Getting to know the Pack a.d. on more than a superficial level takes some work.
This might surprise anyone eavesdropping on singer-guitarist Becky Black and drummer Maya Miller on an insanely gorgeous spring day in Vancouver. The two bandmates are hanging out with the Georgia Straight at Havana Gallery & Restaurant on Commercial Drive, knocking back drinks and happily riffing on their favourite things. They do this freely and easily, which is a tad surprising. Miller is, by her own admission, a private person, and Black isn’t exactly famous as the rock ’n’ roll equivalent of a Chatty Cathy doll.
Among the things they adore is Magic the Gathering, a fantasy card game that’s sort of a cross between Pokémon and Dungeons & Dragons. When the Pack a.d. is on tour, which is to say pretty much constantly, the role-playing game has proven invaluable for passing time in hotel rooms. Also ranking high are puking stories and the kind of bad movies that subscribe to the Terrance and Phillip theory that nothing is funnier than someone cutting it.
“We have really lowbrow humour,” Miller admits with a laugh.
To that, Black adds: “And I mostly find it funny how funny she finds lowbrow humour.”
Over the course of a two-hour conversation that will see a number of Stellas and at least two Mamma Dobles consumed, the women of the Pack a.d. also speak glowingly and lovingly of, in no particular order: Epsom-salts baths, soups of all flavours, Star Wars, southern-fried chicken, barbecued duck, Coors Light, Detroit and its bands, Eddie Murphy’s Norbit, American Spirit cigarettes, Coco Loco cocktails, animals of all stripes and sizes, America’s Next Top Model, long silences in the tour van, Best in Show, high-end Scotch, salt, Stephen King novels, Slim Jim dinners, Triscuits, 30 Rock, and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy edition of Risk.
Somewhere in all this, Miller and Black remember to sing the praises of themselves, specifically what they’ve accomplished on their new album, we kill computers.
“It’s kind of funny, because I’m still not sick of it,” says the outgoing, blond-haired timekeeper, whose black jeans and black Skull Skates hoodie are offset by a just-out-of-the-box pair of orange Luke Skywalker Adidas. “I like these songs, and she [Black] does too.”
What both of them can be proud of is that we kill computers finds the Pack a.d. branching out from the primal, swampy, soul-jacked blues that first got the duo noticed in 2007. Predictably, that’s already polarizing those who’ve been watching them.
“I read one thing,” Miller reports, “which said, ”˜Oh, they used to do a Son House/White Stripes thing, and now they are doing a Black Keys thing, so, ah, we’ll see how that goes.’ You can’t win.”
Actually, sometimes you can. What’s great about we kill computers is, in part, the way the Pack a.d. confidently incorporates everything from turbo-blasted rawk to sugar-buzzed punk to ghost-on-the-highway country. But the real beauty of the Vancouver duo’s third full-length is more abstract in nature: just when you thought you had a pretty good handle on where Black and Miller are coming from, they’ve created an album that makes you realize you don’t really know them at all.
Based on their first two records, 2007’s Tintype and 2008’s Funeral Mixtape, one might be forgiven for thinking that the Pack a.d. isn’t from around these parts. Long-time fans will be happy to hear that we kill computers doesn’t completely abandon the garage-y, dredged-from-the-Delta tone of their past outings. Check out the King Kong stomp of “Math, the Stars” or the gorgeous last-call waltz “The Slow Down”. Still, we kill computers isn’t all more of the same. “B.C. Is on Fire” marries tribal-sacrifice drums with oasis-shimmer guitars, the end result reinventing shoegaze for the too-cool-for-school hipsters of Main Street. The stone-cold killer “Everyone Looks Like Everyone” rocks like the Motor City circa the great underground explosion of ’01, and “Cobra Matte” traffics terrifically in both DIY freak-pop and gutter-blitzed punk.
