How a mid-level indie-rock band became the crossover stars of 2017.
Portugal. The Man works hard.
Like, really hard. I mean, they create adventurous and catchy music too. But after talking to Portugal. The Man, I get the sense that the quality of their music has a lot to do with work ethic as well.
They credit that work ethic to an upbringing in Alaska, a place where “you work hard, or you die.” The now-Portland-based band has gone through stretches where they’ve put out an album annually, toured 300 days a year, and still found time to make videos, launch creative promo campaigns, and run their own label.
After signing to Atlantic that workload has only increased, along with their success.
And despite all the hard work (or maybe because of it), the band’s biggest song to-date, “Feel It Still,” which hit #1 earlier this year on the Alternative, AAA, Hot AC, and Spotify US Viral charts, arrived almost effortlessly.
I talked to Portugal. The Man’s founding-member, bassist, and backup singer Zach Carothers about the band’s success, work ethic, the creative ways they’ve brought their music into the world, and where their tour is headed…
An interview with Zach Carothers from Portugal. The Man
CR: So you’re going to Mexico next?
ZC: I’m really excited about that. We have a blast in Mexico. It’s pretty much the most fun place. There’s something about it, the crowds down there are just fucking nuts. It’s really amazing. They go bonkers, for sure.
CR: Awesome. And it’s a good time of year to be down there. So I’ll just jump in with some questions: I know you guys have been releasing music for more than a decade and had a lot of success at a certain level, but obviously “Feel It Still” is kind of the monster hit of your career so far. Besides it just being a good song, I guess I’m wondering: why now? What did you do differently to push this one over the top?
ZC: Yeah, it was weird. Honestly, it’s incredibly frustrating because it was far and away the easiest song we’ve ever written. We had it pretty much done in about an hour. We were working on a different song, and John kinda took a break in a side room and picked up a bass and started playing that bass line. And our buddy Asa Taccone from Electric Guest who was working on something else at the time, heard it and threw a mic on the bass amp and said “lemme get that real quick.”
I think what it was is just the fun we started having. Asa started dancing around the room. He’s a theater kid. He’s very animated. And we are not like that in the studio. We are pretty dark and self-loathing, and always talking shit to each other. And he just started kinda dancing and banging on the desk and making a little fake beat for us to write to, and whooping into the mic and pitching it, and said “Ya got any ideas? Lyrics? Let’s come up with some stuff.” So we just started coming up with lyrics, and singing stuff.
And within about an hour we pretty much had the song done. And I think what was different was that it was just the most natural songwriting process. And honestly we didn’t really know what we had either. We basically finished it in that first day, and then we took a couple months to do what we do, which is absolutely overthink everything and try a million different things. But all we really changed in the end was we put a real drum beat on it and kinda changed the bass a little bit. But besides that we kept it the same. And it was funny, we almost changed the chorus right at the last minute, two weeks before we put it out, because we did completely use the Marvelette’s “Please Mr. Postman” line for the chorus. And honestly, we tried it with a bunch of different melodies and just it didn’t seem right. A lot of times we’ll sing somebody else’s lyrics or somebody else’s melody just as a placeholder, when we can’t think of anything, and then we’ll change it later. And he put down the please mr. postman melody and we just couldn’t really hear anything else. We tried a bunch of different stuff, I’m like “Man, it’s clearly just not as good as the ‘Mr. Postman’ melody,” so in the end we just decided to ask the songwriters if we could license it, and it worked out.
That’s cool. So I know leading up to the new record, you’d been working for many years on an album that you ended up throwing out right?
You said about “Feel It Still” that you kinda didn’t know what you had. Do you think that could’ve also been the case with the stuff that didn’t get released?
We had amazing stuff on that record we threw away; it just wasn’t the right time. It wasn’t something that needed to be heard right now. We had written everything. We’d been working with Danger Mouse and Mike D from the Beastie Boys, and we had some of the best lyrics and best songs we’ve ever done, but at that same time, right when we were finishing up… I don’t know if you read the news but… shit started going a little crazy with American politics.
A certain someone got elected?
Yeah, yeah. And we were finishing up that record before he got elected and it was turning that way. And yeah, then he got elected, and we couldn’t just put out an album that said literally nothing about that. It was all cool stuff we had, but it had nothing to do with anything that was going on in a world that was drastically changing. And so it was kinda freaking us out; we’d just spent all this time and all this money on music that we thought was amazing but we took too long and the world didn’t stop turning. The world had changed before we could finish our album. So we decided to scrap it and just redo the whole thing.
