Be Your Own Pet: “That chemistry was still there”

Be Your Own Pet roar back with ‘Mommy,’ a triumphant return of ferocious garage punk and unapologetic control after 15 years of hiatus.

Words: Linsey Teggert.
Photos: Kirk Barnett.

“I’m not your victim, I’m my own person,” snarls Be Your Own Pet’s Jemina Pearl on the band’s comeback single ‘Hand Grenade’. “I’m not some casualty; I set myself free.” The Nashville four-piece’s first new music release in 15 years was a defiant statement of intent: Be Your Own Pet are back, but this time around, they’re completely in control.

When BYOP first burst onto the scene as teenagers in 2004, there was nothing quite like them. A scrappy whirlwind of garage rock, punk, and pop all bundled together with a chaotic energy, the band soon built a huge following and became known for their wild live shows. They burned fast and bright, but after releasing their second album ‘Get Awkward’ in 2008, the flame had burned out. The unhealthy pressures of a ravenous music industry and the constant judgement felt by Jemina as the only woman in the group became too much, and the band called it quits.

“Until 2021, the four of us hadn’t been together in the same room since 2008 when we did our last ever tour in the UK and were flying out of Heathrow Airport,” recalls Jemina. “We’d all been in touch and hung out here and there, but never all four of us. During the pandemic, we had a group band chat to check in on each other, and we talked about how we’d seen peers of ours playing all these festivals, and we were like, ‘Huh, I wonder if we could do something like that?’ When we finally hung out together, we were so nervous, but we immediately fell back into feeling like close friends – that chemistry was still there.”

“Everyone was into playing live again, though I initially thought we’d just play a few shows and play our old songs in a fun reunion style,” adds Jemina. “But then that kind of got all of our gears turning, and we wondered, ‘What would new Be Your Own Pet music sound like?’”

“I can be many different things all at the same time”

Jemina Pearl

Though the wheels were beginning to turn, it’s partly Jack White who we have to thank for the full return of BYOP. Jemina is married to Ben Swank, White’s business partner in Third Man Records, and after hearing they’d been jamming together again, he asked if they wanted to open some shows on his ‘Supply Chain Issues’ tour. After those shows, it was full speed ahead, and the band headed into the studio for the first time in a decade and a half with their long-time producer and collaborator, Jeremy Ferguson.

The resulting record, ‘Mommy’, is the best Be Your Own Pet have ever sounded. Being older and more decisive has only bolstered the band’s garage punk ferocity, and the scattershot energy of their earlier material has transformed into some serious ‘we mean business’ attitude and strength. This is BYOP reclaiming their space completely on their own terms. It makes sense, then, that the album is pretty heavy on the whole dominatrix theme, with tracks such as ‘Worship the Whip,’ ‘Erotomania’, ‘Pleasure Seeker’, and ‘Rubberist’. The album artwork even sees Jemina donning a kick-ass rubber catsuit and standing over the rest of the band, who sit passively around a table. It’s a bold reflection of the control Jemina and the band have taken back.

“I didn’t necessarily set out to write songs that had that energy; it kind of just unfurled that way,” explains Jemina. “Then, when making the album art and coming up with a name, looking at the big picture of everything we had created, it was a very strong theme that revealed itself.

“Being a young woman in this industry at that time, I felt very vulnerable – we all did. We were all basically children when we did this the first time around. There were a lot of experiences I had that I didn’t feel good about, where I didn’t feel in control and felt taken advantage of. Now I’m a full-grown woman. I know what I want and don’t want, and I’m fine to have those boundaries. Also, becoming a mother helped me get to that place in my life.”

Although Jemina’s bandmates, guitarist Jonas Stein, bass player Nathan Vasquez and drummer John Eatherly, perhaps didn’t feel the same pressure, they were ultimately still kids thrown in at the deep end. 

“Looking back on everything, with Jemina being the only female in the band and being sexualised the way she was, I don’t think us boys had the ability to fully grasp it at the time,” Jonas explains. “But looking back and reading some of the articles and seeing the way the social environment has changed over the past years (mostly for the better), we’re like, ‘Holy shit, what were people thinking back then?!’”

