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The World on a Damn, Damn Leash: An Interview with Be Your Own Pet

Jennifer Kelly

Be Your Own Pet's debut full-length bristles with an old school punk fury, all spit and sputter and splatter-spazz energy. It's the kind of ferocious assault you'd expect from a foursome that's been playing together since high school... oh, two, three years ago.

It's not often that a CD-R made in a basement, after school, by four kids who haven't yet graduated from high school turns the rock world on its ear, but it happens. It happened most recently when Nashville's Be Your Own Pet snuck into Roger Moutenout's studio one night a couple of years ago, blasted out seven cuts of their primal punk sound, and left with the sun shining and a brand new two-song disc. The single was posted online, and somehow -- no one is sure exactly how -- Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore found out and become a fan. A few months later, Zane Lowe of BBC Radio One obtained a copy, and the rest was history. In 2003, XL Recordings released the single with one extra track, and Be Your Own Pet was on the bill at CMJ and SXSW. Not bad for a very recent winner of Nashville School of the Arts' Battle of the Bands.

We will come to your town ... burn your house down

Jemima Pearl, the band's platinum blond singer, met her drummer Jamin Orral when she was just 11. The rest of the band, Jonas Stein and Nathan Vasquez, entered the picture at the magnet arts school they all attended for high school. The band honed its frenetic live act in free shows at Guido's Pizza Parlor, Pearl said. "They had all different kinds of shows there, pretty much every night of the week," she remembered. "It was a really, really tiny basement space. You could have 30 people there and you felt like you'd sold out the place. All of our friends and people that we knew could come and dance and have fun."

No one had any inkling, at those early shows, that Be Your Own Pet was anything out of the ordinary. "It wasn't all that unusual to have a band at school," Pearl explained. "There were probably four or five of them at the time."

But what was undoubtedly unusual was to have a band that channeled the authentic punk frenzy of old school bands like the Runaways and X-Ray Specs and new no-wavers like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. How do four southern teenagers even make contact with the sounds of CBGBs? Serendipity. "My parents always really liked the Talking Heads and that kind of stuff," she said. (Her dad is rock photographer and videographer Jimmy Abegg.) "Then I just ... I don't know ... I don't know how I found out about it. I was really into the Ramones, and from there found out about the Pistols and the Clash and the Stooges and stuff like that."

But though she doesn't remember how she first heard punk rock, Pearl definitely recalls why it took hold on her. "What used to be so cool about punk rock, just from listening to it and reading books about it, it seemed like anybody could do anything that they wanted and it was punk. Because all those bands are really different. It was really original and it had so much, like, emotion and energy in it. As compared to pop music."

Asked if it bothers her when she's compared to bands whose members broke up, or even died, before she was born, Pearl was emphatic. "No," she said. "I'd rather get compared to them than bands that are around today, I guess. That's what we listen to and what we get inspired by, so it would make sense that people would compare us to them."

Be Your Own PET - Damn Damn Leash

Be Your Own Pet's self-titled full-length, due out in July on Moore's Ecstatic Peace Label, crackles with that same DIY energy and sense of fun. Seriously rocking, but unseriously goofy, its song titles give away a teenage smirk beneath the punk. "Bicycle, Bicycle, You Are My Bicycle" hitches a buzz saw guitar riff to primitive drumming and threatens to burn your house down, while with "Bunk Trunk Skunk" Pearl revels in the opportunity to spit out the word "Motherfucker" again and again. You have to have a load of balls to cop the title and a phrase from "Stairway to Heaven," maybe the most famous rock song ever, but Be Your Own Pet does it with a shit-eating grin.

The band recorded this 33-minute album with Redd Kross's Steve McDonald, in a process that was very different from their earlier sessions. "All the times we recorded before this were kind of weird situations and not exactly how we wanted it to go, and usually we would spend a day or two," Pearl said. "This time we spent three weeks."

"[Steve] was really good at getting us excited even though we were doing something for the tenth time," said Pearl, who remembers McDonald coaching her through the one-minute, speed-punk barrage of "Let's Get Sandy" one day, then encouraging her to find her softer side for the girl-pop "October, First Account." "I thought that song was kind of lame. I didn't actually want to record it because I didn't know how I felt about it," Pearl remembered. "Steve did a lot of coaxing me into recording that song in the first place."

We are adventurers ... we've been to every place in the world

One of the perks of being the new, new thing is that you get to travel, and Be Your Own Pet, up to now a mostly UK phenomenon, has logged some serious international miles. Pearl said that one highlight was going to Japan for the August 2005 Sonic Festival. "It was crazy. We had an EP that had come out the day before, so we figured that nobody would know who we were," she said. "We were playing first or second on the stage, really early in the day, but the shows were really great. They were just like jumping up and down all together and crowd surfing and crazy. It was really surprising." And, at a recent series of dates in France, Be Your Own Pet had enough free time to see the sites, walking late at night along the Seine from Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower. That's a rare occurrence, though, Pearl admitted. "People are like, 'Wow, you got to go here and here and here.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, but I didn't get to see anything. I saw the hotel and the club.'"

As for instance, at the most recent Coachella, where Be Your Own Pet played its sweaty punk rock in the desert. Pearl, still jet-lagged from a jaunt through the UK, found herself falling asleep at 8pm. "I had fun hanging out with a friend from LA and Steve [McDonald], but I didn't get to see any of the big acts," she admitted.

Electric shake it down and out

Right now, Be Your Own Pet is gearing up for a US tour, bringing the stripped down, live-wire act that's gone over so well in Britain back to its native shores. Pearl thinks that, like so many other things her band has done so far, will be "really fun". And, in fact, she seems to want critics, fans and bystanders to focus on just that: fun. It's a mistake, after all, to overthink lyrics like, "Tick tick, do that trick trick / Tick tick, now you're sick / Hide in the closet, we kiss / Neither of us feeling this." That's not the point. "Most people take the lyrics very seriously," said Pearl, with an almost audible roll of her eyes. "But most of the time, it's like ... they're just funny."

Likewise, Pearl seems impatient with any attempt to overanalyze her band's appeal, its trajectory from pizza parlor entertainment to Sonic Youth opening act or any changes in musical style. "We just go up on stage, play our songs and have a good time," she said. "If we do something that sounds different it's not like we really plan it. We're just doing what we kind of come up with. Nothing is really planned about what we do."

Be Your Own PET - Adventure

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