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Portugal. The Man

Portugal. The Man

Interviewed by
Natalie Finnigan
Monday 10th June, 2013 9:11AM

Vibrant Portland based Alaskans Portugal. The Man released their new album - Evil Friends - last week.  Their seventh full length since forming in 2005, we caught up founding member and bassist Zach Carothers ahead of the albums release and discussed their move to a major label, the ever present influence of Pink Floyd on their sound, working with Danger Mouse and their synergy with New Zealand...

Hi Zach, how are you?

I’m very well, thank you?

Are you at home in Portland?

Actually I’m down in Los Angeles at the moment. We have a show tomorrow in San Diego and it’s been a weird day. The band split up and I’m dealing with all the gear and repairs and getting everything down to San Diego, and half my boys flew to Reno to do an acoustic show and do some radio stuff.

Are you guys touring at the moment or are these one-off shows?

No, we start our tour in a couple of weeks but we’re doing a bunch of fly-outs to promote the new album. We’re on a plane every day or every other day and doing heaps of press for the new album which is exciting and exhausting.

I bet, but looking at your schedule over the past few years it seems like that’s the status quo for you guys…

Yeah pretty much. We never really sit still and we pride ourselves on being a very hard working band. That’s how we grew up. John and I grew up in Alaska, and when we were starting out I did a million odd jobs to get by – that’s kind of what you do up there. A lot of people think that musicians don’t have to work hard but that’s a lie. I’ve done every job you can imagine, and I’ve never worked even close to as hard as I’ve worked for this band. I get to play music with my best friends in the world but I’m not going to take that for granted. We’re not going to be lazy about it. We work every day all day. The only day I know I don’t have to work is Christmas. Any other day we’re on call 24 hours a day.

Do you think the industry demands that?

Yeah, half the reason we’ve gotten anywhere is because we don’t expect anything to be handed to us. There are a lot of people with talent out there, and we’ll work harder than any of them. No matter what label we’re on or what we’re doing, we’re gonna do it ourselves.

Your new album, Evil Friends, is reportedly Pink Floyd influenced, and as a result of some intensive internet stalking I’ve learned that your parents loved…

Stalking? That’s…

Well that’s pretty much our job as journalists right? To stalk you online and then have your verify/deny/elaborate on the information we find…

Well I guess that’s actually really good… just really quick… a lot of people interview us and know absolutely nothing about us. Like nothing. It blows my mind. If I was a journalist I would want to know what I was getting into at least a little bit before an interview. Just do like, 20 minutes of reading about the band before, or something beforehand. When I talk to someone who clearly knows nothing about what we do I’m thinking ‘Why do you even want to interview me?’ It’s such a waste of everybody’s time. So, I appreciate the ‘research’.

I agree, I guess I don’t take it for granted because it’s not a full-time job… but back to the question… Your parents listened to Floyd and similar stuff while you were growing up – was music a big part of your childhood?

It definitely was. I grew up in a very small town in Alaska – so did John, the singer in our band – and there weren’t a lot of outside influences. Like New Zealand. I’ve never been there, but it seems like the same kind of vibe. Isolated. Even though we were technically connected by land to the rest of the United States, it kind of felt like a separate place, especially when I was growing up, before we had the internet. We basically just had the Top 40 radio, although I had MTV and I was the only kid that I knew who had it, so I watched it all day.

My parents had a very good record collection - So did John’s – but we weren’t very musical. We had a guitar in the house but nobody really played it, nobody sang - it was more just enjoying music. From my childhood I just remember records constantly being played in the house. When I was a child I would just sit down and flip through all the albums and look at the crazy things people were wearing and read the lyrics and notes, and it just stuck with me I guess. I still do it.

Most people I know who are musical have been heavily influenced by the stuff their parents listened to – even the number of young bands in the – I guess you’d call it ‘indie-pop’ genre - who are very obviously influenced by Gracelands… I reckon it’s because their parents had it on constant rotation when they were about 8 and it just sort of stuck.

I agree, but first off I should say that I mentioned the Pink Floyd thing during the first interview for this album cycle, and it was sort of a misquote, obviously our stuff doesn’t sound like Dark Side of the Moon, at all. I actually said... well it’s pretty well known that Dark Side of the Moon is my favourite album of all time, and they asked me if this album was influenced by it, and my answer was something along the lines of ‘Everything I do is influenced by Dark Side of the Moon.’ Because seriously, every time I eat lunch, or write a song, or a take shower, it’s with me. I listened to it so much it’s kinda like my Dr. Seuss or my Sesame Street.

