Portugal. The Man: These Indie Rockers Are Preserving Alaskan Culture, One Tweet at a Time


Editor's Note: PolicyMic is collaborating with HeadCount, an organization that works with musicians to promote participation in democracy. HeadCount has launched a great new social media tool called #SoundOff to tweet messages at Congress. Issues are selected by musicians, advocacy groups, or you the user. So if you're inspired by what you read here, #SoundOff!

Sarah Palin’s reign as Wasilla, Alaska’s most famous export might be coming to a close. Indie rock band Portugal. The Man – whose founding members John Gourley and Zach Carothers also call Wasilla home – spent the past year working with superstar producer Danger Mouse on its latest album. Released in June, Evil Friends marks Portugal. The Man’s seventh studio album in eight years, and has already been lauded by many as the band's best effort to date.

Despite their prolific musical output (a new album nearly every year since 2006, if you’re keeping track) and an intense touring schedule that has included opening for The Black Keys and multiple performances at Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and SXSW, Gourley and Carothers haven’t forgotten their Alaskan roots. Now based in Portland, Oregon, they’re using their success to raise awareness about a cause that remains close to their hearts: the cultural destruction of Native Alaskan communities.

Deemed “a people in peril” by a Pulitzer Prize-winning Anchorage Daily News exposé, Native Alaskans’ longstanding social and economic marginalization has resulted in rampant alcoholism, poverty, and one of the highest suicide rates of any demographic in the U.S. Portugal. The Man has teamed up with #Soundoff to amplify the voices of these often isolated communities. I spoke with Carothers about growing up Alaska, the importance of supporting Alaska Natives, and the role that musicians can play in advocacy.

Julianne Ross (JR): You and John both grew up in Alaska. How did that shape your music?

Zach Carothers (ZC): We didn’t have a lot of influences. We had our parents’ record collections – both had very, very good record collections. And then we had Top 40 radio and Oldies radio. In our house we had MTV, and that’s pretty much what I watched. I never watched any TV shows or anything like that growing up. It was all Headbanger’s Ball and shows like that.

And also a big part of it was leaving Alaska. John and I moved down to Portland, Oregon. It’s just a mecca for underground music and arts in general. It's such a supportive community for those kinds of things, especially really small things, underground. And when I came in there were all these bars and cool places, cool little venues where shows were $5 for some amazing band that I’d never heard of. I saw these shows like every night. That got me really excited. It made me feel like I could really do this for a living.

So it was a combination of both – growing up without hearing much, and then just getting flooded by it.

JR: When and how did the issues surrounding the Native Alaskan communities become important to you?

ZC: Growing up there you see a lot of that stuff. It’s a cause that nobody thinks about that much. It’s like an “out of sight, out of mind” thing, because they're really out in the middle of nowhere, and there’s not much communication. It’s gotten better since there are things like the internet now, and social media. But still … there are a lot of really poor politics that go on up there. So it was something that we really wanted to raise awareness about.

When you’re in a band there’s not a lot you can physically do. We don’t have a lot of time. We don’t have money to donate. But there are a lot of people who listen to us. And if we write things online, a lot of people see it. So that’s how we can help, until we have more time to actually physically donate time and effort. It’s just something to help out. It’s a very original and unbelievably interesting culture, and we just want to keep it alive.

JR: What exactly are you hoping to achieve through your involvement with the #Soundoff campaign? Do you have a specific goal in mind?

ZC: Mainly awareness, and making living conditions better for thepeople. John flew out there. He flew out to Shishmaref, and he brought a camera guy out there ... Hopefully I’m going to get out there this winter and go take some pictures and do some more interviews and things like that.

Every band and every artist should have something that they strive for. And John and I, being from Alaska, I think we have a pretty special and unique perspective on certain things that we can help out with. A lot of people just wouldn’t even think about it.

JR: Why do you think it’s so important to protect the culture and the histories of these communities?

ZC: Because they’re people. And specifically because it is culture, and it won’t be preserved. There’ve been so many terrible things that have happened in their history, and now, in this day and age, people can help. People can be held accountable. You need to take advantage of that. So if something starts slipping and it’s not too far gone, everybody needs to step up.

JR: Definitely. And since #Soundoff is meant to start a conversation about these issues with people in power, what do you think Congress can do to better protect and support these Native communities?

ZC: I think they really need to listen. Everybody just needs to be put in contact with the right people. That’s what our government is here for. They should be here to help, and they should be here to organize ways for people to help. The basic idea of it is that we just want voices to be heard. And like I was saying, in this day and age, people can hear a lot of voices. There are still some that are pretty quiet, and they need to get louder.

JR: Yeah, and these issues are still really relevant. Just last month there was a New York Times article about a proposed open-pit mine – it would be the largest in America – that was going to be built in Bristol Bay.

ZC: Yeah, I did hear about that. 

JR: It said it’s received a lot of opposition from Native Alaskans. Is that something where people could use the #Soundoff hashtag to make their voices heard on an issue, to tell Congress or tell people in power what to do?

ZC: Exactly. You have to listen to the people who are there. There can be so many spins and so much propaganda that you really need to talk to people who are there, because that’s the only way you’re ever going to find out anything….

When people are just reading about things, there can be so many things that can go wrong, especially with how many avenues they take to get it out to the public. So I think you really just need to get in touch with the people who are actually there. And now that you can do this, get cameras out there, get people there and find out what’s really going on. Show them.

JR: And since you were there, since you grew up there, were there any issues about these communities, or experiences that you had with them, that resonated with you in particular?

ZC: They’re all very far away. We only would hear stories. Even though it’s not a very big town, I lived in a town. But everyone is very supportive of Alaska in general. It’s a very tight knit community and very supportive as well. But again, it’s one of those things that if it’s out of sight it’s out of mind, and a lot of people don’t hear about these things.

I would hear stories when I was younger, but I’d never seen it for myself, or never seen the really far out [villages]. There’s a massive forest. It’s just really tough to live in those conditions, and so whatever can be done to make things easier for them. Definitely don’t let anybody go in there and make it harder for everybody. It’s hard enough. A gallon of milk can cost $15 out there, something like that. It’s tough to keep up with nutrition out there. It’s hard to get things flown in, and everything’s frozen. It’s just a difficult time.

JR: I know Portugal. The Man has used social media in cool ways before, like using Twitter to unlock an album cover. What do you think is the benefit of using social media through a campaign like #Soundoff to bring attention to the causes that you care about – in this case the Native Alaskans?

ZC: It just travels so fast, that’s what’s amazing about it. Anything happens and thousands of people can find out about it right away. And it spreads, if you get enough people to share it, if you promote it enough. It’s just such a useful tool for learning and gaining knowledge very quickly. So I think it’s hugely important on almost every level.

Alaska Natives

Join Portugal. The Man and HeadCount in fighting for Alaska Natives. Tweet @ your Senator using #SoundOff to share your voice. Be sure to check out HeadCount on Facebook and Twitter.