CALLING IT IN // with Zachary Carothers of Portugal. The Man
By: Nunzio Moudatsos, Head of Artist Services
For our first installment of 'Calling It In,' I was lucky enough to have a phone chat with Portugal. The Man bassist and founding member Zach Carothers. We discussed the band's meteoric rise, their dedication to activism, and even got some tips for up-and-coming artists - give it a read!
"...Every day, every decision you make, you can do what feels good or you can do what feels bad. Just try to always do the thing that feels good."
Zach: Hi, this is Zach from Portugal. The Man I was supposed to, I think I was supposed to call this number about an interview today?
Nunzio: This is… yeah, that's right. What's up man? How are you doing, this is Nunzio.
Zach: Oh what's up man, how’s it going?
Nunzio: It's good, it's good, how are you?
Zach: Doing pretty good, just kinda cruising around at home just running around doing some errands and stuff.
Nunzio: Nice, awesome. Well, thanks for calling man. I appreciate you taking the time. Really appreciate it.
Zach: Oh no problem! No problem, dude.
Nunzio: Sweet. So, what's going on? What you got going on?
Zach: I'm actually checking out just some doctor's appointments and shit today. Yeah, just kind of running around. We just got home and quite honestly just kinda playing catch up with house stuff and doing a mix of house stuff and then back in the studio... back in the studio recording. Kind of started off the record here in Portland and then we've been down kind of working in L.A. for a few weeks and coming home for a couple weeks and kind of going back and forth just to have an actual balance of work and kind of seeing our family and stuff. When, you know, when we can because this has been a pretty crazy couple of years and we were out on tour for kind of a year and a half.
Nunzio: Yea, so you're on...
Zach: Yeah, so now we're just we're in the studio just kind of, yes, making a new album, gettin' into it... It's good to stay in one spot and just hunker down and get creative.
Nunzio: Dude, awesome. So is this all totally new stuff, or... because I do…
Nunzio: Yeah, okay, cool. Because I do keep hearing about this shelved record that was before Woodstock, after Evil Friends…
Nunzio: Is that stuff ever going to pop out see the light of day or is it just stuff that you just...
Zach: Umm, honestly, it'll come out in a different way. I doubt we're going to push that out...
Zach: …we just tend not to go backwards. I'd like to. We've had tons of songs over the years I thought were really good but didn't match the record enough, or for whatever reason didn't make it on the album. And I really want to finish up some of those and use them for either EPs, or exclusives for films, or something like that for certain different projects and so... However like, the stuff that we didn't put out and we kind of threw away it's not really “thrown away”. Anything that we kind of sift through it and when there's a really good hook or, you know, melody or lyric or chord progression we'll kind of pick and choose the best pieces of it and that can inspire a new song. So it all gets recycled and it gets in different ways I guess.
Zach: Not necessarily that album won't come out because it'll sound like we did back then. We don’t really want to do that. But those ideas, everything that's kind of been out there, will see the light of day. All the good stuff at least, in some form or another.
Nunzio: Sweet. Yeah, so that's an interesting point that you bring up because I always say… I think a lot of people would consider you like “pop” now? Just because you're so popular.
Zach: The one song.
Nunzio: You know what I mean?
Zach: Yeah totally.
Nunzio: You know, and I don't think that's a true statement, that you're a pop artist, you know but I dunno…
Zach: Yeah, I wouldn't say that either, calling us a pop artist…
Nunzio: Right, exactly. But it's like, “oh they're on the radio, they're pop” you know, that’s the thinking. But every one of your records there's totally a progression and it's incremental, you know? Each album kind of goes into this direction of like where you guys are now, you know?
Zach: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Nunzio: It's kind of like, it's all very linear. You know, it's not like overnight you guys changed and you're this “thing”, and I've heard a few of you say in past interviews that timing was important… so what do you think about the timing of the songs, like “Feel it Still” for instance, like is it a timing thing or is it just that great of a song? You know, what do you think?
Zach: Honestly there's a whole lot of variables that go into that.
Zach: It was everything because that song got so big it was just ridiculous, like, nobody could have known that, or known what it was going to be at all. And so it was just everything was kind of perfect. I think it was the right time, the right beat, the right bass line, the right lyric. You just never know with those kind of things… but the universe just really connected with that one, and everything was kind of perfect.
