Published Feb 10, 2014If you're not growing, you're dying. Since their 2007 debut Tinytype, the Pack A.D. have delivered album after album of no frills, no gimmicks blues and garage laced indie-rock. Yet, in sticking to their guns, the skills of drummer Maya Miller and lead singer/guitarist Becky Black have sharpened dramatically over time, ever perfecting their craft in the studio and on the road. Garnering national attention, their last album, 2011's Unpersons, earned them a Juno nomination in the "Breakthrough Group of the Year" category. Signing to Nettwerk for the release of their fifth album, Do Not Engage, they now seem poised on the verge of global domination. As the duo ramped up for their album release on January 28, and its subsequent North American tour, they sat down with Exclaim! over a beer to discuss bad British television, driving habits, falling off stage, French electronica, and their creative routine.
You guys worked with Jim Diamond again for Do Not Engage, but it sounds more polished than your last one. Was there a different intention coming from Diamond this time around?
Becky Black: Nope, it's a similar process as last time, except for that we recorded part of it in Detroit and part of it in Vancouver. Same studio, same producer. Maybe we got a little tighter.
Maya Miller: I understand from other bands, when you get a producer, other bands do things like cobble together songs, put them on tape or whatever, and send them to the producer, then the producer has thoughts about them. They come into the studio and work with them. But we've never done that with Jim. We always just tell him where to show up. We record the songs, and then he inputs for the first time hearing it. Nothing changed. Maybe we just got more comfortable with each other. We all know what we do at this point. There aren't too many surprises left, if there ever were surprises.
Black: I played a little bit of bass on some choruses, to add a little extra oomph. I didn't want to for the longest time, because it felt like cheating, but recording is cheating anyway, so you may as well. Maybe that helps too.
Miller: I wish there was something more interesting to say about the developing relationship between the band and Jim, but I can't think of what it would be.
So there wasn't any pressure from Nettwerk to sound a certain way?
Black: We recorded it before we were on a new label. We paid for the recording, and then were looking to license it, that's when Nettwerk came around, so it had nothing to do with it.
Miller: The very first album, we recorded that ourselves and licensed to Mint, so this one we licenced to Nettwerk again. We've never had anyone step in and go, "You should totally sound like this." There's never been that. We're not going to be around people who would do that to us. We'd just leave. I wouldn't do very well with that. That's how I know I wouldn't excel in the army or prison. I'd be like, "No, I'm not doing that today." When we signed on with Nettwerk, they only heard a few songs, songs that didn't even make the album, so I think there was a sense that we all knew each other. We're all in the same city. I don't think our band pulls too many punches. It's just us. Everything with Nettwerk is new and fresh. This is the first album that they're releasing, and we haven't been on a major tour since signing with them. It's interesting. There's just so many more people. It's like, "Is there someone who does this?" "Why, yes, it's this person." Oh, another new person! They've got offices all over the place, and interns. It's like Life Aquatic. At least the Christmas party was like Life Aquatic.
Black: Interns bartending… messy business.
Miller: Still, with all of that, they still have a smaller feel. They're not a small label, but they still feel quite hands-on. And we're still working with Mint because they still make our old albums. We're all in the same city.
It seems like you guys put a lot of yourself into the lyrics. Has that process become more comfortable over time?
Black: I don't think my lyrics are that personal. I always write from the perspective of a character. Some bits and pieces are actually me, but "Loser" is not about me. I'm not a loser. "Battering Ram" didn't happen to me. I wasn't bullied or anything. It's about somebody in high school that I remember had some disabilities, freaked out, and got bullied a lot. It's not about me.
Miller: There is one song on the album that's completely about something, and I'm hoping that someday someone is going to figure it out. "The Water" is a little cryptic, but if you think about things that we've mentioned we like, then you can probably figure it out, especially if you're a fan of what it is.
Black: "Airborne" is based on Space Odyssey.
It sounded like there was more in the choruses, more vocalization.
Miller: She keeps making me sing more on every album.
Black: I'm an asshole, though. I'm like, "Sing on this song, but not too loud. I can't hear myself over her!" No.
Miller: I looked at a set list we did recently, and realized we were playing 11 songs, and eight of the songs I'm singing with her. The whole album, I'm on a lot of it. That's something to get used to, doing the drums and singing at the same time. I'm doing something that's counter to what I'm doing with my body. We can't all be… Actually, we can all be Phil Collins. His drumming was not that spectacular. It wasn't some big feat he was singing too.
Black: What's his name from the Band?
Miller: Levon Helm.
Black: Yeah, he could do it. It's not as common, singing drummers.
There is also Jen Twynn Payne from the Courtneys.
Miller: I'm excited the Courtneys are playing our show at the Rickshaw. I've never met them, nor have I seen them play, but I've heard them on album, and they sound great.
