Not long after the digital release of their latest album, American Ghetto, Portugal.The Man stopped by Austin to play two soldout shows with Port O’Brien and The Dig. American Ghetto was touted by the band as “for the fans,” released to press and the public at the same time. It was a move even the band themselves were unsure of, but was received well by fans and critics alike.
That wasn’t the only difference in approach with this album. Portugal. The Man decided to incorporate electronic drums and get back to their experimental roots, making it hard to put this band in a strictly indie-rock box. A large part of American Ghetto’s beat-driven sound is due to the band’s work with producer Anthony Saffery, formerly of the band Cornershop. There was also a little vocal help from Zoe Manville for some uber-high notes.
In a brief chat in an alley behind 6th Street, band members Zach Scott Carothers and Ryan Neighbors spoke a little about American Ghetto, the decision to release it to fans/press concurrently and about the insanity that occurs right in front of their face when visiting “The Live Music Capital of the World.” After reading, you will want to make sure and support the band by purchasing the physical copy of American Ghetto (out May 11) so that they can hire some security.
Tell me how American Ghetto compares to your previous album, The Satanic Satanist.
Ryan: All the drums were samples, so that was different.
What is the story behind that decision?
Ryan: John (vocals, guitar) has always liked electronic beats, as have I. John went out there to Boston to finish Satanist; we did a three-week tour and went back to Boston. He did it, just wanted to do a little something by himself for a bit. We always talked about doing something with a hip-hoppy feel, so there’s the electronic drums right there.
What was the group response to that? Any objections or back and forth discussion?
Zach: We knew John was itching to do that for a while. He wanted some space at that time to just be by himself. He did most of that by himself, really. I think he just missed the old days when we would do that on our first record and the EP we did after that. We all kind of missed the electronics and thought it was a cool idea. We never really like to stay the same. We like to keep putting out different things to keep everyone on their toes.
It’s funny for me to hear Ryan suggest something “hip hoppy” and electronics when the subjects of the songs on the album aren’t something to really dance about.
Ryan: It’s just a light hip-hop element. It’s not a hip-hop record at all.
Even the electronic label or element to it throws me off. When I think of electronic indie these days, I think MGMT or Passion Pit, who don’t sing about the dark subjects on American Ghetto.
Zach: We like that kind of stuff. I really love all that dark electronic music—Nine Inch Nails, and stuff like that. I even like Peaches, which has this super-mean vibe but yet it is awesome.
It sounds like this was something you all wanted to do forever now but hadn’t gotten back around to it.
Zach: Right now, we aren’t tied down at all to anything or anyone. Everyone is being super-cool with us and not telling us what to do. We are going to do some of the weirder shit while we still can.
On that note, I wanted to ask about the “strictly for the fans” concept the album was digitally released under. Even the press and bloggers got it the same day as the fans. What made you guys want to release the album that way?
Ryan: It’s just something we wanted to try.
Zach: We were just curious. We have really cool fans that are also very dedicated fans. They are the ones who spread our music around. We wanted to try the grassroots idea of promotion and not have it be in magazines and not have it be in press. We just used Twitter, Facebook and shit like that to see how it would do. It did really well for us.
The idea had to come from somewhere. What sparked that curiosity?
Zach: John and our manager always talk a lot. They spend probably about five hours on the phone a day. They just ramble. I can’t tell you how many weird ideas they’ve come up with and never used, but this is one of the not-so-crazy ones. You should hear some of the really crazy ideas they come up with. They will tell us an idea and say, “We’re going to do this” and we’re just “okay.” We know that we were never going to do that, you know. It’s around for a week, and then it goes away. This idea though was one we all liked. I was curious to see how it would do.
Usually that sort of thing is tested with an EP or a b-side record, not a feature full length. What’s next? A pay what you wish concept like Radiohead?
Zach: No way, we’re definitely not Radiohead. We were just curious to see how it would do on a smaller scale with a band of our level. It went well and I see why bands like Radiohead do that. It makes people that like our music feel like they are more of a part of it. They are essentially our publicists for this record. Everyone who ever told their friends about it or comes to show, they all have a piece of it.
Talk to me a little bit about the tour. How cool are The Dig and Port O’Brien.
Zach: I love both bands. The Dig are a really great band who are super-tight. They play really well together. They are killer dudes and have serious energy.
Ryan: I love those guys. We pretty much started hanging out with them right away.
Zach: Port O’Brien really is a good live show. They just really got the crowd pumped. It’s a cool party band.
What always keeps you coming back to Austin besides your booking agent? Please spare me the “Live Music Capital” reference.
Zach: Austin is a kick-ass town. I’ve never met anybody who has been here that didn’t like it. The music scene is what I love about it.
Ryan: Everyone in Austin has always been so cool to us.
What do you do when you’re in Austin, besides play shows and do interviews?
Ryan: I usually just walk up and down 6th Street.
Zach: I people-watch. I saw a cab driver punch a girl in the face the first night here.
Are you kidding or are you being serious?
Zach: I’m not kidding. Then a bunch of dudes jumped on his car after him, but he sped away. It was nuts. There was a bunch of stuff leading up to that though. He didn’t just punch a girl. She was kind of beating the shit out him first. Then I saw some dude hit on wasted chick, totally macking on her before she swayed his direction and splashed puke all over his shoes.
This is the Austin you don’t read about in all the festival coverage from out-of-towners. huh?
Ryan: I though 6th Street was only this crazy at South By (Southwest). I guess it is crazy like this every weekend. I just take it all in.
Zach: It’s a little bit too crazy for me. I do like to watch, though. I’ll have a few drinks at a hotel bar and watch it all unfold before me. One morning, a total stranger came up to me and said, “Yo quiero cocaina.” That was a good one. He then informed me that he was from Lebanon and didn’t know English that well, but for some reason could speak Spanish. After he asked me about cocaine, I just went inside.
So what’s in the works for the rest of 2010?
Ryan: We have some random gigs and college shows we’ll be playing. We’re not really doing another tour because we are wanting to record a new record. That’s not set yet.
Zach: We just rented a house in Portland, which we haven’t had a place to live in a long time. We are doing a lot of writing. We have a really great basement and it’s a fun place to hang out, for sure.
How has living in Portland worked out for you? I hear good things about its scene and how it is one of those cities that can foster creativity.
Ryan: It’s sort of like Austin with snow…. Did that guy just dump that backpack in that dumpster just now? [points at dumpster] Then a chick with a mohawk came and picked it up. This place is crazy.
Portugal. The Man is scheduled for a seven-city West Coast tour in June. Find out if they’ll be near you on MySpace.