Do It With Grace: An Interview with Portugal. The Man

Do It With Grace: An Interview with Portugal. The Man

Since 2006, Portugal. The Man has been making fearlessly evolving rock and roll. Each of their eight studio albums have shown passion, experimentation, and growth in equal measure. The four year gap between 2013’s Evil Friends and 2017’s breakout, Woodstock saw the band record a massive amount of material before scrapping an album they had dubbed Gloomin + Doomin. In the end, their choice to start over led them to the Grammy award-winning single, “Feel It Still” and a new level of notoriety in the music industry and among listeners around the world.

My introduction to the band came in 2006, due to our hometown connection. I was shocked to find a truly great band could come from Wasilla, Alaska, a place where it used to be easy to be from because no one had heard of it. Then the 2008 election happened and ever since, uttering the town’s name has come with a lot of baggage. I’m hopeful that P.TM can change that. The band now calls Portland, Oregon home, but they remain strongly connected to their Alaskan roots.

I sat down with bassist, Zach Carothers and guitarist, Eric Howk on a sunny southern Oregon afternoon at the end of August on a day where our air was finally clearing of wildfire smoke. My digital voice recorder had died a silent death and so I was using my phone to record the conversation and Zach seemed pretty chill with me making up answers for him in the event that the recording didn’t work, but I’m pleased to say that it worked perfectly. Other than when a leaf blower drowned Eric out for a few minutes.

[This interview has been edited for length and leaf blower interruption. An expanded version of the interview will run in the annual print edition of BULL.]


Ryan W. Bradley: With writers we talk a lot about how place affects their work and you guys are so connected to place, not only Alaska, but Portland. How have those two places, living in Alaska and Portland and immersing yourself in them both impacted the songwriting and how the band has developed?


Zach Carothers: I think it’s pretty much everything, honestly. It’s where we grew up. And it’s also leaving it. I mean, Alaska is beautiful and there’s no place like it in the world, but it’s very isolated. There’s no outside culture, or there’s very, very little outside culture. And so there’s a lot of space to kind of get to know yourself and a lot of time on your hands. We moved to Portland, which was just a giant Mecca of music and arts and film and, and in all sorts of mediums.

We were hungry. I was at a show every night or some kind of art gallery or seeing some movie. We were broke as hell, but that didn’t matter. And then we went out on tour and just saw the world and it was all about just being broke and seeing what we could see. And then we would take that back to wherever we were, and put that into context of where we were at. And that’s how we would write music and record it.


Eric Howk: Growing up during long winters twelve miles outside of a town of 1,200 people, I got pretty good at my instrument, but I didn’t know what to do with it up there. I was trying to figure out schemes to make music into some kind of living. I moved to Seattle pretty much right after high school. I was eighteen and had a hundred bucks and a bass and a backpack. I didn’t know what I was going to do, I just knew I had it in my head, at least like growing up watching Hype!, the Sub Pop documentary, and having this idea that Seattle’s three blocks by three blocks and everyone’s in a garage band, which isn’t terribly far off since I was going there at the end of the 90s. But, kind of to Zach’s point, $5 shows don’t really happen where we’re from and they happen every night. And you’re spoiled for choice in a city. So, it’s the same kind of deal.


RWB: You’re talking about not having the same access to culture and one of the things that fascinates me about you guys is that you have a lot of integration of visual art, from the videos—especially with “Sleep Forever”—and John’s art, these things are a big part of your identity.


ZC: It all came from two very specific places: Toy Machine skateboards and Ed Templeton, all the art side, and then Knik Kountry Video. They had the craziest fucking selection of movies. Super artsy, super fucked up cartoons. Like you’re in the cartoon section and you’re getting Fantastic Planet, Fire and Ice. I mean, it’s long winters, after the sun went down there wasn’t a lot to do. You kind of stayed inside and you’d watch TV, read, you play guitar, listen to music. So, yeah, Knik Kountry Video and Ed Templeton are pretty much the reason.


EH: Knik Kountry Video, man. The Peanut Butter Solution. Some weird Canadian cryptic shit.


RWB: A lot of bands work to what you’re talking about, of getting to that point of “we can do whatever we like” over their career. Talking about the Beatles, it took them their entire career to get to that point of “screw this, we want to do what we want to do.” You guys have always done that.


ZC: Yeah, we did a little backwards. Now we’re going pop, but it’s not that we’re trying to or anything or that we’re trying to sell out or make money. We were always trying to write good songs. We just didn’t fucking know how. People thought we were just a crazy experimental band, that’s what’s so funny about it. We didn’t know how to write a smooth transition, we didn’t know how to properly tell a story. There’s people who can tell an amazing story and there’s other people that are bouncing all over the place like True Detective season two. We just didn’t know what we were doing, so that’s what happened. We’ve just been trying to get better every time.


RWB: People are perceiving that you’ve gone more pop and maybe it’s the perspective of having watched the growth of each albumand sure, “Feel It Still” is real hookybut if you listen to Woodstock all the way through it moves in a way other albums don’t. Maybe part of that is the influence of hip hop.


ZC: Rap rock kind of did a bad thing. When it first started and I saw Aerosmith and Run DMC I was like, oh shit! and then the Judgment Night soundtrack came out I was like, oh shit! and then I was all, oh… shit…


RWB: It turned into Kid Rock.


ZC: Yeah.


RWB: Listening to Woodstock there’s still a lot of experimentation happening. There’s still a lot of playing. You’re not Weezer, writing notebooks full of analyzing how hits are made. You’re still feeling music and doing it your way.


