Eric Howk misses his dog and the Seattle home they share. As the guitarist for hit band Portugal. The Man, Howk has been on the go so much for the last 18 months, he has barely had time to see either. In fact, he has spent so much time on the road that the Uber app on his phone is convinced he lives in The LINE Hotel in Los Angeles.
Howk estimates that between concerts, media bookings and other gigs, he made more than 365 appearances, all over the world, in the last year alone. Among the highlights, the band brought the house down with a performance at last November’s American Music Awards and then surprised even themselves when they won Best Pop/Duo Performance at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards in January.
Such is the life of a rock star. And after a whirlwind year that saw the band skyrocket from indie sensation to mainstream success, that is exactly what Howk, 36, has become. It’s a life Howk has stubbornly pursued since he was a teenage guitar prodigy in Wasilla, Alaska — not so much the Grammy and the fame, but making great music and touring the world with friends.
“It’s a damn good life. Even when it’s terrible, it’s all right,” he says.
It would be easy to marvel at how Howk accomplished this despite sustaining a spinal cord injury in 2007, but after talking to him and the people who know him, the more interesting story may be that no one ever really doubted he would.
Live from the ICU
Unless you have been living under a rock, you’ve undoubtedly heard Howk’s riffs on one of Portugal. The Man’s two smash hits, “Feel It Still,” and “Live in the Moment.” With a throwback rock vibe and the catchiest chorus of the year, “Feel It Still” quickly became the earworm of 2017, finding its way into ads for everything from Apple to Vitamin Water en route to going double platinum and reaching number one on six of the major airplay charts. “Live in the Moment” followed that success by hitting number one on the Billboard Alternative chart and breaking the record for most plays in a week.
This level of success was new for Portugal. The Man, and for Howk, who joined the band in 2015. With a rotating cast of musicians, led by singer John Gourley and bassist Zach Carothers, Portugal. The Man had built a loyal following over seven albums and 11 years but had never really reached the mainstream.
Howk grew up with Gourley and Carothers in Wasilla, Alaska, and was talking with them about joining in 2007, when everything changed. “We had just got pretty close again, and he was about to join our band, and then suddenly the accident happened,” says Carothers.
Howk was sitting against a wall in a friend’s yard when the wall collapsed. He fell 12 feet and ended up with a T4 spinal cord injury. While the injury unofficially tabled the discussions about joining Portugal. The Man, there were signs all around that it did little to slow his musical momentum.
Before Howk even started rehab at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, an impromptu visit from some of his friends led to what was perhaps the first recording session conducted in a major trauma center. “I knew they were coming by to visit. I did not know they were gonna bring a small recording studio into my room,” he says. But they did. “At this point I haven’t even sat up yet for longer than 10 or 15 seconds without getting all light headed and passing out. I’ve still got a neck collar and I’m fully hooked up, I think I had a nurse take out a couple of IVs because they were making noise on the mics. … I had strummed around and messed around on some guitars before that point, but that was definitely a trial by fire.”
Other than a brief moment when he woke up in the middle of his spinal surgery, Howk was always confident that playing guitar would remain a central part of his life, and this just confirmed it. “After my injury, I knew I had my hands,” he says. “And if I didn’t have my hands, I’d work my way up to being a world premiere slide guitarist or something. I’d figure something out.”
Howk learned to sit slightly off-kilter to maintain his “floppy” balance while playing, and often rolls without his chair’s right armrest to accommodate the body of his guitar. “It’s like so many things, there’s a period of adapting and a good measure of stubbornness that comes along with that. But you set out in your life to do something, and when something happens it’s up to you to make that sort of a nonissue and find a way around it.”
His next trial by fire came four months later when he played on stage for the first time. His band, The Lashes, had a long-booked gig at Bumbershoot, Seattle’s premier music festival. In typical fashion, Howk plays down the fact that he got back in the swing of things so quickly. “Well, no one ever asked me if we wanted to cancel,” he says.
Despite the success, The Lashes were coming to an end. “Everyone looked around and took inventory and said, ‘Nah, I don’t think we wanna do another 60-day tour in a van that’s not running great with no prospects of climbing our way out of it,’” he recalls. “But, I wanted that.”