Nunzio: Yeah, totally. And I feel like there was a point maybe with “In the Mountain, In the Cloud” right, where it kind of started boiling you know?
Zach: Oh yeah.
Nunzio: I saw you guys in 2011 in the city, in New York, for CMJ week and you headlined at Terminal 5 with Givers.
Zach: Oh yeah totally.
Nunzio: And I remember this moment you and John were just kind of giddy about the size of the crowd and just I remember specifically you saying like this is the biggest show we've ever played.
Zach: Yeah it was, totally.
Nunzio: And since then you must have had dozens, or hundreds, of those moments where the shows just keep getting bigger, or like, the opportunities keep getting bigger and you're like “wow”…
Zach: Absolutely. I mean there's always something else which is kind of the thing that drives us and a lot of artists and a lot of entrepreneurs and just the driven people there's always a goal and you're never really done. I don't know if things get harder when you're like The Rolling Stones and you can just do you know a week sold out at Madison Square Garden or something like that. I don't know where you go from there… first band to play on the moon or something. You gotta always keep... You gotta recognize you can't just be somebody that's never pleased or never satisfied. But you do have to keep that hunger and you have to keep working for something bigger and better. And so, no matter what, a lot of what we do we're always thinking about the next thing for sure. Yeah, I remember that show like crazy. That sold out and that was totally at the time the most tickets we've ever sold, for sure.
Nunzio: Yeah, it sticks in my mind because it was so genuine. You guys were like, I think maybe surprised? Even though, as a fan, I was like “why are they so surprised because they're fucking awesome”. But then I guess you just don't really realize it's actually “holy shit that's a big venue, that's a lot of tickets.” You know?
Zach: I think it’s just how it's stacked and how there's, you know, three levels looking down on you. And it's just it's a pretty big and intense crowd. We've had a lot of those kind of milestones over the years and they are... every one is just so special… They've been, you know, since day one for our very first tour... just the feeling of “holy shit guys, we made it”, just because we went to a town that we had never been to before and people knew the words to our songs.
Zach: We're like, “welp, that's it, we made it”. The first time we played in Europe, we’re like “holy shit, that's it, we made it”. You know, there's always so many of those “first times” but they just... Yeah, if we just, don't stop doing that, that's kind of our whole goal.
Nunzio: Yeah. So it's like… now you're at this point where I couldn't possibly imagine more radio play, or bigger shows, you know like, you're doing Coachella, stuff like that. So what do you see as being next? Like, is it maintaining this level or is there another step up, you know, like what do you think it is?
Zach: Oh yeah yeah... we're still growing, we're still getting up there. We have a lot of ways that we can go because of... well, we do and we don’t, in a way. Since “Feel It Still” got so huge but still basically everybody knows the song, or has heard the song, but not everybody knows us. So, which is a good thing and a bad thing, but we still have a lot to do and a lot to build off to make ourselves I guess known a little bit more and the rest of our work known. But it's also those are big shoes to fill when it comes to writing new songs, writing another album, and you can't predict anything like that there's no there's no amount of money or talent or anything that could get us something like “Feel It Still”, like I said it was everything kind of aligned to make that perfect but all we can do is try to do better for ourselves and I'm not saying that we'll ever going to get a song as big as “Feel It Still” but I'm confident that we can write a song that's better. And that's pretty much what we go for every time.
Nunzio: Yeah, and that's awesome... and you said fans know the song but not necessarily you guys. So, have you had experience with new fans that have found you through this new this new-found success looking back at the past records and stuff. What do you think the feeling is for those listeners going back because if you listen to “Waiter: 'You Vultures!'” until “Woodstock,” it's so different.
Zach: Yeah there's a lot of stuff going on. That's the good thing about it. We have a fairly extensive catalog so if a new fan wants to dig deep they surely can. But if you want to just listen to “Feel It Still” on repeat, you can do that as well. And so, it gives us some breathing room for sure. And it's also kind of funny to watch people's faces when you know, if a new fan comes to a show and doesn't know what we sound like except “Feel It Still” and they're expecting 90 minutes of that and they won't get that because there's a lot of metal, a lot of jams, and a lot of other stuff and it's really fun to be in that position to show new people who we are and where we come from.
