'Nobody Has Six-Packs, Nobody Has White Teeth' In This Band

23 April 2018 | 10:28 am | Joel Lohman

"Some people thought it was so smart and creative and crazy. Honestly, it's not. We just had no idea what we were doing."

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Zach Carothers, the bassist in Alaska's psychedelic/prog-rock/indie-poppers Portugal. The Man, says the band first started touring mostly as a cheap way to travel. "We found out you didn't need to make money to see the world," he says. "I always thought to be a touring band you needed Learjets and tour buses, but you don't. We had no idea you could just make enough gas money to get to the next town and make some friends and eat rice and see the world."

Over the past 14 years, as well as achieving their more modest, rice-related goals, the band have also released eight albums, won a Grammy and were included on Barack Obama's playlist of the best songs of 2017. The latter two achievements are thanks to their recent mega-hit, Feel It Still. The song represents a move toward a catchier, more radio-friendly sound, but, as Carothers explains, that was always the band's aim.

"We've always been pop kids," he says. "It was just about learning to write better songs. We've been trying since the beginning. That's what's funny about prog-rock and people saying our first album was so crazy and experimental, full of time changes and different tempos. That was because it was easier to do. We had no idea how to write a song. We'd just transition from one key into another. It was all very jagged. Some people thought it was so smart and creative and crazy. Honestly, it's not. We just had no idea what we were doing."

When the band wrote Feel It Still, Carothers says they knew they had something special, but they had no idea how far it would take them. "When it first went to pop radio it was pretty hilarious," he says. "I didn't think it would work at all. Just looking at who we were up against - all the pop stars like Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato, all these beautiful people. And I'm 36, I'm from Alaska, I'm a bit overweight, you know? We're not pop stars, we don't look how they look. Nobody has six-packs, nobody has white teeth. We sleep too little, we drink too much. It's pretty funny that we got put into this, but it's also incredibly fun."

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The widespread popularity of this song has made it harder to recognise a Portugal. The Man fan in the wild. "You can't tell anymore," Carothers says. "It used to be we'd be in an airport and I would see a kid walking towards us in a Tame Impala shirt and I'd think, 'This kid might come say hi, he probably knows our stuff'. But now it's the pilot of the airplane or the stewardess or your aunt's neighbour or little kids. But still a lot of people don't know who we are, so it's not completely overwhelming. Everybody knows the song, but a lot of people think it's a Pharrell track or something."

Carothers says the band is feeling some pressure to make hay while the sun shines, but they're not trying to adapt the band to better fit the mainstream ("None of us are tanning or anything like that"). They just want to enjoy playing to bigger audiences. "Nobody in our band cares about money," says Carothers. "It's cool when you make it. But I was doing this when we were making zero dollars and, whether I make zero or a million, I'm still just going to want to play a show every night. It's just what we do."

Carothers and co will be doing what they do in Australia this April and May. He says it's one of his favourite places to tour, noting some similarities between Alaska and Australia (plus a couple of differences). "Y'all show us a really good time," says Carothers. "We get along. You guys are just a lot more handsome and pretty than us. But drinking beers, getting a little punchy - we like that style. It's rough, fun, funny. That's totally our jam. The first time we went out there I said, 'Man, I feel very at home here. I feel a little chubby and pale, but, besides that, we blend right in'."