As much as I hate to play the gender card, I feel it’s justified in this particular instance. See, I’ve interviewed countless musicians over the years and, sadly, only three or four of them have been women—well, five if you count Peaches (but she’s dumb as a post and a bit of a beeyatch, so I don’t list her as one of my “sisters”).
That’s why I was super-excited to sit down with the Pack A.D., a Vancouver blues-punk duo that proves you don’t need a bulging package to play the devil’s music. You do need balls, though. And drummer Maya Miller and guitarist-vocalist Becky Black are packing some pretty serious gonads—musically speaking, of course.
You can hear that God-given swagger on Funeral Mixtape, the Pack A.D.’s fresh-off-the-presses sophomore album. That’s where Miller and Black demonstrate how they can sweat, suffer, and strut with the best of them, a talent that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Almost everywhere they go (most notably South by Southwest), critics and fans can’t stop raving about Black’s voice, often likening her soulful inclinations to a cross between Janis Joplin and Karen O. They also can’t get enough of the band’s intuitive musicianship—the Pack’s drums-guitar interplay has been compared with that of the Black Keys and the White Stripes. But there are still some silly ol’ sexists out there who feel that selling your soul at the crossroads is a man’s job.
“We did feel that on certain points on this tour, actually,” says Miller, who, along with Black, hooked up with the Georgia Straight at a Main Street café. “There’s this huge punk-blues scene in the States, and some of it has a lot of bro love going on, which is totally fine, except that some bands take the bromance to this whole other level. It’s usually not too bad. But there were moments where we were like, ”˜Okay, well, we’re definitely girls,’ whereas I thought we were musicians first.”
In + out
Maya Miller and Becky Black sound off on the things enquiring minds want to know.
Miller on the finer points of regional road kill: “American is gorier. It’s really visceral. It splats across the road. You see the blood before the animal itself. But down in the southern states, there doesn’t seem to be as much gore. I think maybe because it’s drier or something.”
Miller on how to maintain good relations with her bandmate while on tour: “Stop talking. ”˜We can spend a lot of time not talking and still not have things to talk about’—what was that movie? Best in Show ? Anyway, we’re just really good at just shutting up.”
Miller on meeting Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys: “I had a nervous breakdown after. I felt like such an idiot. I was so drunk. We had been sitting in the sun all day drinking gin and tonics. So it was not one of my shining moments.”
Black on the inevitable comparisons: “We played with a lot of other punk-blues, two-person bands on this last tour and we were like, ”˜So do you guys get the Black Keys/White Stripes comparisons?’ And they were like, ”˜All the time.’ ”
Miller on how Mint Records wooed them: “The beginning of our relationship was pretty much based on drinking. The second time we [hung out with Mint reps], we drank 16 pitchers of mojitos. Then, when we went to the office to sign [the record deal], they had a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and we drank all of that and pretty much everything else that was in the office that night.”
In England, some poor punter basically told them he thought ladies had no business dipping into the Muddy Waters of music. Big mistake.
“Yeah, he said that it was ”˜man music’ and it was kind of a joke when women played it,” says the quick-witted and highly animated Miller. “Which is hilarious because that was coming from a white man. [I said] ”˜It’s black music for one, and for two, you’re a white man. Shut up.’ ”
However, it should be noted that sexist feedback is the exception rather than the rule for the two-piece powerhouse. Most of the time, the pair is championed for its feminist contribution to the punk-blues scene.
“It’s funny a lot of women will tell us we’re empowering,” says Miller. “That’s nice to hear if that makes people feel good or whatever, but we’re not setting out to do that.”
In 2005, on a whim, Miller and Black, along with two guys, started jamming under the moniker the Map. But, as Black recalls, during that time the two of them would often hang out and write songs together without their bandmates.
“There was obviously something that was working really well with just the two of us,” she says of their partnership’s low-key beginnings. “But it was a really slow process.”
Eventually, though, the Map naturally dissolved, and in early 2006 the Pack A.D. was born.
“Even then, we weren’t practising all that much,” Miller admits. “But then we got a call from our friend, asking us to play a barbecue. That kind of forced us to play our first show—which was good, because who knows when we would’ve played our first show?”
At that point, Black was completely unaware of her vocal prowess. As hard as it is to believe, she needed convincing that her hauntingly beautiful yet strangely androgynous voice was strong enough to front a band.
“I’m really shy,” says the soft-spoken singer. “So it was really hard for me, especially that first show. I just stared at the ground. I still do that a lot, unless I’m drinking—then it’s okay.”
You would never guess that she’s unsure of her voice from listening to the phenomenal Funeral Mixtape. Here, Black takes command on tracks like the twisting and tortured “Shiny Things”, a song that comes on like a delicate willow in the wind before diving deep into some perfectly depressing blues heaviosity. Black likes it too.
“I wrote the lyrics,” she says proudly. “I didn’t really know what it was about until a few weeks later—after I heard the recording of it—and decided it’s about zombies, and I like that. I’m a big fan of zombies.”
Other standouts include “Worried”, a bluesy bedroom ballad that closes the album. But Miller and Black really show their grit with down-and-dirty masterpieces like “Build” and “Don’t Have to Like You”. One can only imagine how great these ditties would sound live.
As far as the Pack A.D.’s musical evolution goes, the two self-deprecating bandmates are pretty happy with how the group has progressed since its 2007 debut, Tintype.
“We’re becoming musicians, because when we started we weren’t really musicians,” says Black. “At least, some of the songwriting is becoming a little more complex—slightly. Sometimes there’ll be a verse and a chorus,” she jokes, before adding: “Sometimes we even throw in a bridge if we’re feeling really crazy.”
The Pack A.D. plays Richard’s on Richards on Saturday (August 16).