Nunzio: Don't ever change, because that's the shit. And that's awesome because you guys stick with playing the old stuff and just kind of... that attitude like, “this is us,” like you said, “you have to get to know us,” you know?
Nunzio: So, you guys have... I don't know that a lot of people know how many albums you've had before this you know? Because I feel like when you hear stuff that's on the radio it's kind of like new artists or whatever but you guys have been grinding for a long time. So, what was that like for 10 plus years just touring, putting out records, what was it like and did you see this coming?
Zach: No, we didn't see that coming. And we knew we were on a steady incline the whole time, we've been growing every year and every album and we didn't know that that's actually pretty rare, but we've been doing this for a long time and it was it was a slow burn... it was a “get rich slow” scheme that we've got going. But it's worth it, it's fun. We've started doing this because we wanted to. We had no expectations. Obviously, we hoped we could just do this for a living and be able to afford an apartment and things like that but we were totally homeless, living in vans for years. We've been comfortable and doing this for quite a while but it's just... it's been very slow and steady, so “Feel It Still” was the first really big spike that we've had and it's pretty cool, and just gives us a whole other level of opportunities, and people to work with, and doors that are unlocked. And we just kind of leveled up on some things and since then we've got invited into a world that we're not from and we've been having a pretty good time in it. It's pretty funny shit.
Nunzio: Yeah and it's awesome, like you said, just being on that steady incline and it wasn't an overnight thing and that's awesome. And I think like I said before, there's definitely a projection between your first album to now it's a linear projection, you know?
Zach: Yeah, I wouldn't have wanted to like, there's no way if we had had this success when I was like 23, I'd be a terrible person and just wouldn't know what to do. I'm totally glad everything worked out how and when it did, and I felt like we built a really strong fanbase... grassroots, just people that have been coming to shows forever, like yourself, and that's what's important. And, you have a hit and that just allows you to kind of fish for new people, new fans, new listeners, and that just casts a net a lot wider than we normally get to. And it's been really amazing to see all angles of the business.
Nunzio: Yeah, and then, so... you know I mean it's well documented so no need to get into it, but you know, moving from Alaska basically to Portland just for the opportunity, right?
Zach: Yeah, yeah. Mm hmm.
Nunzio: Because they were lacking where you guys were. So what were you thinking at that time? Was it “I just want to have some fun with my friends and play music” or was it like “if we're really gonna make a career of this, we have to do this”?
Zach: It was a little bit of both. We didn't think it was going to be a career by any means but we did sacrifice everything, we just decided to do it. Honestly, what's funny is that we kind of did it... a lot of people, there's some kind of myth about people getting into the music industry to make money. I think people are finally coming to grasp with the fact that that's not really how it works. There's not a lot of money, especially when you're starting out, and such a small percentage of people will get to truly make a living off this. So we went out because we kind of realized that you didn't need to make money to do this. I didn't realize that you could be a touring band. The only thing we got in Alaska were bands with names. We didn't get any... nobody had to make it to the next show and just stopped by in Alaska, we were up in the far corner of the world so we didn't understand that. And I moved down to Portland to go to college at first and I started going out to shows and we were out almost every night at some little bar and seeing a band I'd never heard of, from a town I've never heard of for three bucks at some bar and they would just... we'd see them get into a van and go off to the next town and I had no idea you could tour at that level. I thought you needed stage lights and Lear jets and shit, and when we found out “oh you don't need any of that stuff? You can just go and play?” and we just decided to go see whatever we could of the world. And we were extremely poor at the beginning and I wonder how we even made it. It's ridiculous the amount of money that seven people would live off of is just insane. And we had a great time to doing it and we have a lot of fun stories and I wouldn’t change it for the world. There's a lot of uncomfortable sleeping situations and we made friends that would let us crash at their apartment... They might give us some beer or cook us breakfast and for that we'd be like “Alright, well you never have to pay for a show ever again”. A lot of those people from that that first tour still come to our shows and we still take care of them because they took care of us.
