What does Portugal. The Man’s top-selling single “Feel It Still,” have in common with the Golden Gate Bridge?
“A good pop song, like a bridge, has to have good structure, has to work for the masses, and has rules to it,” the band’s bassist Zach Carothers told SF Weekly about the now longest-running Alternative no. 1. “You can build a bridge, but like the Golden Gate, it can be beautiful as well artful. You can say something and don’t have to yell in somebody’s face. Getting a message out in a pop song with an infectious hook is not hard. With a little bit of everything, it can really go a long way.”
Whether it’s the melody or its message of resistance, “Feel It Still,” off the band’s idealistic 10-track Woodstock LP, has propelled the Portland alt-rockers with roots in Wasilla, Alaska, to the top of six of the major airplay charts and international stardom.
SF Weekly caught up with Zach Carothers, who appears this Friday with Portugal. The Man at night one of Live 105’s Not So Silent Night, to talk about the smash single. Since its release on March 3, it’s been featured in three commercials and a movie trailer and even inspired a hybrid strain of weed. Carothers also spoke about his Christmas plans and wish for the New Year.
Since you’re playing Not So Silent Night, I have to ask: How do you celebrate the “silent night, holy night”?
Our band works really hard. We never take a day off. If I try to go fishing for a day, I’ll get a bunch of angry phone calls and a million things come up. But the one day we know we don’t have to work every year is Christmas. It’s very important to us.
I go home to Wasilla, Alaska, which, as you can imagine, is a very wintery place. We’ve got a bunch of dumb little traditions, but it’s really all about family and relaxing. We day-drink Champagne at my mom’s house and stay in sweatpants for as long as we can before family comes over to eat. Sometimes I’ll still stay in sweatpants ‘cause it’s family, it’s fine. Then we go, for 17 years in a row, up to Girdwood, to a little cabin there, and everyone goes skiing and snowboarding. We just have a good time.
You and singer John Gourley first met in Wasilla in your teens?
He had already dropped out of high school, and I was about to. I don’t remember the actual time we met, but it was out at parties. I met him through my buddy, Wes. He was friends with John, and we had him party with us and listened to the Beastie Boys all night. We started talking about music. Everybody loves it, but only a few of us would dig deeper and listen to more than just what everybody else listened to. Then we started playing together.
I moved and went to college down in Oregon and started another band in Portland. Me and another guy were singing for it, and we didn’t have good voices, but we were writing some songs and called John up and said, “Hey man, you should come down and sing for our band.” And he said, “OK,” came down three days later, and we’ve been doing it ever since.
You’ve said in interviews that you picked the name Portugal. The Man, because you wanted a country in your name to symbolize a group of people and Portugal was the first one that came to mind. But why The Man when you’re a group?
I get a lot of questions about the band name, but they never put it like that. That’s very interesting. We wanted the one name to represent our group of people, which is why we chose the country. Then we wanted one group of people standing as one and forming a Voltron-kind of thing, because none of us are any good on our own. We need all these people to collectively make one perfect version of all of us. We’re one piece and all the same guy.
You released eight albums and 10 singles, over a 13-year period together, but never cracked the Billboard Top 100 till “Feel It Still.” Describe the recording of that song.
We wrote it in about an hour. It had a really good energy, mostly because of our buddy, [musician and producer] Asa Taccone. We get really dark and brooding in the studio. It’s not a lot of fun. It’s a lot of pain. On this track, we were working with Asa, and he’s a theatre kid, he’s a really good dancer, and he’s a lot more fun than we are. He was just dancing around the studio and brought out this happy energy from us. We have it. We just don’t necessarily bring it out ourselves, especially in the studio. So he just brought out this smile in the song that really helped make it good.
What was it about that single that caught fire?
I think there’s a lot of reasons. A lot of it is completely random. I know why it’s a good song. I know that we had a good simple beat and good lyrics over a good melody. We used the melody from The Marvelettes‘ “Please Mr. Postman” and just kept it going. It felt so natural. We had a hooky bass line. The bass at the beginning is a ‘60s Höfner bass, the one that Paul McCartney used. So, instantly, when you hear that bass line, it can remind you of every Beatles song ever recorded, because that’s the one he used.
It’s a little bit of that, a little bit of the message, and a little bit of us fighting what’s going on in American politics today. When things go one way in politics and business, the other side shines in the art, film, and music worlds to create a balance. Maybe if we had a better president or a different president and put out that song, it would not have been that needed. But we could have never planned for this to take off.
I want to break down the song’s lyrics. What do you mean by “I’m a rebel just for kicks, now”?
We are saying, “Do something for a cause,” but we’re not pushing any agenda. We’re trying to make pop music that can be accessible and fun and still say something. We grew up listening to Rage Against the Machine and Dylan, and we’re never gonna be one of them, but we want to say something. But this song, in particular is about when we decided to do that, and it is activism in its embryonic stage. A lot of this entire album is us talking back to our teenage selves, and in that speaking to all the youth. Basically, we’re saying, “I like where you’re going, getting angry, but stand up for things, question things. You don’t really know anything about the world yet, so go out and see it and learn.
Why are the years 1966 and 1986 mentioned, specifically?
The “rebel just for kicks” is our way of saying I remember hearing for the first time the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!),” which happened to come out on Licensed to Ill, in 1986. But then what it means when connecting it to 1966, when our parents began to get that feeling. Everything that was going on then with the Civil Rights movement in America and those huge milestones, so it’s all about that and learning how to question, learning how to fight, and deciding what you want to stand for and doing it. We’re not telling you what to stand for but telling you to make the world a better place in whatever way you choose.
Now that you have this gigantic single, do you feel the pressure to follow it up with another massive hit?
Yes, we put that pressure on ourselves, and I don’t know how we’re gonna outdo this. The success of this song has gotten far beyond anything we could have planned. I’m 36 years old, from Wasilla, Alaska. I’m out of shape and not tan, but I recently played right before Selena Gomez at the American Music Awards. I don’t know what I’m doing here, man, but I’m having fun and I like it. So we always put pressure on ourselves. But that’s the point. When we’re recording music, we try to make things that are accessible and good.
What’s your wish for the New Year?
Honestly, I’m really excited about where everything’s going. I love traveling and seeing new places. And this song and album are doing well in countries I’ve never been to, so I want to see new places and write more music.