The Pack ad
Maya Miller and Becky Black
I saw The Pack a.d. play in a tent at the End of the Road festival last year. They had a tough slot – early Sunday evening, when the energy and attention levels of festival goers were probably at their lowest of the weekend. Not to mention that Dan Sartain was playing in the Big Top at the same time. No worries; if a tent had an arsehole, this band ripped it a brand new one, playing full-on blues-based garage-rock for an unremitting 40 minutes and leaving everyone who saw them feeling invigorated. And what’s surprising is that that massive sound onstage is made by just two people. The Pack A.D. is a duo from Vancouver, Canada, consisting of singer/songwriter/guitarist Becky Black and drummer/songwriter Maya Miller. They formed in 2006 and have released three albums, all on Mint Records: Tintype in January 2008, which was previously self-released in April 2007, Funeral Mixtape in August 2008 and We Kill Computers in April 2010 (there was also an excellent 180g vinyl issue of the latter for Record Store Day 2010). They were on a European tour this Spring and made it to England for a few shows. We spoke to Maya and Becky one Friday in May 2010 before a show at the Windmill, a few hours after they’d played an afternoon set at the Great Escape Festival in Brighton.
SXP: You played 159 shows in 2009 and I saw one of them, at End of the Road last September. It’s just the two of you, and presumably you put as much energy in the show I saw into every show, so how do you do it?
Maya: Honestly, sometimes we just pull it out of the air because I don’t know where it comes from. We’re sometimes jetlagged, tired or hungry.
Becky: It’s just something that has to be done. Every night.
Maya: We’ve got it pretty well [organised] when we’re travelling, we’re not very active in the day preceding the show and oft-times we’ll be sleeping before a show and then you save it all up just to do it. We had sections [of the tour] last year when we played 20 shows in a row before we got one day off and that was a bit crazy!
SXP: There’s no place to hide either. Neither of you can take a break and you can’t play a solo.
Maya: Well we could but that would be silly! Not being able to have a break is interesting. There’s no break and if your nose itches or whatever you keep going. Case in point, last night we played Utrecht in the Netherlands and during the show I hit back with my stick and hit my eyeball. Nothing around my eye, just my actual eyeball, but with the force of my usual drum hit. I was playing and everything immediately went black and I started tearing. I kept playing the song and didn’t miss a beat and for the rest of the show I had tears streaming down out of my eye.
SXP: This is your third album. Your press release said that this captures the power and energy of your live show. Is this what you set out to do?
Maya: That’s what we wanted to do with the last album too and it didn’t quite make it. I don’t think many bands can pull both of them off really well; extremely good bands can probably get a really great sounding album and a great live show but it usually seems to favour one or the other. With this third album we really wanted it to come as close as we could make it to how it is when we play live. I think we got somewhat closer. We had a different energy going about this album. The second album, we were still trying to get it right. When you’re obsessed with getting it right, it hampers what you’re doing and on this album we weren’t so concerned with getting it right as enjoying what we were doing and I think it comes across a bit more.
Becky: And also we decided not to record as many slow songs. There were a lot of slow songs on the last album and we realised: OK, we’re gonna record all fast songs ‘cause we never play slow songs live! There’s no point – it’s not accurate. You have an album that sounds different from your live show.
Maya: Which is funny as we spent the whole last year touring the other album and we’d do this set that was all rock’n’roll and then say: “here buy this album, it’s really slow!” *laughter*
Becky: Even the songs that are fast on the album we usually play at twice the speed live too!
SXP: We Kill Computers is definitely different from the earlier albums. And there are a few songs that sound a bit metal-influenced: people like Sabbath and AC/DC. Are you closet metalheads?
Becky: I used to be but it was power-metal! *laughs* I think more than anything that’s where I got the inspiration to sing like I do (*sings loud and high*). A lot of those metal singers do that, though they do it way better than me. Their falsetto’s perfect.
Maya: I don’t know about the influence. I just wanna play something that would make me dance a little, even if it’s erratic ‘cause a lot of our songs are a little erratic and stop and start, so it’s hard to get your groove on. You do what you do, I guess, and it’s not necessarily everything you listen to – but maybe some things sneak in there! In our van we’ll listen to anything from electronic music to Laurie Anderson and soundtracks.
