Port O’Brien started three years ago as the duo (and couple) of Van Pierszalowski and Cambria Goodwin. The Bay Area band’s currently a quintet, but the two remain at the group’s core. It’s a highly autobiographical project, connected to where they travel and how they opt to live while doing it. For instance, they have a song called “Fisherman’s Son” and it’s not just one of those indie-rock seafaring metaphors: Vocalist and guitarist Van Pierszalowski actually is the son of a commercial fisherman. He’s a fisherman himself, too. As any number of tracks like “Stuck On A Boat” suggest, when Port O’Brien sing about heading to sea, there’s lived experience affixed to the chorus.
Every summer Pierszalowski joins his father on Kodiak Island in Alaska to fish salmon. Goodwin, who sings and plays banjo, keyboard, and mandolin, goes north, too, as Head Baker at the Larsen Bay cannery. (This summer, bassist Caleb Nichols also worked at the cannery.) Like Bon Iver’s love of the Wisconsin landscape and respect for the hunting tradition, these are the sorts of “jobs” you don’t quit. After the discussions with Van (who details a few fishing accidents) and Cambria (who offers a recipe for cayenne cocoa cake), check out a couple Port O’Brien tracks. Listen closely for the echoes.
STEREOGUM: So, you return to Alaska each summer to help your father fish?
VAN PIERSZALOWSKI That’s right.
STEREOGUM: Fishing’s clearly an important aspect of your music as well — from the band name to lyrics, etc. How long has your father been involved in commercial fishing? Yourself? Is it something you may eventually have to give up?
VP: My father hitchhiked up to Alaska from Southern California the summer after he graduated high school in 1969. He got a job on a boat on Kodiak Island and he has gone up every summer since. He worked as a crew member for several years before buying his own boat and becoming a captain in the early 1980s. I started going out on trips from a very early age, but I wasn’t old enough to be a full-time crew member until I was in the 8th grade or so. I don’t think I’ll ever be able say goodbye to it for good. This summer will be the first summer I will not be a crew member since I started, but there is no way I will never do it again. I just have to focus on music this time around.
STEREOGUM: Seafaring is something that shows up in indie rock all the time from Slint to Pinback to the Decemberists, etc. (I mean, it’s obviously a huge metaphor in literature as well via Melville, Hemingway, Conrad, et al.) What do you think the fascination is for folks who don’t actually go out to sea in real life?
VP: It’s such a romantic notion, going out to sea. There are so many metaphors inherent to life at the sea. It’s all just one big metaphor! So, its an easy thing to write songs about. Seafaring just has this image of being so honest and working-class, and timeless even. It’s interesting seeing how the actual current-day life of commercial fishermen has very little to do with the romantic ideals that non-seafarers like to think about.
STEREOGUM: In that vein: Ever have any major fishing injuries?
VP: I’ve had a few. When I was 15 or so, I was trying to jump from our boat, the Shawnee, to the tender (a bigger boat). The tender was anchored up in a bay and we tied up to them side-to-side. There are buoys that help to insulate the boats ramming up against each other. Anyway, it was stormy as shit and the boat were rocking pretty good. I tried to time the jump between boats, but an unexpected wave came and I fell in between the two. I barely held on to a bouy line, with my legs in the water … and the boat just kept rocking against each other. It was beyond frightening. Luckily, my dad saw it happen, and it took a few crew members from the tender to pull the bouy line in to get me. My leg was just one huge bruise.
Another one was three or four summers ago. The haul of fish was coming up on the side of the boat and I spotted a sting ray in with the salmon. I went to go grab it to throw it back into the ocean and it got me so hard. It was the most insane sensation. Those things are powerful.
Another one was two summers ago. When I was in the skiff, a line became tight right when I was disconnecting from the Shawnee and it launched the boat hook (a big hook attached to a long pole used to grab stuff that has fallen in the water), came up and slammed me directly in the face. Luckily, it wasn’t the hook side, but it was still just ridiculous how much it hurt. It was one of the stormiest days of the summer, and I was in the little skiff in the pouring rain just screaming. There weren’t any other boats around to help, so I had to wait until the end of the set which took an hour and a half or so.
