INTERVIEW: Portugal. The Man
4 October 2017, 13:03
Portugal. The Man have a very special package to send to Zoella.
It might have taken them eight albums but Portugal. The Man finally have a hit on their hands and they're soaking up every second of it. Having scrapped an entire album's worth of material last year, the trio headed back home to Alaska and began the writing process for what would become Woodstock, the album which spawned their biggest hit to date 'Feel It Still' (at the time of writing has just hit no.7 on the Billboard 100).
Not bad for an "out of shape" 36-year-old, as the band's bassist, Zachary Carothers, told me over coffee at his record label's headquarters in London. We sat down to discuss the success of 'Feel It Still', the influence that influencers like Zoella and Alfie Deyes have in bringing bands to the attention of a new audience, and the highs and lows of the band so far including sleeping in the same bed as Kim and Kanye (not at the same time).
I was on holiday with friends recently and whenever I would play a song of yours they would all ask who it was and sing it's praises. More generally, this album is clearly connecting with a sizeable new audience for you.
It's pretty wild! Especially the single 'Feel It Still'. It's reached a completely different audience that we had the chance to meet. People are coming up to me in airports now. I used to be able to tell if somebody would be able to recognise us, judging by whatever band t-shirt they were wearing. But now, it's crazy. Someone who looks like my aunt's neighbour will come up and be like 'I love Feel It Still!' We've been on a lot of daytime shows in the states. We played on Ellen which was amazing! We love Ellen and when we got that opportunity we were pumped and that's just spiked [the interest] so hard of a bunch of people that never heard of us before.
That's a very specific kind of audience too. That's your full-time mum crowd.
Exactly. And I love moms! It's crazy. They're coming to shows too. Last night I met two couples who were a little older that were like 'We heard 'Feel It Still' so we bought a ticket off an auction site for way too much money because it sold out a long time ago'. I was like 'who goes to a show based off one song?'. First of all, don't expect 90 minutes of 'Feel It Still'. We open with a 1986 Metallica song!
Are you destined to have people shouting for 'Feel It Still' for the entirety of all your sets from now until the end of time?
We do! We play it twice a lot of times. I think it's like an old London punk thing to play the single twice but it all started [for us] on Watch The Throne when Kanye and Jay Z would play that song ['Ni**as in Paris'] like 8 times in a row. I thought that was the funniest thing ever.
You’ve just gone top 10 this week with ‘Feel It Still’. That must have been a mad moment when you found out.
It's psycho! I'm 36-years-old. I'm a bit out of shape. I'm from Wasilla, Alaska. I don't understand. I mean...it's a good song. We wrote it and I was instantly like, 'I think this is going to do really well' but had no idea, really. I thought this would do great on alternative radio and when they told us they were going to cross us over into pop in August and I was like 'Really? You're going to sell this [points to himself] to people who are buying Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber?!' It worked though.
I watched the Genius lyrics video you guys did for Feel It Still and you spoke about the political meanings behind the song. But, obviously, there is going to be a point when this song reaches such a mass audience that many people probably won’t pick up on the meaning behind it. What are your feelings on that?
Oh, that's up to the listener. When it comes to our lyrics and everything, I don't even like telling people what it means. I always like giving people the option...giving people lyrics that could mean different things. I don't really want anybody really telling me what art is supposed to mean. I like it broader. I like lyrics and art that poses more questions. Yeah, obviously at this level people might not be getting our lyrics - and they're a little cryptic anyway - but that's what you do when you try to make something accessible, that people can shake their butts to, but that can also say something meaningful too. I don't know why there's always been this thing with popular art and music that it can't be both. Talking with the singer from Cage The Elephant, he came up with a beautiful analogy one night. He was like 'it's like a bridge, it has to have a function. It has to be engineered perfectly. It has to be so everybody can use it. It must work. But why can't it be beautiful as well?' They could just make an ugly bridge and that would be fine. But make it beautiful and then it's a piece of art.
'Feel It Still' has received a lot of radio support as well as a big boost from featuring in adverts in the US. Over here in the UK, the song was also endorsed by Zoella and her boyfriend Alfie Deyes, which brought your music to yet another yet audience. Are you aware of them?
Yes I am. Totally. I am aware of her but I don't...I don't really know. [laughs]
You mean, you don't watch her videos every day?
Not every day. But I am familiar, yes.
How important is it now to get exposure via adverts or influencers like Zoe & Alfie?
Honestly, it's just new ways of getting it out there. I get excited about that. I am always looking for new ways to do things and get our music out there, just because it's fun. We like the experience. That's why we started this. We're from a small town in Alaska and we just want to get out and see the world and pretty much do whatever we can before we die. And this opened a lot more doors. For example, marijuana is legal in Portland, Oregon now, so we thought it'd be fun, because we have some friends in the weed business, to make a strain of weed. So, we did. We made a joint called 'Feel It Still' when we first released the album. It's just a different way to do it. It's so interesting.
That's some great merch.