So, suddenly, you can almost believe that Miller and Black weren’t raised somewhere in the Deep South in a world of tin-roofed shacks, weather-beaten outhouses, and backwoods moonshine stills. And that’s maybe appropriate. After all, they come from an area that isn’t exactly within spitting distance of the Crossroads. Both grew up in East Van, long before Ken Lum’s Monument for East Vancouver cross at Clark Drive and Great Northern Way made that seem cool.
“My formative years were mostly around Commercial Drive,” Miller says. “I was at 3rd and Commercial—I got the privilege of going to Grandview Elementary, which was voted, at the time, the absolutely worst elementary school that you could send your kid to.”
Even though they didn’t know each other at the time, Black and Miller would each attend East Vancouver’s Templeton Secondary School. Miller was a self-professed theatre geek, mostly hanging out with other drama nerds.
“I was never cool, but I was never an outcast,” she reveals. “I got along with every kind of group, even though I wasn’t really friends with them. High school made me, um, really nervous.”
Laughing, the drummer continues with: “It was very uncomfortable—it was very sad. But I would lash out and present myself a certain way, because it was a choice to be more out-there instead of not being there at all. But I was actually remembering, just the other day, sitting around with groups of so-called friends, not able to talk because I’d be thinking that nothing I could say would possibly be good enough.”
Black has even less charmed memories of her high-school years.
Wearing, on this day, black jeans and Chucks, accessorized by a Star Trek T-shirt (which she’s modified to read Star Wars), the dark-haired singer oozes cool charisma, kind of like a young Joan Jett. But during her time at Templeton, she was anything but one of the hip kids. A self-admitted loner interested in visual art, she admired comic-book artists like Ben Templesmith and Ashley Wood.
“I liked [Gerald] Brom for a while, because he does fantasy art and I used to really be into fantasy, and I guess I still am,” Black says. “Like cheesy fantasy—stories about elves and broadswords and fairies”¦.I liked fantasy and sci-fi—anything that doesn’t take place in the real world. I liked the idea of going somewhere else—the idea of not existing on the planet for a short time.”
At this point, it should be noted that the singer doesn’t, initially at least, give this—or any other—information up easily.
In fact, a week before drinks at Havana, the Georgia Straight reaches the Pack a.d. long-distance in Colorado for a preliminary phone interview. Right from the point Black picks up the receiver in her Denver hotel room, it’s obvious that she’s not comfortable.
In some ways this is no surprise. When the Pack a.d. performs live, it’s Miller who does the interacting with the audience between songs, usually offering up a running monologue. Black, by contrast, rarely opens her mouth except to sing.
It takes all of six minutes and 56 seconds for the Pack a.d.’s de facto frontwoman to push the panic button from Denver. She initially gives short answers to questions designed to get a handle on where she came from and how she ended up where she is today. She allows that she got average marks in school, dreamed of one day commanding ferry boats, and comes from a family where every man seems to end up a firefighter. It’s when asked what, as a teenager, she imagined herself doing today that she finally decides she’s had enough.
“Do I have to answer all these personal questions?” Black asks all of a sudden.
(She’ll later reveal that Miller was beside her in the hotel room, typing things like “You don’t have to answer that” on a computer.)
Asked if she’d rather avoid her personal background, Black responds with: “Is that okay? Neither of us usually share much personal information. It just feels, I dunno”¦ I guess I don’t share myself with anyone. I don’t know why—it makes me feel uncomfortable.”
This reluctance—which Black, after some negotiating, eventually overcomes—also rears up when the phone is handed off to Miller, albeit to a lesser degree. It’s easily explainable, however, where they’re coming from: all you have to do is check out the lyrics on we kill computers. Animals surface repeatedly in the album’s songs. The crash-cymbal-driven opener, “Deer”, finds Black paying tribute to our doe-eyed friends with “We share more than you’d ever think/Two species pushed over the brink.” From there, fish surface in the percussion-bombed “Catch”, dogs and cats and mice in “Big Anvil”, and lowly mollusks in “Crazy”.
