The moment you press play on portra, the debut EP from alt-pop duo joan, you’ll feel like you’re in an 80s movie. But you’ll feel like you’re in one that was filmed on a RED 4K digital camera, rather than, say, a 35 mm film camera. It sounds like the 80s, but it’s got modern production backing it up that makes it fit in today’s day and age. joan is comprised of Alan Thomas and Steven Rutherford, two friends who grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. They’ve been playing and making music together for less than two years, and yet they’ve already been gaining international attention, whether it be from publications, performances at European festivals, or airtime on the radio.
Last summer saw the release of the band’s first EP, portra (taken from the name of a type of film stock that the band states goes hand-in-hand with their aesthetic and vibe). portra is all about love, and harkens listeners back to a time of innocence and butterflies-in-your-stomach teenage love, when even a small crush could feel like the beginning and end of the world. The duo will be performing at Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco this Friday, February 8th with Half Alive (part of Aaron Axelsen’s Popscene concert series) and again on Tuesday, February 12th with The Aces. We spoke with Alan and Steven via phone when they were in-between tour dates in Flagstaff, AZ, catching up with them on everything portra related.
Note: This interview has been edited in some parts for clarity.
When I listen to the portra EP, as well as the new “drive all night” single, I hear a ton of 80s new wave influence. I feel like it’s something I would have heard in a John Hughes film at some point. How did that sound come to influence this project? Was that the kind of music you grew up on, or something you discovered later in life?
Alan: Yeah, it was definitely something we grew up on, across the spectrum. I mean everything from what you just said, the John Hughes, Don Henley “Boys of Summer” vibe, to Prince and Michael Jackson. What’s interesting is that when we sat down to write for the first time, we were both in different bands at the time. We were just kind of looking to try to start writing just to see what happened, because Steven was graduating college. I had just graduated, and I was doing music full time. So we said, “hey let’s just kinda see what happens. Best case scenario, we get some songs that work good for licensing or something”. That day, when we wrote for the first time, we wrote “Take Me On”, our very first single. What’s interesting is that we didn’t necessarily set out to write in that [style]. These were sounds, synths, and a vibe that we really just identified with. We were trying to say, “Okay, why when we watch these John Hughes movies or these iconic scenes, or hear these iconic songs, do they make us feel the way that we feel?” We want to tap into that. It just landed there with the kind of nostalgic vibe. It wasn’t necessarily an aim that we had, other than that we just wanted to capture a feeling.
From what I’ve seen, it appears that you released everything on portra as standalone singles, before wrapping it up into a 6 track EP that was released last year. Did you have all of the songs written at once, or did you steadily work and release one song at a time?
Steven: So there was about a five month period between “Take Me On” and “Love Somebody Like You” where we wrote a lot of songs. I would say that most of the songs that ended up on portra were written there. We started joan and whenever we were writing, we would just say, “let’s release a new song every once in a while and see what happens. Let’s see our writing will end up as we release stuff.” As we kept releasing singles, it just kept feeling more and more like they were fitting together. I think by [the song] “tokyo”, we were like “let’s release two more after this and make it its own thing. It all meshes really well together.”
Alan: It’s cohesive.
Steven: Yeah, it wasn’t a plan right at the beginning to do singles and then compile it into an EP, but it was kind of the plan midway.
What does the title portra mean?
Steven: Portra is a 35-millimeter film stock. Whenever we started writing songs, like about the time we thought that maybe these songs could be put into an EP, basically we would do all of the visuals ourselves. Since we’ve started, the look and aesthetic of joan was very much a “film” look. Portra 400 [film] is basically what we used on everything. So throughout the writing process and when we were releasing singles and stuff, that was visually very much a part of the project, just as much as the music was. It kind of made sense; it feels like the music, it sits well with the music.
On the topic of love, which is a subject that’s heavily discussed throughout the EP, what or who do you draw inspiration from lyrically? This could be kind of a big question, but are you pulling from moments in life, a certain person? Where does that inspiration draw from?
Alan: Yeah, it’s a little bit of everywhere. What’s funny is that we’ve had this conversation several times before, internally, with just the two of us. With songs like “I Loved You First”, we just started crafting a story and an idea of wishing you could have someone you wanted, but she’s just out of reach. As we were writing it, we were like, “oh my god, this is the story of my first serious girlfriend in junior high.” Which of course, people gawk at, because they’re like, “Oh, how serious can love be in junior high?” But it was a really formative thing for me, because it was the first time I had heartbreak.
Some of it comes from personal experience. I mean, we’re both happily married now. So if we’re writing a song about heartbreak, we’re not really tapping into anything current, but most of it comes from something in our past, even if we were children. There’s always some story or memory you have that can draw or elicit some emotion again if you want to pull that back out. We also just love storytelling. There’s an element to being a songwriter where you try to be genuine and pull from as much personal experience as you can. It’s just fun to craft a new story that maybe doesn’t have anything to do with you, or maybe it’s about someone you know, or loosely based on a movie you saw. We kinda like to hit the gamut in terms of that.
Last week, you released a new single called “drive all night”. How long did that track take to come together, and was this a track that was going to be included on portra?
Steven: That’s a good question. I think that when we started it, it was kind of a demo where it was like “verse/chorus”. We were doing a lot of stuff like that at the time. It had a different vibe at the beginning, but it was probably the fifth or sixth song that we wrote as joan. I don’t know, it just ended up being on the back-burner a little bit until we were looking at our demos and stuff. We were like, “oh man! That’s a song.” We were working with this guy named Carl Falk out of Sweden. We were showing him demos we had been writing on in the past year or so, and he really loved that one and wanted to see where we could go with it. He kind of brought life to it again, and gave us inspiration on it.
You’ll be coming through San Francisco this Friday, February 8th at Rickshaw Stop with Half Alive. For those that will be seeing you for the first time, what can people expect in regards to the experience you give in your live show?
Alan: I play guitar and keys up front and sing, and Steven’s singing and playing drums, triggering some tracks and drum stuff. Yes, it’s a big sound for two people to accomplish. With part of that, I mean thank God for technology, because there are parts that we don’t have to cover live. We’ve kind of taken the approach from the beginning. I remember seeing Coldplay awhile back, when they were on the “Viva La Vida” tour. When “Viva La Vida” started playing, there’s that big iconic orchestral hook. I’m looking on stage and thinking, “hey, there’s not a single string player up there.” And you know, no one cares. Everyone was in the moment and the energy was amazing. They were still obviously all playing instruments live, so we try to balance it. If the two of us were a duo, we’d love to keep it that way for the time being on stage with the idea of, “how the heck do we pull this off?” But it’s been received really well. We’ve always heard, “I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t expect you guys to be as good as you are live with just two people, but it really works.” Hopefully all of the energy we’re bringing and the stuff that we’re playing live makes up for that.
What do you hope people take away from listening to an EP like portra?
Alan: Man, I mean our biggest goal is to elicit joy with people. I know it’s kind of a generic answer, but if someone listens to our songs and goes, “man, you really made me feel something, you made me remember something from back in the day”…I mean, even for people who are older than us, if it reminds them of something that they grew up on, that’s so beautiful to me. All the way down to teenagers that love us, we’re just trying to bring joy to people with our music. We’re unabashed about trying to find our imprint in the modern pop world and trying to bring some hopefully good, wholesome songs to the table.