by Chris Bay
Residing in Vancouver, the Pack a.d. draws a stark contrast from its Canadian musical brethren. Where most exports from our northern neighbor are of the carefully manicured pop variety (cf. New Pornographers, Destroyer and Broken Social Scene) the Pack a.d. delivers brash, visceral, blues-inflected garage rock.
The duo of Maya Miller on drums and Becky Black on guitar and vocals has released four records to date. Its two most recent albums, 2009's we kill computers and 2011's Unpersons, demonstrate a clear purpose, fiercely delivered. Its songs heave and pulse with an intensity seldom captured on record or onstage. We caught up with Black while the duo was on the road, en route to a show in support of the band Elliott Brood, whom they'll be supporting in St. Louis at the Old Rock House (1200 South Seventh St. 314-588-0505) on Wednesday, March 7.
Chris Bay: You're on the road right now?
Becky Black: We are, yep.
Where are you headed?
We're on our way to San Francisco.
San Francisco to St. Louis in five days is a lot of miles.
Yeah, well, it's a big country you've got here.
Are you guys doing this whole swing of the tour with Elliot Brood?
Yeah, we're doing the whole thing up until Washington, D.C., with them.
This isn't the most obvious pairing. How did that come about? Do your bands share management or something similar?
We have the same booking agent. We were asked if we wanted to go out on the road with them and we said, yeah, that'd be great. I thought it would be kind of a weird bill, but it's actually worked out pretty well so far. They're more rootsy, and we're rock. I kind of prefer that when there's a bill where the acts don't necessarily play the exact same kind of music.
You guys are loud and can be very intense live. Have you ever been on a bill with a band so different from your own that it just absolutely didn't work?
It's only happened a few times. In any case, where the audience is there to see another band that's not you, and if the genres do differ then, or even if they don't, there's a certain level of trying to win over the crowd and we haven't the worst time of it.
We played in a country bar that thought that we were rootsier and they were like, '"You guys are too loud, and you're driving our customers away." So we turned down a bit. We turned down everything, and they were like, "No, no, it's still too loud." And we said, "Well, we can't really turn the drums down; they're not even miked." But that happened a long time ago, and it doesn't seem to happen as much when you're playing actual rock venues.
The high-energy live show is one of the trademarks of the band. Do you feel like people are more likely to become fans after seeing you live as opposed to after hearing the record?
I think our music translates a lot better live than it does on a record, mainly because it is so simple. It's not like we're doing anything incredibly unique or groundbreaking or anything, so the record is the record. But we put everything into the performances that we can. And especially because there's only two of us and I feel like I'm the only one standing onstage, so I overcompensate by moving around as much as I can. I feel like if I'm standing in one place singing by the microphone then it's not dynamic enough. It just translates better live, than on record. Even though every time we record we attempt to make it sound as live as possible, it's still impossible to do that.
Your records do sound very live, though. It's kind of a cliché to say, "This is a live band; they're not great on record." You hear that thrown around a lot in reference to various bands. But when I've seen you guys, and when I've heard the records, the records do a really great job of translating the energy and the sound and the rawness of the live show. Is that something that you put a lot of time into? What goes into that?
Every time we go in to record, and it's been with the same engineer the last few times, we talk about what we want to get out of the record. And we usually just want it to sound really loud and heavy and as live as we can get it. It's never really that easy because you're in a room, you're not in front of people. So you're trying to emote the same way, [as when you're onstage] but you're also just trying to get a good take with everything.
And maybe it comes off live too because we don't record anything separately. We do all of the bed tracks together with me and Maya. So when it goes up in tempo or down, we kind of go together, which we do all the time because we're not really very good musicians. [Laughs] And that ends up on the record. We usually do a couple of takes and when we get one that's good enough we'll move on from there. If you spend too much time perfecting everything then I think it loses its charm. The last couple of records demonstrate a trend of the band moving toward louder, more driving, straight, hard rock. Is this something you and Maya have been consciously doing? Are you settling into a pocket or do you think you'll keep exploring different sounds and different ways to express yourself musically?
I think we'll always be wanting to try new things. But with the last two albums in particular we came into it. We play a lot of shows. We're on tour eight out of twelve months of the year. We've been touring a little bit less lately, but we were crazy that way. And we realized that we don't play a lot of the slow songs live, so why would we record slow songs? So we just decided with these last two records, let's just record the stuff that we're actually going to want to play live.
As far as new things go, we could always add new members. On our last record I did a track on the organ, which is kind of quietly in one of the songs, which we can't really replicate. We don't know yet, whether we'll change that much or whether we'll stay the same.
I first heard the Pack a.d. a few years ago on CBC Radio 3. I get a very different vibe about the way that station operates, even when compared to most independent stations in the U.S. Can you say something about Canadian radio, and the role that Canadian radio plays in the independent music community in Canada and how that might differ from that in the U.S.?
One of the more standout things about Canadian radio, or anything Canadian, is that there's CanCon, which says that there has to be a certain amount of Canadian content in everything. [Ed: CanCon typically refers to requirements enacted by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission that require a baseline percentage of content that is at least partially produced by Canadians.] So it's pretty good for Canadian bands, at least getting exposure in our own country, especially through CBC Radio 3. The Canadian music scene is not that big, there's not that many people there, but it has more of a cohesivity with CBC Radio 3, and with radio stations in general. But then in some ways it's limiting, I guess. I've heard people that are radio DJs that say, "Because of CanCon, I have to play this Canadian song and that Canadian song." But I think it's a good thing, in general.
A lot of the exports from Canada that have been very successful in the U.S. have been of a very particular indie and pop variety. You guys are nowhere close to those sounds. Are the Canadian bands that have done very well in the U.S. representative of independent Canadian music to a great extent? Or do they simply represent what we in the U.S. have taken a liking to out of Canada?
I really don't know. I don't know how to answer that one.
Well, within Vancouver, is there a bigger garage and punk scene than people might expect?
Yeah, there has been pockets of it. And there are some pretty good punk bands from Vancouver and the west coast in general. I don't know if we even necessarily even fit into what's going on there musically. It's hard to be a part of a music scene in the city that you live in when you are never home.
The story of the band's name is fairly well known now. You were originally called the Pack and there was a west coast hip-hop group called the Pack as well, that was either preexisting or just more determined. But you eventually changed your name to the Pack a.d. just to resolve that conflict. If you had to go back and start from the beginning and choose a new name, what might that be?
We've come up with so many band names that mostly are in jest. I can't even think what we would've called our band. When we first started we didn't really think we were going to go anywhere. Maya suggested the Pack, and I liked it. It's simple. Of course, there's other Packs out there and we ran into problems. But I don't know what we could call our band otherwise.
We wanted to start a band for a while where we would be wearing mascot costumes, called Hunger House. There was one of those claw machines at this bar we used to play at quite frequently in Vancouver, with the stuffed animals, called Hunger House. So the idea was that it would be a band made up of stuffed animals. But I don't really think that would fit well with where we're at right now.