Becky Black and Maya Miller: an ever-evolving power Pack

Music by Emmet Matheson

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The Pack A.D.
The Exchange
Saturday 28

“Life is constant evolution,” Becky Black told me a few days ago. Black sings and plays guitar for the rock band the Pack A.D. Maya Miller does the rest, which mostly involves drums. They’ve just announced the August release of their sixth album, Positive Thinking, and to celebrate, they’re headlining a pair of hometown shows at Vancouver’s Cobalt nightclub.

I’m standing outside the club, catching some fresh air after sets by opening bands Tough Customer and Les Chausettes. It’s one of those muggy Friday nights in May that feels like much hotter than it is because your body is still braced for cold weather.I’m going over the notes from my conversation with Black, looking for something that will jump out. Something that will give me a hot take on the Pack A.D. so I’ll know what to watch for when they hit the stage in a few minutes.

Instead, I end up in conversation with criminal lawyer from the Fraser Valley, who is curious about my notebook.

“You’re a writer?” his female friend says. “He’s going to be so jealous.”

“I used to be a college student who would get up in people’s faces and argue with them,” says the lawyer we’ll call Frank, who looks like a young(er) Justin Trudeau. “I was passionate. I thought criminal law would be like that — but it’s a joke.”

“That’s my profession you’re running down too,” Frank’s friend says. “I think it’s a noble, important part of society.”

“My job is go in front of a judge and argue with the Crown that, yes, my client was a dirtbag at the time of his arrest, but he is currently somewhat less of a dirtbag since entering rehab, and is no longer a danger to society. This is my job. Arguing over degrees of dirtbaggery. I went to school for seven years to do that.”

Frank and his friend disappear back into the dark of the club, past the pinball machines and the photobooth by the door where every now and then, when a bus goes by on Main Street, the air inside moves a little bit. I’m not too far behind them, but I don’t see them anywhere.

“We’re musically more deliberate,” Black had told me when asked what it’s like to have been doing the same job for a decade. “When we started, I was really casual about the whole thing and didn’t really care about being a better musician.”

It’s hard to imagine a less deliberate version of the Pack A.D., who came out stomping a sludgy mix of blues and garage rock on their 2007 debut Tintype. With just two people making music, there’s no room to coast. Constant touring helped the band hone their sound  and cast aside the expected comparisons to other guitar & drums duos like the White Stripes and the Black Keys. By 2010’s We Kill Computers, Black and Miller had come into their own with a sound unlike any of their precedents, sharp and blunt at the same time. Black’s huge riffs evoked a leaner Sabbath or the Stooges. Miller’s drumming got even more powerful and on target. The Pack A.D. alchemizes the rawest elements of the most primordial heavy rock into something fresh, glazed with the sheen of the near-future.

With this new album, the band seems to have evolved again. The power and the fury are still the main draw, but the songwriting has become more sophisticated, incorporating what Black calls “pop melodies”.

Miller and Black take the stage at the Cobalt and the sweaty audience crowds to the front. Miller announces they’re going to be playing a lot of material from their upcoming album.

“You can’t actually buy it yet, but you can always go online and do that pre-order thing,” she deadpans. “Because that’s, like, the future.”

“I hope you don’t mind being Guinea Pigs,” Black says and then launches into the new material. The crowd roars with approval.

The “pop melodies” Black told me haven’t exactly transformed the Pack A.D.’s sound. The new songs, like “So What” and “Teenage Crime”, remain very much on the Pack A.D. spectrum of propulsive power rock. The shifts are subtle, but rewarding.

“We’re kind of limited in what we can do, because it’s just the two of us,” Black said. “I’ve really been working on developing my tone, which is super important. With just guitar and drums, we don’t really have anything else going on.”

In the tone department, Black is excited about her gear.

“I’ve finally got two amps that I really like,” she said.

At the Cobalt, I see them, hear them, feel them. A black faced Fender Bassman, and a Hovercraft, custom made in Portland for Black.

“It’s basically a cross between a Marshall JCM800 and a Sunn Model T.,” Black explains. “I try to keep everything mid-range to low-end, since we have no bass.”

Midway through the set, no one is complaining about the lack of bass. There’s nothing missing from the Pack A.D. They make more sound than many bands three times their size. By the time they bust out crowd-pleasers like “Positronic” from their 2011 album Unpersons, I finally spot Frank. He’s in the wild, swirling, and surprising co-ed mosh pit. The disillusioned lawyer is getting his elbows up with what I can only imagine are mortgage brokers in tank tops, record store clerks in tight fitting fedoras, and art students. He’s screaming the lyrics back to the band. The catharsis is so obvious I feel awkward writing it down in my notebook.

“We’re more like the band we’ve always wanted to be,” Becky Black told me. “We’re just always becoming more competent and more coherent. Writing music between the two of us is pretty easy. We’re pretty good at figuring out when to throw something out.”

How do you know, I asked her, when something isn’t up to snuff?

“Either it’s cheesy or it’s shitty.”

I run Black’s words through my head over and over. I think about Frank smashing his head against the legal system. I think about me smashing my head over coming up with another hot take. I look up onstage at Black and Miller, smashing through the strict limitations of their two-woman configuration.

I resolve, at least for today, at least for this moment, not to be cheesy or shitty.