The Spark: Portugal. The Man’s Kyle O’Quin on Creativity and Pairing Beethoven With Blue Dream
Back in February, Portugal. The Man (PTM) keyboardist Kyle O’Quin made a sophisticated splash into the Oregon cannabis industry by combining classical piano with craft cannabis in a rare performance at the historical Harry McCormick House in Portland.
Artists can share their love of their art using our collective understanding of cannabis as the platform.
Part of the Live at HiFi concert series that’s hosted acts such as Stephen Malkmus of Pavement and China Forbes of Pink Martini, this particular evening was dubbed Higher Education. The purpose was to create an environment where, according to O’Quin, “Artists can share their love of their art, whether it be music or painting or writing, using our collective understanding of cannabis as the platform for a cross-disciplinary examination.”
The world-class pianist, inspired by Leonard Bernstein’s The Unanswered Question lecture series, impressed the intimate crowd with his command of the keys, knowledge of music history, and keen sense of humor while pounding out sweet melodies by Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy, under the influence and alongside his adorable dog, Boo Boo. The evening was a precursor to the release of a custom pre-roll blend designed to pair with PTM’s single “Feel It Still” off the new album Woodstock.
Enamored of PTM’s recent music and cannabis collaborations, Leafly spoke with Kyle O’Quin about Woodstock and weed.
Leafly: While no one seems to know the origin of the name Portugal. The Man, I’m told there’s a chance cannabis had something to do with its creation. Is that true?
Kyle O’Quin: I can most definitely assure you the band name wasn’t a result of a smoke session. It was just an alter ego, honestly. It’s always freeing as an artist to have an alter ego. We were never … just one person, but a band. So, a country is a group of people that have one voice in the world. That’s the period. He’s just a dude we made up. We wanted you to know that he is, in fact, the man.
What’s PTM’s relationship with cannabis?
Oh, I’d say our relationship is nothing short of healthy. No alternative facts here.
Do you toke during jam sessions or before a performance?
We used to. Well, a few of us [did], especially me and our drummer Jason … John and Zach didn’t smoke as much back then. This is actually the reason why we still don’t smoke to this day before we play.
A long time ago, I did what I do best, I got Jason nice and ripped before the show. During the breakdown in a song, he just forgot what song we were performing. It was dead silence. Maybe because I was stoned too, but it was so fucking quiet for what seemed like the longest five seconds ever. Jason looked over at Zach like:
“What are we doing?”
“It’s the break.”
“Count us back in, J.”
“Wait, which song?”
And, this is my favorite part—he clicks off one, two, three, four. Then, we all came back in playing. Jason just kept clicking on five, six, seven, eight. We laugh about it now, but I can trace our not smoking onstage to that night exactly.
While cannabis can spur creativity, it’s not always best for getting shit done.
I think people have a common misconception about creativity and drug use when it comes to songwriting: Anyone who’s really creative doesn’t need drugs to be creative. But [cannabis] can be a great tool, as opposed to a crutch.
It gives me endurance sometimes, a few extra hours I didn’t think I had in me at the end of the day. It helps you put on the blinders and focus in on something better while being able to zone other things out, which is fucking great if you’re sitting in your room alone playing piano or mumbling a melody into a phone at 2 a.m. with an acoustic guitar.
Cannabis can be a great tool for creativity, as opposed to a crutch.
But it’s a different story when you’re playing live. We do a lot of jamming and for that to work, we have to take the blinders off and be even more aware of what everyone else is doing. We all have to be in the same mindstate on stage. We like to set up as close as possible. We’re kind of one unit working together, not a five-part machine. That’s actually the best explanation I can give for the difference in our smoking habits on stage versus off stage.
Are you a fan of eating your cannabis?
I actually make pretty fucking good cookies, not gonna lie. I use off the shelf chocolate chip Ghirardelli brand cookies and people always say that the cookies are delicious, not just that they get you high, which is always a plus.
Not sure if it’s true, or a rumor I once heard, so maybe someone can back this up: Before I put my herb in the butter, I put it in a little foil envelope and cook it in the oven for about five minutes on 250 degrees. Just before it changes color or at the first sight of it, I pull it out.
Ah, yes, decarboxylation.
I was told it’s supposed to make them more potent by activating the cannabis. I’m not sure, but I’ve been doing it for years and getting pretty high.
Edibles are a toss-up for me. Now [with cannabis legal] they’re better regulated than the good ol’ fashioned homemade cookies. It used to always be, “I can’t feel it” or “I can’t fucking move.” I never liked that inconsistency.