Nunzio: Yeah and that's awesome because I mean, I'm a musician and I have a love/hate relationship with touring because it's fucking hard and it's for that one hour or so that you're on stage and then there's a lot of work that goes into it that people don't realize... It's like sleeping in parking lots or like, you know, eating fucking gas station food or whatever, so you know you do need to enjoy it of course but at some point, was there ever a point where you were like “Man is it ever gonna get better?” Where it's kind of like, you know, you've been to Oklahoma City now like eight times and you're like “fuck,” you know?
Zach: Totally. What happened with us was that the carrot was always still dangling in front of our face. We were just like “man, I know I'm broke this year but man, by next Christmas, yeah that's going to be, we're going to be okay and I can buy some presents for my family, and afford to pay some bills or something like that.” And you just keep doing it and it always felt like it was right there and you always feel like you're just about on the edge of making it and losing it and that's kind of where we've always lived and whether things are stable, we make sure there's a certain percentage of stability and instability in our band with everything. When it comes to our set lists, our set design, we're never too prepared. We're very prepared to be unprepared. I don't know exactly if that makes sense but it's never a sure thing and it never has been. It's just been always something that we do and we overthink things quite often and I've kind of found that it's best not to do that. I came to grips with the fact that I'm just going to play music with these guys until I die, no matter what, and I just decided to do that. Luckily I'm at a spot right now where people want to come out watch it and care.
Nunzio: Right, and you know, it can go away at any time, or like you said, there's another step up you can take and, like you said, you've always felt that way. So, before you guys signed to Atlantic you were releasing stuff independently, right?
Zach: Mm hmm.
Nunzio: Did you guys have your own label?
Zach: We did and we do. We usually license, we've kind of done everything. We've been on an indie label we've been on an indie that's owned by a major, we've been on a major, we've got our own label. We've licensed to indie labels and major labels. We've done a little bit of everything. Yes, technically we have our own label. We haven't put anything out really for a while but that's just kind of, you know, it's just paperwork, you know? You can get a business license kind of thing. So we have a label but it's not like we have a building or a vinyl press like you got, or anything like that. But we do have just an imprint that we use.
Nunzio: Now, with this success you guys are having, you guys are big with, you know, you're very active and vocal about political and social issues, right? So, do you think this new platform… like, how do you use the new platform in that respect?
Zach: Lately we kind of realize that, you know, you gotta stand up for something… but when we have the platform that we do and we have as many followers as we have on social media and that come to our shows, we definitely feel a responsibility that you have to do some good and that you have to do something. It's tough to find your thing and find something that you really care about. There's a million ways that you can do good. But we just, we've kind of narrowed it down to a few things that we care greatly about and the main thing that we've been working on lately is doing land acknowledgements for indigenous people, First Nation people, wherever we're on tour, and so wherever we play we ask local indigenous tribes of the area that are from there or have been displaced there to come and we just basically donate a piece of our set. We've got a microphone and an audience and so we just ask if they would like, we just kind of acknowledge that the land that we're about to play on is theirs, and we just, out of respect, ask if they want to do anything or say anything, they will be at the microphone. So, it's been really amazing. Sometimes it's political lectures, sometimes it's poetry, sometimes it's drums and songs and dances and it's been a really great learning experience for us and the audience and it's been super cool. I mean, we grew up in Alaska, and Alaska is one of those places where the native culture is still very... we're very close to it. It's around you, and in the artwork, and the cities, and the people. You're very close to it, you're very in tune with it… and but then we realize that we see that just because of where we're from but then in the books that we were reading we didn't hear hardly anything about them. So that's just something that we kind of wanted to take around with us anywhere we go in the world.
Nunzio: Yeah, and it's awesome that you guys do it because it's not something you hear about often and growing up in New Jersey/New York, it's not something that you really think about because like you said I think in Alaska there's still populations of, you know...
Zach: Yeah, and the artwork, and the street names, and everything. It's still very much a part of that. Even if it has been completely whitewashed, it's still there for the most part, but in a lot of the bigger cities and metropolitan areas it's definitely harder to see.
