Portugal.The Man bassist Zach Carothers admits it was “a little weird” growing up in Alaska. He and singer-multi-instrumentalist John Gourley first met there while in high school and started a band.
They’d eventually relocate to Portland and launch Portugal.The Man in 2004. That band has become a significant success. The guys just won a Grammy for their hit single “Feel It Still.” The group comes to Music Hall at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 19.
“Growing up in Alaska seemed totally normal to us at the time,” says Carothers in a recent phone interview. “Looking back on it, we realized it wasn’t normal at all. It’s the most beautiful place to be a child. The wilderness and the vast expanse is mind-blowing. It was isolated and cool. It did have its dark years when we were teenagers. There’s not much to do in terms of culture and entertainment. Drugs and alcohol are really bad. The stories of parties in Alaska are ridiculous. People don’t believe how many times I’ve been shot at. It’s like the Wild West. I’ve seen some bad stuff in my day. We learned a lot from it. Creatively, our work ethic is something I owe to Alaska. If you stop working, you freeze to death.”
The band really hasn’t “stopped working” since issuing its 2006 debut, Waiter: “You Vultures!”
When Carothers and Gourley moved to Portland, they realized they had a shot at becoming full-time musicians.
“I had never taken music seriously [before that],” says Carothers. “I loved playing music with my friends but never thought I’d actually do it. Moving down to Portland, I realized that you could go see bands at the bars and clubs for like 3 bucks. I didn’t know that existed. In Alaska, it didn’t. I didn’t know you could be a band. I thought you needed a tour bus. People have this common misperception that people get into music to make money. It was the opposite for us. We didn’t need to make money. We just made the gas money to take us to the next stop. I realized I could do this for nothing. I had nothing holding me back. We started having fun and never stopped. We were homeless for a long time. We were just on the verge. We always thought that by the next Christmas we could afford an apartment.”
Early on, Carothers says the band took what he calls a “Beatles in Hamburg” approach and tried to play as often as it could and release as an album a year. In 2010, that approach yielded great dividends, and the band signed with Atlantic Records and began to see its popularity increase with each album.
In the wake of the release of 2011’s In the Mountain in the Cloud
, it would hit the festival circuit and perform at Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. For 2013’s Evil Friends
, it took another giant step forward and worked with shit-hot producer Danger Mouse (Black Keys, Jack White, Broken Bells).
“Honestly, we’ve just gotten better,” says Carothers when asked about how the band has evolved. “Looking back at every album, I can specifically see a different thing. It’s like, ‘Oh, John learned to play a major chord’ or ‘On this one, we thought about song structure.’ You can tell each thing going on. When we signed to Atlantic, that’s when we started getting serious. We saw footage from Bonaroo in 2009. They sent us a DVD, and we watched it to see what we did wrong. You watch it like you watch a game when you’re a professional sports team. Then, we signed to Atlantic and jumped in the deep end with producers. That was scary. We got thrown in the deep end and almost drowned. We made it out and since then every time we do a record, we learn something.”
The band had finished an album that would follow up Evil Friends
but found that the songs seemed out of sync with the times because, as Carothers puts it, “shit started changing really fast, politically.”
“We had written it all before the election and before riots and people marching on Washington,” says Carothers. “It just didn’t seem right. It was ten really cool songs, but it didn’t feel right even though we had spent all this time and money. We didn’t want to put it out.”
While visiting Gourley’s father, the band had a revelation when it saw his ticket from the Woodstock concert he attended in 1969.
“We were hanging out with John’s dad in Alaska eating chicken wings and drinking beers,” Carothers recalls. “He threw me an envelope [with the ticket stub in it]. He said, ‘You guys will get a kick out of this.’ We knew that after Woodstock, he and his friends decided to move to nowhere and live off the land. His friend recently cleared out his tool chest and found his original Woodstock ticket and mailed it back to [Gorley's father]. We talked about it and looked up the footage. It was so humbling and inspiring and seeing all that and what it meant and wondering what it had meant to our parents was pretty cool.”
As a result, the band decided to write new material and title the album Woodstock
. A groovy tune that starts with a sparse bass line that then gives way to falsetto vocals and synthesizer flourishes, the first single, “Feel It Still,” has become the band’s biggest hit to date.
“It’s just kind of an accident,” says Carothers when asked about the song. “We were messing around in the studio. John was playing that bass line. Our buddy Asa Taccone from Electric Guest threw a mic on the bass amp and pressed record. He started making a beat on the table. He forced us to make a song. We were working on something completely different. He made us do it. In an hour, we had the song. It was ridiculous. It was the easiest, fastest song we’ve ever written. It’s so frustrating as well because we spent a year banging our heads against the concrete wall trying to figure out a song. This one we accidentally wrote in an hour, and it’s done more for us than any other song.”
The shimmering “Tidal Wave,” another album highlight, features cooing backing vocals and breezy horns as it embraces an old school soul vibe.
“I always thought that the song might be a good single, but it’s more of a summertime thing,” says Carothers. “It has a nice groove to it. It has a nice swag to it that we don’t really do. It’s offbeat and like DJ Shadow or J Dilla style. It was really fun to make. We worked on trying to do something simple. We’ve been trying to simplify things. We are famous for stacking up a million things. When you write a song, you’re never done. We think it’s necessary, but it’s not. We use so much stuff but we stop ourselves to see if someone can someone sing it on an acoustic guitar or piano? If they can, then it’s a good song. I don’t use that for everyone. There are Kanye [West] songs that I love. I don’t know if they’d work as Kanye sitting at a piano, but I generally use that for us. We want to be able to play it by ourselves and see if John’s daughter dances to it. If she does, it’s a good song.”
Carothers says the band doesn’t overthink the live show. Rather, he says the group prefers to take a carefree approach.
“We never know exactly what we’re going to do,” he says, adding that he has extended family in Northeast Ohio and always looks forward to performing in the Cleveland area. “We don’t plan too much. It doesn’t work well for us. We’re like those dipshits who just go out and do things, and it works. If we practice too much, it doesn’t work. Every show is practice for the next show. It has been really fun. It’s always fun to play new material. You go on an album cycle and play the new material a lot, but we’re still not sick of it. We’ve played ‘Feel It Still’ about 5,000 times, and we’re not sick of it. We’ll switch it up and try some new jams and get a little weird. We’re excited for the tour.”
Portugal.The Man, 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18, Music Hall, 500 Lakeside Ave. Tickets: $35 ADV, $55 DOS, agoracleveland.com.