The underlying message is that God’s other creatures are far more trustworthy than people. And just in case you somehow have trouble figuring that out, the message is made crystal clear in “They Know Me”, which starts out with “Every animal is my friend” and then goes on to argue “People are the worst of all.”
“Humans suck—I’ll start with that premise,” says Miller, who is responsible for most of the Pack a.d.’s lyrics. “Humans are a pain in the ass and animals aren’t. That seems to come up in my writing a lot.”
As for the title we kill computers, think of it as a commentary on the social-networking generation. The members of the Pack a.d. aren’t entirely convinced that the world needs to know everything about them—or anyone, really—every second of the day on Twitter or through Facebook updates.
“It’s like, ”˜I just took a shit and ate a taco,’ ” Black says with a laugh. “And ”˜Here’s a picture of it.’ Nobody cares.”
If that attitude sounds old-school, it’s somehow appropriate. The Pack a.d. have, right out of the gate, seemed older than their years: they arrived sounding like they’d just stumbled out of a Mississippi gin joint, with Miller not so much playing her drums as pulverizing them, and Black coming on like a double-threat cross between Janis Joplin and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Like the White Stripes, Black Keys, Soledad Brothers, and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the Pack a.d. somehow made the idea of white kids conjuring up the spirit of Robert Johnson seem totally natural. Funnily, though, it wasn’t the Hazlehurst, Mississippi–born legend that convinced Black to pick up the guitar, which she first did at age 13.
She remembers initially stumbling through “Smoke on the Water” and “Iron Man”, later on developing a love of power-metal acts like HammerFall, followed by alt-rock icons the Pixies. Giving her something in common with Miller, forward-thinking hard-rock alchemists System of a Down would later be a major obsession during her tortured youth.
All of this raises the question of how she ended up playing the garage-grimed blues with the Pack a.d. Black has a theory.
“My grandpa plays tons of instruments—he’s really into music and still listens to music all the time,” she says. “I guess part of the reason that I play some of the music that I do is that, growing up, I would spend a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. The music playing in the background was always old jazz records and blues: Django Reinhardt and Billie Holiday and stuff. I think maybe that entered my subconscious in my younger years.”
The goal in we kill computers was to move beyond whatever music might be hard-wired into the DNA of the Pack a.d. That determination to mix things up was a smart one. As much as the Ramones got away with making the same record for 22 years, the reality is that even the most primitive-sounding acts evolve these days and are often rewarded for doing so. The Black Keys’ breakthrough record, Attack & Release, took chances that made it sound a million miles away from their debut disc, The Big Come Up. And consider the way the White Stripes broke out the marimbas and piano on Get Behind Me Satan without alienating the hipsters who first fell for White Blood Cells.
Miller cites U2 as a group that’s not afraid to challenge its fans by mixing things up.
“Even when they evolve badly, they are still doing something different,” she says between slugs of her Stella. “I’m not a huge fan, but I will say that there was something about Zooropa. I thought Zooropa was great because it was something different, even though it’s still U2. Or take Radiohead, and the way people are into either new Radiohead or old Radiohead. What’s wrong with liking both? What’s wrong with accepting that you can’t do the same thing every single album or else you just become a cover band?”
And with that statement, Miller and Black send a message to everyone who fell in love with them when they arrived on the scene smelling like authentic Mississippi Delta mud and homemade Tennessee bourbon: namely, with we kill computers, they’ve only begun to show us what they are capable of.
By Miller’s own admission, the Pack a.d. has yet to fly on the mainstream radar.
“We’re not a buzz band yet,” she says candidly. “We’re a workhorse band.”
We kill computers is strong enough to change that. So if you’re one of those underground-fixated obsessives who love being able to say “I was into them way back when,” now might be the perfect time to do your best to get to know the Pack a.d. And, as far as that challenge goes, there’s really only one thing to say: good luck.
The Pack a.d. plays a we kill computers record-release party at the Biltmore Cabaret on Friday (April 23).