CULTURE:A Conversation with Zach Carothers of Portugal. The Man
The day before their December 5, 2013 show at the Mezzanine in San Francisco, CA, we spoke with Portugal. The Man's Bass player Zach Carothers. Having been a fan of the former Wasilla AK, now Portland, OR based indie rock outfit ever since their Church Mouth release, it was great to check in with Zach and get his thoughts on the bands steady rise and success.
If you don't know Portugal. The Man by now, you probably aren't following rock and roll too closely. After several sold out tours, 7 studio albums, and many high profile performances at festivals such as Coachella, and Bonnaroo this 5 piece rock outfit should definitely be on your radar.
Grain: All right, so let’s just get right into it. How did you guys get hooked up with Danger Mouse?
Zach: It’s sort of a funny story but mostly it was from Craig Kallman, The CEO of Atlantic records. For some reason he’s a great friend to us. He’s a really good guy and as the head of Atlantic Records he definitely does not have to hang out with us, he’s got much more important people that he should be hanging out with. Ever since we signed to that label though, he’s a big rock and roll guy and so he always comes to our shows in New York and takes us out to lunch. He’s an amazing person. He’s been friends with Brian Burton (Danger Mouse), for a long time and I think that’s pretty much how it started.
When we first started talking to him we had just got off the road with The Black Keys who had worked with him forever, they had been friends for a long time. I think both those guys kind of talked Brian into giving us a call and sitting down for a meeting with us.
Grain: Nice, what was the best piece of advice that Brian gave you during the recording process?
Zach: God, I have no idea. He actually gave us so much advice. It was about literally everything. He is incredibly smart. Obviously he is very talented but he’s just a very, very smart guy and it was really helpful too because as far as he is at himself, he’s been in our situation, he’s been exactly where we were before and understands just a lot more than most producers. A lot of people don’t really connect as much with all the different kinds of music in the industry and he really did.
One of my favorite things, I have to say this, the coolest thing … the smartest thing that I saw him do or just my favorite I guess was we were in the studio, we were really trying to figure out a song, we hadn’t quite cracked it yet. It was almost done. It was the song ‘Evil Friends’ and we were all kind of going a little crazy just shooting off ideas. It was getting a little hectic, there was kind of too many cooks in the kitchen. He did a very smart thing, he broke us off into separate rooms. He went up to us one at a time and he just said if the hook was going to be played on your instrument I want you to figure out what it would be. Not saying we should use it but just everybody go and separate the flow and just if the hook was going to be on whatever you play go make it.
What that did on a couple of levels was, it cleared the room so we could just have some space to think, to talk with Bryan about what was going on and then we all also separated and kind of just had a different outlook at our instruments. I play bass it’s definitely not an instrument that I necessarily think of as top line material, hook material but it just got me thinking in that mode. It also just cleared the room so he could figure out what needed to be done and in the end it was already there, we just went with pretty much the guitar board, just the strumming that and everyone was like yeah that’s it. That would be awesome. It was a very, very smart move and I respected a lot.
Grain: Before you did Evil Friends Portugal. The Man was on an album a year pattern are you looking at going back to that or are you thinking more every other year now?
Zach: Definitely, I mean we try to keep up with that but honestly sometimes just scheduling doesn’t work out that’s really the only reason, especially when we got a chance to work with Danger Mouse. He was doing the U2 record, we had tours coming up and basically we couldn’t get ready in time. The album a year thing, it’s kind of a personal quota just something that we’d like to do but we’re not going to rush anything out just because a year has passed. We’re always going to take our time and make sure we’re happy with whatever we’re doing. As far as if scheduling aligns we’re going to write an album a year and, we just don’t know if we could actually get it out.
Grain: Have you guys already started writing the next album now?
Zach: Yeah, we’ve got a couple of ideas. We’ve actually been home for a couple of weeks which is weird and awesome. It’s been a long time since we just got to hang out at home with not a lot of things to do. We’ve got a pretty cool little studio down in our basement, we all live together in Portland and yeah we’ve been making some songs but mostly just ideas and kind of flushing out stuff. Yeah we’ve started for sure.
Grain: Back in the day you guys used to actually wait until you were in the studio to write, you would just book studio time and then write and record the album during that time.
Zach: Yeah. We still do.
Grain: Do you think that that helps or hinders the creativity?
Zach: I think it’s very important and it’s just kind of how we work. I’m a big fan of being spontaneous when it comes to music. It was great working with Brian because he’s like that as well. In fact when we do a take on a song he would only let us do two takes, maybe three and then that’s it. We don’t like getting things super perfect, we like the human error in rock and roll. I think that’s very important, so it’s not perfect music. Classical music is perfect, to the author that’s perfect music but that’s not what rock and roll is about, it’s about all the imperfections.
Even … like I just said we’re at home working on ideas and working on these songs but it’s more of just getting in the mindset. With the odds we’re not going to use any of this stuff. We write songs but then when we go to the studio we write more and then we throw the old ones away. It’s more like exercises. It’s kind of like working out as musicians or something. We take bits of melodies and core progressions and stuff from it but we’re still pretty much on the same page of going to the studio and writing it there.
Grain: It’s like an Emcee in battle mode he has certain verses that he kind of wants to throw out and he just tries to figure out how to work them in?