But really, it’s all about the theme. Pink Floyd were just so smart about making an album whole. They would take melodies and themes and sounds and put them in one song, and then use them again in another song in a completely different style, and in that way connect two different songs. It just opens up your mind to really think about the music. It’s all those fine layers that make music interesting to me and that’s what makes me listen to an album a thousand times.

Any time I get a record, I’ll normally listen to it five times and know based on that whether I’m going to keep listening to it for a few weeks, or a few years, or for twenty years. We always want to make records that we’ll listen to for a long time. It’s the one completely selfish thing that we do when we’re writing music and putting out new records - we want to make albums like DSOTM that have that coherent theme, and as a result people often feel like our new stuff is really different from what we’ve made before. But, we want to change. We’re humans, we evolve. It’s what we’ve done and want to continue to do. We want to make stuff that’s catchy and accessible -we’re pop kids and we love pop music - but we’re not trying to please anybody but ourselves, and we’re incredibly hard to please when it comes to our music. We over analyse absolutely everything to a fault every time, but every time we make a record, it’s exactly what we want to hear and make at that time in our lives, and the next time we make a record, it’ll be different.

What was it like working with Danger Mouse? Oh, and actually the first thing I want to know is whether you got to call him Danger, or whether you just called him Brian?

(Laughs) We just call him Brian. We had a lot of jokes about that actually because I didn’t know either. Whenever you’re meeting someone who has a musical alias, like the hip-hop guys and stuff, you think ‘Shit, I know this guy’s real name, so do I call him that?’ Honestly, when it came to Brian, I had to ask that of a friend. I was like ‘I won’t call him Danger Mouse’ because that’s… I’ll just call him dude or man or something until I figure it out’.

The thing is, Brian is like the most conservative, normal-guy name in the world…

I know right! You don’t expect that from a guy who is so talented and just… revolutionary in pop music. He’s actually just a totally normal guy. So down-to-earth and cool and he’s really become a very close friend. I think he will be forever. He has a significant advantage over most producers I think because he’s an artist himself and he’s been in bands and he gets the dynamic of living together and touring together. That changes his approach. Most producers would be talking about what will work best for radio play and stuff, whereas Brian understands that we’re gonna be playing these songs for the next ten years live and is like, ‘You need to make your decision about how to play this song based on that’, while still taking into account all those other things.

He gave us so much insight into our own careers. He was really, really helpful and gave us such a great advice. About everything you know. If I had girl problems I’d call him up and be like ‘Hey man, so there’s this lady – help me out man’, so yeah, he’s great.

Okay, I do have one more question, which is a weird question to finish on, but I want to know what it’s like working with Atlantic as opposed to being on independent labels in the past?

I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t had a big impact, but it’s not what a lot of people would think. A lot of people think that bands who move to major labels will have to change their music, and none of that happens at all. They completely trust us and we respect their opinions because everybody we work with is a collaborator. We want to work with the label and we’re proud as hell to be on that roster. I remember as a kid looking at records that were Atlantic Records and we’re talking Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones – I never would have dreamed that I’d be on the list with those artists. But I guess the difference is that we’re putting even more pressure on ourselves to make better music because we feel like in a way we have the legacy of those artists to uphold. Atlantic have also opened a lot of doors for us that we wouldn’t have been able to. No matter how big we were in our own right or what we’d managed to build ourselves, I’m pretty sure Danger Mouse wouldn’t have answered a phone call from us, but the CEO of Atlantic on the other hand… It definitely helps. They put us in a position where we can do really good things for ourselves.

Thanks for your time!

Thank you, I hope I will get to come down to New Zealand soon.

Do you have any plans to come as a band?

I hope we’ll be able to, but I think even if we don’t make it as a band right away I’d still like to come and visit. We’re coming to Australia soon…

Just throw in a side show!

Yeah that’s what I want to do. I’m from Alaska so I feel a kinship with New Zealand. I really want to go there and John our singer has family over there who came over and watched our shows last time we played in Australia, so yeah. We’ll be over.


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