Oh yeah, it was awesome. It's just a funny idea. Why not? It's something fun and something new. We're just trying stuff out, especially here [in the UK] as we don't know the market as well. We haven't done as well over here. We've been coming over for years but it's been difficult. Everywhere else in the world, or a lot of places, we do great. It's trickier over here. We're still in the learning process over here.
Perhaps you should send Zoe one of your joints. Maybe that will help?
There we go! I can do that. It will be hard to get ours but we can something out.
Other opportunities must have come up since the success of this single. Have you spoken with anyone about doing any collaborations yet?
We've gotten some offers but we've been too busy. I'm really excited to try. I've always wanted to write for other people.
Anyone in particular?
I'd love to work with any kind of hip-hop artist. I'm really into a few small up and comers like HD (Been Dope) and Flashbush Zombies who are doing very well right now. Obviously, I want to work with Kanye super badly. That would be so much fun. And Kendrick's amazing. I think it would be fun. Once again, it's trying new things. There's something I have always found fascinating about writing lyrics or a song, sometimes you'll come up with an idea and you'll be like 'that would be so good but not for me to sing'. That would be so good for Selena Gomez or something. And I’d love to try that. I'd be excited to do that for sure. We're going to do some weird stuff. Sometimes it will work out, sometimes it won't.
Woodstock is your 8th record. That's a long time to finally breakthrough. Were there any points when you were like, 'fuck this - it's taking too long'?
Every day. We were going to keep doing this for our lives and we were doing alright. This just really went above and beyond what we thought. But we break up every day, pretty much. We fight a lot. We've broken each other’s ribs multiple times. We'll get in fist fights. He's a fighter [singer - John Gourley]. I'm not, but at some point, I have to fight back. We'll argue about everything... [But] that's the reason we've stayed around. We care about every little detail. You can never be happy. You need to keep pushing yourself. It's annoying and I hate it sometimes but we got through pretty much every emotion there is every day and it's a wild ride.
Would you have been ready for this success the first time around?
Definitely not. That's how we thought of it. We were releasing an album a year and it was just practice. Major labels had talked to us back then and we always knew 'no, not ready'. And then in 2010 we decided 'ok, let's try this'. And we weren't ready. We got thrown into the deep end and that first [major label] album (2011's In the Mountain in the Cloud) almost killed us. Dark days. Working with big producers. We don't work like most bands do in the studio. We do everything wrong and backwards. That's just how we do it. So, we went in with these big producers and they tried to make us do something that... they weren't telling us what to do, but they were trying to help and we like collaborating but it just wasn't right. And we knew it right away and like, oh shit, we've been thrown into the deep end and I don't know if I can really swim. But we made it out and the second album we wrote about that experience. Every bad experience we try to flip it and try to make it positive but it is difficult. But yeah, we would have crashed and burned.
In the Mountain in the Cloud sounds like a sink or swim moment. You must look back on that now with a sense of relief?
Oh totally. And thank god Atlantic Records kept us because they just loved us and honestly, Craig Kallman, who's the President/CEO, he just likes our band. They should have dumped us. They could have dumped us.
It's seven years from signing your major label contract to this album. That's a long time.
It's a long time. And the last album we did, it did pretty well but it still wasn't a hit. But they were like 'ok we're not losing an unbelievable amount of money' and then we went to do this record and originally lost a ridiculous amount of money because we recorded an entire album and scrapped it. That was a tough one to go to the label with. We were working with Mike D from the Beastie Boys out in Malibu in Rick Rubin's studio called Shangri La and it's the most beautiful studio ever. We're living well beyond our means. Kanye had it booked out all year and we got to go in whenever he was doing fashion week or whatever so I was literally sleeping in the same bed Kim and Kanye sleep in, so I'm living well above my means. And it was expensive. The funny thing is nobody even told us. Nobody even gave us a number. [Mike] said let's work at Rick's new place and we went there to check it out and we're like, dude, we can't afford this and Mike was like 'trust me, I'm getting the bro rate'. I'm like cool, but, that's a bro rate between two multi-millionaires. that That bro-rate is still probably way out of budget.
But it was such an amazing experience and it's the most creative we've ever been and we were writing constantly. Then we got comfortable and couldn't stop writing. Once again, we're recording in this beautiful place, I'm happy just drinking smoothies all day and being healthy and happy and we wrote some amazing stuff but, as it turns out, we need some struggle. We can't be too comfortable. We like the experience of the peaks and valleys. It's weird. In this situation, we still don't forget we come from. One night I'll have a dinner with a Michelin rated chef and stay at a 5* hotel and the next night I will eat a bag of chips for dinner and much sleep sitting-up in a car and... you never know. It's a real up and down.
What's the plan for Portugal. The Man after the success of this single?
I want to keep opening doors. This song is doing well, we've got more singles that are going to come out. And then I want to go to places we haven't been. We're number one in Russia right now. I've never been to Russia! I wanna go see that. I want to go to places I haven't been. Meet people we haven't met. We're all about experience. We don't sleep. We eat the food, we drink the drink, we hike mountains, we camp, we do whatever we can and so I'm looking forward to learning.