What was it like to be in the studio with Mike D of Beastie Boys fame for the making of your album Woodstock?
It was such an eye-opening experience for us. We wouldn’t be a band if wasn’t for the Beastie Boys, so it’s pretty personal because we grew up on that shit, literally. Getting insight into their creative process … it’s just so spontaneous. Write about what’s happening right now. What we did today! Drinking beers in the Pavilion’s parking lot. Put it in the lyrics! We’re like, “What?!?”
And then, you realize that’s totally what made them the Beastie Boys. It’s this ‘capture the moment’ vibe that so prominent in hip hop and it’s just not even there anymore when it comes to rock music. Mike really inspired us to make sure we made something reflective of everything we’re all seeing around us every day, to always be willing to try something new, and to dive into the deep end when we do.
Care to share another story involving cannabis or Mike D?
This producer John Goodmanson produced Iron Flag for Wu-Tang [and once told me], “Do not smoke Wu-Tang’s weed!” Not sure if it was laced or what the deal was. Anyways, Mike said he learned that the hard way. I remember him saying he was at John Lennon and Yoko’s apartment in New York where his famous white piano is located, and he got way too high, fell asleep on their couch, and woke up embarrassed. I don’t remember if Wu-Tang was there and if it was their weed, but I’d like to think it was.
“Feel It Still” is a super catchy tune. On 4/20, you announced a custom blended pre-roll designed to pair with that song. Tell us about it.
Honestly, as a band, we’ve never smoked more weed. Why the fuck not make your own blend? Both of the strains we used are hybrids, but honestly both lean toward the sativa side to me. “Feel It Still” is a summer song. The strain can’t weigh you down like a heavy indica high. It’s got to be a light, uplifting, fun, outdoor vibey, summer, fucking ‘fun in the sun’ weed. Not to mention the [nod to our album] in using Headband: For those who haven’t smoked it, it kind of hits you right in the middle of the forehead and you can feel it a little by your temples. It feels like you’re wearing a headband. There’s not much closer of a reference we could make to Woodstock [cough] than Headband.
It was one of the coolest experiences watching you match classical musicians with different strains. Will you recount a few for our readers?
I thought it would be fun to wear jeans, smoke weed, cuss, and talk about classical music only in terms of cannabis.
The concept was based off Leonard Bernstein’s explanation of music through language in his lectures on The Unanswered Question where it seemed easier to talk about something complicated using something we all know about. He compared music to Chomsky’s analysis of language and it sparked something, this idea of cross discipline.
Classical music always seems stuffy, so I thought it would be fun to wear jeans and a t-shirt, smoke weed, cuss, and talk about classical music only in terms of cannabis. For example, Rachmaninoff Prelude Op. 3 No. 2 was paired with Critical Mass, which has a 1:1 ratio of THC to CBD. The way THC and CBD activate each other is reflective of the dynamics in the piece being either as loud as you can play or as soft as you can play. The louder or softer you play, the more the dynamics play off each other.
Since [Critical Mass] is a 1:1 ratio, it’s not as high in THC [as other strains], which is what I love about it. It’s a very restrained high. When you hear recordings of Rachmaninoff play his own music, it’s always more restrained than anyone else plays it. This restrained quality being at the heart of his music couldn’t be more in common with the restrained high Critical Mass offers. [And] still, he is heavy as fuck and this [strain] is no doubt an indica.
I recall some fun Beethoven comparisons, too…
I played Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata (1799), arguably the first romantic piece of music, and paired it with Blue Dream—an award-winning hybrid to show how Beethoven was the ultimate hybrid composer. He blended the Classical era into the Romantic like a fucking badass.
The next concert will include a Beethoven cello and piano Sonata where the cello player will be “playing the indica strain” because the cello is the same range as the voice and is very in touch with the body. I’ll be “playing the sativa strain” on the piano (the cerebral high tinkly shit) and together we’ll be a hybrid, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…
I know it’s important for PTM to raise awareness for reasonable drug policy. Are you involved in any other initiatives to meet this goal?
First, I smoke weed every single day. Then, there are other things: At that classical concert, we donated the money to a local organization called My Voice Music that helps younger kids write and record their own music as a way of dealing with mental issues … it’s important to show that cannabis can help fund art programs for our communities and youth.
We addressed a bunch of social issues in our video for “Feel It Still” and part of the toolkit was a link to Drug Policy Alliance, a reputable organization fighting the War on Drugs. It’s odd that there’s an opiate epidemic that’s killing insane amounts of people and yet, federally speaking cannabis is such a threat on paper … hmmm.