What is the title, Do Not Engage, all about?
Black: It's like when you're on the bus, and you know some people are going to want to talk to you, but you don't want to talk to them, so you send out that "do not engage" vibe, and hopefully it works. Actually, that's not the right…
Miller: Or else, you know, if some stranger leaves a comment on your Facebook profile, and it's really stupid, and then you want to say something back, you should resist. Because the minute you say something back, then you've started a whole thing. It's better to not engage that person.
Miller: Not at all. Maybe it just sounded like a good title.
You guys planning any big tricks for your upcoming North American tour?
Miller: I always have this dream where, you know Nash the Slash and the Mummies? I always have this dream that I could play shows with a paper bag on my head or something like that, but then I'd asphyxiate myself, so I can't. We did that video for "Big Shot" and we put on these animal costumes for it. Within five minutes of dancing in those dunes, I was gasping and sweating, asphyxiating.
Black: I was fine. It must have been the yeti mask.
Miller: Probably. I think it was a residual from once-upon-a-time I smoked. I quit smoking, just over a year now.
Black: I'm not jumping off her kit anymore. It's a really nice kit and I don't want to ruin it. All the kits in the past, the legs have bowed under because I'm standing on it often. And the last time I did that, I fell off the side of the stage.
Miller: I just got a whole new kit. It's actually worth money, my kit, now. It's a Yamaha PHX, matte black, wood grain, maple… gorgeous! It's looking pretty snazzy, but I still wouldn't care if you jumped on it, as long as you don't fall and break your neck. But that's born out of the fear of last time she jumped on my drums, she fell off, and literally almost broke her neck.
Black: I just pinched a nerve. It was alright.
Miller: It was in L.A., just this last fall, we played a Filter Magazine festival thing. She jumped on the kit, but then fell onto me and the drums, and then off stage, landed on her neck on a bar railing, and also hit her head. And also hit her leg on my spiky cowbell. We spent eight hours in emergency in Los Angeles. That was really interesting, being a part of the American medical system for eight hours.
Black: I don't know what they pay more for.
Miller: My favourite part was when they gave you Vicodin. They gave her Vicodin, and then an hour later go, "How are you feeling?" She's like, "I'm okay!" Of course, she's okay! You gave her Vicodin!
Black: They make you rate your pain with these faces, from one to five. I was like, "I'm feeling pretty good."
Miller: But they didn't have on their record that the Vicodin happened, so they just figured she was better. There was no communication. That was pretty funny. That's L.A. for you. They give you Vicodin.
Black: It was great. I can totally see how people could get addicted. I'm not really a pill popper.
What about your guitar, Becky? What are you playing these days?
Black: ESP. Just got a sponsorship… Free guitars! They're awesome. Just got an ESP Eclipse and an Xtone, which is a semi-hollow body. I have a special case for all of them.
Miller: I got sponsorship through Paiste for cymbals, and I got the Iron Maiden boomer set.
Black: To go with your Slipknot spiky cowbell, which hurt me.
Miller: I have a Slipknot cowbell and Iron Maiden cymbals.
Black: I hit my leg right on the spike. It's a dull spike, but it went in, just a little hole, but it swelled up. When you hit your shin really hard, and it looks like a second knee. It was leaking.
Miller: It was leaking puss for seven hours in the ER. It was the least of the leaks in the L.A. ER. There was a lot of leaks everywhere. It was jam-packed, 200 people waiting the whole time we were there. But I got these great donuts across the street at a place called Yum Yum Donuts. That whole thing was really eye-opening. But, yeah, her puncture wound from the cowbell… Gross. They were more concerned with that than the fact she landed on her spine.
Well, if I heard it was a Slipknot cowbell, I'd be concerned too.
Black: Somebody told me a story about the drummer for that band. One night, apparently, he vomited all over his drums at a show, and just kept playing. Might have been at the Commodore. You'd get vomit spray like a paint thing.
Like, instead of Blue Man Group, it's Spew Man Group.
Black: Yeah. Nobody probably noticed though, because who looks at the drummer?
Miller: That's how she is every night. She turns around and goes, "What? There's someone else here?"
Black: "Are you making bad jokes again?"
Miller: Yeah, that's when I get a look.
Black: I feel like I never hear the good ones. I only hear the bad ones.
Miller: Because no one is laughing, crickets are happening, so that's why you then hear the bad ones. When they're good ones, you can't hear them, because everyone is laughing uproariously.
Was that L.A. ER trip the craziest thing to happen to you on the road?
Black: I guess. I don't think anything that crazy has ever happened to us. It would have to be pretty substantial to have a story. Most tour stories are like, "And then we had this joke, and everyone thought it was really funny, but you had to be there."
