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Laneway Festival: Port O’Brien

Written by Thomas Mitchell on December 16, 2008

Port O’Brien are the second best thing to ever come from Alaska, the first being Sarah Palin’s body. The band, which draws inspiration from freezing temprstures and the artic ocean, spoke to us from sunny California, naturally.

“Well we just got back from Europe We were there for a month touring and went to fourteen different countries. It was an insane, crazy month, you know, it’s a long time to be over there, but it was really fun, really difficult.”

Fourteen countries in a month sounds like a Contiki tour on speed, but the band were kept busy, with shows, not drunken sloppy sex.

“We only had three days off out of the whole month; it was one of those tours, so there were times when we were a little exhausted, to say the least. But we’ve been touring for just over a year, pretty much non stop, so we’re kind of used to it.”
Despite audiences embracing the band, the relentless tour begun to take its toll. Just as they were falling off the “I still give a shit” bandwagon, a crazy crowd in Brussels reignited the band. Trust the Belgians, good for motivation and chocolate.

“I think we were received really well, I think audiences are different there. I mean Europe’s a big place; you can’t really generalize, but Brussels was crazy. I remember the audience being extremely wild and pumped, and it was just the pick me up we needed at that point. We were really tired and then sometimes when you least expect it, a show ends up being the most fun.”

Tired must be a normal feeling for the folksy foursome. Lead singer Van used to spend the summer on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska, and bassist Cambria worked in an Alaskan bakery. The band would then reconvene to work on the music.

“That is kind of how it worked for a while, but last summer they didn’t go to Alaska. They stayed down here and kept touring, because we wanted to keep the momentum going with the band – there was a lot of interest generating – and I think we would all prefer to be musicians as opposed to Van being a fisherman and Cambria being a baker. Music is where out hearts are.”

Shifting the focus from fish and bread to music and lyrics proved a difficult transition. Record sales are dropping quicker then the Dow Jones (whatever that is) and labels are reluctant to invest in anything. So the band packed up their shit and hit the road.

“Yeah that’s the key, being on the road endlessly and hoping that you don’t lose your mind in the process. We aren’t making any money from touring. Right now we’re kind of breaking even, but it really takes a lot – with gas prices being the way they are – and everyone you work with takes a percentage of what you make.”

“Record sales are dropping. Record labels are getting nervous about how much they’re willing to give bands and it is a shaky time for the music industry. It helps to be persistent, so for us that means living on a couch.”

One thing is for sure, if the band does hit the big time it will have been more of a marathon than a sprint. Hard slog not smash and grab, you get it.

“Yeah, I don’t know if the overnight success exists anymore, it does for people in the pop world, but you talk to any band now and people are broke. In order to be a touring musician you have to live almost like a monk or something, you have no personal privacy, no possessions and no money.”

Penniless but persistent, Port O’Brien still landed some studio time to record their debut album All We Could Do Was Sing.

“It was just four friends making music, we got really involved, it was a lot of fun. We recorded half the album at Tiny Telephones in San Francisco, and the other half at Pan American, which is Jason Quever’s studio. He engineered there, and he is incredibly talented, really fun to work with.”
Budget became less of an issue, as drummer Josh roped in his father to do the string arrangement. Hooray for free labor.

“Then, after we finished the basic tracking, my father, who plays the cello, arranged all the string sections for the album. He came in with a few hired musicians and we did an overdub day, where we watched them record the string parts.”

“It was my first time working with my father on any musical project and it was an incredibly touching experience, the songs just evolved into something we have never dreamed of them being. It was a very personal and beautiful experience for all of us.”

After being touched by Josh’s father, the band felt the need to escape and will be hitting our sunny shores in December, so be sure to check them out!

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