With news just the other day that Portugal. The Man are set to record another album, it seems the band shows no signs of letting up just yet. With this month's digital release of American Ghetto, they're playing by the same rules: recording, release, tour, rinse, repeat. At their two night sold out shows in Austin, I caught up with bassist Zac Carothers and keyboardist Ryan Neighbors to talk about Ghetto coming full circle for the band and where they can go from here after the success of last year.
Upon first listen of American Ghetto, I felt like everything kind of came full circle. I know for [Zac] it might hit closer to home than for [Ryan], being in the band as long, I felt like it came back to Waiter: "You Vultures!" while have the underbelly of The Satanic Satanist? Was that something you guys were going for?
Zac Carothers: Yeah. The electronic influence has pretty much always been John [Gourley]. John's been really into beats. He did the beats for Waiter, he did the beats for [It's Complicated Being a] Wizard. We didn't have much to do with American Ghetto. John went out there by himself for two weeks, tracked a lot of it and used b-rolls of keys and bass lines that we had done. Then Ryan went out there to do keys. It's mostly John and Ryan. I went out there to play bass on some of it and sang on some [tracks]. It was pretty much mostly John...
Ryan Neighbors: Yeah, it was more of John's project. He had all the ideas. He went out there and sent some stuff to me in Portland. I sent some stuff back to him. It was kind of like, "This is the song. What do you think? Have any thoughts on it?" We filled in where we could. It was pretty complete, but I feel like we got some good say in it. I don't know if the "going back to Waiter" was as intentional as was "Man, we haven't done stuff with beats in a long time. We've been really itching to do that."
Carothers: That was more of the thing. It was more reminiscing, not trying to go back to that. We kind of missed the electronic influence.
Neighbors: Like, the loops on Satanist were real drum beats recorded and then looped, not samples recorded like American Ghetto.
You say it's not exactly a return to form, but it's not a complete return, more of an all encompassing piece when I say full circle. As a fan, someone who has been listening since Waiter! "You Vultures", it definitely feels like it wraps everything up.
Carothers: Sure. With Waiter we had no idea about song structures or chord progressions or any of that shit. We took that and then used the production techniques of what we used in the early days.
How did that feel going back and song writing in an older form for the band? Being that there's been a different approach to every album.
Carothers: It was cool. We've missed the beats. We've missed the loops and stuff like that. Basically, what it was...when we record a record, we're in the studio a month or six weeks or whatever. You're constantly thinking creatively. You have all these ideas. When that time is done in the studio, you're still thinking like that. We're big fans of going back in a week after leaving the studio. American Ghetto was a way for John to get out more of his eccentric ideas that wasn't necessarily fit for Satanist. It was just kind of a cool thing that we did. We wanted to release it in a weird way and not give it to press or anything like that. Have it all available to everyone at once. That was the whole idea.
That was a really interesting way to go about that, especially with what John had to say about the leak of Satanist. Portugal. The Man, of course having those same problems in years past, who initially had the idea?
Carothers: It was John and Rich's idea. We didn't take any money from EqualVision, it was all us. We were just giving it to them, [having them] put it out. We took care of the recording cost. We took care of the hard work, [they just had to] make the CD's after we released it digitally. They were a little skeptical about the whole thing. They're really cool guys. They're innovated thinkers. They wanted to try it for sure.
It's early to tell, but could we see signs of this model in the future with other bands?
Carothers: It's possible. Then again, leaks are exciting. They hurt the band in a weird way. It just kind of depends. It's such a huge part of the music thing. We just wanted to see if we could do it and see what would happen. Instead of using press to pump things up, [we] used Facebook and Twitter and having the fans do that. The day the album was released, it was crazy how much stuff was on the Internet about American Ghetto. We wanted to see how the whole grassroots thing would go, and it worked. It worked better than we thought it would work. It was a really cool thing. We probably won't do that again for a while...