Miller: Or, "I had this steak. It was so good. True story." "We went back to the hotel and Spinal Tap was on TV. True story." Nothing happens.
Black: Parties aren't even that interesting, really. You had to be there. To have better tour stories, you have to put yourself in more dangerous situations.
Miller: I don't want to do that. What I look forward to about touring, in honest, is I get lots of reading done, driving from city to city. That's pretty party. I'm bringing Twin Peaks on this tour, the series, so we can watch that.
Black: I'll make everybody watch Misfits. I recently watched four seasons of Misfits, the UK show. Started off pretty good, then got shitty.
Miller: What was that terrible show when we had that nightmare night where we had nowhere to stay, and the sound tech couple picked us up at two in the morning from McDonalds in Nottingham, and they made us watch that TV show while they smoked bong after bong? There's a British comedy from the early '80s where everybody screams.
Black: It's a bunch of young punk kids living in a house together. I just remember there was one character who always burst in through a wall.
Miller: The Young Ones! They wouldn't stop playing episodes of The Young Ones, and they're smoking all this weed. Everyone screams everything, that's the joke.
Black: "You can sleep at our house… Or you can sit on our couches."
Miller: There was nowhere to sleep. There was garbage everywhere. I kept all my clothes on, my coat, and slept like this [in a ball, with her jacket pulled over her face]… for like five minutes.
Black: The toilet had barbed wire in it. It was gross. It was either that or hanging out, drinking coffee at McDonalds all night.
What kind of records are you feeling these days?
Miller: I keep trying to listen to other things, but I've just been listening to Vangelis.
Black: She just scored in Vernon. She found, like, eight Vangelis albums.
Miller: Nine, in this little record store in Vernon. And then I went to the States and found two more Vangelis albums I didn't have. They're all great. So all I listen to is Vangelis. Have you heard the album he did with Jon Anderson? Jon Anderson is the lead singer from Yes, and I've never been a Yes fan, but he did all these album collabs as Jon and Vangelis, and it's actually pretty good. And now, maybe, I'll like Yes.
Black: I love early experimental electronica, where there's still synthesizers involved. Everything electronic is made on computers now. I like Space, Vangelis, and Jean Michelle Jarre. It's all French guys.
Miller: Of course, it's French guys. If you listen to Air, and then go and listen to Jean Michelle Jarre and Vangelis, you can hear so many references. Air totally references Space. I like all that stuff. It sounds like stuff you would hear on a ship, in space.
How was it opening for those two sold-out Arctic Monkeys shows at the Vogue?
Miller: It went well. They have a really nice fan base. They were all-ages shows too.
Black: Any situation like that, with a major headliner, there's always the front row of, depending on the band, usually girls that are just waiting to drool on the feet of the headliner they came to see. There's always one row of bored teenagers looking at their phones while you're playing, and then right behind them, everyone's having a great time. It happened there. It happened at a lot of Our Lady Peace shows. It was like, "Ugh… When does this band get off, so I can stare at Raine Maida?"
Miller: It happened at Hollerado shows especially too. Hollerado were crazy. There were huge rows of girls just texting while we're playing. It was like, "Oh, my god. Hollerado is coming. Don't worry."
Black: Yeah. "Don't experience anything new. Don't bother with it."
Miller: But, yeah, it went really well, good response. Overall, Arctic Monkey seem to have fans that want to learn new things, have a good time.
How far have you driven now, in total?
Black: Our new van has 400,000 kilometers on it, we got it at 150,000 maybe. Our last one had… I don't even know. A lot, we've driven a lot. I actually only got my driver's license because of this band. We were touring heavily for a year while I still had my L [learner's permit], and I came back to take the test, and I failed. I was so angry because I'd driven way more than most people do on their L, but it's probably because I picked up all these bad habits, when you get used to it. I've since passed my driver's test, but I don't really like driving. She does most of it.
Miller: I like driving.
Black: Because then you get to pick when you pull over and pee. Bladder the size of a walnut. I pee once a day, maybe. Actually, it's more than that now, now that I'm drinking more water. That's the trick. You've got to drink more. I thought I was masterful before; I have a giant bladder. I haven't peed since this morning and it's six o'clock.
Miller: No one ever wants to go to the bathroom. It's always just me. I go to the bathroom, I don't think an un-average amount of times. I drink a lot of coffee and water. I just like driving, open highway. I love driving through the middle of North America, 'cause there's so little going on. I like those straight shots. I find them very relaxing. It's amazing, when you're not on tour, how much other stuff there is to do. There's always something to do. Like, I always feel like I don't really have a job, but I do, because get up every day, and apparently have all these things to do every day. Not getting paid very well, but it's a job.
Black: You get to do what you love, though… emailing, posting, tweeting, and Instagram. [Laughs]
Miller: Fucking Instagram.