Well-defined personal boundaries have long been a key component of The Pack A.D.’s sustained success as an exclusively female blues-rock sensation. An asymmetrical team of sonic workhorses, guitarist/vocalist Becky Black and drummer Maya Miller shoulder the yoke together to blast out stripped-down street anthems with equal quotients of fury and conviction. Responsible for producing four galvanizing albums, The Pack A.D. has maintained an admirable pace since forging their creative partnership in 2006. To their credit: Tintype (2007), Funeral Mixtape (2008), We Kill Computers (2010), and Unpersons (2011), which received a JUNO nomination in the category of “Breakthrough Group Of The Year.” Buoyed by well-deserved accolades and a devoted cult following, the pair displayed neither fatigue nor duress when confronted with their biggest challenge to date: topping themselves.
“I’m really pleased that the last album did so well. It’s been a steady uphill climb for a while and it was nice to finally feel like we were getting ahead. The JUNOs was interesting; I’ve never been on a red carpet before,” says Black. “Coming off of Unpersons, we had pretty much finished up our contract with Mint and were contemplating releasing our next album on our own dime. We decided to shop around and see what labels were out there for us before going the self-release route and that’s when Nettwerk came to the forefront.”
Beckoned by the appeal of achieving wider distribution via their new label, Nettwerk (also home to Great Lake Swimmers, k-os and Peter Murphy), Miller and Black felt uncharacteristically optimistic about their future prospects.
“Personally, I certainly did not feel a lot of pressure going in to make this album,” Miller recalls. “It’s funny; over time I’ve, in some ways, decided to feel less pressure about these things. I’ve made conscious decisions to concentrate on the task at hand and contribute my best input. Beyond that, stressing out about issues you have no control over just adds more weight to your shoulders in an already tense situation. The only thing I need to do is focus what’s on ahead of me and do something meaningful.”
Testing the international waters with a five-song EP, Some Sssongs, that appeared via Nettwerk on August 27 last year, The Pack A.D. provided a glimpse into their new album along with a few choice selections from their back catalogue. Encouraged by the EP’s soft landing, their full-length LP, Do Not Engage, debuted on January 28th. An ear-catching hybrid of punk, psych and garage rock wrapped around of core of raw backwater blues, the hard-hitting yet soulful album confirms that the Vancouver-based group is more than ready to take a running leap into the musical mainstream.
“Honestly, our approach to songwriting hasn’t changed that much, but the new album definitely had more of a process to it and I think you can hear that in the songs.” Black explains. “I’m not a mathematical musician, but I’m able to listen to and play whatever appeals to my ears. Maybe Do Not Engage leaves the urgency of our earlier albums behind a little, but then again we’ve never been terribly consistent genre-wise. What can I say? Everyone loves a nice melody, but we’re still all about playing punk rock and putting on live shows that are loud and fast, because, at the end of the day, everyone loves that energy, too.”
Miller confirms this sentiment, adding that she isn’t already bored with the new songs – a professional pitfall that has dogged her from album to album since the band’s inception.
“Overall, I’d say that the new album is more melodic than anything we’ve done in the past. I don’t know if that was completely intentional — Becky’s such a riff monster most of the time, but I would say that the album is completely danceable. Of course, people will still mosh at our shows and, well, they should. I think that our sound has grown along with our musical capabilities, so it’s normal to want to explore a variety of styles and moods.”
Capable of stirring their audiences into an exothermic riot, The Pack A.D. elevates the mundane by counterbalancing dizzying highs with cavernous relapses. This constant interplay of light and shadow lends a haunted quality of to the nature of their sound as Miller’s assertive percussion faithfully stalks banshee Black into the inscrutable darkness. A harmonious melodrama played out within the context of strafing guitar runs and visceral verbal cliffhangers, Do Not Engage abounds with grungy proto-punk signal fires guaranteed to inflame the spirit. Standoffish in its appeal, Do Not Engage is very much in keeping with Miller’s tradition of bestowing efficient, technical and emotionally-detached album titles.
“I know I came up with the title, Do Not Engage, based on some bizarre interpersonal incidents that left me feeling pretty fed up with people in general,” Miller says. “Nowadays, you are going to encounter a wide variety of individuals in a wide variety of settings. Eventually, you’ll learn that, in some situations, it’s better to walk away from the whole thing – if you can’t win.”
As a rule, Black generally leaves the album titles to her writing partner. Thus far, Miller’s penchant for contradictorily passionless monikers seems to be serving its purpose admirably. Evidently, the band that wrote “Loser,” “Don’t Have to Like You” and “B.C. is on Fire” isn’t afraid to flip the middle-finger salute to any who would dare disturb their congress.
“Do Not Engage? I like it, but it’s a tough one to explain. I tend to think of it in terms of avoiding contact with people, especially over the Internet,” Black elaborates. “If there’s any ulterior message, it’s a subconscious one: for the most part our lyrics are not really literal, or derived from real life experiences. There are no ulterior motives to our methods.”