STEREOGUM: Can you explain a typical day at sea? And, can you explain the process some?
VP: We usually wake up before dawn, which is usually between three or four in the morning up there during the summer. There are four people total on our boat; my dad is the captain, I am the skiffman, and we have two deckhands. We use a purse seine net, which is about a quarter of a mile long. We catch the salmon right before they head back upstream to spawn and die, so they are concentrated along the shores. My dad aligns the boat about 1/4 mile offshore and yells to a deckhand to release the net. One end of the net (the bunt end) is tied on to a smaller boat, which I operate, called the skiff. I turn around and tow away from shore, but really just end up treading water, in an attempt to stay in relatively the same place that I was left off. My dad drives the Shawnee as close to land as he can with the other end of the net. Once the net is set, we are allowed to hold it open for 30 minutes. Over the course of that time, the tide and the wind move the net quite a lot (depending on the conditions), so my dad and I have to maneuver around to try and keep the net in position. After 30 minutes, we bring the two ends together and start hauling it on board with the hydraulics. There is a line that goes throughout most of the net at the bottom called the purse line that comes on board about twice as fast as everything else. This causes the net to “purse” so that fish can’t get out under the net. It takes another 30 minutes to get the entire net back on the boat. The fish get bunched up at the end, and all come on board at the last minute. That is the moment of truth!
STEREOGUM: What are the main sorts of fish you’re catching?
VP: Salmon, exclusively.
STEREOGUM: After the fish are caught, what happens? Shipped to a processing plant?
VP: After the fish come on board, we temporarily store them in the “fish-hold.” The Shawnee’s fish-hold’s capacity is about 45,000 pounds, or about 15,000 pink salmon. The hold is full of RSW (refrigerated sea water) that is around 32 degrees (we have a cooling system on the boat). Every two days, we have to deliver our fish to tenders, which are bigger boats that come from the cannery in town to the boats to pick up fish, so we can keep fishing (we are sometimes up to 20-22 hours away from a cannery).
STEREOGUM: It’s a tough business, obviously. How many months out of the year is your father fishing? Does he (or you) have any superstitious fishing rituals? Talisman?
VP: The salmon season runs from June-September, but we go up a few weeks early to get the boat ready. There are several superstitions out there. Whistling is a big taboo, because it will surely “whistle up the wind.”
STEREOGUM: Do you ever fish for fun in in the Bay Area?
VP: We do fish once in a while for fun in Oakland at Lake Temescal and a few of the other lakes around. It’s quite different from commercial fishing, thats for sure!
STEREOGUM: Do you have a favorite fishing/seafaring book?
VP: The Old Man And The Sea is my favorite book of all time.
STEREOGUM: As an aside, you have a baker and a fisherman in Port O’Brien … very self-sufficient. If you got a wine maker or beer brewer in the crew, you’d be set.
VP: That would be perfect. We’ll have to get the boys on that path… Beer school.
STEREOGUM: How long have you worked as a baker?
CAMBRIA GOODWIN: I got my first job in a bakery when I was 14 in my hometown of Cambria, California. It was a quaint little place on Main Street called Rainbow Bean. It’s the place that first inspired me to become a professional baker.
STEREOGUM: Do you have official schooling? Or something you picked up via practice?
CG: When I moved up to Oakland, I immediately started school at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. I specialized in the Baking and Pastry Arts program. I had a very positive experience at the school academically, but I’m still feeling the financial strain to the full degree. I can’t say it was worth the money, necessarily. I feel that I’ve learned just as much from hands-on experience and from other, more experienced pastry chefs.
STEREOGUM: What’s your work situation like? Are you in a bakery or working from home? I was told that you’re “the town’s baker,” which suggests you’re the only baker. Is that so?
CG: During the summers in Alaska, I work in a very remote area of Kodiak Island called Larsen Bay. There is a seasonally operated salmon cannery there, and a small native village. Other than that, there are no roads or any other sort of community anywhere near. Float planes are the only way to get in and out of the Bay. I work as the only baker for the entire cannery, which houses up to 300 people at any given time. The bakery is my home for the summer, where I spend almost all of my hours. It is located in the same building as the mess hall and the kitchen, but retains a separation from those areas. The building is situated directly on the dock so it has a beautiful view of the bay and I can watch the various ships come in and out while I work. As far as equipment, everything is pre-1960, so its quite a time warp, which is one of my favorite aspects of the job.
