For any musical artist, visuals are often a key component of their work. But for Rare Americans, it’s what sets them apart from their peers. At the heart of the band’s work is its penchant for storytelling. Their fascination with the way people interact in the world echoes throughout their music. But their entire unique style was a happy accident that came to exist like an additional member of the band.
At the foundation of Rare Americans is a brothers’ bond — but it didn’t exactly start out that way. Until 2017, James and Jared Priestner had never really spent a ton of time together due to an 11-year age gap between them. They were living very different lives — James as a player in the Western Hockey League, while Jared was working in the family business. But an impromptu trip to the Caribbean changed everything.
“To be honest, I had no idea what the hell we were gonna do for 10 days,” James laughs over the phone from Leuven, Belgium.
At the time, James had been studying at audio engineering school, writing songs and playing in a band. He joked to his brother that he’d bring his guitar and they’d see if they could write a song over some beers. Jared had aspirations of writing an album, though James doubted it would happen.
“Sure enough, 10 days later, we wrote 15 songs,” James continues. “I don’t even know if we went to the beach.”
The brothers’ musical chemistry was immediate, and the band soon expanded its lineup to include guitarist Lubo Ivan, bassist Ginger Chen, guitarist Jan Cajka and drummer Duran Ritz. After spending the past few years releasing an onslaught of music (most recently the deluxe edition of RA3: Jamesy Boy & The Screw Loose Zoo in April), they’re set to release a new nine-track mixtape You’re Not A Bad Person, It’s Just A Bad World on August 19. Through a mélange of pop-punk and alt-rock, Rare Americans tackle how taxing the current state of the world can be on someone’s mental health.
The borderline rap-rock single “Love Is All I Bring” explores the possibility of a catastrophic storm hitting the West Coast and how it would force everyone into survival mode. (“I put my head down and put myself in the shoes of someone who was actually living through that on the day the storm hit, just for my own curiosity of what that might be like,” James explains.) The band’s latest single, “Moving On,” is more personal, detailing the fallout of a breakup and the mental and emotional toll that grief can take. Despite the seemingly depressing theme, the album is brimming with energetic hooks, determined to find joy despite the overarching hurdles.
You’re Not A Bad Person, It’s Just A Bad World also gave the band an opportunity to give back. The band has pledged to donate $1 from each pre-save to Pink Shirt Day, which aims to stop bullying. It’s these types of actions and themes that have helped the band forge a real connection with their fans.
“We get a lot of comments from people with very deep stories that our music helped them with depression — even kids who are contemplating suicide saying that our music helps them find purpose in their life again,” James says. “And when you actually hear someone comment that to your face, it’s just incredibly impactful.”
It’s also the band’s love of animation — that kind of visual storytelling — that has helped Rare Americans really stand out. Neither of the brothers has an animation background (and they didn’t intend for these visuals to be such a staple of their project), but after crafting about 10 videos, they couldn’t help but notice that their fans were all replying with the same comments, like “Wow, these guys are great storytellers.”
James credits those active fans with helping Rare Americans find their place in the music landscape. “It was almost our fans that kind of gave us that identity,” he says. “Since then, we’ve identified [that] this is a key component of the band.”
Animation also appealed to Rare Americans because it allowed them to produce a steady flow of content — which is important for a band releasing new music as frequently as they have.
“We’ve always been very prolific, and we wanted to release a lot of music and videos,” James says. “We figured that animation was a way that we could do that within a decent budget. There’s just a million more artists coming out every single day, so we felt like animation was a bit of a unique lane that not a lot of people were doing and could kind of help us stand out.”
It comes as no surprise that the band won’t be hitting the pause button anytime soon following the release of You’re Not A Bad Person, It’s Just A Bad World. It so happens that their animated storytelling is moving beyond music videos into a possible streaming series. The series is set to follow a character named Jamesy Boy (inspired by James) who ends up in an alternate dimension called Crooked City, where he becomes a superstar. But he realizes that the fame he experiences there might not be what he actually wants for himself.
“We have pretty much the whole first season written and almost a pilot completed for the first episode,” James says. “And now we’ve just signed a deal with a company to essentially pitch on our behalf.
“I was taking personal experiences from leaving a major label,” James continues. “Once you get into the big machine, and people are telling you what to wear and how to dress and what writer you’re going to work with — it’s like you almost lose yourself through that process.”
He hopes this show will be relatable to a lot of artists, but Rare Americans’ music won’t be on the back burner either. For that matter, they’ve already recorded another album for next year, and they feel as though they’ve been ready and waiting for this moment.
“It feels like we’re just at the beginning — and we’re really ready to just keep putting our foot on the gas.”