Portugal. The Man is gracing Ram’s Head Live tomorrow with their quizzically compelling presence. What better way to emotionally prepare for that experience than to chat with one of the guys? Bassist Zach Carothers rang me Monday afternoon to enlighten me on the current state of all things P.TM.
The band is based in Portland but hails from tiny Wasilla, Alaska. The unique tales of growing up in such a remote town are discreetly woven into some P.TM songs, but they create the complete narrative for their fourth album The Satanic Satanist. This was the album that pulled me in. I had listened to earlier tracks, and following the consensus of many fans I hastily filed them away as experimental and generally weird (in the coolest way possible). I wasn’t in any rush to go buy their records; I was content with only “AKA M80 The Wolf” and “Church Mouth” on my iPod. A couple of years later, Portugal. The Man had evolved and matured, and so had I. Satanic Satirist flipped the switch and reignited my passion for intricate music with empathetic lyrics. I listened to it on repeat for weeks and resided dazed in my own world. I’ve been smitten ever since. Their 2011 release In the Mountain in the Cloud kept that flame ablaze, with accompaniments by mixed-media art by frontman/songwriter John Gourley and breathtaking music videos.
So, here comes Zach, entertaining my prolonged curiosity and questions that have been rattling around my head for years.
We begin by discussing the perceived weirdness of the band. I ask if anything weird has happened on the current tour.
“Not anything too weird. I will say that the crowds are pretty rowdy and fun. We’re doing the Jagermeister tour, so that kind of adds to the energy- some extra party in the room. It’s been pretty fun for us actually. It’s good to see that. It’s been a really good time and we’re hitting a bunch of cities we haven’t hit in a long time.”
It’s been cool to follow the tour on twitter. I guess social networking has become a big part of what you guys do, especially since Lollapalooza.
“It was even before that. We’ve always taken that stuff pretty seriously. It’s fun for us in a lot of ways. It’s just a really good way to connect with your fans and people who want information on you without pushing it on them. If you want to know what we’re doing, we’ll keep you updated on pretty much every little thing we’re doing. I enjoy taking pictures, John really likes writing blogs. It’s a fun thing to do.”
“But at Lollapalooza, it really saved our ass. It really came in handy. We’re really happy with the outcome because we have most of our gear back. It was pretty much through people reblogging, reposting, and news stations picking up our article. We got really lucky with that one.”
Is there anything you weren’t able to recover?
“We lost all of our guitars, and our basses and keyboards. We didn’t get those back. My mom got me my bass. It was my baby. It was a 1981 Precision special, exactly as old as I am, so that was a bummer. John lost a guitar that his dad bought for him. All the real personal stuff, we lost that. We’re still definitely more than happy that we got as much back as we did. A ton of companies were really cool and gave us a bunch of equipment for free and tried to help us out after that. Fender and Gretsch gave us a lot of stuff, as well as Audix Microphones. A lot of companies were really cool to us in that way.”
If you’re curious, here’s the master list of stolen gear.
“The night it happened in Chicago was crazy. We were planning on driving home and we didn’t have a van to drive home in. I mean, we were pretty bummed out, we just lost everything we had. We got a call from Hard Rock Hotel who told us, “Hey, we’ll give you guys free rooms. You can each have your own room.” And we came up and there were notes from the manager and cold beer waiting for us in each room. And a bunch of bars and restaurants all over the city were like, “Hey, we heard what happened and we’re sorry, come over and eat with us and have a drink with us; come open up a tab.” The whole city of Chicago was so cool.”
So was there a “comfort record” for you? Something you’d turn to at a time like that?
“I think it’s different. I always reach back pretty far. Generally I’d listen to the albums that I grew up with for a lot of reasons, just because I love them and I know them so well. They remind me of simpler times. A lot of Crosby, Stills and Nash. A lot of Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Beatles. But I feel like with bands like that, I could listen to them in any mood because there’s so much going on and so much material, and I can blend that into how I’m feeling. And I think that’s important. It’s one of my favorite things about music.”
“A lot of times, I feel I’m really lucky to have a lyricist like John. I’m a big fan of slightly vague lyrics. Not a lot of straightforward sayings. And his- you can adapt them to anything in your life and get your own meaning out of them. Like Nirvana. His lyrics are so good to me, and I don’t even want to know what he means. I feel like that is for him, and I’m getting my own meaning out of what Kurt Cobain is saying. If I had the chance to ask him, I wouldn’t even ask him what his songs are about. I know what they mean to me, he knows what they mean to him, and I like to keep it that way.”
You make experiences out of each song, but you really make a tremendous experience out of each show. What’s the story behind the glowing orbs in the new stage set up?
“We actually added to those “glowing orbs” for this tour. Basically, John came up with a concept for what he wanted, and talking with our lights designer kind of morphed it into this. It wasn’t always this. We figured it’d be more versatile for any venue. That was the idea- we wanted to do a lot of production. We’ve always been big on lights, we always bring our own, starting with flood lights and lasers. We want to do bigger and better things, but we really wanted to step it up and have something really original, something we’d never seen before. The problem is, it depends on where we are on tour. We play a lot of small places and we play a lot of big places. It all depends on the city. Sometimes it’s a huge venue with a giant stage and sometimes it’s a tiny bar in a college town.”
