A Conversation With Portugal. The Man

Zach Carothers

Originally Published For The Daily Free Press on 10/19/11

Portugal. The Man is one of the hardest working bands in the business. Since the band’s 2006 debut –Waiter: “You Vultures!” – they have released an album annually amid constant touring. Their albums are widely diverse and they have verged on blues-rock, 1960s pop-rock, 1970s prog-rock, electronica and more. Portugal. The Man makes their way to Paradise Rock Club this Saturday where they’re sure to entertain the Boston crowd with fantastic lighting, contagious energy, a few unexpected covers and – of course – exciting arrangements of their classic songs and latest numbers off In The Mountain In The Cloud.

On Monday, bassist Zach Carothers was kind enough to talk to Muse Music Editor Lucien Flores. The interview affirmed how dedicated the band is, not only to creating brilliant music and playing spellbinding shows, but also to cultivating an incredibly strong relationship with fans.

Lucien Flores: One thing that’s always impressed about the band is how you guys are able to release fully-fleshed out and high quality albums every single year since your debut. How are you able to keep up this creative vigor and do you think you guys will ever be one of those bands that releases and album every few years?

Zach Carothers: No I don’t think so. Things might slow down a little bit with all the touring that we do. We love recording these records, we love touring them so we just want to play music in general. I think we’re lucky enough to be able to keep coming up with material. We’re lucky to have a singer songwriter who is good with just creativity in general. We as a band have all gotten really good at taking notes and being very spontaneous. He puts the ideas down and we start filling in the blanks and connecting the chord progression. It keeps the ball moving and keeps everything fresh and new. If you do it like that and don’t sit on it too long, it keeps it natural and keeps it focused. It’s kind of a course that we set out for ourselves when we first started; we did two records in two years and we wanted to put one out every year and so we’re going to try to keep going for as long as we can.

LF: Very cool. These records are all very distinctive in their own way: you can’t really confuse a song that’s on Church Mouth with a song that’s on Satanic Satanists. They’re all very different records. What is your creative process and how does the band decide to go in a certain direction?

ZC: We always talk about what direction an album is going to go but it doesn’t always go that way. We just get in there and we start doing and it really becomes its own thing. We keep building on it and it just takes a life of its own. We want to always take a step up and we want to make every record sound different, but we want it to still sound like us. People change and even over the course of the year there are a lot of different influences and I think you can kind of hear it on certain albums like Satanic is me listening to a lot of a Oasis and a lot of slow-down soul. For this last record we happened to be listening to a lot of David Bowie, T Rex and Pink Floyd and other bands in that direction. We consciously know that we want each album to sound different, but we don’t consciously decide where that goes; we just kind of let it grow. [Our records reflect] the last year of our life; what we’re listening to, what movies we’re watching, what books we’re reading and all the things we’ve experienced in the year. Each album is kind of a snapshot of that period in our lives.

LF: Essentially the album is just a reflection of your life at the time?

ZC: Yeah, totally.

LF: Speaking of In The Mountain In The Cloud, what was it like working with [Grammy winning producer/mixer/engineer] Andy Wallace?

ZC: It was amazing. He mixed it, he didn’t produce it, but just having that type of person was insane. He’s so good. He’s done my favorite records of all time.

LF: Obviously one of the big changes with the last album was that it was released under Atlantic Records. I’ve read that Portugal. The Man has been contacted by major labels ever since the debut. What was it about this time that made it the right decision for the band to sign?

ZC: We knew from the very beginning that we wanted to do it our way. We had a rough plan for what we were going to do as a band. We knew that we wanted to do if for the first few years, until we were ready at least. Major labels had been talking to us ever since we first started, but we knew that we didn’t want to jump into something and not be ready for it. You don’t want to go on national TV or something like that when you’re not a good band and so we wanted to put a few years under our belt; we put experience behind us so that we knew what we were doing and we felt prepared to take that step. We talked to Atlantic for eight or nine months before we signed with them, almost every day, making sure that that’s where we wanted to go and making sure that they wanted us and we just really loved everybody there; they’re huge music fans and very very smart people and, even though it’s a huge company, it can feel like a real small family. They’re just the best people; amazing publicists, marketing, and radio…very very smart people and we wanted to take the step when we knew that we couldn’t do it anymore. We were doing all that we could. We were self-releasing records.

LF: Was there more pressure this time being that this was your major label debut?