SXP: I noticed on your website you’ve been asking for mixtapes for your van. Have you had many?
Maya: Yes, they’ve been coming in! In fact we had someone show up in Munich with a mixtape for us and I can’t wait to hear it. It’s got all these German bands who I have no idea about.
SXP: When you get mixtapes, do you get any where you play a few songs and throw the tape out the window?
Maya: Not so far. I like every type of music so I can’t anticipate hating any mix anyone comes up with – unless they put Katrina and the Waves on it and then I’m gonna be unhappy! *laughter*
SXP: Aren’t there restrictions in being a two-piece?
Maya: There are bands like Godspeed! You Black Emperor and they’re amazing. It would be great to make that one day but imagine travelling with 16 people!
Becky: Adding a bass player would have a huge effect on our music.
Maya: Adding anything to the mix actually would really change the dynamic. Of course there are moments you think of adding something else but that’s what recording’s for. And that’s what a tambourine is for! We’d be hard pressed to find another person that we could tolerate or they could tolerate us! *laughter*
SXP: Does the format restrict you in songwriting if you only have drums and guitar to work with?
Becky: Sort of, but it’s almost a good thing.
Maya: In the format we can come up with a lot of songs but what’s nice about just being the two of us is that we can really quickly throw them out the window without feeling any heartbreak about it. Either we like it after we play it a bit or we just don’t.
Becky: Songwriting is quick! You don’t have to compose anything or write much down. We just play.
SXP: With your two piece set up and your choice of music, you must get compared to the White Stripes a bit.
Maya: It’s an easy comparison and in some cases it’s kind of a lazy comparison. The only time it’s painful is when it’s implied that’s what we’re trying to do. Neither of us have listened to any White Stripes in years. It’s not an intentional thing. You (to Becky) have a whole theory about four and five member bands - they don’t always get compared to the Beatles. But because there are only so many duos, you’ve got that label unless you’re doing something completely different.
Becky: Instrumentally, it’s the same drum and guitar, it’s stripped down blues-based garage rock. There’s only so much you can do with that so in some ways it’s gonna sound the same but it’s really different.
SXP: The lyrics are certainly different – especially the nature references. There’s one song [‘They Know Me’] about liking animals and not liking humans very much. Is that tongue in cheek or do you really prefer animals?
Becky: Well apparently we don’t ‘cause we eat meat.
Maya: There was an article in Vancouver about how much we liked animals and then the article listed things we talked about during the interview: it said we talked about fried chicken and barbequed duck. It didn’t say what we said about them, just that we talked about them. And someone from the Humane Society wrote and wagged the finger at us – we can’t love animals and eat them too. But everyone’s a hypocrite, so whatever!
Becky: We love animals and they’re also tasty!
Maya: [Songs about animals] just seemed to be the trend at the time – you write about certain things and this album seemed to be a lot of animal things!
SXP: You acknowledge the support of the Canadian government on the sleeve. I notice this on a lot of Canadian records. How do they support you?
Becky: We get grants for playing festivals…
Maya: …and we get grants for touring – not always, so the flipside to getting grants from the government for labels and artists is going: thank you! Most Canadian artists who are on a label will have that on the sleeve. It’s actually a really nice system.
SXP: Is it enough to make a difference?
Maya: It’s a huge difference. To fly over here to do shows, the flights are C$3500 for the two of us, and we’re a small band. Everyone’s getting off cheap with us. It definitely helps to have these grants for this – and I know it does to our label too.
SXP: As Canadians, I presume you’re not influenced by American scenes?
Maya: We’re only two or three hours from Seattle and only an hour from the border but yet we’ve managed not to be terribly American-influenced.
SXP: Is Vancouver a fertile musical city? I don’t know many bands from there compared to Montreal and Toronto.
Maya: It’s a smaller community I guess, but it’s there. I think it’s going through a wave right now where it’s really good in Vancouver. That happens with every city, there'll be a lull and then suddenly every good band seems to be coming from that one place. Vancouver’s good but it’s really varied; there’s a big rock scene, but a big indiepop and electronica [scene] and it goes all over the board – there’s no one set thing.