STEREOGUM: What sort of hours do you work?
CG: My average day in peak season is about 18-20 hours. Everything is baked from scratch, so it requires a lot of prep time. As the baker, I have to have enough pastries for all the workers at several different times a day, around the clock. I pick up hours of sleep when I can, but there isn’t as much of a “night-time.” The sun is always up anyway, so it makes little difference when I can grab a few hours of sleep.
STEREOGUM: Any specialties? Or any specific food aesthetics? I mean, using organic ingredients or unbleached flour, etc…
CG: My specialty is the cake. Last year, I worked at a bakery in Oakland called La Farine where I learned a lot about the art of wedding cakes. They are my favorite thing to bake because they allow so much room for creativity. I am quite fascinated with the history of the wedding cake as well. When in California, I try to use as many organic ingredients as possible, but it’s virtually impossible to use any in Alaska. Unfortunately, the distributors that I have to order from rarely have any organic items at all.
STEREOGUM: Thoughts on Wonder Bread?
CG: I can’t say I’m a fan. I’m a bit of a bread snob.
STEREOGUM: Bread machines?
CG: I’ve never used one myself. When I bake bread, even in large quantities, I like to be very hands-on with the entire process. Its amazing to watch such simple ingredients come to life and grow. You lose that aspect of the process with a bread machine. I don’t like the idea of putting ingredients into a machine and having it come out as something completely different. You might as well just buy a loaf from your local bakery.
STEREOGUM: Favorite celebrity cook?
STEREOGUM: Do you see any analogs between baking and songwriting? Or music-making in general?
CG: There are a lot of rhythmic elements to baking … from the sounds of the Hobart to the whisking of eggs. It’s a very percussive procedure.
STEREOGUM: Can you pass along a simple recipe for our readers?
CG: I am kind of obsessed with this cake! It is super easy and fast to put together … the perfect combination of sweet and spicy! It is perfect with a milk chocolate butter cream.
Ancho Cayenne Cocoa Cake
1 1/4 c Cake flour
1/2 c Buttermilk
1/2 c Cocoa
2 tb Godiva liqueur
3 tb Ancho chili powder
1 ts Vanilla extract
1/8 ts Cayenne
1 ts Baking soda
1/4 ts Baking powder
1/2 ts Salt
1 1/4 Stick unsalted butter
1 1/2 c Sugar
1/4 c Plus
2 tb Hot coffee
1. Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Lightly grease the sides of two 15-1/2 by 10-1/2 inch jelly-roll pans. Line them with parchment or buttered waxed paper, melted butter or non-stick vegetable spray for greasing the pan.
2. Sift the flour, cocoa, ancho, cayenne, baking powder, baking soda and salt onto a sheet of waxed paper. Sift two more times to mix and aerate. Put the butter and sugar in the bowl or an electric mixer and beat at high speed for two minutes until well combined and smooth. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until each is incorporated. Continue beating until light and very fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl if necessary, about five more minutes. With the mixer on its lowest setting, or by hand with a rubber spatula, fold in one half of the dry mixture. Fold in the vanilla and one quarter of the buttermilk and coffee; another one third of the dry mixture and then the remaining buttermilk and coffee. Finally, fold in the remaining ingredients.
3. Spread the batter evenly in the two pans. Bake for 30 minutes or until the center springs back when lightly pressed. Cool the cake layers, in the pans, on a wire rack.
4. When cool, turn them out of the pans by inverting each one onto a plate.
And, here are a couple songs: The first is a live acoustic take of “A Bird Flies By” recorded at the Triple Door in Seattle; the second, “Close The Lid,” comes from the forthcoming All We Could Do Was Sing.
And don’t forget the jam:
All We Could Do Was Sing is out 5/13 via the band themselves. They head out on tour in May. You can get the dates and more music at their MySpace. Oh, please note the name of this skiff Van’s piloting.