Rare Americans: ‘We want people to embrace their individuality’

Upon the release of the first part of their endearing animated musical album, we speak to Rare Americans frontman James Priestner.

Rare Americans interview

Canadian alt-punkers Rare Americans know how to engage with an audience beyond just their music. The JUNO-nominated outfit don’t just have a penchant for catchy tunes spanning multiple genres, but have established themselves as inventive storytellers and – to use the spiel of marketing terminology – skilled ‘content creators’, through their quirky animated videos.

The numbers speak for themselves. With hundreds of millions of streams and more than 875,000 YouTube subscribers, this freewheeling creative trio have grown a fanbase that has that rare combination of being both large and devoted.

Their latest project, Searching For Strawberries: The Story Of Jongo Bongo, arrives with one of the band’s most ambitious visual feats to-date, in the form of a 33-minute animated musical feature to accompany the album, released via the band’s own award-winning animation company Crooked City Studios, which itself has produced content for the likes of Jessie Reyez and Donald Glover.

With the project set to be released in three parts, we speak to Rare Americans lead vocalist James Priestner upon the release of the project’s first instalment – which you can watch below.

How did the concept and idea for ‘Searching for Strawberries: The Story of Jongo Bongo’ first originate?

It came from the true story of our bassist, Jongo. This is the wild adventure-filled story of how he ended up going from a financial analyst in Slovakia to a touring bassist in a rock n’ roll band. We also wanted to try releasing a long-form project in a unique way.

We received advice on the best approach, and instead of releasing multiple three-minute videos, we decided to create a long-form project with acts. This idea allowed us to explore the potential of “long-form” content, as we were told that high retention and longer videos can be quite successful. It’s an experiment for us, and we’re excited to see how it goes.

What extra level of depth do you think having an accompanying animation lends the listener when hearing an album?

Having accompanying animation adds an extra level of depth and visual storytelling to the album. It enhances the listening experience by providing a visual representation of the narrative and themes explored in the music, allowing the listener to immerse themselves in the story and connect with the songs on a deeper, more engaging level. The animation brings the music to life in a vivid and captivating way, amplifying the emotional impact of the songs.

Rare Americans

Photo: Jan Neumann

The concept of the animation and album seems to largely revolve around rejecting societal norms and following your passions. What message do you hope people take away by watching and listening to ‘The Story of Jongo Bongo’?

We want viewers and listeners to embrace their individuality, pursue their dreams, and not be afraid to challenge the status quo. The message is about finding fulfillment and staying true to oneself, even when faced with obstacles. We hope it empowers people to live authentically and encourages them to create their own unique paths in life.

Is that sense of following your passions something you’ve personally experienced as musicians and creators?

Absolutely. As musicians and creators, we have personally experienced the importance of following our passions. We believe that true fulfillment comes from pursuing what you love, even if it means taking risks and going against the grain.

Our journey as a band has been fueled by our passion for music and storytelling, and we’ve seen first-hand the transformative power of staying true to our creative vision. It’s a message we strive to convey through our music and the projects we undertake.

Rare Americans

Photo: Jan Neumann

Why are you choosing to roll out ‘The Story of Jongo Bongo’ in three parts?

We consulted with some experienced YouTubers and asked how they thought it was most optimal to release this project, as it’s a brand-new space for us. The feedback was to try and take advantage of YouTube’s “long form content” (anything over ten minutes), as high retention on a longer video is the gold standard. I liked that approach better than releasing 12 or 13 three-minute videos. This is one giant test, so we will see.

What were some of the biggest challenges you had in making this project?

One of the biggest challenges we faced in making this project was the sheer scale of it. We started this project almost two years ago. It’s a massive undertaking that required meticulous planning, coordination, and execution. From conceptualizing the story to creating the animation and composing the music, every aspect demanded extensive effort and attention to detail. 

Additionally, ensuring that the animation aligned seamlessly with the music and conveyed the intended emotions was a complex process. However, despite the challenges, we embraced the opportunity to push our creative boundaries and bring this ambitious project to life.

How will you bring this album to life for your live shows, especially when it’s arrived with such a visual project in the animation?

We are constantly trying to incorporate more of our animated universe into the live show. We show animated skits throughout the show on a video screen, and try to really make it a “show”. I think we will only start to do that more and more with each rendition of our live show.

It’s quite a momentous time for you guys, especially following your Breakthrough Group Of The Year nomination at the 2023 Juno Awards. What was that like when you found out you’d been nominated?

It was an incredibly exciting moment for us. Being recognised and nominated for such a prestigious award was a validation of our hard work and creative vision. It’s an honor to be acknowledged among our peers in the Canadian Music industry, and it motivates us to continue pushing boundaries and creating meaningful music.

Rare Americans

Photo: Jan Neumann

You’ve also recently completed your international Milk & Honey tour. How was that? Were there any standout shows in particular?

It was an absolute blast. We had the opportunity to connect with fans from different parts of the world and share our music with them. Each show had its unique energy, but there were a few standout performances that left a lasting impression.

Off the top of my head, Paris, Denver, Edmonton, and Warsaw were incredible. If you told 16-year-old Jamesy Boy he could go to Warsaw and play for 500 die-hard fans, he would be pretty damn happy. 

Playing for such dedicated fans in different corners of the globe was a dream come true and a testament to the power of music in bringing people together.

What’s next for you guys?

Looking ahead, our focus is on the exciting releases we have planned. We have an abundance of new music and videos lined-up for the next 12 months, and I’m super excited to give them all the love they deserve. We are trying to push the boundaries of what an independent artist is capable of.

We’re super grateful for the support we’ve received so far, and we’re excited about what the future holds for Rare Americans. We can’t wait to share our new creations with the world and continue this incredible journey together with our fans.

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