The Budding Businessman
With a huge network of friends and connections in the music industry, Howk had no trouble finding bands to tour with after rehabbing. Taking advantage of his self-described “truck driver’s soul,” he drove himself all over between gigs to feed his musical compulsion. At the same time, back in Seattle he got involved behind the scenes, joining an ownership group that bought and refreshed the Crocodile, a famed Seattle music venue.
The Crocodile had won over Seattle music fans thanks to shows by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and many more, but it held even more significance for Howk. “All of my firsts were there,” he says. “I played all of my first big shows at the Crocodile. My early bands opened for The Strokes and The Libertines back in the day … it’s really the first place I learned how to manipulate my ID so it looked like I was 21.”
When Howk saw a sign in the window announcing the 2007 closure, he started asking around to see if anything was stirring. Marcus Charles was part of a group looking for investors with local connections. When he met Howk, he knew he’d found his man.
“Eric has always had credibility in the music scene, before and after he got hurt,” he says. “I was really impressed by him and wanted him to be involved.” The fact that Howk was only months removed from his injury didn’t faze Charles at all. “He’s the ultimate explorer, trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life and where he wants to go. He’s always up for an adventure and trying new things,” he says. “I think that’s rare to find in human beings.”
Howk’s exploration didn’t stop there. In 2011, Howk partnered up with another group to start The Forge, a bar on Seattle’s up-and-coming waterfront. Like Charles, investor Mike Ager instantly hit it off with Howk, knowing he had found an ideal partner. Howk’s connections were appealing, but it was his personality that sealed the deal.
“He’s infectiously positive about everything. You don’t see him ever get down or bummed out,” says Ager. “Whatever crisis there is, or hassle, he has this very sort of calming presence. He can be the mediator and take in everyone’s ideas and positions and then articulate them and come up with solutions that everybody can get along with.”
Longtime friend Nathanial Bradford was the one who introduced Howk to Ager. He seconded all of Ager’s comments, highlighting Howk’s intelligence and selflessness. “He just makes everything make sense,” says Bradford. “I think we are all so close to the business that we exist with our heads up our own asses a lot of the time. And what Eric brings into it is just being like, ‘Hey, I know that you guys are doing this and you guys are doing that, but here’s a little bit of how the actual world works.’ He brings a new perspective without any ego, working toward the better good for everyone. … He’s just so fucking capable in every way, shape and form.”
Buoyed by their success, five years later the group opened The Sovereign, another bar, less than a mile away. Howk describes The Forge as “somewhere between Cheers and the bar from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” while The Sovereign has a slightly more refined feel.
For Howk, owning a part of the bars fulfilled another childhood dream. “It’s the clubhouse! Who doesn’t want to own a bar? If I go back in time and tell 12-year-old me that this is what you’re gonna be doing, he’d be like, ‘yeah!’”
That same enthusiasm was on display when Howk rekindled talks about joining Portugal. The Man with Carothers and Gourley in 2015. “He had jammed with us whenever we were in the same place, whenever we’d play Seattle or we were at the same festival,” recalls Carothers. “And we always wanted him in the band, but he was always in so many other bands.”
All that experience had given Howk the confidence that he needed to persuade Carothers and Gourley. On paper, being a part of a major touring band seemed really hard, says Carothers. “I would talk to Eric, and he would say, ‘Every day is different, some days are really easy, some days are really hard. There are a lot of things that don’t look like you can do them, but you just figure it out.’ With that, we just decided to go for it.”
“I snuck in there,” Howk says with a smile. “I peeked in under the radar.”
Once officially in the band, all the theoretical discussions about access obstacles became real. At the top of the list are inaccessible venues and transportation. “It’s impossible to find an ADA accessible tour bus,” says Carothers. “Like, they don’t exist.”
That makes for some interesting nights on the road when the band is between gigs.
“I’ve got to Cliffhanger my way around,” says Howk, citing the movie where Sylvester Stallone plays a mountain climber tasked with taking down the bad guys. “Because scooting my way on over … let’s just say it’s a dirty place to be. There’s a lot of peeing in bottles and stuff. It is not glamorous.”
