A lot of things come off Alaskan fishing boats when they dock after long hauls at sea — grumpy men, pervasive aromas and, of course, loads of fresh catch. What doesn’t always step off the decks and onto the docks is mesmerizing folk-pop music, though that’s exactly what happened each time Van Pierszalowski, who along with Cambria Goodwin makes up the creative core of West Coast buzz band Port O’Brien, unloaded from his father’s salmon fishing boat on Alaska’s Kodiak Island.
The arrangement was simple: Each summer, Pierszalowski would travel from California and go to sea with his father, sometimes for as many as six weeks at a time, while Goodwin would stay on shore and run the local bakery. Each would write songs in their respective isolation and converge when the fishing trips ended, a collaboration which spawned many of the songs that carry POB’s early discography on either of two albums released in 2007 – The Wind and the Swell and All We Could Do Was Sing.
Pierszalowski’s fishing days are over, due to a combination of the backbreaking work and the band’s increased touring schedule behind its latest offering, Threadbare, released October 6. Checking in from San Francisco (home base these days), Pierszalowski reflects on the new record, his days on the boat and his band’s bright future.
SSv: Literal band names are always interesting — and yours is literally a place I could find on a map and go visit, right?
Van Pierszalowski: Yeah, it’s the name of a now abandoned cannery on Kodiak Island in Alaska where my parents met in the late ’60s. It’s still there, but no one works there. I just really love that imagery of this place that was kind of like once this thriving community and now it’s kind of just disappearing.
SSv: Sum up life on a fishing boat.
Van: It’s hard work. Long hours. We basically have to work as long as the fish are swimming, and they’re swimming as long as the sun is out — which, in Alaska in the summertime, is pretty much always. [Laughs] You probably work about 20 hours a day, and you’re out at sea for up to six weeks at a time or so. It’s very tough, very intensive.
SSv: Back then, you and Cambria were separated all the time, but still writing towards a common goal. What were the up and downs of writing in separation?
Van: It’s just different. I would write stuff on the boat, she would write stuff on land and we’d put them together. Maybe the positive of that is that you can put more of your own sort of personal stamp on things. Away from there, it’s more immediately collaborative, and that feels a little more natural. That’s what we did on this record. And who knows how the next record will shape up — maybe it’ll be totally different.
SSv: Did you find it easier to write about the place you weren’t? For example, writing about land when on the boat, writing about the boat when on land?
Van: Definitely. It’s easier to be reflective about something. If you’re writing a song about being on a boat when you’re on a boat, it just gets a little too literal. [Laughs]
SSv: The romanticized image of any songwriter always seems to have them alone. What is it that’s so artistic about isolation?
Van: Well, on the boat, for example, I didn’t talk to anyone but my dad or my crew for six weeks. It really frees your mind of a lot of the distractions — modern day distractions like technology and text messaging that are always around you, all of a sudden there’s none of that.
SSv: It’s been a couple summers since you’ve had that routine, so the writing process was obviously different for Threadbare. Did you find the change in setting to be a challenge?
Van: We had so much going on in our lives that it was really easy to get inspiration. I think being in a city, in many ways, is just as inspirational as being out on boat. There’s something inspirational about being distracted by text messaging [Laughs].
SSv: Talk a little about the recording process of Threadbare.
Van: We started in Sacramento with this big band that we’d been touring with, and we quickly realized that it really wasn’t working and ended up scrapping the whole session, which is tough because we spent a lot of money on it. But we knew we had to do it because it wasn’t what we wanted it to sound like. We stripped the band down to just me and Cambria and [band member] Ryan [Stively]. We basically just recorded for about 23 days in a row, non-stop, just recording and therapy sessions [Laughs]. After that, we still had about five songs we wanted to do a little bigger, that needed more strings and arrangements and what not, so we finished up the record in L.A. at a place called The Ship Studio with Aaron Espinoza.
SSv: Where does the album fit into the natural progression of Port O’Brien? Or does it all?
Van: With our music, it’s all the same sorts of songs [across records], so it’s more of the way that we see them, the way we approach them. With The Wind & The Swell , that was recorded by me and Cambria in our bathroom. We did it in like six days, really rushed, basically just because we didn’t know what we were doing. With Threadbare, we had a totally different approach.
SSv: You’ve toured pretty extensively in both the states and Europe. How do the amenities compare?
Van: We do well over there. Better than here, really, so it’s a little more comfortable. We have a tour manager driving us around, get hotel rooms and it’s nice. Here, it’s a little more up in the air. We do what we can, but everything is so spread out and it just costs a little more to get from point A to point B.
SSv: Do you have a favorite place in both?
Van: California is obviously my favorite place in the world. It’s where we’re from, we have great shows. Holland is probably my favorite place in Europe. But I also really love London. We love Germany and have a really great time there.
SSv: What’s the live philosophy of Port O’Brien?
Van: We just try to have as much fun as possible, try to make the crowd as interactive with us as possible. My philosophy is to kind of leave them wanting more. I don’t like going to shows and watching a band play for like two hours. We like to keep our sets short so the energy level can remain high throughout.
SSv: NPR recently tagged you guys with its “Song of The Day” honor. Do things like that add any pressure moving forward?
Van: Not really. In the last three years, we’ve had our fair share of stuff like that. Not saying that it isn’t an honor – we were very excited about that. But I don’t really ever feel pressure because of reviews or critiques or anything like that.
SSv: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from Cambria?
Van: She taught me to get out of the straight line path that I was on. Growing up I was kind of a goody-two-shoes, just blindly going forward. She kind of shook me out of that and changed my perspective on things.
SSv: What do you think she would say she’s learned from you?
Van: Oh man, I don’t even want to guess. [Laughs]
SSv: Is there a comparison of your music you’ve heard that stands out as the most flattering?
Van: Everyone kind of says Neil Young. That’s flattering, obviously. Neil is amazing, a big inspiration for us.
SSv: Are there comparisons you’ve just never understood?
Van: Ya, people have compared us to Rogue Wave. I don’t really understand that at all, we don’t sound like them. A lot of people say Arcade Fire, which is just lazy. Just because we have strings, I guess, and some shouting? [Laughs] The songwriting style is completely different. I really have never understood why everyone says that. It’s like The Beatles. Everyone always says everyone sounds like The Beatles.
SSv: The end of the year is coming up, and everyone’s making their “best of” lists. What’s going to be on yours?
Van: The Papercuts record is absolutely amazing. And I really like Camera Obscura’s new record a lot.
SSv: Define success for Port O’Brien in the next six months to a year?
Van: If we can just stay together and keep playing shows. That’s the important thing. People forget how hard it is to keep a band together. So that’ll be success.