Nunzio: For sure, so it's great that you guys do that and like you said, I was going to ask you... it's one of the things where I feel like living in this country, or probably anyone in the world right now, you just feel like the problems just are piling on. And how do you pick... there's so many things you want to stand for, right? But it almost gets watered down, you know, you can't be in a million places at once kind of thing, so...
Zach: Yeah exactly. You choose your battle, you take some things that you care about. We do the things that are close to us and so we've got a few indigenous people, education, music education in schools for kids... that's how we met. And then the environment, being from Alaska, but generally it all boils down to just what's right. Just basic human civil rights… and every day, every decision you make, you can do what feels good or you can do what feels bad. Just try to always do the thing that feels good.
Nunzio: Right, yeah, and I was also reminded recently I think from the band's Twitter account that a couple of years ago you collabed with the Smithsonian National Zoo...
Zach: Oh yeah, that was awesome.
Nunzio: …and that's so cool. It was, I believe, a 400 pressing biodegradable vinyl representing each of the last living Sumatran tigers, I believe.
Zach: Yeah, totally. That was honestly one of the coolest things we've ever had a chance to be a part of, that was really, really rad.
Nunzio: And that's so cool. And I've seen you guys, you've been vocal on mental health issues and things like that... and that's something, especially in the music industry, it's under a microscope, you know?
Nunzio: You know, a lot of musicians who suffer and taken their lives, lost their lives, you know. So how important is that to you to be vocal about things like that? I'm sure you've seen touring bands that you're friends with who suffer, you know, fans, and things like that.
Zach: For sure, and we do too.
Nunzio: For sure.
Zach: We're not perfect. We chose that one because we're not well, and we're not right, and we're just trying to, you know, with stuff like that there's not a lot of... there's not a science about what to do and what not to do, and every case is different and every person is different, every context is different. But just talking about it, being okay to be open about it, that's one of the biggest things for us at least, that we're pushing for.
Nunzio: And that’s awesome… that’s great. Alright, cool, if there's anything you want to touch on or you know anything, like what you're currently listening to, or anything like that, simple stuff?
Zach: Sadly, it's all pretty much us. When we're in the recording process we get, you know, daily mixes every day. And so, we pretty much just listen constantly to whatever we're recording. This always happens, it burns you out pretty good. But we just are constantly listening... things you get do better, better lyrics, better ideas, and so sadly I'm listening to our demos quite a lot right now. But thank you for reminding me we gotta get back into something good. We're going to a hip hop show tonight, we're going to go see A$AP Rocky tonight here in Portland.
Nunzio: Oh nice!
Zach: Yeah, he's rad. He's a bud and we're going to go hang out. We're bringing a very talented artist from here called The Last Artful, Dodgr, and she is such a badass and so, we're gonna go hang out with her and we're gonna go check out Rocky tonight.
Nunzio: That's awesome. Alright, well, enjoy. I don't want to keep you much longer. So, any last words or whatever?
Zach: Uh Nunz, thank you man and we appreciate you doing your part in the music scene and helping people because starting out is the hardest thing to do. So, what you're doing at that level is perfect, and helping other artists just get on their feet and get a career going.
Nunzio: We appreciate that. Is there anything you'd like to say to an up-and-coming artist? One piece of advice?
Zach: I'd say, early on just find out what you want to say and how you want to say it, and then go for it. A lot of people have talent and a lot of people have drive and they just haven't quite figured out, and same with us, we still don't totally know who and what we want to be and how, but figuring that out and getting people that have common goals is very, very important.
Nunzio: Awesome. Dude, thank you again so much for taking the time.
Zach: Of course, dude!
Nunzio: Appreciate it so much. Enjoy the show tonight.
Zach: Thanks dude.
Nunzio: And best of luck and I hope I'll be seeing you guys soon.
Zach: Absolutely, I'm sure it won't be long until we're on tour back out east.
Nunzio: I can't wait.
Zach: You have a good night man.
Nunzio: You too man, enjoy.
We want to thank Zach for his time and for a truly interesting conversation. Portugal. The Man is a super hardworking group and it has paid off with all of their recent successes. For bands who are just starting out, or trying to find their way, PTM's story is pretty inspirational. If these kids from Alaska can get it done, then there's hope for all of us.
Keep up with all that's going on with the band here.