“We were pushed out of the crib a little too soon and expected to act like adults but also act like crazy wild performers and children at the same time, so it was very difficult to find a balance of what any sort of normalcy was. I was personally envious of getting to see my friends live a normal life, go off to college and travel on their own terms. All that said, it was a really amazing experience in some respects, and we all agree we wouldn’t change it for the world, but looking back on it, I can definitely pinpoint some faults with the whole experience.

“Obviously, as a male, I didn’t experience it in the same way as Jemina, but we all got to experience the intensity of expectation and pressure on us, which played a big part in the band burning out pretty quickly. One thing that has been liberating for me is that we can run the band as a small business now; when we were younger, we had some major label advance money – ‘Here’s thousands of dollars to live off for the next album cycle, you go tour your fucking asses off until we tell you to stop, and then we’ll give you more’. We didn’t ever really know if we were getting paid for any shows at all or what our expenses were – we were totally blindfolded. Now we can actually budget something out and see what we’ll be getting paid: we know how long we’ll work for and what money we’ll have in our pockets – it’s nothing astronomical, but it’s fair – and it’s nice to have our heads around that.”

When it comes to running a band, in the time BYOP have been away, the musical landscape has changed massively in terms of how bands are packaged and marketed. It’s crazy to realise that things like Instagram and Spotify weren’t such a big deal back then. And don’t even mention TikTok…

“I’m definitely still trying to figure out TikTok!” laughs Jemina. “People are like, ‘You guys need to have a TikTok presence!’ There’s definitely a different set of expectations on bands now of having a social media presence and sharing a lot of yourself. It can be cool, but it’s also a whole other aspect to the job. That makes me sound really old!

“It’s interesting, in some ways, a lot of things have changed for the better in the music industry in the time we’ve been away. It still feels like small baby steps, but there’s more diversity and more inclusion of different perspectives, so it’s cool to come back and be part of that. It did feel like back in the day, it was a case of, ‘There’s only room for one band with a female lead singer, we’ve already got one, so we don’t need another on this festival’, even though our bands would be totally different.”

Musically, ‘Mommy’ demonstrates how the band’s tastes and musicianship have evolved over the years too. While tracks like ‘Hand Grenade’ and ‘Goodtime’ demonstrate the same riotous fuzz-laden, hooky garage pop that BYOP made their name with, ‘Pleasure Seeker’ is a sexy, stomping slice of glam rock, while ‘Rubberist’ has some serious Blondie-esque disco vibes.

“Even though I was raised on punk-rock, I’ve gravitated towards DJing disco music over the past decade, so that bassline Nathan came up with for ‘Rubberist’ really resonated with me,” says Jonas. “It invited some disco riffs to it, so it was a nice way to balance out all this deep-cut style disco music I’ve been playing on vinyl.”

“It was completely collaborative this time around,” adds Jemina. “I didn’t write any of the music back in the day, just the vocals and lyrics, so to be able to have song ideas and bring them to the guys was cool for me to have those songs that I had the little seed for.

“I’ve always used lyrics and writing music as a way to process my emotions so that energy is still there, but of course, it’s about where I’m at now. I’m not trying to present myself as a teenager; it would feel very inauthentic to be like, ‘Let’s write more songs about zombies!’ Not that I don’t still love horror movies, we’re just in a more adult mindset.”

Something that definitely hasn’t changed is BYOP’s ability to put on an incendiary live show. “I feel like our shows are better now,” Jemina states. “We’re more skilled at playing the songs how we want to play them while also putting on a really energetic show, instead of it just being 100% insane non-stop motion the entire time.”

One thing that Jemina became well-known for was her tendency to thrash about so intensely on stage that she’d often have to stop and throw up. Is this something else she’s gained control of over time?

“I puked in Barcelona!” Jemina declares triumphantly, referring to their recent Primavera set. “Like when you exercise too much, and you get the dry heaves! I’m just a puker. I could see Jonas saying, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it!’ through gritted teeth, and I was trying to keep it down and ended up hurling all over the stage. Then I rolled around in it because I figured, why not? What would Iggy do?! You can still be a mom and be punk rock: I can be many different things all at the same time.” ■

Taken from the September 2023 edition of Upset. Be Your Own Pet’s album ‘Mommy’ is out 25th August.