An Interview with James Priestner of Rare Americans


WRGW’s Claire Lanthier had the chance to with chat with with James Priestner, the frontman of Toronto-based band Rare Americans. We talked about what it’s like to blow up during a pandemic, how their animation and music combine, and what it’s like running a pretty DIY focused project. The band is coming to DC on Tuesday, March 29, at Songbyrd Music House, having sold out this show and the rest of their North American tour. Read on to hear more about the vision behind this incredible project.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WRGW: Hi! We are super excited for you guys to come to DC. How has this tour been? Or how are your emotions surrounding this tour compared to ones in the past?

James: Um, well, to be honest, this is almost like our first tour. It’s our first time in America, the band really started gaining popularity during the pandemic. So we’ve kind of been waiting almost for two years to tour. So you know, when we put the tickets on sale, we really didn’t know how many we’re gonna sell. And then it just turns out, we sold out the tour in like four weeks or something was crazy. So coming here, honestly, we didn’t even know what to expect. And then the first show, all of a sudden, there was like this huge lineup outside well before doors, and it was just a packed house. And it was super fun. And we sold a bunch of merch, and people were sticking around after to say hi, and we weren’t sure if that was just like the first show. And then all of a sudden, it was, you know, five shows in a row, it’s been the exact same thing. So it’s been quite a wild experience.

WRGW: That’s so cool. What was the experience of having to delay the tour, and how did it feel to blow up during a pandemic? 

James: The band kind of runs like a small business. Everybody, outside of our musical hats, also kind of wears a business hat in the band from marketing, to content to social media. So honestly, we were just working kind of day to day, you know, just working on the videos and on our marketing and trying to get as many people to hear our stuff as possible. So, you know, during the pandemic, it just felt like we were still working and we were doing a job. We weren’t really frustrated or anything like that. We just wanted to keep making the best stuff we could. And it really gave us a lot of time to do that I guess. I would say, to be honest, it feels stranger touring because we’ve never done it before- we’re driving through the night, we’re waking up in different cities. And I think maybe the biggest biggest thing that stands out to me is you know, we’d started getting millions of views and stuff during the pandemic. And we were getting hundreds and 1000s of comments and messages and people really sharing their personal stories with us, and it didn’t really feel real, I guess. And then all of a sudden, we’re in person together and you see the impact that you’ve had on their life. And I think that’s been the most rewarding thing is turning this kind of online, you know, thing we had built into a real life connection. That’s been probably the coolest part so far.

WRGW: So I guess you haven’t really gotten the chance to meet a lot of your fan base in person. But what would you say is your favorite thing about your fan base in particular, and what makes your fans special?

James: I think our fans are very connected to the band. Like, you know, we’ve had 150 kids after every show lining up outside just to meet us. I just haven’t gone to a lot of shows where that happens; people waiting around for an hour after just to say hi and tell you how you know what you’ve been doing and your music, how it’s impacted their lives. So I think they’re just really diehard fans, I feel like they’re gonna stick with us, and it’s not this fleeting type of relationship. We’ve really built something together, and it’s just been cool. I think a lot of the fans are kids who are looking for hope. Kids who have been down on their luck before a little bit. You know, kids who feel disenfranchised, and it seems that they kind of look to us for some lights I guess, in their life and motivation and hope. And it seems that’s been a common theme so far amongst the first five shows and getting to learn who our audience actually is.

WRGW: Now I want to talk about how you guys are really known for your animation and mixing that with the music. So how did you get started with that? And how do those things combine?

James: The very first song we ever released was called “Cats, dogs and rats”. And we knew we wanted to make a music video for it, and we were attracted to animation. And we tracked down this fantastic artist from America, his name is Harry Teitelman, and he had done an animated video for Killer Mike of Run the Jewels that we really liked. And so we contacted him, and he just did such a good job. And when we put that video out, it really almost went viral overnight. And so that really turned us onto animation. And then in the second record, we decided that this seems to be, you know, a little bit more unique than just doing live action, which obviously 99% of bands are doing. So we found a company in Canada, and we hired them to do three music videos. And one of those was “Brittle Bones Nicky”, which obviously turned out to be our biggest song by far, and it seems that the fans were really connecting with animation. And we knew we wanted to tell stories. And oftentimes, if you want to tell big stories in live action, it’s just almost impossible, because it’s so expensive and takes so long. Versus animation, you know, something could be said in Heaven and Hell and a different planet, it doesn’t matter, it’s pretty much the same price. So, you know, we felt like it really matched the narrative storytelling of the band. And obviously, it makes for great artwork and cool merchandise and everything. And so there was just pretty much every part of animation we thought was really cool. And now we’ve kind of committed to being kind of fully animated.

WRGW: So I know you founded the band with your brother. So what is it like to make music with someone in your family? Have you guys always made music together?

James: No, actually, we never had. He’s 11 years older than me so we’re living very different lives. And then in late 2017, early 2018, we took a vacation together to the Caribbean just for some brother time, and I had no idea what we were going to do on that vacation. I was in a different band, and Jared was running a business, just totally different paths in life. And I brought my guitar and I kind of joked to him, I said, Hey, man, well, maybe we’ll drink a couple beers and write a song. And he said “A song? Screw that. Let’s make an album.” And I kind of laughed in the moment, but pretty much 10 days later, we’d written the first 15  Rare Americans songs and our entire vacation turned into 12 hours a day of songwriting. So we just developed this kind of chemistry together, which was really cool for us as brothers to have something in common. So now fast forward, you know, three, four years, and we’ve probably written close to 100 songs or more. And it seems every time we get together, we’re able to continue to write more and it’s cool just to have a project together. But Jared does not play in live bands. He just works on writing when we have some writing sessions.