Zach: Yeah, exactly. It’s a fun game. We do a lot of really weird things. We come up with these ideas, I don’t know if they’re good or bad but it’s funny. We’ll start working on a song and we’ll have a little bit of lyrics, some melodies and then a core progression and maybe a hook or something like that. We were down in the studio down in El Paso one time and we were all in a room kind of playing together live and recording it. We picked this one song we were working on and we decided to do it. We said let’s just kind of play around with the feel to see how we’re doing.
We took this core progression and we were like all right how would Oasis play this song? Then we were like how would Black Sabbath play this song and we kind of play it like that, how would Beck do this song, how would the Beastie Boys do it. Then … and so to play it five different ways and we just kind of stopped after going through all that and we were like all right there goes some of our main influences and we were like all right how would we do this song and how would Portugal, The Man do this song and that’s what we end up doing.
Grain: I had spoken to John shortly after Censored Colors came out and he was saying that his goal for the band was to make a mixture of Wu-Tang and the Beatles.
Zach: Yeah, that was the idea from the very beginning. I don’t know if we totally got there and I really like that. It’s kind of a weird comparison obviously now and we’re probably not going to rap anytime soon. It’s just that idea. What Wu-Tang did when I first heard it I really loved, that’s one of the first groups that really got me into loving hip hop which is a huge influence on us.
It’s more than just the rapping or the beats or anything, I like all the sampling. I love how they represent old soul and Motown. It’s more of a style and a sound. When you hear something off 36 Chambers it’s like you hear all these old sounds and it’s something new but just because of the tone it feels like something from oldies radio that you’ve just grown up with your whole life. You’re listening to a brand new song but for some reason it just feels so familiar and I just really love that idea. Then The Beatles are just pretty much the best band in the world so it seemed like a good goal to shoot for.
Grain: Definitely. What’s your definition of success for the band?
Zach: That’s definitely a tough one. I guess being happy where you are and being in this scene, in the music industry and in life in general there’s a lot of different ways to measure success. I feel we’re successful but I’ve felt that for a long time. There’s all these little milestones that I’ve been saying, we made it since our first tour. The first time the band got in a van and packed the trailer and drove down to California and went on our very first tour ever I was like oh my god, we’re on tour, this is crazy. We made it. The first time we played the Late Night Show, the first time we went to Germany and saw people in another country singing the words to our songs.
Every couple of months if something happens we’re like oh yeah, that’s it, I could die now and be happy but it also never stops because you’re always looking forward to the next thing. I think about that a lot, I always wonder about the giants like The Rolling Stones, I think it’s kind of weird, I can’t imagine when you hit the top what else is there to look forward to. Maybe it’s nothing, maybe it’s just relaxing and kind of just playing music with your friends at that point and hanging out with your family. I wonder about that a lot, maybe being the first band to play on the moon or something like that.
Grain: Always something to look forward to! You guys picked up a new drummer last year in the form of former child actor Kane Ritchotte.
Grain: Had you guys known him beforehand or how did that come to be?
Zach: Yeah, Kane Richotte is actually … he was a good friend of Noah Gersh’s who actually just recently left the band but we had kind of an incident on tour where we lost our drummer. Literally we couldn’t find him in New Orleans and a bunch of other things happened but basically we decided to look for a new drummer for the next tour. It took about a week, we played six shows with no drummer and it was very weird. We all kind of filled in on drums a little bit or played acoustics and then we kept the tour going. We had met Kane once but we just generally knew him, he’s a session guy in LA and just a fucking incredible drummer. Our band kind of needed somebody to get out there fast, we had about 5 days because he was in the studio with somebody and he just kind of came out and found it so we asked him to try it on.
Grain: Were there any pranks when he first came on or a little hazing?
Zach: Yeah, they never really stop. It’s never really an initiation thing. We constantly give each other shit all day every day. It’s kind of what we do and so there’s nothing in particular that we did but I can imagine there still are and will always continue to be a lot of pranks going on.
Grain: All right, one last quick question. I’m going to Portland for a week next year, what are five things that I should do or see while I’m there.
Zach: Man, that’s great. Well I’m at the Doug Fir right now where we played last night so I’d say go see a show at the Doug Fir. It’s my most favorite venue here in town, it’s a really awesome club and bar and restaurant and hotel. You should probably stay here too if you’re not sticking with a friend or something, the Jupiter hotel attached to it. It’s very reasonable and it’s very hip and cool and comforting. I’d say that, I’d say record shopping. There are a lot of them, Jackpot Records is awesome. I would definitely go check out some vinyls while you’re here because it’s a good time for it.
Vintage shopping is great, there’s a lot of good food in town. Particularly I would hit the Tabor Tavern it’s right by our house. Fairly new place but I’ve never had better mac and cheese in my life and they make excellent drinks there. Then speaking of drinks the night life I guess is pretty good. We’ve got very good bars and one of our favorite at the moment is the Nightlife and they have very good food too, good patio. There’s that, I’d say go do that. Then there’s the classics, the Voodoo donuts, Powell’s books, bookstores, there’s a lot of good stuff in here.
Grain: Yeah, I went to Voodoo Donuts last year when I visited so I’ll definitely go back there.
Zach: It’s kind of the staple, everybody that comes here has got to go get one.
Zach: They’re pretty good. I’d suggest going to the east side location. It’s a lot more chilled. There’s a giant line ever since it’s been on TV and stuff, there’s always a crazy line but over at the east side not so bad. Good donuts though.
Grain: Well I’m definitely looking forward to hearing what you guys come out with next and seeing you guys again and thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
Zach: Of course man, thank you.