From the cold and beautiful Alaska, Zachary Carothers spoke with AARON BRYANS about the growth of psychedelic pop band Portugal. The Man ahead of their trip down under for Big Day Out 2014.
It was May 2004 when John Gourley and Zachary Carothers were faced with the difficult decision of moving on from their previous band Anatomy Of A Ghost and beginning a new path in their musical careers.
The decision would change their life forever. Joining forces with Wesley Hubbard, Nick Klein and Harvey Tubleson, the quintet formed Portugal. The Man.
“Portugal is an alter ego that we created, [similar to] how David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust. But we weren’t just one guy; we were a group of people. We figured a country is one name for one group of people with one voice in the world and we randomly thought Portugal would be a cool name for our guy.”
Described as a mixture of rock’n’roll and punk rock, with a very deep hip hop and classical influence, John and Zachary had ambitions from the very beginning.
“I don’t think we’ve got there yet, but when John and I first started the band, we wanted to make something that sounded like a mix between The Beatles and Wu-Tang Clan, and I don’t think we’ve got there yet but that was the basic idea from the beginning.”
After a few demos and a tour in the United States, Portugal. The Man was signed to Fearless Records, releasing their first LP Waiter: “You Vultures!” in early 2006.
“I’m very proud of that record… It was pretty crazy when we were going in to do it. Obviously our old band had just broken up and our label at the time was very pissed off at us for breaking contracts early. Luckily, our lawyer worked it out so we could go in and make another record and make up for our last contract. We did not know what we were doing at all. We went in and we pretty much did everything backwards and everything wrong about that record. In the long term we learned a lot and we made one of our best friends, Casey Bates, who recorded our first two records. He is one of our best friends in the world. I’m very proud of that and we’ve come along way since then.”
The album was a hit, and now eight years later, the band have released eight full-length albums and five EPs, so its fair to say picking a favourite song overall was no easy task.
“If I had to pick a song overall, I’d pick All Your Life off, In The Mountain And The Cloud. Just because I think it really encompasses everything we’ve done as a band. It’s got a hip-hoppy feel which is stuff we did from earlier releases like Waiter: “You Vultures!”; it’s got soulful, bluesy, gang vocals like we did on Church Mouth; dark song writing like we did on Censored Colors, and its got a jam in the middle of it, a really crazy fast bridge. We’d jammed really fast and heavy stuff live but we’ve never put it on a record before. If I had to tell somebody to listen to one song who’d never heard us before I’d probably say that one ’cause that’s what our shows sound like.”
Of all eight albums, none has received as much attention as Portugal. The Man’s most recent release Evil Friends, which has generated numerous covers by bands such as Passion Pit and Bear Mountain. The album was produced by Danger Mouse who is well known for his work on Gnarles Barkley’s St. Elsewhere, Gorillaz’s Demon Days and The Black Keys’ Attack And Release.
“He had a huge impact. Honestly we started from scratch going in with him, and wrote all of the songs together except for two. We’ve been fans of that guy for so long, and we really wanted to write songs with him; a lot of artists are scared of that these days… We want to collaborate; we want to make music with people. We think that one of the funniest things about music is reaching out to other people and working with a lot of people. He brought a lot of very interesting styles and tastes that we had never used before. We learnt a lot about the music industry and we learnt a lot about ourselves as people.”
The production of Evil Friends was not an easy one. With a tight schedule and numerous tracks to record, the band pushed on overcoming a huge obstacle on the last day.
“The song Holy Roller (Hallelujah) from Evil Friends… we literally finished that song the very last day of recording. It was one of the first songs that we started, but it just didn’t have that thing. It wasn’t done and we were going to scrap it from the record; but I loved it so much… I knew it had potential and wanted to see it through. It got to the point where two days before we finished recording it was scratched from the record, it wasn’t going to make it. It was during the very last day we were in the studio, we were talking and I said ‘let’s just give a go at Holy Roller again and lets see if we can come up with something’. We pretty much knocked out that song in a day. We stayed up ’til about four or five in the morning on the last day of recording and got it done and it made the record by the skin of its teeth. I love the song, the concept, the bass line and everything about it, the whole groove. But mainly because I’m very proud of all my boys, the engineers and the producers… it was a testament to good solid work and a healthy studio environment.”
It was mid-last year that Portugal. The Man set foot on Australian soil for Splendour In The Grass 2013, a festival which would form an incredible moment in Carothers life, and add to his love of the life down under.
“We grew up hiking and camping and fishing all our lives. When I go down to Australia I’m fascinated. You guys have animals and plant life, we don’t have anything that comes close to resembling it where I’m from and that fascinates me. It’s so different, there’s crazy marsupials… I look up and the sky is even different. It’s exciting and new. Splendour In The Grass was so much fun… it was more of an earthy, hippie deal. A lot of mud, a lot of dirty people. I like that kind of shit. That music makes me think of Woodstock. We always have a good time in Australia, everybody we meet is amazing, the people are so nice and beautiful, its really cool down there. And we got the nicest hotel we’d ever stayed in. This one was out in the middle of a rainforest; we were half a mile away from a beach. It was amazing to go back after playing that festival to that room. I brought some friends with me, but before they got there I just laid down on the bed and couldn’t believe it. I was in this beautiful room, in this beautiful forest, right next to the beach and I’m like ‘this is my job, I came here to work’. It was a really surreal moment… it was unbelievable, I never thought we’d be able to do this, I felt very lucky.”
The Alaskan quintet are coming back down under for Big Day Out 2014 in late January/early February and it’s going to be an unpredictable experience.
“We don’t like to plan so much, we like the element of surprise, we like being spontaneous. We’ve never been to Big Day Out, so we get there, we’ll soak in the mood and the vibe and then decide from there… When it comes to the covers, a lot of it we figure out five or 10 minutes before we get onstage, it feels more real. It’s weird, we change the keys to songs to make them blend into songs better, we change a lot of things last minute… there’s something about doing it live for the first time, there’s a connection on stage between us and it projects onto the audience very well… the energy that comes off us onstage, that’s what people will notice.”
Portugal. The Man play Big Day Out 2014.
Get your tickets here.