WRGW: So you have your tour. What else are you looking forward to for the rest of 2022 in terms of the band?

James: Oh, man, lots.  We got a lot of bigger projects this year, bigger than we’ve ever tackled before. So, you know, it used to be that our music videos were all kind of one off stories. And now, we actually have two albums in the works, and they’re both full stories kind of start to finish for the whole record. So it’ll also have an animated almost like mini movie to go along with the music videos. So those are much larger stories and bigger projects that we’ve never done before, and we have two of those coming out this year. So I’m pretty excited for that, and just to see how the fans dig and connect with this style of storytelling opposed to the independent three minute stories. So that’s really exciting. And then our animation company, we also have, you know, a film in the works and a TV show in the works, actually. So it’s a very big busy year for the band, definitely the busiest in our history. So I hope we can really take some leaps and bounds this year. And every project is really exciting. And then we got more touring. We’re touring in Europe for a month in June. And then also going to be doing America again in the fall. So it’s going to be a very, very busy year.

WRGW: Wow, that does sound so busy. Was there kind of a moment in your career where you said, “we’ve made it”? Like, do you remember a time where you were like, wow, this is like our moment?

James: Feel like when that moment hits me, I’ll let you know. But at this point in time, it hasn’t. I don’t know I’m very much, I think maybe through a flaw of my own, a what’s up next type of person. And I think we’ve been so focused on the next thing, the next step, the next area of growth, the next project that sometimes you kind of forget to sit back and look at what you’ve been able to accomplish. And I feel like I’m gonna have my whole life to maybe look back on those things. So right now, to me, it’s just all about the path forward and how we can impact the lives of more kids out there. So that’s kind of the way my head works. I will have to say though, at these shows, like, just the amount of kids singing along is just so cool. And the amount of people rocking our merch, you know, in those moments, it’s you can’t help but be like “wow, this is just such a crazy, crazy privilege that we have that so few people in life get to experience” and to see a packed room with kids singing and, and rocking your colors, that’s that’s a pretty incredible experience I think that we’re all having at the moment.

WRGW: You kind of talked about how your band functions a little bit like a business- could you kind of go more into that? Like how you guys balance all the different roles and what that’s like for you guys?

James: We’re not on a major label or anything like that, so our band is very much pretty DIY. So we were on a major label for a little while, and we didn’t really like it very much, so we actually went back to being independent. It just allows us a lot more control over what we want to do, but it undoubtedly creates more jobs. So you know, everybody has their kind of music role and their business role. For example, our drummer Duran, he’s also doing all the social media, he’s doing all the the merch business and making sure our Shopify store is working and everything is is up to date, and the inventories in check and also, you know, ordering actual products from our wholesaler and, you know, t’s a big endeavor. And, you know, our kind of multi instrumentalist Jan is also kind of like our analytics guy. So he’s constantly combing through stats and patterns and trying to figure out what’s working, what’s not working and different correlations between things. He’s also submitting different grants for us. And then Lubo is also, you know, doing all sorts of video and engineering for the band. And, you know, our bassist, Ginger, is doing a lot of the digital marketing campaigns that we set up and all the different ad targeting that we do across platforms, and then I guess, my job is to steer the ship and make sure everything’s going in the right direction. So yeah, we really are, are a collective team, that’s pretty much 50% music and 50% running our small little business.

WRGW: What made you guys choose to go back to not having the label?

James: Sometimes at a major label they just have so many artists. I made a joke in a lyric that we were 48 on the 50 man roster, you know, like a football team. And if you’re 48 on someone’s 50 man roster, it’s probably better to be on your own. if you’re in the top five slots on a 50 man roster then the major label’s probably very helpful for you. But, you know, it also comes at the cost of giving up ownership of all your work. And it comes at a cost financially also, you know, major labels are taking usually 80-85% of all revenue, and that’s super frustrating when you’re the one putting in all the work. And then you’re also kind of dictated by what they want to release when they want to release it and how much money they want to spend on you. Verses when you’re independent, you get to make all those shots yourself. So you know, the disadvantage of that, obviously, is, you know, we don’t we don’t have a team of 50 people in all of the different departments. But it allows us to have kind of more control over things. And I think it works well for who we are as people. And we also do have a distribution partner, though. We have a deal with Empire so we do get some support from them in terms of their team, so we’re not totally on our own. But it’s a very different setup than a major label as we’re… we’re able to kind of call the shots on what we want to do and what we run a release and when we release it.

WRGW: That’s really interesting.

James: I mean, every label is different, of course, you know, every team is different. There are great people at the major label we were at, really good people. But at the end of the day, the major label is meant to be a hit factory. So you know, it’s totally up to them and how they want to put out your music. And at the end of the day you have to give up that control, which we felt like didn’t fit our, our vibe in the world, I guess.

WRGW: You touched on a lot of your plans for this year. But what would you say are some of your biggest goals as a band in the long term future? Where do you want to see the band go after the point you’re at right now?

James: I think my ultimate goal for the band would be to be able to sell out like a 3000 seat venue in, you know, 50-100 cities around the world. I think that’s a huge goal. I’m definitely not someone who’s like, “Hey, I need to play arenas” or anything. Because I feel like the chances of getting to that level of mainstream media is just so challenging. I think- I mean, hey, if we got a little bit of luck and you know, we had a hit or something like when 21 Pilots did that would be amazing. But I would say I’m very happy with just continuing to build more and more and more fans and get to the next level, which is kind of the 1000 cap venues and then, you know, keep pushing from there. And if at the end of the day we could play a 3000 seat venue and you know, sell that baby out, I would call that a pretty awesome career.

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