Q&A: Zach Caruthers of Portugal. the Man
It’s only a matter of time before Portugal. the Man take over the world. The psych-rock outfit from Alaska is one of the hardest working bands today—releasing seven albums in just as many years. The group seamlessly mixes elements of pop, rock, electronica and spray cheese into a distinctive sound that separates and lifts them head and shoulders above every other psychadelic rock group from Alaska. Portugal. the Man will be playing at the Orpheum next Thursday with special guests The Lonely Forest.
The Lumberjack (LJ): You guys are about half way through your Jaegermeister Music tour? How has it been so far?
Zach Caruthers (ZC): It’s been great. We’re working with a new keyboardist (Kyle O’Quin) and drummer which has been interesting. We know all the guys and we’ve been friends for a long time so it is a pretty easy transition. [They’re] doing a great job picking up. Every different player at this level has their own style so it makes things fresh especially when we play older stuff.
LJ: The tour is sponsored by Jaegermeister though. Is it weird to be on tour with a corporate sponsor?
ZC: Well yeah, it is a promotion for Jaegermeister because they’re like the heavy metal liquor and they want to break out into different styles music. It’s pretty cool though — we did a big tour with them in Germany and they treated us really well so we told them we would do an American tour with them as well. People can think what they will about it but having the help is really nice. Touring can be hard. And nothing changes from our music you know we’re still the same band. We have noticed that the crowds are noticeably more rowdy at the Jaeger shows.
LJ: It’s been out for a while now, but In the Mountains, In the Clouds, your past record, is one of my favorites. Still I don’t think it reflects the live Portugal. the Man experience. Do you guys try to capture that on your albums or are they two separate entities?
ZC: In a weird way, recording [In the Mountain, In the Clouds] was a pretty intense situation. None of us were in a good mental state. We weren’t playing or treating each other well. It was a tumultuous period. There was a lot of [expletive] in making that record but it became a far better record because of that.
Andy Wallace [Mixer for In the Mountains, in the Clouds/Producer for Nevermind] made our record what it is. When he was mixing it I learned a lot about listening to an album.
LJ: What do you mean?
ZC: Well we wanted to try to do a visual mix for the album. When we make music we want people to come see us live and when you are at a live show you don’t have a bird’s eye view of the stage, it’s not static. When a drum fill comes in you look at the drummer, you know, there are a lot of level changes — they flow in and out of the whole mix.
LJ: What’s your favorite song from the album?
ZC: “All your light (Times like These).” For me it encompasses everything we’ve done as a band. It starts out with that cool kinda electronic feel then it’s got this rootsy old- southern feel that we had on Church Mouth but it has the songwriting structures of our later work with a crazy freak out jam in the middle.
LJ: That’s funny, I thought that was the strongest song on the album too. How come “So American” was your first single then?
ZC: We tried to push it as a single but no one was biting. They took “So American.” People love that song.
LJ: What’s with the parenthetical song titles? They’re annoying as [expletive] when you’re writing a review out. Care to defend yourself?
ZC: [Laughs] It happens to us every time we write a record. We usually have some [expletive] song titles like the “90s song” or the “pixies song” Then we finish the album and we’re like “oh [expletive] we have to name the songs we can’t call it that.” We usually just use the first one that comes to mind but we kinda like the idea of seeing them as excerpts of songs. Set lists can be confusing some times. I’ll see a song and think, “What song is that?”
I think it’s because of how we write songs. We’ll just sit around listening to music pointing out our favorite part of a song like the bridge Weezer’s “Say it Ain’t So” and we’ll break down the chords and the melody and the strumming or whatever.
LJ: That’s basically what I imagine being a band would be like. Hanging out and digesting music all day. I’ve talked to some musicians that basically just get together and write music though.
ZC: Yeah, definitely. Some people can just do it—they’re just naturally amazing. We are not that band at all. We have to practice to get to that part, and that’s why we get a lot of inspiration from other musicians. Those are things I like to know. I want to know what inspired the people that inspired me.
LJ: What inspired In the Mountains, in the Clouds?
ZC: Well the mountains and cloud meanings is definitely something that we came up with being from Alaska. But a lot of it has shifted to mean more social and political statements. We’ve never really been a political band but obviously we have our thoughts but we keep them to ourselves for the most part.
The real inspiration comes from a tour we did in Germany, I think it we were in Dresden. It was like 3 o’clock in the morning and there was this poor street vendor selling this Turkish food — almost like a hot dog stand. So this guy — who was basically a taco shop guy — stated talking about American politics and he knew so much more than we did. He knew all the candidates and their platforms.
We started thinking about how ignorant we are as Americans. We shield the rest of the world from our minds until we, and no one, even cares to think about it. We just keep thinking we’re badass standing on the mountain but all we see are clouds. It took a turn from where we were originally going. It’s crazy, some ways it’s meaningful and in some ways it’s completely meaningless.