Howk relies on Carothers to get in and out of a myriad of inaccessible vehicles. “He literally carries me around the country,” says Howk, “throwing me into Sprinters and 15-passenger vans and catching me as I fall out of them.”
After nursing a set of constantly sprained ankles thanks to rough transfers, Howk has learned to be careful and to try and grab a second person to help. It’s one of the many ways the band’s demanding schedule has pushed him out of his comfort zone and helped him grow. As an example, he mentioned how he has streamlined the equipment he needs to travel. “There used to be things that I would absolutely not travel without, like I would not go anywhere without a commode. That’s what I learned on and I’m used to.” He has also weaned himself off baclofen, tizanidine and lorazepam, learning that some simple stretches and coffee are way better for his body and his busy life.
Still, some realities can’t be escaped, and when it comes to inaccessible venues, Howk has learned to grin and bear it. “We’ve had to get me onstage some crazy ways, but we always get me onstage,” he says. From being carried through the crowd and lifted onto the stage, to navigating narrow ramps too steep to even walk up, Howk has seen it all. He documents each venue using his own rating system and a color-coded collection of notes.
Carothers has developed a routine to assess what lies ahead. “I get up every morning, grab us coffees and I go in and scope out the venue. I’ll send him a text like, ‘Everything is fine,’ or ‘Today’s gonna kind of suck, man.’ Every day is different, but what are you gonna do? We haven’t found a stage that we haven’t got him up on yet, so it works.”
Howk laughs when retelling the all-too-common conversation the band’s stage manager has with local staff when the rare venue does have a wheelchair lift onto the stage.
“He will oftentimes go up to a guy at a venue and be like, ‘I noticed you’ve got a lift. Does that thing work?’ And nine times out of 10, the answer is no. But on the occasion that it does work, the guy’s usually like, ‘Oh, yeah. It works just fine. What’d you have in mind? A bass cab or a couple of PA speakers or a drum set?’ And he just shakes his head.”
Howk’s best accessibility story revolves around the band’s unexpected win at this January’s Grammys. After Lady Gaga nearly tripped over his chair on the red carpet, Howk and the band were eagerly awaiting the announcement of their category when one of the handlers approached them.
“We’re gonna need you guys to take your seats at the event, and then when the category before your category comes up, we’re gonna sneak you up side stage so that you can go up there and do your speech,” he told them.
Howk remembers mentally processing what the handler’s words meant. “Are you telling us … wait … what are you telling us right now?”
“Oh, yeah, no, uh, good luck,” the handler slyly replied.
“Then we get up there, our category is coming up and I’m looking at Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra, freaking out a little bit, and someone hands me a wireless microphone. ‘Hey, just in case, if you can’t reach the podium mic and you wanna say some words.’ I’m like, if? If?! If this goes to anyone else right now, I’m gonna burn this building down!”
Howk didn’t need to break out the matches. He rolled on stage with the band and became the second person with a spinal cord injury to receive a Grammy, according to the awards department. The first? None other than Christopher Reeve. He won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album in 1998 for his memoir, Still Me.
If it wasn’t already crazy enough hearing the band’s music played on pop radio alongside stars like Chance the Rapper and Demi Lovato, the Grammy win catapulted the band into even more fame.
“My family’s a lot bigger now,” jokes Howk. “I have cousins that I hadn’t heard from in years and years and years. I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember you. I haven’t talked to you since I was 6, but yeah, we’re cool.’ It’s pretty crazy. The super popular kid from high school that was never friends with me and never reached out or anything, just friend requested me on Facebook. I’m letting that hang for a bit.”
Still, Howk hasn’t reached the level of recognition where he gets mobbed when he goes out in public, and that is fine with him. “One out of every 200 dudes in an airport will be wearing a Coachella T-shirt and a tie-dyed headband, and he’s gonna know who I am and yell ‘Eric Howk!’ and come running over, but by and large, none of us are really media darlings or personalities.”
Howk jokingly describes Portugal. The Man as “36-year-old fat Alaskan pop stars,” but it is clear he is happy with the level of stardom they’ve attained. Instead of Mick Jagger, Howk says he wanted to be Ron Wood, “the guitar player with mystique.” Borrowing a quote from Almost Famous, he added, “like one of the out-of-focus guys.”
