloon that you need to keep you alive.”
Positive thinking and bright colors are The Gift’s hallmarks, right down to the pastel keyboards. For Explode, they based their album art around a trip to the Holi festival in rural India, where they were doused from head to toe.
“We always wanted this album to be an explosion of color, of joy, of happiness, and positivity,” John said. “It was the perfect location…we were there a week celebrating the festival with a local photographer in the temples, throwing the traditional colored powder at each other. All the while we understood that all of the people around us were so happy with so little.”
The band chooses to go DIY in order to get away with stunts like these.
“We like to control the video clips, we like to control the photo sessions, and we like to control the studio,” said John, who, for 17 years has had to explain the band’s laissez faire ways and was likely citing a script. “We don’t know what it is to have a label saying ‘you have this budget, you have two weeks do it.’ If we want to do an album, we have to finance the album with sponsors or with money we get from the tour, or whatever, but we do it. It’s completely do it yourself.”