ZC: There was pressure, but it wasn’t necessarily put on by them, it was just all in our minds. We were thinking about the legendary Atlantic roster of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin and we were thinking about all those bands and all those amazing records and I think we just psyched ourselves out, and we got to the studio and we did not do much at first. We had really bad communication, we weren’t playing well and it was just a nightmare. It was a mess. We went on a bunch of tours in between and we recorded all over the place and we went back to Casey Bates’s studio in Washington where we had done a bunch of records, and who we know and we helped build the studios. As soon as we walked in their doors it was like “Oh yeah, I remember how to write music, I remember how to play with these guys, and how to work.” And so it all really came together at that last week and a half in which we were up at Casey’s house.

LF: Another thing about Portugal. The Man that has always impressed me is how the band’s fan relationship seems to go above and beyond other bands. A few weeks ago you had the Skype office hours and a few years ago I remember the band accepting calls. How do you get these ideas and how important to think it is to establish a close connection with your fans?

ZC: I think it’s huge. I think things like the office hours are cool and extra, and things like Twitter, Facebook, sending emails and posting pictures we think are very important. We want to be known as that. We just come up with ideas; anything extra that you can do that sets us apart from bands and help you get closer and connect with your fans is something that can never hurt and I think it’s awesome. Back in the day it used to be that people in bands were rockstars, they were untouchable, you didn’t get to see anything, you didn’t get to talk to them. Those days are over and while it had its time and while the mystery was really cool, but I like being approachable, I like being with the fans, I like meeting people and we appreciate that. They are the reason we can do what we do. I love playing music and I’ll play music forever, but I get to go travel all over the world because people come to our shows and I appreciate that and it’s my favorite thing to do so we’re gonna let them know what we appreciate it.

LF: There was the horrible situation at Lollapalooza [the band’s van and trailer with all of their gear was stolen] and I know you guys got almost everything back except for the guitars.

ZC: Yeah, we got one guitar back; all the guitars, all of my basses, and a few keyboards are still missing which sucks because that’s the most personal stuff with all the sentimental value. My mom bought me that bass, John’s dad bought him one of his guitars. But we were so lucky to get all of our amps, drums and lights back. We got back almost everything, it’s amazing. All thanks to our fans: people started twittering about it, retweeting it, reblogging it, reposting it and that got the attention of major networks like NBC and CBS. CNN came down and we were on the 5 o’clock news in Chicago. Because of that, people found our van, people saw it loading into a house, and we ended up getting it back. We actually got drunk the other night with the cop who actually found our gear…It was pretty fun, he’s a detective who was in charge of the case. He’s really a funny guy and we invited him out to the show when we played Chicago and he had a good time.

LF: Did he like the music?

ZC: He’s into it. He had a good time. We had a bunch of beer. His wife came out. We had a lot of fun.

LF: That must have been encouraging to see your fans come out like that to support you guys.

ZC: Yeah, it was wonderful.

LF: I’ve always thought that Portugal. The Man’s live shows were an experience with the light-show and how the songs are rearranged a bit different live. What goes into rearranging these songs?

ZC: We always try to make things different. We definitely want it to be a different experience from just our records. We’re never going to be one of those bands that goes out and sounds exactly like our record and so we want to make something different and add to it. We want to change it up tour-by-tour and show by show so that people keep coming back. We don’t want to be one of those bands where people say, “Oh Portugal. The Man? Yeah, I’ve seen them live. No big deal.” A lot of our fans know that even if you’ve seen us, the next time we come through we’re going do something different. We’re really happy with the light set up we have now, we switched it up; we’ve had lasers and halogens forever, and so this time we have a bunch of new lights and we’re excited about this tour. It’s a lot of work, we brought a lot of stuff with us, but it’s very fun and really rewarding. I think it’s a good show. I want people to come to our shows and have fun and be entertained – not just with music, but with our lights and with our opening band. We try to only work with venues that have really good staff and we take the whole night into account when we do these things. Even the songs in between the bands. We’re just trying to throw a really good party.

LF: The two times I’ve seen the band, the first time you covered a Kinks’ song (“Strangers”) and this summer you covered Etta James (“I’d Rather Go Blind”).

ZC: Yeah, that was fun. We got more covers on this tour too. I don’t know if you want me to tell you or you wanna let it be a surprise.

