Between shows on The Pack AD’s West Coast tour, Maya Miller is bulking up her fledgling record collection.
The Vancouver-based drummer picked up an Erik Satie album, the latest Arcade Fire LP and a copy of electronic group Tangerine Dream’s score for Firestarter, the 1980s sci-fi flick based on the Stephen King novel of the same name.
“Shamefully or not shamefully, I only recently got a record player, so I’m starting from scratch,” Miller tells Xtra over the phone from a tour stop in Los Angeles.
The Firestarter soundtrack is a particularly fitting find as Miller was reading sci-fi and classic Stephen King books such as Four Past Midnight while she and guitarist/singer Becky Black were writing and recording The Pack AD’s newly released fifth album, Do Not Engage.
The album, their first for the Nettwerk label, is the follow-up to 2011’s Unpersons, which garnered the duo a Juno nomination for breakthrough group of the year. Recorded in Vancouver and in Detroit with garage rock producer and former Dirtbombs bass player Jim Diamond, the album is the first in which songwriting duties were split evenly between the pair.
Miller’s emotional inspirations were “a general distrust of people, insecurity — the usual. Coupled with that, I was reading a lot of horror at the time. The song ‘Creepin’ Jenny’ is a straight-up horror-story song. Both of us tend to write book-inspired lyrics.”
The album is full of blistering riffs and thundering percussion but is more melodically led than its predecessors. Although the band’s profile is rising thanks to the Juno nomination and their relationship with Nettwerk — an indie label with an international profile — Miller insists their newfound emphasis on catchy choruses was a natural progression, not a calculated one.
“We’ll come up with something and Becky will go, ‘This is really catchy. I don’t know about this.’ And I’m like, ‘So? Is that so bad?’” Miller says. “If it’s pleasing to play, then play it, or if not we can drop it. Either a song is going to go somewhere or it’s not going to somewhere.
“We both work really hard to make things that we enjoy. I want to make something I want to play first and foremost and I don’t want to be bored,” she says. “If that means both of us are trying to get better or go somewhere bigger, so be it. With any art form, you try to be better than the last thing you did.”
Miller and Black try not to overthink their approach to recording. The songs are conceived with the live show in mind, so they record the base track in the studio as if they were playing live and then add in overdubs and vocals later.
Diamond, who also produced Unpersons, added a little Motor City grit.
Half of Do Not Engage was recorded in Vancouver; the other half was recorded in his Detroit studio, a former chicken processing plant. In addition to playing in The Dirtbombs, Diamond has worked with such Detroit garage stalwarts as Electric Six, The White Stripes and The Gore Gore Girls.
“Detroit has a desperation and rawness to it. It’s a hard, hard city, and it’s a tough place to live,” Miller says. “That comes through in his music. You have to fight a little harder for everything there, and it makes for incredible music. He sounds like Detroit. There’s no question.”
So does The Pack AD sound like Vancouver?
“At this point we probably sound like half and half,” she says, laughing. “In my experience, I’ve never known there to be a definitive Vancouver scene. The bands that are getting attention in Vancouver are so disparate in sound. The cliques are very separate and everyone sticks to their genre, but it’s starting to mix a bit.”
Their goal in the studio was to relax and not overthink things. “It’s easy to get caught up in getting it right and perfect,” Miller says. “It’s better to approach it from doing something you love and keep that focus as opposed to getting it right. Somewhere in there you might get it right.”