Dig for a while and Becky Black will finally allow that the title of the Pack a.d.’s sixth and new record, Positive Thinking, might have something of a dark side.
“There are a lot of more depressing themes on the album,” the singer-guitarist says, on her cellphone from a tour van making its way from Chicago to St. Louis. “I would say that’s due to personal reasons. It wasn’t necessarily the brightest last few years for either of us, for multiple reasons that are personal.”
Getting details on how bad things got for Black and the duo’s drummer, Maya Miller, proves a nonstarter. Ask all you want, but the singer isn’t dishing details. In past interviews with the Straight—and that includes a cover story in 2010—the long-time bandmates have displayed a reluctance to divulge aspects of their personal lives. That’s admirable, considering we live in an era when every moment of the average existence is laid out on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.
These days, Black is more forthcoming than she was at the beginning of the Pack a.d.’s career, when records like Tintype and Funeral Mixtape established her and Miller as Vancouver’s top neoblues band for the postgrunge generation.
“At some point, as an introvert, you just have to learn to fake it,” Black says simply. “Or maybe not faking it, but more just now not sweating it all as much.”
But that doesn’t mean she’ll open up about the specifics of her and Miller’s recent dark days. Sometimes admitting there was a rough stretch is enough.
“No, that’s as far as I’ll go on that,” Black says with a laugh. “But I will say that it ended up leading to something that was sort of creatively influential. That’s the only way that you can have a positive spin on a bad situation—to create something with it.”
The birth of Positive Thinking wasn’t exactly easy—early recordings were scrapped twice. That’s a sign all wasn’t totally right with the world of the Pack a.d.
Black and Miller found themselves working again with long-time producer Jessie Gander, who has helped guide them from their alt-Crossroads beginnings to becoming one of the city’s most devastatingly reliable rock ’n’ roll units. On past outings like we kill computers and Do Not Engage, the Pack a.d. dabbled in styles ranging from ghost-train country to swirling shoegaze, but without forgetting that fans love them best when Black’s amp is smoking and Miller isn’t playing the drums as much as attempting to destroy them. While there’s no shortage of mixtape-worthy rockers on Positive Thinking, it sounds like there were issues to work through during the creative process.
“We spent a lot of time together writing songs and recording,” Black allows. “There were times when it was really hard between the two of us, and there were times where we were like, ‘Let’s just get this done.’ And when we got things done it felt like we were getting somewhere, which is always good. So, you know… Life is a challenge.”
True as that might be, the Pack a.d. sound like anything but a band that’s given up on Positive Thinking.
The duo isn’t afraid to wallow in the blackness on the album’s 12 tracks. Consider the haunting classic grunge of “Sorrow”, where Black sings over dying-days guitar “Choice is not even mine, it isn’t mine/I’m so tired of sorrow.” Or the goth-swooped monster that is “Medium”, which sets lines like “Maybe I’ll be reborn into some new form where I’ll be safe and warm/’Cause in the end no one wants to be alone.”
To have followed the group over six full-lengths is to know that Black and Miller aren’t exactly eternal optimists; instead, they take the smarter path of expecting nothing, and then being pleasantly surprised when things work out. But reading between the lines, one has to wonder if the bandmates had higher-than-usual hopes for 2014’s Do Not Engage.
“I think we thought ‘We can release this to radio’ for a lot of the songs,” Black says. “That affected how we wrote the songs. This time it was like, ‘Whether this is our last album or not, it doesn’t really matter. Let’s just write music that we really like, and keep them our style of songs.’ So the songs are more in keeping with how we used to be, but also seem like something new in a way. I’ve gotten a little more gear-savvy—or nerdy. I’ve got more pedals and new amps over the years, so it’s been an ongoing process.”
And so has learning to deal with the down times. Whether the title of the record is meant to be taken literally or ironically, there are moments on Positive Thinking when Miller and Black sound convinced that everything is going to be alright. Get ready to discover the missing link between T. Rex and the Stooges on the marauding ode to blackout partying that is “Los Angeles”. Or think about how the distortion-swamped kickoff track, “So What”, counterbalances despair with a bit of hope, thanks to lines like “I’m possessed or depressed or maybe just fine.”
Sometimes you have to engage in Positive Thinking, even if it’s not exactly in your nature.
“Every time I look back at what I’ve done before, I have to remember that it’s easy to hate everything that you’ve done and get depressed,” Black says. “You can always go ‘That didn’t turn out as well as I thought.’ But I’ve always started out with low expectations, and you can only progress from that. You can, hopefully, only get better. I haven’t really seen regression personally in what we’ve done—at least, I don’t feel that way. And as an artist, I dunno, that’s the only way to move forward.”
The Pack a.d. play Fortune Sound Club on Saturday (November 26).More