They’ve been called “a fantastically gritty rock duo”. Their live performances have been described as “fun, intense, and sarcastic”, “jaw-dropping”, and “raucous”. Their albums have been critically acclaimed. Their songs are intense and high energy. Sounds like a band that should be selling out arenas, headlining festivals across the country and around the world, and be featured daily on the radio, right? Instead, The Pack A.D. are one of Canada’s hidden musical treasures. Only until this year did they start receiving mainstream recognition, earning a Juno nomination as “Breakthrough Group of the Year”. But if you ask Becky Black and Maya Miller, they broke out a long time ago and doing what they love.
It’s a cool, September evening, and the crowd on the main stage at the Ottawa Folkfest is sparse but starting to fill. Most are here to see Vampire Weekend and others to see Colin Meloy, the lead singer of indie storytellers The Decemberists. However, very few know who The Pack A.D. are as they take the stage, uncertain what to expect. As Becky grabs her guitar and position on the left side of the stage and Maya sits at the drum kit, the first chords are heard and a hush is heard. The crowd is polite, watching quietly as the band plays the heart-pounding “Haunt You” and the throbbing “Deer”. The crowd is appreciative, but only a handful are truly immersed in the music. Just a microcosm of the name-recognition game the band is facing.
Following their Ottawa Folkfest appearance, I had a chance to sit down with Becky Black and Maya Miller of Vancouver’s The Pack A.D. to discuss their upcoming album, the making of the video for “Battering Ram”, and life on the road then and now. The chemistry the two have on stage is evident off-stage, as the two feed off one another, exchanging sarcastic remarks and common memories.
As we sit down in their trailer to get out of the cold, we talk quickly about their stay in Ottawa and they comment about the fine treatment they were receiving by the Folkfest staff. They both rave about the bathroom in the trailer, which comes with a fireplace. “The best trailer bathroom ever”, Becky remarks. They invite me to use it before I leave, but I respectfully pass (although maybe I should have gone to avoid the port-a-potties that waited for me on the festival grounds).
Becky and Maya appear a bit tired. They did arrive into Ottawa that day from Toronto and leaving after the interview to head back to Toronto for a gig. In between the Toronto show and before making their way back to the Ottawa area for a Sunday afternoon show on September 15 in Wakefield, they’ll visit Guelph, Saint Catherines, New York City, Windsor, Barrie, and Hamilton in 11 days (see tour dates below). That’s life as an indie rock band.
In the meantime, they are also preparing for the release of their next album, Do Not Engage, to be dropped on January 28, 2014, and planning their next tour in support of the LP. They say the next tour will be “epic” with dates across Canada, the US, and Europe.
Despite their exhaustion, the two are hospitable to this amateur. They are humble, engaging, and open. And one can easily see why, understanding where it all started.
In the beginning…
Unlike bands today that have the benefit of an emerging indie music industry or can share their creativity on online platforms like SoundCloud, Tumblr, and YouTube and, therefore, can make a name for themselves immediately, The Pack A.D. didn’t have the benefit of these multiple social media tools. Instead, they truly went the DIY route.
How did you two start the band and what was your first tour like?
“We actually started off as a group of friends who decided to learn to play instruments and form a band”, recalls Becky Black about their first foray into music nearly a decade ago. “Then the two of us broke off to do our own thing.”
“We would have secret practices, just the two of us”, Maya Miller adds with a smirk. “We would come up with songs and bring them back to the band. It didn’t work out with them, however, so we went out on our own.”
BB: “We took our songs and produced our first album for $200. Then we were like, ‘Guess we should tour.’ On our first tour, we thought it would be a great idea to load up on granola and beef jerky. That got really old quick.”
MM: “I won’t eat beef jerky anymore.”
BB: “We also didn’t shower much. We didn’t stay in hotels. Instead, we lived in a stinky old van.”
MM: “We didn’t know you could park for free in certain places, like campgrounds, so we would park in neighbourhoods near gas stations so we could use the bathroom. We were so unprepared.”
BB: “To shower, we would go to the YMCA. Some places were really cool to us, allowing us to shower for free, but then there would be some places where the dude would say, ‘It’s going to cost you the gym fee to shower.’ Come on, man…”
MM: “For the record, Medicine Hat, you can shower for free.”
BB: “So anyone going through Medicine Hat, the people at the YMCA are really nice. Well, at least they were 6 years ago.”
Take advantage of the grants system. If we were living in the States, I don’t think we would still be doing this. We would likely be that cartoon character with his pockets inside-out and broke.
What advice would you give people wanting to start their own music careers?
BB: “Take advantage of the grants system. If we were living in the States, I don’t think we would still be doing this. We would likely be that cartoon character with his pockets inside-out and broke.”
MM: “I would tell new bands that it’s important to have self-awareness. It’s important to know what works and to be honest. If a band has done like 30 shows and no one is having fun or feel they are not challenging themselves, then that is the time to be honest with one another. We talk about this sometimes. Music should be fun.”
New album, first single, and an upcoming “epic” tour…
What can fans expect from the new album?
BB: “Expect some of the same old stuff and some new. Different songs yet keeping with what we’ve done in the past.”
MM: “There’s a bit more psych-rock. It’s a progression from the last one, as we were going in a bit more of a heavier direction on the last album.”
BB: “Yeah. There’s more bass in our songs, which you can do in the studio even if you are a two-piece band. So that’s something new for fans to expect.”