I understand completely. It feels like THE important thing you can do as an artist. I think “People Say” was probably the first song of yours I heard. I don’t know if you consider that a political song, but it’s definitely a socially useful song, so it’s cool to know you sort of returned to that well.
Oh, for sure. And it’s funny because both of those ideas — for us to go back in and re-record was all John’s dad’s idea pretty much; or not his idea, but he was the guy who inspired us to do it — and then it’s funny: “People Say” was actually his idea too.
We were hanging out in Alaska a long time ago and we were watching a Pete Seeger documentary or something like that, and we were over just hanging out at John’s dad’s house. Me and his family were always super tight; everybody’s always hanging out together. And yeah, he just looked over while watching this and said “Ya know, I haven’t heard a good protest song in quite a while. You guys should write a protest song.”
And we were like ‘fuck yeah.’
And we always do protest songs a lot more mellow. I grew up on Rage Against the Machine, and we can’t do that, but we definitely have to throw in our two cents on a smaller level. We’ve gotta say something.
And John’s dad,… that was the whole reason we called the new album Woodstock. It was him asking us what was taking so long with the album and then he’d just recently found his original ticket stub to Woodstock, and there was something about holding that and hearing all those stories. I knew he’d been to Woodstock; I’d heard those stories before, but it just kinda hit us harder and seeing all the similarities with what’s happening today — we live in Portland, where there’s protests every other day — and ya know, seeing all the signs in the street and people coming together it’s just really made us sit down, pick up our instruments, get back into the studio, and get to it.
So I probably wouldn’t ask you this if you were from any other state, but I know a lot of people from Alaska who have that place imprinted on them, so is there a way that growing up there has informed your sensibilities, either as a songwriter or creatively, or just how you go about being in a band?
Oh, absolutely. One, it definitely instills a very serious work ethic in us. You work hard in Alaska, or you die. You freeze to death if you don’t.
And we grew up building houses, washing dishes, working at warehouses. We grew up working, and so I think we took that kind of theory into music. And so for years before we signed to Atlantic, we were pumping out an album a year and playing 300 shows a year. And I think it was just out of necessity, but that was our practice. Instead of going to school we were writing music and trying to get better until we thought that we were ready to sign to a major label and do things at that level.
We weren’t ready when we first signed, honestly. Our first Atlantic album we got thrown in with big producers and a big studio and we got thrown in the deep end and we started drowning for a while. It was not a good experience. But we finally made it through. We came out of there and every album we’ve learned more about ourselves, ya know?
Alaska, it’s a place where you really kinda have to know yourself. There’s not a lot of outside influence, which made us very hungry to get out and see the world. But it also gave us enough space and time to figure out what we wanted to do.
So when you say that you felt like you were drowning when you first signed to Atlantic, was it pressure, or just a ‘fish out of water’ feeling?
A little bit of both. And honestly Atlantic was always cool. We put the pressure on ourselves. We always do. It’s always us. We still do. We thrive in that kind of thing and we do it to ourselves. We basically do things wrong, but we do things in OUR way. They sent us in with producers who wanted to hear demos and to write songs before we came in, we don’t really do that; we normally go into the studio and write, and we had never done it with other people. It ended up being fine; it just took a little bit of getting used to.
And we weren’t in a good place mentally as far as the band went. It was dark days. The darkest days as far as us not getting along. People really going crazy. Very, very mentally unhealthy. So it was a combination of a million things going on. And the fact that we made it through that really made us stronger.
That’s what the whole next album was about; Evil Friends was pretty much about that terrible time, a terrible time between me and John mostly. But we got out of it. It’s crazy. There were a lot of things going on that are hard to explain to some people; it’s like the relationship with bandmates, I’d say it’s like a marriage but there are five of you, and a crew, and everybody’s children depend on you, and the manager’s children, and even in a marriage you go to work different places for ten hours a day.
And you don’t get the break…
Yeah, breakfast, lunch, dinner, it’s just on… forever. It’s like being brothers who are business partners AND married all at the same time. And it’s fucking wild. Some days are really good days and some days are really bad days. But a lot of people ask, of all the things we’ve got to do, what is the most amazing thing, your biggest accomplishment, and my answer is: “I can’t believe we’ve stayed together.” That has been the biggest accomplishment, it’s been the hardest thing, and it’s been nuts, but that’s unbelievable.