ZC: It’s a weird thing. We were just learning more, we were just trying to write better songs. You try to trim the fat. A lot of people that write eight minute rock and roll epics are like, Oh man, I could write a three minute pop song no problem. No you can’t. It’s so much harder. Try taking the craziest stories or the most beautiful story of your life and telling it in two minutes and thirty seconds. That’s hard. And to do it with grace and heart, that’s what we strive for. That’s why I love Motown. That’s why I love “Ain’t No Sunshine,” man. It’s just over two minutes and it’s one progression, and it takes me so many places, makes me feel so many things. It’s simplicity.


EH: My takeaway as a new guy, with a little bit of an outsider perspective, I’ve always noticed that with records before Woodstock, there’s been thematic elements. They’ve always been self-referential, whether it’s a lyric or a theme or a hook that comes back, like “Plastic Soldiers.” What they’ve done with Woodstock has been referencing other peoples’ art. The interpolation of The Marvelettes or the Richie Havens thing. It’s taking that same approach, but bringing outside influence to it. I think it just makes it more interesting at the end of the day.


RWB: Not only does the album wear its influences, you guys also openly embrace crediting those influences. It’s not, oh, we’re being original, its, we’re building on something we love.


EH: Couldn’t have said it any better myself.


ZC: Yeah, for sure. That’s very important to us. We’re not all original. We listen to music every day. And it’s all out there. There’s only twelve notes, man. It’s all out there in the ether. You just gotta put it together in a different combination.


EH: We met and started playing music together, just learning as many covers as we could.


RWB: That’s what art is about, right? Art comes from other art.


ZC: Art should make you want to do one of two things: quit or get better. And that’s how I feel every day.


RWB: Lately you’ve had native groups opening for you. You’ve really embraced representation and acknowledging cultural heritage everywhere you go.


ZC: It started off in Alaska. We were talking about there not being a lot of outside culture. The only little bit that we did have was Native Alaskan art and culture and I was fascinated by that. And John grew up really close to the small mushing communities, so he was really in that and I was next to it, but it kind of took us traveling around the world and seeing it’s just fucked up. You have no idea. In textbooks it’s Christopher Columbus and Cortez.


EH: I didn’t learn about Pol Pot and Cambodia until the Dead Kennedys. It wasn’t in our history books.


ZC: Absolutely. None of that shit is. It’s fucked up how deep you gotta dig to find out about that stuff. So, it’s been really amazing to learn on this tour. We went to Australia and found out the story is exactly the same. Like this cookie cutter recipe for colonization. So everywhere we’re going on this tour we’ve had some some people with some kind of notoriety, whether it’s chiefs, chairmen, and presidents of local tribes come out. We’ve been able to talk to them and learn from them. We’ve got a lot of people and a microphone. There’s been a whole learning experience for us with the crowd as well. And we’re just basically acknowledging, remembering, and respecting, you know, the land that that we’re on is theirs. They got fucked over and we can’t change that, but we can still learn and we can still just acknowledge that.


RWB: You’re also addressing mental health issues on this tour, which is a very personal topic for me. I know that what you guys do comes with a toll, but having listened to the music, I feel that in some way it’s been an inspiration along the way as well. Some of the songs feel like they’ve been very affected by mental health issues. Maybe not your own, but those you’ve seen around you, maybe both.


ZC: Yeah, both. I mean, for sure. What’s crazy about it, as you know, is it’s like disease, it doesn’t just prey upon poor or minorities. And the problem is so many people have felt like it’s been shameful to talk about. I mean, you know, Alaskans, like unless you have a fucking bone sticking out of your arm, you don’t really go to the doctor. You don’t talk about your feelings. If I try to talk about my feelings to my dad, my dad’s amazing and super supportive, but he’d just be like, talk to your mom.


EH: Rub some dirt in it and walk it off.


ZC: Yeah, walk it off champ. Everybody’s coming from something. You’re never going to know their story. I look at people like Robin Williams who brought that much joy to the entire fucking world. Nobody is safe from it. And we’re not healthy people. That was our main thing when we decided to team up with Keep Oregon Well. We are not by any means like a poster child for healthy mental states. Help out a friend, just be aware of it. And that’s kind of the first step. There’s no shame in talking about it. There’s no shame in not talking about it. If you want to go seek help or you can find a friend, but look out for yourself and look out for the guy next to you.


RWB: Most people, at least people who follow the band, know the story of scrapping an album to eventually get to Woodstock. Did that have a psychological impact on the band? What was that like?


ZC: Just confusing and horrible. Honestly, making an album is very, very mentally unhealthy. You know, we have a lot of fun in the studios, we have a lot fights, but that whole process was crazy. I think it was more just really unbelievably heavy and soul crushing pressure. People were waiting on it and it’s not that we weren’t happy with it, but the world was changing at such a fast rate. We were just finishing up right when the primaries were kicking in, and we’re like, oh, my God, the world’s gonna be different when we put out this album and that’s fucking terrifying. So like, do we scrap it? We can’t scrap it. We can’t do that. And then finally, we just did it. And luckily, it was cool.

And it was by far the best choice we made. It was the right thing to do. It was just scary shit at the time. And until you put out a record, when it’s done but it’s not quite out yet, you’re just thinking about everything you want to change. You just drive yourself crazy. But then you just feel stupid because there are terrible fucking things going on in the world and you feel like an ass. Like oh, I make art. It’s stupid that I’m even worrying about this shit. But this is how humans are always going to be.


About the Author

Ryan W. Bradley has pumped gas, painted houses, swept the floor of a mechanic's shop, worked on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle, fronted a punk band, and more. He now works in marketing. He is the author of eight books, including Nothing but the Dead and Dying. He lives in Oregon with his wife and two sons.


Portugal. The Man is a band. They play music. They write songs. The make coolassed videos. They say smart things in songs and interviews like this. You should check them out when you get done with this. Here's their web site: They are cool.