Rare Americans is a Vancouver, British Columbia collective on the rise. Formed in 2018 by brothers James and Jared Priestner, the band’s identity combines an alternative rock base with a varied top end of hip hop and pop, a compelling visual concept called Rhythm Kitchen, and a personable, equally expansive thematic approach. Just one year after forming, the band would release a breakout hit in “Brittle Bones Nicky,” which had catapulted them to stardom amid its inclusion in the 2020 Scooby-Doo movie, Scoob!, as well as its relatable storyline. This year, the band continues to produce viral animated hits that branch off from their full-length albums, Rare Americans 1 and Rare Americans 2, while their much-anticipated follow-up, Rare Americans 3: Jamesy Boy & the Screw Loose Zoo, is slated for this fall.
I caught up with James to discuss his formative influences, the success and resonance of “Brittle Bones Nicky,” what to expect in their upcoming full-length, as well as the impact of their dedicated, international fanbase.
You started Rare Americans with your older brother Jared, who is a co-writer in the band. When you guys were growing up, how did your musical tastes develop?
Good question! I think our parents had a lot of influence on us as kids. Our dad’s idols were Bob Dylan, and Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, while our mom loved Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, and Lou Reed from Velvet Underground. So, we were introduced to that kind of quality songwriting. Then, Jared, who’s 11 years my senior, was a dyed-in-the-wool punk rocker who got me and our other brother into that whole scene. We’re from Edmonton, Alberta originally, so he was really into the band SNFU, who were really popular all over Canada. Several years later, when I came along, I got into a lot of hip hop and indie rock. I love Modest Mouse, who is still one of my favorite bands. Over the years, our sound has been this amalgamation of genres; that’s why a lot of our fans may have a tough time deciphering what it is exactly (laughs).
That’s really cool, though. You have that mix of American and Canadian in you.
Yeah, man, it’s a lot of great influences!
Once you got Rare Americans started, was that more or less a spontaneous thing?
Yeah, there was like zero planning! We went on vacation in the Caribbean for 10 days, and we weren’t really sure what to do. I was in another band at the time writing songs, and I was like, “Hey man, I’ll get my guitar, get a couple of beers, and let’s see if we could write a song or two.” He was like, “A song? Fuck that! Let’s write an album!” Sure enough, we managed to write around 15 songs, and a lot of that material became the first Rare Americans album. Honestly, neither one of us saw this coming; it was totally spontaneous. Even recently, we met up in Toronto for a brothers’ hangout and have been writing new songs, so it’s still going even a few years later!
From that formative period, which influences do you channel the most with your most recent stuff?
Oh, man! That’s another great question! Over these records we have out now, our influences have definitely changed, but there hasn’t been a single artist that we’ve focused the most on channeling. These days, even with our third album still on its way, we’re actually working on our fourth album. I will say, though, that I’ve been listening to a lot of Tom Waits; I feel like there’s a big gypsy, circus-y vibe in some of these songs. Also, a bit of J-Cole and Cypress Hill. When I think back on our first record, I was really digging Tim Armstrong from Rancid – his vocal delivery, and that he seems to have this coolness to him. For the most part, our sound tends to change at any given time.
A unique spin on your musical identity comes from the animation component that ties the band’s thematic concepts together. Did you have experience in that before?
We didn’t, but what happened with that was we saw this video by Killer Mike from Run the Jewels that had this really unique, gritty art style, for one of their songs called “Reagan.” The animation was actually done by a company in Toronto called Solis Animation, and they agreed to make videos for us, which was cool. We also made about a handful of live-action videos that I produced here in Vancouver. Live-action requires a big production team and loads of planning, but the animation aspect is much simpler. You pitch a storyline idea to your animation partner, and in the meanwhile, continue to make more music while the idea is made into a video. Once we saw that people really dug our first video, we thought we’d contact them again in order to make our video approach exclusively animated, and now we have a business partnership with them. For us, animation has been a great vessel for storytelling. A lot of our songs are conceptual, and it’s allowed us to really channel what our songs are about. There’s no story too big to tell in the world of animation; it doesn’t matter if it’s just a day in some guy’s life or a full-fledged battle of heaven and hell. It’s the same price, really.
In 2019, “Brittle Bones Nicky” was your breakthrough piece. Alongside the boost from its Scooby-Doo inclusion, why do you think this resonated the way it did?
In both cases, it really tells the story of the “underdog,” or an orphan fighting against the system. There are a lot of people who can really identify with that. Since the video took off, it’s really taken on a life of its own! Fans have been getting tattoos of Nicky, and dressing up as him for Comic Con, and all sorts of things. He’s just a character anyone of any circumstance can connect to.
You’re also not afraid to show his perspective as a grown man, which echoes his similar struggles, but in a more nuanced, grounded perspective.
Yeah, man! I feel like, as adults, we all definitely have problems taking on forms that are different from when we were kids. Those problems tend to increase as we get older and explore the world more. I thought, “Why stop when he’s a kid,” and we really enjoyed how the story progressed, so we’re happy it turned out that way.
Now, even though you’re already at work on your fourth album, you have RA3 coming out. What was the idea behind the current release?
A lot of the album was written just before the pandemic, and then during. Without exactly knowing how this happened, and not by design, these songs came out a lot more personal. Our past songs seemed more outward-looking – about social issues and lesser characters – while these ones were about my life, really. Again, there wasn’t a plan for the concept, but they really came to represent how I was feeling during that period. I thought I’d take the opportunity to introduce myself more as a part of this band. “Jamesy Boy” is a nickname I’ve had for so many years since I was young, and it’s also the only one I’ve ever really liked (laughs). Since many of these songs told of parts of my life, I was like, “Hey, I should call this Jamesy Boy and the ‘Screw Loose Zoo’”, which is also the name of our fanbase, “because we all tend to have a screw loose at some point or another, and not everything in life is rosy.”