Your first single, “Battering Ram”, has already been released accompanied by a very entertaining video. What was the process in writing the song?
BB: “We got together a month before recording the album and just did what we do. There’s no exact science or formula to it. It just happens”
MM: “The song started with a drumbeat I came up with and Becky liked it.”
BB: “That’s right. It sort of sounded like Fleetwood Mac and I came up with something. The lyrics came up later, but we started with the beat.”
MM: “I came up with the beat, but Becky wrote the lyrics. More recently, she’s been writing full songs, lyrically where I don’t have a single line contribution.”
BB: “But Maya writes a lot of lyrics, too, and does a lot of the songwriting.”
MM: “Yeah, there are a lot of songs where we don’t even know who wrote what because we modify each other’s words, but this one was all you.”
Who came up with the concept for the video? And why are you, Maya, getting your butt kicked?
BB: “It was the director’s (Lloyd Lee Choi’s) concept. He just wanted us to fight-dance.”
MM: “It was not my choice to be the one to be beaten up all the time.”
BB: “I was ok with it.”
MM: “In fact, during filming, she was beaten up a lot more. I did get some good shots in, but they just didn’t make cut. So it really looks like I was attacked all the time.”
BB: “But clearly, I would win anyway.”
Well, yeah, you would have the height advantage.
BB: “But she does have the lower centre of gravity.”
What about the sword swallowing? Who’s idea was that?
MM: “That was all him. We had nothing to do with it.”
BB: “I think it’s a guy thing.”
Was it fun to make the video or are the expressions of pain and agony real?
MM: “It was fun, but long. The fight scenes were my favourite parts of filming even though it was painful at times. I was rigged up in a harness, so I couldn’t go to the bathroom for hours because it’s a full-body harness on my legs and everything. Every time I got hit, I would get yanked back. And then Becky would pull me around the floor for several takes. With the beating I took, I couldn’t walk for three days.”
BB: “Yeah, I dragged Maya on the floor. Even though the fight scenes are a few seconds in the video, that took hours and hours. Every little detail, every move was repeated and recorded. However, I still enjoyed the fight scenes, but I did get whiplash. Maya, though, got the worst of it.”
BB: “The long hours were also excruciating, from 8 in the morning to 2 in the morning. So the first scene in the video is actual exhaustion.”
You’ve toured quite extensively over the years throughout Canada, the US, and Europe. What are some of your favour shows and places to play?
MM: “Favourite places to play is Calgary. They were one of the first places to warm up to us outside of Vancouver.”
BB: “And London, Ontario. Not sure why, but they embraced us immediately. I also like Calgary. They people were real, down to earth.”
BB: “We also love playing in Europe. We have had some great shows over there, especially in France. We play shows there and people know who we are.”
MM: “Maybe we’ll be one of those bands that are big in France.”
Like David Hasselhof is in Germany.
MM: “Yeah, he’s really popular over there. Like really popular.”
BB: “And still is.”
BB: “I like playing in the little, dingy bar shows where people are right on top of you and are really rowdy and the sound cuts out.”
MM: “Like in Calgary.”
BB: “Yeah, like in Calgary. In these little show, people are hilarious to watch because they are usually drunk and having a good time. The best part of the show is that you have the best seat in the house to watch the crowd. There’s always that guy or girl in the audience who would be swinging a chair.”
MM: “Like that guy in France on the day we ate duck. You know, the guy who was moaning throughout the show.”
BB: “There was also a woman who came on stage and sang with us in France.”
MM: “She came on stage, took the mic from Becky, and sang the chorus.”
BB: “Afterwards, in her little French voice, she apologized after and said she got a little excited. I guess so.”
With all the travel, how do you keep it new?
MM: “That’s a great question. I don’t know.”
BB: “I guess you don’t. It gets old but it changes. It’s hard to describe.”
MM: “But what gets us up are the live shows. For me, I get energerized every time I go on stage.”
BB: “With live shows, you get energy from the people. That’s why I love those small shows where the people are right in front of their faces and having a great time.”
MM: “The people make up 90% of the shows. I don’t think people realize how big of a part of the show they are because they give you energy back. You know at these shows if people are having a good time.”
BB: “And if you make a mistake or something goes wrong, you know these people are there to share this experience with you. It’s really a group experience.”
The Road Less Travelled…
With a new album set to be released early in the new year, an intensive tour shortly to follow, and growing recognition for their craft, The Pack A.D. may be positioning themselves to travel in roads not yet traveled. Maybe a trip to Japan will await them, expanding their boundaries. Maybe they’ll make inroads into the competitive North American market, in particular winning fans in their home country. But the one thing they won’t do is sell out.
At the end of the day, what do you want to achieve?
MM: “Mo’ money, mo’ money.”
BB: “Yeah, we got into music to make money yet we lived in a stinky, old van. Really, I don’t know. I guess to enjoy life, see places, entertain, and make good music.”
- September 12 – Villains Beastro in Windsor, Ontario
- September 13 – The Clarkson Pub in Barrie, Ontario
- September 14 – Supercrawl 2013 in Hamilton, Ontario
- September 15 – The Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield, Quebec
- October 7 – The Satellite in Los Angeles, California
- October 11 – Culture Collide Festival in Los Angeles, California
- October 12 – Alex’s Bar in Long Beach, California
- October 14 – Bardot-Hollywood in Los Angeles, California
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