“We’re from a tiny little town, so we definitely make it important to play all those towns that a lot of bands don’t go to. It’s very important to us since we didn’t have a lot of music come up to us. We wanna take that back. That’s how the idea for these lights came up- we can spread them out in a larger venue or keep them concentrated. It looks even crazier in a small venue. Muse has a crazy light shows at every show they play, but they couldn’t do that in a 500 person bar. We wouldn’t be able to fit that. We didn’t like the fact that if we got a big lighting rig, we couldn’t do it in a small town show. We’re really happy with how it came out.”
The band makes a point of making awesome art, from sets to vinyl to the drawings John posts on instagram. Where do you draw inspiration from for all these side projects and how does it tie into the music?
“It’s all connected. We’ve always been into any medium of art- painting, film, photography, drawings- they help you get your point across. Well, maybe not your point, but images you want to put in people’s heads. It always bums me out when other bands or artists don’t take artwork seriously. We’re lucky to have someone in the band that’s very good at it. It bums me out to see bigger artists who write really good songs and have the means- like, Justin Timberlake. I like Justin Timberlake a lot. And that last record that he made. And I know that he has a pretty intense art budget from his label. He could pretty much do whatever he wanted. But then he has snapshots of him breaking a disco ball. I see that and I think, “Come on, this could have been so cool!”
We joke about the Saturday Night Live team lending their creative efforts to this cause.
“Yeah, exactly! JT, come on man, break it out! It bums me out, so we take all that very seriously. We do that in music videos, album artwork, photos– all aspects are very important to us. It’s just more. It’s as simple as that. We’re gonna try to do whatever we can do.”
And it’s interesting for us to see that art and influence live juxtaposed with your musical influences when you guys play covers. How do you decide which covers to break out live?
“We kind of have a list of about fifty covers floating around in our heads forever. Every tour we do something different. Sometimes it’ll almost be a joke on a certain song that inspired our track, and we’re going for that so we throw it in. We never really do full covers. We kind of thrown in a piece of what inspired us to make that song. We always bend our song a little bit and bend their song to blend them together. It’s fun to do that, and they end up sounding incredibly similar but we kind of do that on purpose to shout out where draw our inspiration from. We just add the song in the middle of the song, we start jamming out our progression to the song hang different things over it to make it ours. Like, Elton John might sound really good over this part, or John Lennon, or whoever. It’s kind of fun to throw in a couple songs, kind of a shout out.”
This definitely goes beyond a standard cover. The first time I saw them in 2010, Portugal. The Man shifted into a cover “Moonage Daydream” that stole my heart.
So obviously you have a lot of classic rock influence, and a lot of people like to say that your songs have become less weird, or more structured. How do you feel about that?
“I think it’s true, but I don’t think people necessarily know what they’re talking about. The problem is when we first started writing music we didn’t really know what we were doing. Honestly, we’ve just gotten a lot better at writing songs. We’re always kind of trying to do this, but not know how. People called us prog or experimental. We’d get into one time signature and then jump really quickly into another time signature because we didn’t know how to make it flow correctly, or make things transition with any continuity at all. It was just part, part, part, and that made it pretty weird.”
“So we got better at that, making things flow a little better, and it does sound more “normal,” but we’re just getting better at songwriting. And we always want to keep it weird, but we want to make popular songs that have substance and depth and have artistic integrity. When I hear a good song that’s just timeless and good, I mean- listen to Bowie. He writes pop songs and they’re weird as fuck. That stuff is awesome! And they stand the test of time. People listened to them thirty years ago, they’re going to listen to them in the future, and that’s cool. Bowie is cool. He will never do anything wrong.”
And P.TM does a great job making that Bowie brand of cool something tangible. We agree that Bowie is most likely immortal, but some other influences need to be discussed.
I’ve heard a lot about more of a punk influence in the upcoming album. What does that entail?
“When we talk about punk rock, it’s more of a state of mind, a thrashier sound. I listened to a lot of punk- we all did growing up. It’s more of an idea. We want it to be a little more aggressive, a little more thrashy, a little more rock and roll, and have that thought process without being obviously or outwardly punk. It’s where we came from, with stuff like Nirvana. I think Nirvana is fucking punk rock, not even as a genre of a music, but what they did, and what they led, the music that followed– very punk rock.”
Lastly, can you tell me a bit about the Wasilla Skate Park Committee vs. Sarah Palin? (This was a huge deal in Wasilla that transpired when Zach was still in high school.)
“Sarah Palin was our town’s mayor while I was growing up in Alaska. There’s not a lot of pavement in Wasilla, and businesses would get pissed whenever we’d skateboard there. So we went to the city asking them for the money to build a skate park. Not really asking them for money, but that we’d raise the money, and we worked out a deal that took me a year- She [Palin] said that if we raised a certain amount of money, she’d double it and we could build a skate part. So my crappy high school band played a bunch of benefit shows. We did a ton of car washes, bake sales, raffles, and we raised our goal amount. Then she says that it’s not in the budget anymore. And that threw us back. What do we do with $42,000 thousand dollars? We can’t just give a dollar back to every person who bought a cookie from us at the mall. We had to argue with her again for another year and a half at city hall meetings, and finally, they ended up building it. It was fun; we all had input on what we wanted. Now it’s the most used public park in Wasilla for sure. It’s pretty awesome”
Wasilla Skate Park is still around. Hopefully Zach is now on everyone’s “coolest people I have yet to meet” list. I’m officially waiting for this new album on the edge of my seat. And I’m still trying to understand how this show isn’t sold out. If you’re still on the fence, enjoy the gorgeous thirteen-minute video for “Sleep Forever”/“Got It All” to prepare yourself for Thursday’s sensory overload.