The luckiest among us are those who legitimately love what they get to do for a living. Doubly fortunate are the gamblers who have rolled the dice against almost-impossible odds and then watched things pay off. Consider the Pack a.d.’s Becky Black and Maya Miller among the blessed, even if there are some days when they question what they’ve chosen to do with their lives.
The two bandmates meet the Straight on a rain-soaked November Commercial Drive afternoon to talk about Dollhouse—their latest album, which is being partially framed as a commentary on centring oneself in a Trump-era world that seems to get shittier with each passing day. But over a two-hour interview at the Storm Crow Tavern that includes, in no particular order, a few Mimosas, Bulleit Bourbon Whiskey on the rocks, numerous Great Old One cocktails, and a Strange Fellows Talisman tallboy, conversation also veers off in a whole host of subthreads: Black’s past as a lacrosse player and figure skater; Miller’s epic battle quitting smoking; the genius of Dungeons and Dragons; the fans of Star Wars and Star Trek; and the multitasking majesty known as St. Vincent.
A good chunk of time is also spent on the business of being in a grassroots, largely DIY band in 2017—an era when the music industry has never been more of a complete shit show. Both acknowledge that, in some ways, the Pack a.d. is on the fringes of what’s happening with pop music. After revealing that much of what she listens to in her downtime is more on the hip-hop side of things, Miller says, “Rock is kind of on the outs right now. People are still into it and will drive four or five hours to a show—especially in the States—and that’s great. But it isn’t really in and hasn’t been for a while—it’s all dance music with a synthesizer and hip-hop.”
“And on the radio it’s everything that did well in the ’90s—all the grunge bands,” Black continues. “Either that or you’re getting played by being in a band that sounds like the Foo Fighters.”
Somehow, even though original rock ’n’ roll has been relegated, once again, to a niche genre, and despite the fact that no one buys records anymore, Black and Miller have found a way to make a living, including owning their own places in Vancouver’s famously unaffordable housing market.
Credit that to their drive and business smarts.
Since forming in the mid-2000s, the Pack a.d. has proved impressively prolific, recording seven full-lengths and two EPs, two of the albums coming in the past 14 months. (Dollhouse arrived on the heels of last fall’s Positive Thinking.) When they’re not in the studio, Black (vocals and guitar) and Miller (drums) are on the road, something that they’ve done tirelessly since forming.
Looking back, there was no master plan for world domination. In the beginning, the Pack a.d. was something that seemed like a better option for the bandmates than spinning their wheels in Vancouver.
“We booked our first tour because we were getting a good reaction around town,” Miller remembers. “And because of that, we sort of figured ‘Well, let’s take this show on the road.’ So we both decided to quit our jobs. And when we quit our jobs we had to keep touring to make money.”
Making that decision relatively easy was that neither bandmate was exactly on the fast track to the Fortune 500, Miller working in a shipping department and Black pumping gas at a Petro-Canada station at Renfrew and Hastings.
“I also worked the till, mopped the floors, and did many other menial tasks,” Black notes with a laugh.
Back then the Pack a.d. belonged in the gutter-blues section of finer record stores, early outings like Tintype and Funeral Mixtape arriving when the White Stripes and the Black Keys made it fashionable to fuse classic garage punk with the spirits of Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Continuing a successful rebranding that started with 2010’s We Kill Computers, Dollhouse works a rawk template without ever coming off as slavishly monochromatic. Black and Miller throw doom-surf guitars into the mega-distorted “Woke Up Weird”, make an electrified return to the Crossroads with the enchantingly ethereal “Because of You”, and roll power pop in honey and broken glass for “Not Alright”. What stands out on the nine tracks—which reference everything from Thomas Hardy to War of the Worlds—is a sense of weary optimism, this perhaps most evident on the guitars-and-vocals comedown waltz “I Tried”, where Black packs maximum emotion into lines like “It’s honesty not apathy that brings to light these broken dreams” and “I run hard to finish in last place.”
While the Pack a.d. has been evolving since Tintype, its approach to the business of being in a band has remained largely the same. Touring is essential, even though that sometimes means nights that are burned into one’s brain for all the wrong reasons. Both recount a recent overseas show where they were invited to crash at a pad that was so filthy and squalid—right down to contagious-skin-disease concerns—their driver chose to sleep in the van while the sound person headed to a bar to get drunk all night.
Shows sometimes require taking a large leap of faith.
“In France, nine times out of 10, you are either playing on a boat or in a cave,” Black says. “I guess it’s a lot cheaper, instead of running a club, to have a boat permanently moored in a canal. And almost every one is a terrible fire hazard. It will be a single spiral staircase that goes down into a room that’s sealed off with 200 people in it. With no exit.”
Being a two-piece helps the bottom line significantly, in that when it’s time to get paid everything is split 50/50.
Still, even with that, there are challenges, and not all of them financial. At a certain point, being on the road more than at home starts to grind on musicians. Black and Miller are fortunate that they still enjoy being in the van. But they’re aware that the world has changed dramatically since they’ve been a band.
“We started out on Myspace,” Black remembers.
These days, forget shooting a video and then praying it gets picked up by MuchMusic—instead, you can immediately reach a potential audience of millions by throwing it up on YouTube. The days of hoping for a radio add by CFOX or 102.1 the Edge are also in some ways over, with streaming services like Spotify the new favourite of discerning music consumers.
But the democratization of the music industry has also made things more difficult even as it made getting noticed easier.
“I can see why people wouldn’t actively pursue this,” Miller says. “In the time that we’ve been a band, the Internet has grown to this place where everybody is in a band.”
Black adds: “And being in a band is now all about your socials. It’s like, ‘I need to get my numbers up on Twitter and Instagram.’ That takes away some of the appeal for me.”
“Neither of us likes taking pictures,” Miller continues, “but now bands that you’ve never heard of explode and sell out the Vogue because they had a YouTube viral thing—that’s where teens do all their video-watching. That’s the world that we’re in right now. So I don’t know if I would choose to be in a band if we were starting out. We wouldn’t get anywhere with it, because both of us are just not that committed to doing the types of things that mainly get people interested.”
Black says there’s a reason the Pack a.d. seemingly came off the road for Positive Thinking, hit the studio, and then loaded the van right up again to tour for Dollhouse.
“The whole idea of playing a city over and over again to build up an audience—I don’t think that formula works anymore,” she opines. “There’s so much going on that people forget about you really quickly. A lot of people won’t even know a show’s happening unless there’s enough buzz. And there won’t be enough buzz unless there’s all kinds of talk on social media. You can only do so much with your most dedicated fans—the ones who follow you and read about every post that you do. But not everybody’s like that.”
Luckily, there are followers across both North America and Europe who remain as devoted to the Pack a.d. as Black and Miller are.
“We’ve got some pretty incredible fans—there’s this guy from Arizona who flies around and catches three shows per tour,” Miller says. “There are also fans who’ve followed us the whole time, right from the beginning. They are the ones who’ll faithfully yell out ‘Wolves and Werewolves’, which we’ll never play. But it’s always up and down, depending on how you measure success. If the measure of success is ‘We’re going on worldwide tours because we’ve had a massive radio hit that’s blowing everyone away,’ then that’s another entirely different thing. If the measure of success is ‘Hey, we’re still a band 10 years later, still here and doing this and getting paid and having a life,’ then we’re entirely successful.”
Sometimes it pays to roll the dice.
The Pack a.d. plays the Rickshaw next Friday (December 8).More