On Friday, June 11, the summer sun beat down on Matanuska Brewing’s Eagle River location. But the threat of sunburns didn’t deter several hundred fans from turning out to share pints with two of Alaska’s prodigal sons—Zachary Carothers and Eric Howk. Part of the Grammy-winning indie rock band, Portugal. The Man, Carothers, and Howk were back in Alaska promoting their upcoming Alaska State Fair performance on August 21.
Their short trip was a whirlwind, highlighted by seemingly never-ending press junkets in Anchorage and the Valley. Yet, if Carothers and Howk were exhausted, they never let it show. The duo excitedly greeted fans, signed autographs, and posed for photographs without missing a beat. They were everything one would hope for when meeting their idol for the first time.
If you ask Carothers and Howk how they’ve been able to avoid the pitfalls of celebrity, they’d tell you it’s because they never forgot where they grew up and the music scene they helped create.
“When we were kids, there really wasn’t a scene or people playing original music. So, we kind of just started doing it—terribly. I think the only people we looked up to was Phantom Eight, and their singer was in jail, so they were just an instrumental metal band,” laughs Carothers.
The desolate music scene in the late-90s and early 2000s could have been a con for a budding band, but Carothers says that the lack of original music was a major benefit.
“It’s like it was open to a lot of creativity without the pressure of trying to fit in,” says Carothers.
“Everything was treasured. Like, any band that made it through gigs was just revered in my mind forever,” adds Howk.
One of those treasured bands was the unlikely precursor to Portugal. The Man. Formed by Carothers, John Gourley, Joe Simon, Dewey Halpaus, and Nick Simon in 2002, Anatomy of a Ghost was a screamo post-hardcore band. Although the band released two albums, Carothers describes their sound as “just weird.”
“Everybody split up and did different projects—like there were the hardcore guys like me and John [Gourley] who did the weird art-pop stuff. Then Joe [Simon] and Nick [Simon] went on to do classic rock. It was so funny seeing how we all spread out. We were like, ‘Oh, that’s why we sounded like that together,’” laughs Carothers.
As Anatomy of a Ghost said its farewell, Carothers, Gourley, and Howk all found themselves in Portland looking for fresh starts.
“Fuck me, Portland was cool! We got there at the right time—right when it was a little petri dish of creativity,” says Howk.
“We thought if you wanted to be in a touring band, you needed stage lights and Lear jets and all that shit. Then we moved down to Portland and started seeing that we could go to some bar to see a band we’ve never heard of, from a town we’ve never heard, and all they had were instruments and a van. It was like, ‘Oh shit, we can do that. It kind of opened our eyes,’” adds Carothers.
While the newly formed Portugal. The Man began their humble ascent to musical greatness; Carothers says they were never in it for the money or fame. When they started, they would play a show and ask for just enough money for pizza and gas to get to the next town.
“We just wanted to see things and meet people. We wanted to hear stories. Really, that’s the whole reason we even started touring. Playing music was a means to go see things,” says Carothers.
15 years and numerous awards later, Carothers and Howk are still just as excited to hit the road.
“Whenever we go to a new place, I try to go to the nicest restaurant and the shittiest bar. What better way is there to get a sense for a place when you only have a few hours,” says Carothers with a chuckle.
But visiting dive bars and five-star restaurants are only a small part of what Portugal. The Man does on tour. They also spend a lot of time advocating for investments in Native communities, battling book bans, and fighting for disability rights.
“We get to travel, and we get to shift our perspectives in real-time all over the world. We played the Le Bataclan in Paris after the mass shooting, and the spackle was still drying over the bullet holes. We were also in Germany during the Chancellor elections when the alt-right was making some huge strongholds. How the fuck am I supposed to come home and keep all of those experiences to myself? It would be irresponsible of us not to do something when we see something,” says Howk.
“If you’re an artist, you have something to say. So, fucking say something,” says an impassioned Carothers.
But Howk and his bandmates aren’t just all talk. They have been making waves in very tangible ways through their newly formed PTM foundation. In 2019, they took home the Legend Award at the Native American Music Awards, which recognizes outstanding musical achievement in styles associated with Native Americans. In 2020, they won a Public Sector Leadership Award from the National Congress of American Indians.
“Alaska is a very unique place to grow up, and we didn’t really see things; we didn’t really see how cities work and how neighborhoods and communities function. For better or worse, Alaska is just unique, and it’s really hard to get context until you get out and travel around. It really changes how you see things,” says Carothers.
However, no matter how far Corothers or Howk venture from the Last Frontier, there is no doubt that they will remain the perfect mix of worldly and local.
Tickets for Portugal. The Man’s August 21 performance at the State Fair are available online at AlaskaStateFair.org for $49 - $79. Gates open at 5:30pm and the show begins at 7pm.