Interview – Port O’Brien
June 29, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, January 15, 2009.
The wonderfully ragged folk-rock of Californian quintet Port O’Brien has washed to Australian shores with a rambling back-story. Released last year, the group’s debut album All We Could Do is Sing came replete with public recommendations from M. Ward and tall tales of lead-singer Van Pierszalowski’s years on a fishing boat in Alaska and co-songwriter Cambria Goodwin’s masterful baking credentials.
Meanwhile, the music – all bluster, rattle and throaty harmony – spoke for itself. We chatted with percussionist Joshua Barnhart about their acclaimed live show, recording and living up to overly creative PR hype.
Hey Joshua, where are you at the moment?
I’m currently San Luis Obispo.
Where on earth is that?
That’s the central coast of California. It’s the county where most of us grew up.
How did you originally join the folds of the group, because it was originally just Van and Cambria, yeah?
Well, we’ve all known each other for a really long time, because it’s a small town where we’re from. We were all in our own separate bands when we were growing up, so we all knew each other and were friends. Port O’Brien played a lot with another band I was in, and it was pretty much just Van and Cambria and whoever else wanted to play at the shows at that point.
Caleb, who played bass in the band for a while, and I were pretty much always around for the shows, so we just kind of slowly became regular members of the live act, although at that point it wasn’t really serious. It was just playing music for the sake of playing music. We didn’t really have any plan. But then, when a little bit more attention started to develop, we decided to make it an official band and started to change the sound to being more of a full, rock ‘n’ roll kind of thing.
Tell me about the link to M. Ward. His comments on Pitchfork really gave you guys a huge push.
I’m not sure who it was that brought him to our show. We were playing a gig in San Francisco – this must have been in early 2006 – and he was there and watched us and really like the set. I’m not sure why he was in town, though maybe he had heard that we were from San Luis Obispo, because he used to live there as well and was also in a local band called Rodriguez when he was living here. But yeah, he saw the show, we talked to him, he loved it and we kind of kept in contact. Then we saw that he did an interview on Pitchfork shortly afterwards where he said that we were his new favourite band (laughs). That was just such an honour and such a surprise too.
We kind of took the attention that that brought to us and ran with it. We were very, very lucky that he did that.
There’s a real kind of polarity between raggedness and melody with you guys. To me your stuff points to that lineage of American indie rock that Modest Mouse kind of embody. Are those guys influences, or do your influences go a bit further back?
We draw influences from all over the place. Neil Young is collectively a big influence, Modest Mouse of course – Van has listened to them obsessively for a long time – and you know, a lot of older bands. A lot of older bands used harmonies in a really interesting way, like The Beach Boys and The Kinks, and that’s something that seems to have disappeared from pop music to an extent. So we kind of wanted to bring that back in a way. But we’re also kids who grew up listening to Nirvana, so we like dirty music too. We’re just combining all the things we like about music to create our own little take on it.
How do you approach live shows? You guys have a pretty impressive reputation.
Well, even when we we’re just playing acoustic guitars and a single drum or something…it doesn’t matter how minimal or how rock ‘n’ roll equipped we are, we always try and have as much energy as possible when we play. We also try and have that exchange between the crowd and us as close and intense as possible, you know, getting people involved and stomping their feet, singing the lyrics, playing pots and pans. We really want there to be a mirrored effect with the energy in the crowd so it just sort of grows and gets to a breaking point. We’ve just been touring endlessly, so that aspect of seeing the crowd have fun is kind of what keeps us going.
You’ve just done a big tour through Europe quite recently haven’t you?
Yeah, we’ve just got back a week ago.
Was that your first European tour?
No, no, that was our third time being over there. The first time we went over we just did the UK. And we did that without a label and without anything being all that organised. It was just sort of a huge leap of faith, and one that cost us a lot of money (laughs). But we did make some good contacts. So we went back last June, then this most recent tour and then we’re heading back over there at the end of this month.
What has the response been like in Europe as opposed to America?
In a lot of ways it’s been a lot better. There’s just a different appreciation of music and, from what I’ve seen, audiences just seem a lot less jaded. They seem a lot more genuinely enthusiastic about a band when it’s a group that’s not already famous or something.
America’s just so huge and there’s so many bands and so many cities to play that it sort of becomes like this ‘dime a dozen’ thing. But I think being a foreign band in Europe too and that makes it really quite different too. A lot of places we went, the reception was just wonderful and the shows were just so much fun. We really love playing over there.
I guess there’s a certain exoticism to you guys outside of the States, especially with the whole Alaskan back-story. How do you feel about all the emphasis the whole Alaskan fishing boat thing in your press material? Do you feel there’s a danger in that?
Um, I think that starting off as a band, having a story like that, which is really unique, is a good thing. You know, it is interesting and it’s a huge part of the band and the band’s origins. But I think that any theme or story like that can get dangerous when it feels like it’s overdone. There needs to be a feeling of progression and of not being a one trick pony, you know? Like, ‘Oh there’s that cheesy band with all the boats and fish’ (laughs), which we’re all worried about.
The Alaskan thing…I’ve known Van for a long time so it’s really been a part of all of our lives. It’s been like saying goodbye to our friend for four months of every year, and you know, I’ve heard so many stories about that place, and the songs have a lot of feeling because it is such an incredible place and experience he’s had up there.
But, you know, we’ve just been touring constantly for over a year now and we’re definitely progressing. I just hope that people can see that.
The press release out here gives the impression that you guys are still all stuck on a boat, guitars and banjos in hand.
(Laughs) I mean, that’s what we do man. We just ride around on our boat to different fishing ports, catch fish along the way and write a few songs here and there (laughs). It’s a really crazy life.
On another note, tell me a little about recording the album. You recorded at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco, yeah?
Yeah, we recorded half of it there with Aaron Prellwitz, who has recorded Sun Kil Moon’s Ghosts of the Great Highway and a bunch of other really amazing stuff. He was just such a great producer and such a great guy and it was such a great studio. It was the best studio any of us had ever recorded in by far. It was all just so easy.
Then we did the other half with Jason Quever at Pan American, who was also very easy to work with. The whole recording process was just really laid back and kind of joyous. We couldn’t have been happier with the people we worked with and how it all turned out.
I noticed that someone with your surname did the strings…a relation?
Yeah, yeah! After we did all the tracking, my dad, who is a cellist and used to do a lot of string arrangements back in the 70s and 80s, he arranged all the songs for us and played cello on it too. So we had this one day at Tiny Telephone where he came in with all these hired musicians and did all the strings. We hadn’t heard any of the parts, so it was just so shocking to us…like, shocking in a good way. I think Cambria started crying. What he did was just so beautiful. We just had no idea that the songs could sound that way.
So, yeah, that was a really special moment. You know, it was my dad, it was the first time I’d worked with him and the whole thing was a really personal experience for all of us.
Port O’Brien – AUSTRALIAN TOUR
Brisbane – January 31, Laneway Festival
Melbourne – February 1, Laneway Festival
Melbourne – February 3, Northcote Social Club (with Spiral Stairs)
Sydney – February 4, Manning Bar
Perth – February 6, Laneway Festival
Adelaide – February 7, Laneway Festival
Sydney – February 8, Laneway Festival
All We Could Do Was Sing is out through Dew Process/Universal