LF: I’ll let it be a surprise, but I was wondering how you guys go about choosing covers. Is it just songs you’re listening to at the moment or do you have a list of songs?

ZC: It’s the last kind of thing like right before a tour or if we’re soundchecking one day and we’ll just start playing. We don’t cover it correctly, we don’t cover it well, we’re in the wrong key. We’ll just start jamming along to some song that we like and then we all kind of get it on and we’re like, “oh that’s kind of fun to play” and if it goes well, it goes well. It’s a really fun thing to do and it’s a fun way for us to pay homage to all the band’s that inspired us that we listen to so it’s kind of fun to give them a little shout-out like that.

LF: I remember a few years ago when people would ask me for a good under-the-radar band, I’d always answer with you guys. Over the last few years it seems as if you’re getting a lot more attention. You’re about to headline CMJ in New York and then you’re playing the 3,000-capacity Terminal 5. What’s it like now that you’re getting this higher profile and how are you enjoying it?

ZC: It’s been really really cool. I think Atlantic helps a lot with that as far as getting our name out there. Radio helps a lot. College radio has been fantastic; we were number one for almost a month. It’s been really really cool. It’s nice to have people tell me after shows that the shows are better than they’ve ever been. It’s really refreshing and it makes us feel as if something’s actually moving. We played on Conan a week and a half ago or so and I think that had a lot to do with it as well.

LF: Did you get to meet him at all?

ZC: Yeah, he’s awesome. He really liked our instruments. He’s a really big music fan and it was pretty cool to hang out and talk to him about guitars and stuff like that. He’s a really cool guy.

LF: Did he know of Portugal. The Man before?

ZC: I don’t know. Before we went on he said that he liked the song (“So American”), which made me incredibly nervous. He seemed to enjoy it. It was pretty cool – really nice guy.

LF: As you mentioned earlier, Portugal. The Man seems to be touring constantly. What’s it like being with the same people everyday and how do you deal with any tension that may arise and how do you entertain yourself and relax? Essentially, how do you deal with life on the road?

ZC: We get into some fights quite often as you can imagine. We’re all best friends so it’s always over pretty quickly. We talk sh*t to each other all day, every day, and so that really helps with not building up too much so then you actually get mad as somebody for a reason, you’re not bottling in a bunch a little stuff that ticks you off. We get all of that stuff out right away. It’s cool; we all like each other, we all live together in the same house back in Portland when we’re off tour so we spend literally every day of our lives together and we’re just fine. We’ve got hobbies. There’s not much time to do your own thing on tour at all, but when we do, I like to take pictures and John likes to play video games with a couple people we know. We all have our things, we all watch Breaking Bad, watch movies and stuff like that so that’s pretty much what we do. We’re just trying to be friends.

LF: I actually just started watching Breaking Bad this weekend. I watched the first season. It’s a really good show.

ZC: Oh man. It is awesome. I just finished it so I gotta wait until next June. I cannot wait. Oh, It gets unbelievable man.

LF: So you’re playing Paradise Rock Club on Saturday and you’ve been there before. What do you think of the venue and the Boston crowd?

ZC: Oh it’s awesome. Boston’s always been cool. We actually haven’t been there in 2-3 years. Last time we played it was very fun; it was almost sold out and it was a really cool show. The only thing that’s kind of a bummer with Massachusetts is that nobody will ever see our full light show because we use a lot fog and lasers and stuff like that and there’s no particles allowed in the air. I don’t think anybody knows that, but because of the whole great light thing, they have a lot of weird fire code stuff. You can’t have fog, you can’t hang banners, there are a lot of rules so unfortunately Boston never gets to see a full production ever, no matter what band you are and so that’s always kind of a bummer, but I think this light show that we have now works a lot better than what we used to have when we couldn’t do fog so I think it will be fun.

LF: One thing I always seem to notice whenever you guys get interviewed is that everybody always asks you about the name, but I’d figured I’d ask a twist on that standard question. If you weren’t called Portugal. The Man, what do you think you’d be called? What other names were in the running?

ZC: Oooh. I’d have to go with “Ape Sh*t.” I think we threw that one around right after we decided Portugal. The Man, but I do think we threw that one around quite a bit. Going ape sh*t…just going crazy. We thought it would be cool, but we didn’t know if we could put it on posters or who would sell our records. Kind of punk-rock band. That’s pretty good, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that before.

Interview With Zach Carothers & Cullen Omori - Click For Full Size!
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