Neighbors: It depends on the type of release, I guess...
Carothers: Yeah. Yeah. We'll do that for some cool little EP's or DVD's maybe. It's something we wanted to try. We were curious about it. We only gave it to family and friends. We didn't send it out to anybody.
Do you think it worked well because you guys have this established following?
Neighbors: You can't build word of mouth around the album if there is no word of mouth around the band. [Pause] Except Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah!. Somehow they did it.
What do you guys think of the success of Portugal. The Man thus far? The New Orleans show I went to when I interviewed you guys for AMP, there were only like 200 people, maybe. Now you're here in Austin selling out two nights.
Carothers: Really what it was, is that last year, 2009 was really good for us. I think we put out a pretty solid record that we put a lot into...
Neighbors: We hadn't come to Texas for a whole year. [Laughs]
Carothers: That helps too. People here have been wanting it for a while. We toured so heavy in the past that it almost hurt our draw. It's like, "Well, I'm not really feeling so hot, I know they'll be back in a few months." Now, if we make it less, and we've been taking Europe real seriously lately too. We just don't have the time to hit everywhere. We hit so many cities, we have to find time to chop them down. The more we spread out, the more we get to play in different places, the more we're going to miss them.
Neighbors: It's also the case of less is more.
Carothers: The festivals helped a lot. We played Bonnaroo and Outside Lands. There were so many people that saw that show or had a friend that saw that show that came to check out ours. All those things combined made for a good year for us. We're doubling and tripling numbers in every city that we go to. It's pretty crazy.
Besides that, does the music speak for itself right now more than just constant touring and putting yourself out there?
Carothers: I think we've put a lot more thought in writing our last few records than we ever had before. I think they're more accessible to the average listener. With Satanist, my Aunt and Uncle are here tonight. They've always kind of liked what I did because we're family and stuff. A lot of my family members that heard the last record were like, "Shit, I really like this! Before, I liked it because it was you. If I actually heard this on the radio, I might go buy it." I don't know which has done more, but it's a combination of all those things that have really helped out.
With the release of American Ghetto, we're coming off how many months since Satanist came out...
Neighbors: September I believe
There's always been this buzz about the band putting out a record every year at this point. When does it stop? Will it ever stop?
Carothers: I don't really see it...
Neighbors: We take it a year at a time. It's hard to really say.
Carothers: Generally, we record in January. We tour all year. The CD comes out in the Fall. That's just kind of our shtick. We just get into that groove.
Is there anything in the back of your minds, when is it that we are going to trip and fall?
Carothers: Not so far.
Neighbors: I don't think we want to think that. "This is probably around the time we'll fail." [Laughs]
Carothers: We're just sticking it out and staying with the same stuff we've done. The same cycle. It's tended to just work out. I don't see us changing. We could end up putting out a record that no one likes, but we have no control over that. We're writing music that we like. It could happen that sometimes we'll write music that no one else does. That could happen. That could hurt. We'll just have to see where we go from there.
Now that it seems to have come full circle with this album - across the board - where does it go from here? Does it jet out on a tangent of its own? Is there any sort of intention amongst yourselves to not get stale at this point?
Carothers: We never had a problem with that in the past. I think we're always going to focus on keeping the music fresh and interesting to us. We get bored easy. We jam a lot live, because we don't like doing the same stuff over and over. We're always thinking like that. Keep it classic and cutting edge at the same time. Who knows if we're going to be able to do that. We're going to do it as long as we can.
Awesome interview, though I would have felt awkward pushing the issue of " do you think you're going to mess up soon?" I guess it's good to get their take on their own inertia...fantastic band
didn't want to push it. those dudes are so cool. when I did my interview for AMP with them, the whole story was flipped because it was like, "we don't know anything about music, we just play" and I was like, "bullshit, what's your background?" and it made for a good article I think. I think band's with enough confidence can answer questions like that great...and they did then and they did here.