Raising hell along with expectations, the old fashioned way — one gig at a time — Black and Miller are quite familiar with the regime of sweating it out in the trenches and touring in a van (theirs was dubbed the Millennium Falcon). When they’re not filling dancefloors with writhing masses of mosh pit acolytes, these wicked women are busy taking pages from the tomes of Howling Wolf, Wanda Jackson, The Black Keys, and PJ Harvey only to write large upon them in their own strident hand.
“Lyrics are an important part of our music,” Miller says. “When people connect with your music they take ownership of it and your creation becomes the soundtrack to another person’s life-changing events. In that way, the impact is deeply felt. I know what a given phrase means to me, but the same lyric could mean something different to someone else. You can paint a picture with words, but more people will relate to it if you choose to do it in broad strokes. That’s why I like writing stories. I don’t think I could write a really good love song. The world already has a lot of love songs, it doesn’t need another one. “
Intermittently performing amidst penning smoke-and-rain anthems to Vancouver’s ever-slick pavement, the twosome arranged a reunion with producer Jim Diamond (White Stripes, Electric Six, The Mooney Suzuki, Dirtbombs) who had so skillfully mastered the Juno-nominated Unpersons a year earlier. Recorded in a Motor City chicken-processing plant, Do Not Engage captures the Pack in fighting form, stomping and hollering through a dozen dulcet and demonic tracks.
Drawn to the resilient energy underlying Detroit’s urban spoilage, Black acknowledges that certain environmental influences crept into the fabric of the new album. Another major component of Do Not Engage’s modern dystopian perspective comes thanks to Miller’s recent recreational indulgence of choice: horror stories.
“When it came to composing lyrics for our new material I was definitely vibeing on Stephen King for a bit there,” Miller divulges. “I had read some of his novels as a kid and then a friend insisted I read the Dark Tower series, so I started reading all these books one after another. He’s a good writer and his stories are genuinely scary. Besides that fact, this album is much like the others in that it touches on many of the same themes that continue to resonate for me: universal themes of loneliness and disconnection, my abiding interest in outer space (which is lonely in and of itself), as well as my not-so-lonely apprehensions about technology and computers, and the subsequent breakdown of human interaction.”
A deliberately constructed game-changer, Do Not Engage finds the Pack moving away from noisy garage proto-fuzz into a clairvoyant state of melodic bliss. Tracks like “Airborne” and “Animal” find them channeling the elemental feminine aspects of even the most primal lo-fi compositions.
While visual appeal is largely an afterthought for The Pack A.D., they have nonetheless taken pains to give the video treatment to two of the songs from Do Not Engage: a Banana Splits meets “Give It Away”-inspired photo shoot for “Big Shot” and a barroom burlesque show for their smash, “Battering Ram,” set in their hometown Vancouver’s the Anza Club. Each homage to bluesy bangers and gritty ditties is brought to life on the silver screen thanks to Black and Miller’s desire to appease a growing audience whilst exorcising their personal frustrations.
“As far as the music industry being male-dominated, it’s been that way forever and will be for a while. I think it’s great that more women are in bands,” Black conquers. “We don’t grow up with same role models in rock and roll, so, for girls, it’s not really presented as an option. It’s hard to say what changed in me since I’ve been in the band. We’ve both come a long way since we started out. We’ve toured a lot and gradually we’ve built up this beautiful rhythm that really works for us.”
“For the first time, I’m actually looking forward to going on tour. At this point if feels like we’re both excited about going on tour after a year of prepping to release this album. We’re used to playing so much more often that it’s been odd being off for so long,” Miller says. “Right now, we’re in the process of going back to figure out what we’re going to play live on our upcoming tour. There are only four tracks from the new album that we haven’t already played live. It’s important to find those songs that work for performing live onstage. My favourite songs to perform off of the new album are ‘Creepin’ Jenny,’ which has this weird psych, ‘70s, grunge dynamic to it, and I also love ‘Battering Ram,’ because it features one of my signature ‘that-makes-no-sense’ drum beats.
“My preferences for songs changes all the time, and I have to admit that I haven’t actually gone back and listened to the new album for a while. When you’re producing a record you wind up listening to it so many times that you can convince yourself it’s the worst thing anyone has ever put out. And then the next day you give it another spin and decide it’s brilliant! Once you’ve listened to something over and over it no longer holds any meaning. Ultimately, I have to distance myself from the experience. Playing the songs live is the true test for me.”
The Pack A.D released Do Not Engage on January 28 via Nettwerk. Catch them at the Rickshaw Theatre (Vancouver) on February 21, the Starlite Room (Edmonton) on February 28 and at the Republik (Calgary) on March 1.
By Christine Leonard
Cover photos: SHIMON