“That’s exactly where I want to be,” he says. “I’ve tried fronting my own bands. I hate it. I hate the ‘all eyes on me’ kind of thing. I love sneaking in there, having my moment and taking it for a second, and handing it right back. I’ve always just kind of wanted to be on a team.”
Even now, when he is on one of the most visible and successful teams in the industry, Howk hasn’t let it change him. “That’s what’s hilarious and that’s why he’s the perfect guy to have something like this happen, because it doesn’t change him at all,” says Ager. “He’s the exact same guy he’s always been. It doesn’t matter if he’s in a situation that’s tough or easy, he’s the same, consistent, good guy all the time.”
“He cut his hair, and he wears a jacket that I’ve never really seen him wear before,” adds Bradford. “But other than that, he’s the exact same person. You send him a text, you get a response. He never talks down to you. He never pretends like anything is more important than the friendships he had going into it.”
While Howk hasn’t let success go to his head, it has opened new doors and brought new responsibilities, which he admits he is still trying to figure out. A tweet from one of his followers after the band’s performance on national TV in last year’s American Music Awards drove the matter home. @MusicQueen87 wrote, “I cried when I saw you on the AMAs because I’d never seen a mainstream musician in a wheelchair on TV before. It was a magical feeling.”
Howk choked up on hearing the tweet. He remembers what it was like adjusting after his injury and has said he cropped his wheelchair out of his photos for the first few years. Now, in a matter of a few months, Howk had become one of the world’s most visible musicians in a wheelchair.
“I mean, all this stuff is untrodden and new territory to me,” he says. “The easiest and most obvious thing I think I can do is not miss shows and have a public and a visible job. I think the second that you start really trying to sell yourself as a motivating or inspiring figure, it loses some of its earnestness and genuine intent. I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m still trying to draw that line all the time.”
Howk has embraced early opportunities to use his visibility for good — stopping in to visit newly injured people at Craig Hospital, helping with a fundraiser for March of Dimes and recording a series of PSAs for National Telecommuting Institute, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities find jobs.
NTI has been around for 26 years, but director of marketing Mike Sanders says the ads Howk recorded have helped the organization connect on a larger scale than normal. “We’re on over 400 radio stations right now and people have been calling us up, saying if it wasn’t for Eric Howk, if it wasn’t for Portugal. The Man, I would never have heard of NTI.”
Howk was one of the people who had never heard of NTI before connecting with Sanders, but the organization’s goals especially resonated with him. “A lot of their messages are things that I personally hadn’t really thought of myself, and they hit home,” says Howk. “If you want to work, there’s a way. I was doing construction, and I pretty much, like, threw that away the second I realized that I was gonna be a paraplegic. Now I realize that’s ridiculous and I’m sure I would be totally valued and useful on a work team.
“NTI’s whole message is what would you like to do? And here are some of the things that you could jump into right now. I think that’s killer.”
Carothers is proud of the way his friend and bandmate has embraced the spotlight. “I don’t think he realized that he could do as much, or have the platform to help as many people,” he says. “I think he’s super excited about it. When you do have a voice, you should use it. And he’s used it for very good things.”
How Howk decides to use that voice going forward remains to be seen, but there’s no question his eyes are open and he’s an articulate spokesperson for many of the issues affecting wheelchair users. “If there was ever a time to get riled up and to point out some hypocrisies and not just let things take their course without shining a light on them, I think it’s now,” he says. “Look at the number of things this administration has deemed disposable, the number of social programs that are on the chopping block, and the number of things that are going away. I think that’s the biggest problem with what’s happening, things sort of gently going by the wayside. And suddenly we look around and there are no safety nets left for anyone or anything. It’s terrifying.”
For right now though, Howk’s eyes are focused squarely on the music, and the continued success of Portugal. The Man. The band is wrapping up some U.S. dates this month before heading to Europe for a month of shows.
“I love my job,” he says. “It is never really hard for me to get out of bed and do this thing. Even if the music ended and touring was over, getting back into Portugal and into touring and all that was vindicating. It scratched an itch that I was always gonna have and I proved something to myself.
“I would be heartbroken if it all ended and it all went away, but I would be proud of what I was able to accomplish and I’d be all right.”