In the balloon-covered function room of a bar in Groningen, one of Portugal’s most exciting musical exports – The Gift – are explaining how they managed to get Brian Eno and Flood to work on their upcoming album Altar.
Keyboardist and backing vocalist Nuno Gonçalves is warm and full of good humour, despite the snowstorm taking place outside, and can’t wait for the year to begin.
“We’re living the best moment of our lives… we needed to be in the band for 21 years to have this approach to the record and to have this producer,” he says.
“Sometimes you need the right momentum to work with certain people, and we’re not kids anymore, we know what we want. And this record basically expresses that… us as an experimental band that, despite being of a certain age, is still fresh.”
This album may appear like a debut to UK listeners, but in fact The Gift have released several over a career spanning more than two decades.
It sounds strange then that they’re only just beginning to introduce themselves to a bigger audience in Britain – and will see the alt-rock band go from performing at arenas in Portugal and Spain to much more intimate venues.
“It depends how lazy you are, the attitude you have to performing,” Gonçalves says. “If you are very lazy you’ll stay in your comfort zone and play to 35,000 people each weekend… which is great. But sometimes you want more. And sometimes more means less.”
“In Portugal we’re used to playing for smaller audiences as well and it’s an opportunity to present our music in a different way,” frontwoman Sónia Tavares adds. “If it was 30 we’d be able to do it as well and be very happy about it.”
After seeing them perform live in Groningen there’s no doubt that the band would give their all regardless of whether they were performing to 30 people or 30,000.
Onstage they’re a unit of talented musicians, constantly aware of what each person is doing. It helps that they’re a close-knit family (literally – Gonçalves’ brother is bassist and keyboardist John Gonçalves) and have been doing this for more than two decades.
“We are a family, through the good and the bad,” he says with a grin. “Sometimes there are fights, but we stick together. We’ve been playing with these guest musicians for six years, our average is 60 shows a year… there are different environments, different stages. But at the end we give the same energy, the same effort, and Sonia is always amazing.”
Tavares is an incredibly enigmatic presence both onstage and off; wearing fantastic, outlandish costumes in silks and velvets – a glorious hot pink coat with feathers at dinner, and a black silk pantsuit and boots to stomp around the stage for the band’s Eurosonic performance.
“When you’re on stage… it’s a bit of an old-fashioned idea perhaps but it’s your song, your music, your glamour, your character,” she says. “And if you’re professional with the songs you do, why not be professional with the way you look?”
She sings mostly in English, as the band followed an unofficial pattern with each record that featured one Portuguese song (the new album is entirely in English).
“We like to write like that sometimes,” she says. “It depends on the mood you have in that moment. If I’m singing in Portuguese to Portuguese people it’s very different to singing to people who don’t speak the language.
“But I think the character is always the same – we always thought music is more than just a language barrier or an obstacle, it’s about communication and you can communicate just through a look in the eye, through a smile, and how you sing the song – the emotion you put into it. And people understand regardless of whether they speak the language or not.”
This new album will feature an eclectic range of influences, sounds and themes; each song has its own feeling and a different story.
Eno, who produced and co-wrote the record, encouraged the band to rewrite tracks – “a challenge, of course, but we loved it”.
The result is a fantastic collection of songs that pull the listener into this vibrant, colourful world of different moods and interesting quirks; theatrical pop that brings in discordant synths and an intense, joyous expression of creative talent.
Gonçalves met Eno at a gallery in Brazil in 2011 – according to him Eno “fell in love with the band, we fell in love with him, Sonia asked him if he wanted to join us, and we spent the last four years working on this”.
“We’re very proud of it, and we know he [Eno] is as well, which is important,” he says. “For us it was a pleasure to work with him, we had a lot of fun, it changed the way we looked at songs completely, and it was a very good journey – a hard job but now the job is done.”
Flood was brought in on Eno’s suggestion, and the band are thrilled with what the legendary producer has done for the record.
“You can’t get any better than that,” Tavares beams. “It was funny because they got together for the first time in years, and it was like ‘oh! Here we are again’. And Flood is such an amazing person, an amazing artist. And more than just the technical side of things, we had a fantastic experience with these people.
“I think we speak the same language. Every time we weren’t comfortable with something we discussed it and came up with a solution that worked for both sides. And one of the things that I felt was that Brian and Flood had this confidence in us. They wanted to know what we cared about, what we know as well.”
“When you have a problem, instead of being sad about it we were happy because it was the first step to the solution,” Gonçalves adds. “We grew up listening to the records of both these artists. We are musicians in part because of them and the records he produced.
“Flood on Songs of Faith and Devotion [Depeche Mode], Brian on How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb… and both on U2’s Zooropa – those are some of the most classic records. There was no clash with either of them [Flood and Eno] – we don’t have an ego that prevents us from trying new experiences, we were completely open to it. And that was the key to this work.”
The Gift release their sixth album ‘Altar’ on vinyl and CD on 5 May via their record label La Folie Records – a digital version will be available from 7 April – pre-order now. Their next single ‘Big Fish’ is out on 10 March.
The band play SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, on 16 March
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