Port O'Brien singer and guitarist Van Pierszalowski is a fisherman's son — other indie-rock plunderers of pirate imagery, take note. "The sea is one of the most open-ended metaphors that human beings can possibly use," he says. "The way that we're different, I guess, is that when we talk about it, it's more literal. It's more like, 'I'm sick of being stuck on this motherfucking boat!'"
Pierszalowski has worked summers on his father's boat since an early age, leaving town to pull in salmon off Kodiak Island in Alaska. His bandmate, singer and multi-instrumentalist Cambria Goodwin, has worked the past four years as head baker at a cannery in Larsen Bay, Alaska. And, as if victim to some sort of crazed mainland recruitment drive, bassist Caleb Nichols worked at the cannery last season. That leaves guitarist Zebedee Zaitz and drummer Joshua Barnhart, who thus far have remained linked to the fishing biz only in song.
This year will mark the first time Pierszalowski misses a salmon season, as Port O'Brien tours in support of its first proper studio album, All We Could Do Was Sing, which comes out May 13. "It was really a hard decision, and I'm still kind of struggling with it," Pierszalowski says of foregoing his seabound schedule. "But we've put so much time and money into this album that to leave three days after it goes on sale is kind of a waste."
Last year's The Wind and the Swell, a compilation of various self-released odds and ends, was a more folky, intimate affair, drawing comparisons to Will Oldham and Songs: Ohia. The album charmed many a listener, including indie rocker M. Ward, who in an interview declared Port O'Brien his favorite band. That namecheck helped propel the band — once the fishing was done — onto tours with Rogue Wave, Bright Eyes, and Modest Mouse.
All We Could Do Was Sing documents a spirited, fully realized Port O'Brien. The disc opens with a new version of its oft-recorded "I Woke Up Today," with its rowdy, howled group chorus and ad hoc percussion. "We've half-joked that we'll put a new version on each album we do," Pierszalowski says. "It's kind of our anthem."
Most of the songs have a more introspective bent, exploring the ups and downs of life in Alaska (although the band is officially based in San Luis Obispo). "Stuck on a Boat" is a midtempo lament about, well, take a guess; and the airy "Fisherman's Son" finds Pierszalowski fingerpicking his way to accepting his fate. Both songs benefit from string arrangements provided gratis by Barnhart's cellist father.
Other tracks find Pierszalowski anchored to an amplifier with the band plugging in and cranking it, as on "Pigeonhold," with its sloppy Neil Young soloing, or the perfect "Close the Lid," which Pierszalowski sees as the grand conclusion: "We address Alaska, what that means, the feelings you experience there, and how that relates to the feeling of going back to normal civilization in a city," he says. "At the end, it's kind of like, why bother thinking about it? You might as well just sing."
Van Pierszalowskis Alaska Fun Facts
Favorite Fish: King salmon
Favorite Bear: Kodiak
Favorite Knot: Clove hitch
Strangest Catch: Rotting sea lion carcass
Favorite Way to Enjoy Salmon: Jerky
Thing Missed Most at Sea: Hot showers
Thing Missed Most on Land: [The lack of] personal drama
Favorite Mythical Sea Creature: Nessie*
* "I know the Loch Ness Monster's not officially a sea creature, but we named our tour van after it, because it's green."