What I gathered about the album was that even with the personal focus, you tend to not make it entirely about yourself, and instead, about your awareness to how those around you are feeling. Empathy is a really tough skill to develop, and this album leans toward becoming increasingly familiar with that side of you.
Totally, man. Empathy is definitely something I’ve been working at over time, and wasn’t always a perspective I was good at looking from. Often, the best friends, leaders, and people of the world do have that sense of compassion, and the ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes. It’s something I’m working to strengthen every day, and really is an important quality to have.
This time around, how did you manage production?
It was a lot different this time because we demoed and produced the songs so much more ourselves. I actually built a full studio here in my basement, so, we had the ability to record drums, piano, guitar, and vocals, as well as try a bunch of different things. We played around more with the instrumentation, and with a lot more types of sounds. We’d work at it ourselves, then take it to our co-producer, Ben Kaplan. He’s an amazing engineer and makes music sound better than it ever has. Many of our ideas were already there, and by going this route, we actually saved a bunch of time. We didn’t have to risk going to an expensive studio and hurrying through to the end of every song. Some of them took three days to make, others took five days, so we were just driven to experiment a lot more. Whereas in our first album, we only have so much time in a traditional studio setting, coming in with only acoustic demos, and having to build them on the spot while we were there. As a result, this one’s a lot more varied. We’ve played around with different instruments, some programmed drums, and Moog bass which was new for us. It’s just got more varied elements to it, I’d say.
Yeah! It’s uplifting without being over-inspirational, and experimental without being inaccessible, so that’s important.
Yeah, we’ve dubbed our sound “crooked pop,” and we’ve always made a priority to make it melodic enough to be a pop record, but a bit left-of-center, so as to not seem like we’re chasing success, and it’s a difficult thing to pull off, really. We want to give it a personal touch – something authentically representing ourselves – while also giving it a pop sensibility.
After making this album, do you feel closer as a band, and as friends?
I think so. Being in a band can be one of the most challenging relationships, since you’re together a lot and constantly bouncing ideas off one another. You may have something you think is a great idea, but then it gets turned down, or someone may come up with something else entirely. Not every member is going to get into the direction of the songs right away, but you’ll always aim to look for that “north star” of where the project is heading, and it can work in the end. With every experience and album release, you definitely notice that growth as friends, and as collaborators.
It’s amazing to think about how relatively short a time it’s been, from your having conceived the project on a whim, to your rapid success, and then already working on your fourth album, while the third still has yet to be released. As long as you keep a leveled head.
Oh man, I come from a competitive background, and even with our success, we still have a long way to go. I’m grateful with everything we’ve been able to achieve, but we’re just scratching the surface. We’re just going to keep pushing the music we have for now, and see where we can get to.
Considering your career thus far, what have you learned about yourself, as a musician and as a person?
As a musician, I’ve learned to be more confident in my creativity. I’ve gone through several bouts of impostor syndrome. Especially in the beginning, I knew I had talent, but didn’t have enough experience with the production side quite yet. Now, I’m much more careful with how my creative decisions affect the rest of the band. These days, we’ve written and produced so many songs to discover that we still have tricks in the bag, so we can always utilize different tools in the next batch of songs. I’m also a lot more comfortable getting in the room with my bandmates and recognizing that I can be a good asset to the team.
As a person, I realize that being an independent band is not easy. It’s similar to a small business, and at the end of the day, I’m at the helm of our decision-making. There’s plenty of learning that goes into acknowledging the strengths of my band members, not only in how we work as a unit, but as individual contributors – their feelings, their passions, and how they can provide for us, as well as their families. Then, there’s just the day-to-day process of simply running things – deciding on the plans for song and video concepts, as well as the marketing for our releases, and where we go from there. Because of that, I feel like I’ve also grown as a leader. We still have a long way to go, but I feel like we’re on the right path. We’d made plenty of mistakes, but we learn to make things right. It’s just a constant learning experience.
The final aspect I’d like to mention, and probably the most important, is your consistently active and positive relationship with your fans. You chat with them directly for feedback on your songs, and guide them step by step through your creative process. Was that goal always at the forefront?
Absolutely! I feel that the most important thing about your business is satisfying your customers. These are friends of friends, and old and new fans, buying our music, buying our merch, and sharing our videos. It’s essential to have a relationship with them, and encourage an open-door policy. We believe that if you share something and you get a response back, that you should pay close attention to what that feedback entails. Also, we’ve utilized our fanbase as a resource. For example, before we decided on releasing “Brittle Bones Nicky” as a single, we’d sent about 20 demos to 50 different fans and had asked them to vote, and they unanimously decided on that one. From there, that was a good indication that “Brittle Bones Nicky,” was the song that we should put the most resources behind. On the next batch, we doubled down, and sent them to 75 to 100 fans to decide what the next single would be. It’s great to be able to communicate with our fanbase and have a good idea of what they want out of our music.
That’s great, man. As long as you keep them in the loop, it will benefit you in the long run. Lastly, anything you’d like to say to your fans?
A great big thank you for staying with us on our journey, and this is really just the beginning! We’ll have a vast, consistent amount of content released in the coming weeks than we’ve ever had. We’re not slowing down; in fact, we’re ramping up. Also, this will be the first time we’ll be touring since the pandemic, as well as meeting people face to face, so we’re really looking forward to that!
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