Do you feel like being at the center of this team of people — the crew, booking agency, publicists— do you feel like managing all the moving parts comes naturally?
It’s all worked out. We did a lot of the stuff ourselves in the beginning, and then once we got more help we took a little while to let go, but honestly we have the best crew in the world now; we’ve got the best manager, the best booking agent, the best lawyer, the best label, our road crew is insane. It’s all one big highly dysfunctional family.
But everybody’s got there thing, strengths and weaknesses, and we just try to figure out what those are and look around and when somebody has traits that aren’t good in some way, somebody else steps in that has stronger ways of dealing with that, and vice versa. Collectively, between all these people involved, we make one okay guy that does pretty good stuff. Which is essentially the whole idea behind “Portugal. The Man” anyway — an alter-ego for one person, and all of our parts equal that guy that goes out and does good things.
Yeah, it’s like a collective individual…
Yeah, Voltron, ya know?
So one thing that’s always impressed me about your band is that rather than just saying “hey, we’ve got a new song; we’re gonna put it out,” there’s always some special hook. You’ve got the interactive video with the social prompts, and the Wieden+Kennedy pop-up thing, so I’m wondering how hands-on are you guys with those things? And what’s it like coming up with ideas for your campaigns and then having other agencies execute on them?
OH, we’re very involved with that kind of stuff. That’s always been extremely interesting to us. We’ve always loved the marketing side of music, and just business in general, but we have fun with that.
There’s always so much more that you can do than just a song, or just a video that goes with the song, and so we’re always coming up with ideas. And that’s how we started working with Wieden+Kennedy in the beginning, We’ve been friends with those guys for years, and they are just the smartest, funniest people we know, so that’s what we do; we go and have dinner and drinks with those guys and pretty much just brainstorm ideas, and sometimes it’s for our band and sometimes we just end up making fake business models and laughing. That’s just how we entertain ourselves.
And then it was crazy, we had an album coming out and we were having one of those nights, and then one of our buddies at Wieden+Kennedy said “hey, we’re a creative agency. We don’t do things normally.”
They’re always being very creative, helping businesses get out of the mindset that things have to look a certain way. And to spike creativity the boss lets them have a budget to just work on some fun projects. And we’re friends and we had an album coming out and we’re like “hey, want to make some music videos and come up with some ideas and actually work together instead of just sitting around talking shit like we usually do?”
So hell yeah, we got to make a few videos with them. And “Feel It Still” was the first one, and it was awesome. We kinda came up with the idea and they figured things out. They’re incredibly smart people, and we trust them.
So to change gears here, I’m wondering, if you could put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s just getting out there on the road for the first time, do you feel like in the world of digital distribution and YouTube and analytics and all this stuff that there’s still value in getting in the van and playing a bunch of shitty gigs in small towns?
Oh yeah. That’s how you get good, man. That’s how you prove it. In this day and age, you can write amazing songs in your bedroom with a computer. You don’t even have to be a musician, there’s some programs that pretty much make it like a video game. I mean, I don’t really trash those artists either, like some of the DJs, a lot of musicians say “Oh, that’s not real,” it’s a different thing, but some of those DJs are unbelievably talented: you have to have good taste, and you can tell the music is inside them; you just let it out through our fingers differently I think.
And we’re definitely more old school. Ya know, we still show up to festivals being one of the few bands that doesn’t have a laptop somewhere on stage running tracks. Nah, nah, we’re 47 inputs of weird analog synths. That’s just how we prefer to do it, and I think that’s the reason we’ve gotten so far. People can write a good song in their bedroom, but you’ve gotta go out on tour and prove that you can play it, and that makes it a whole other thing. And if you can do both, that’s where the magic really happens.
And also, as I said earlier, we’re just hungry to see the world. And if that’s how you do things now, sure you can get big off a YouTube video, and I know people that have had #1 songs that were made in living rooms, but you gotta get out there and prove it if you want it to last.
Prove it to yourself, or to the audience, or…
Yeah, to yourself and everybody else. I mean, live music is never gonna go away. There’s so many things now: you can watch concert footage from all over the world with bands that aren’t even alive anymore. But people want to go feel it; they need the giant speakers; they need that bass pulsing through their bodies. They need sweat. They need beer. They need to get out and let loose.
Now more than ever?
I definitely think now more than ever.
Thanks to Zach for making time to talk. If you’d like to check out Portugal. The Man’s music, visit their website.
[Photo by Maclay Heriot.]