Interview: Portugal. The Man’s Zach Carothers on Woodstock & self-loathing’s role in a creative process

Zach Carothers is recovering from a heavy night out in Chicago when he gets put on the phone to me. It was record release day for Portugal. The Man in Australia during our interview, but for Americans, they still had a few hours to get through. Still, Carothers is game for a delve into the new Portugal. The Man album, Woodstock, taking me through a record he describes as having the band’s best material yet, on it.

“We always consciously try to make pretty huge departures from our previous release.” he says. “We definitely do that on purpose. We wrote a ton of music for this album; we wrote maybe 60 songs and had three to eight versions of each song. We didn’t go on vacation or anything, we were working the entire time. In the end, we overthought things and we got very confused and things weren’t clear, because we had so much material; we were changing it so often, there was some really amazing stuff in there.”

The rise of the Trump era of American politics also weighed in heavily on the band’s creative process, eventually seeing Portugal. The Man scrap all the work they’d done on what would be Album #8, to start again.

“With everything that was going on in the country as well, right when we were about finished and done, we had a new President coming in and shit was really going crazy over here. It wasn’t the right time and we felt like we needed to go back in and make a different album, so that’s what we did. It could have come out a year ago, but it wouldn’t have been right. That stuff doesn’t need to be heard right now. It’s what we had to do.”

Recording in Malibu with a stomper list of names behind the scenes not limited to the likes of Danger MouseJohn HillAsa Taccone and Mike D, Portugal. The Man lived and recorded like Kings – until it became a bit too much fun, as Carothers explains.

“We tried taking the Elvis Costello approach,” he laughs. “Writing 100 songs and picking the best 10, but where do you stop with that? We kept writing songs and our favourite songs were the last ones we wrote! We were in the most beautiful studio in Malibu with Mike D. It was the best studio in the world and we just kept writing. We didn’t want to leave that place and we got too comfortable. We were writing the best stuff we ever had, but we didn’t want to leave. We didn’t have any struggle going on, really. We were in this beautiful, lush place where the biggest people in music record. It was way out of our budget and we were living beyond our means, 100%. I was sleeping in the same bed Kim and Kanye had slept in! It was ridiculous. We had to put an end to it and just stop; when you’re writing, you’re never really done. You have to just fucking stop.”

Shelving three years’ worth of material in favour of completely new sounds has its own risks attached to it but as he reflects on his time in studio with the band for Woodstock, Carothers remembers moments where the music would come effortlessly, and some where it was a particular struggle.

“After we wrote “Feel It Still”, which is the first single we dropped here.” he recalls, a moment of redefinition. “It’s almost frustrating because that song came together by accident. We were literally taking a break and John picks up a bass and starts jamming on it, then our friend Asa Taccone from Electric Guest was like, “Hey man, keep playing that, I’m going to record it,” We then had a bridge idea and he just started filling it in; the whole thing was done pretty much in 45 minutes to an hour. It was so annoying!”

“It works because it is so natural and it just came out. There are other songs that we were working on for a year that just weren’t quite right; you get so frustrating because it’s like, ‘It’s almost there but it’s not quite right’. Then other times, things just come so naturally and are no work at all.”

From there, the creative process driving Woodstock rolled out with a refreshed flair injected into it. Intensive periods of time spent in the studio breeds unique experiences only the artists could understand, something Carothers remains rather candid about.

“When that (“Feel It Still”) came out, we were halfway through the record being done and I felt recharged. I felt like, ‘Oh – we just got to go in and write songs. It’s not that hard, it’s what we do everyday. We just need to tell ourselves to shut the fuck up and stop thinking about it and just do what we do.’  You can’t second guess yourself. It’s pretty heavy in the studio. There’s a lot of self-loathing going on. We were having a lot of fun and we were joking and being happy, but there was also a lot of pain and a lot of terrible shit that went on in the studio, for sure.”

“I am very proud of what we’ve done but there were so many times where I was like, ‘I hate myself,’. But that’s all part of it. You really have to go through every single emotion there is. I’m not even sure if it’s worth it, but it is something we have to do. When we release it, there’s this feeling that nothing else, no drug or anything else can do. We just have to have it and we’ll go through anything to do that, for a tiny little pinprick of a second. We just exhale when it comes out and go, ‘Alright we did that. Let’s go do it all again’.”

Woodstock is out now through Warner Music Australia. 

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