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Be Your Own Pet: “You have to remember, we were kids back then”

With their frantic garage rock and riotous live shows, Be Your Own Pet burst straight out of high school to briefly become the hottest band in US indie, before suddenly breaking up in 2008. As they return for a string of reunion shows and a revelatory new album, we speak to the Nashville group about misogyny, mental wellbeing and their rich new creative seam

The sun is just starting to dip below the horizon as the crowd gathers for Be Your Own Pet at Primavera Sound. The brutal Barcelona heat still hangs heavy in the air, but luckily for us Brits in the crowd, a light breeze whips in from over the nearby harbour waves, delivering relief. Looking around, you get the impression that most people here seem genuinely buzzed; there’s electricity in the crowd that’s closer to a marquee headline slot than the opening set on a supporting stage. First time around, I’d blinked and missed BYOP; only managing to cotton on to their fun time garage rock right after they’d split up in 2008, but I seem to be the minority; all around me people sporting fading editions of the band’s t-shirts are inching ever closer towards the front. Then, over on the stage, there’s the hum of a guitar warming up and the lazy smack of a snare drum. Turning back to the location, I catch a glimpse of frontwoman Jemina Pearl as she approaches her microphone. “Barcelona! It’s so fucking good to be back!”

A week later, the band are sitting in a Hackney beer garden on a Tuesday afternoon. West Ham are due to play Fiorentina in the Europa Conference League final later tonight, so even though it’s a work day, the back decking is awash with people in claret and blue sinking pints and enjoying the sunshine. In the middle of it all, the members of Be Your Own Pet seem happy enough to go with the flow. Recovering from last night’s riotous show at the Moth Club, and with another one starting a couple of hours later, the four-piece relax and chat happily. Well, all except drummer John Eatherly, who has more pressing matters on his mind.

“Do you know if there’s a second-hand shop near here?” he asks as I plonk myself on the picnic table beside them. “I’ve only brought two pairs of pants [that’s trousers, not Y-fronts, hopefully], and this is my second pair,” he explains, looking almost apologetic for even asking. “In our Airbnb nothing seems to dry, I keep hanging clothes up in my room and everything’s still wet – now I’ve got a room that looks like a clothes rack and nothing to fucking wear.”

Travelling light and squatting in cramped Airbnbs is a rite of passage for most new bands, but Be Your Own Pet aren’t exactly greenhorns. Their resumé boasts an impressive array of achievements. With two well-received albums under their belt, one even reaching the top 10 of the UK indie album charts, they’re still considered to be one of the hottest live acts of the 2000s. Their electrifying performances landed them coveted slots festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo, Glastonbury and Reading & Leeds, sharing stages with heavyweights such as Arctic Monkeys, Sonic Youth and Kings of Leon. Yet today, Be Your Own Pet are essentially starting from scratch. Before the band reunited in December 2020 to prepare for a short stretch of shows in their hometown of Nashville, the last time the four-piece had been in the same room was when they bid farewell to each other at Heathrow Airport following their most successful UK tour to date, in 2008.

“When we did those last few goodbye shows, that was pretty hard for me personally and I needed a little bit of time and space,” recalls guitarist Jonas Stein as we speak about those last days of BYOP. “I think enough time had passed. None of that stuff really mattered and I don’t know, it’s more important for us to all be friends and on good terms. When you get older, you just don’t really care about that shit anymore.”

Looking back now, Be Your Own Pet’s burnout has a sense of grim inevitability about it. To put it mildly, the drug-fuelled, binge-loving 2000s indie scene was something of an emotional roller coaster; certainly a lot to deal with for a bunch of kids just out of high school. Formed in 2004 at the Nashville School of the Arts, the band started out playing hometown house shows and all-ages gigs at venues called things like Guido’s Pizza and Bongo Java. It was there that they refined their distinctive blend of hyper-yet-poppy sounds. Although probably more designed to soundtrack their friends’ parties over conquering the world, their down-to-earth unpretentious garage rock instantly set the band apart from many of the era’s more self-absorbed indie acts. Things all changed when a copy of ‘Damn Damn Leash’ landed on Zane Lowe’s desk. A tight two minutes of bouncy punk rock, Lowe quickly started spinning the track on his Radio 1 show, and soon afterwards the rest of the UK music press couldn’t get enough of them either. Back then, it was them or Kasabian, right? Their wild gigs became legendary, notorious for crowd surfing uni lads, puking and punching their way through songs about bike rides, pizza and obscure in-jokes. But as the past few years have shown, things always go dark where you have a mob of blokes like those uni lads left unchallenged, and into this cesspit of toxicity and entitlement was thrown a group of high schoolers, unequipped to deal with it. Unsurprisingly, they found themselves in precarious situations. Expected to party all the time, no questions asked, Pearl and her bandmates had to regularly fend off drunken louts and stage invaders attempting to grab her. Clearly, it wasn’t a situation that was in any way sustainable. 

“I think we’d got in this cycle where everyone expected our shows to just pop off,” bassist Nathan Vasquez recalls as we discuss the final days of the band. “When you’re being asked to do that 20 shows in a row, it can be kind of hard to get in that mindset. So you’re like, ‘All right, let’s get drunk. Let’s party before this show.’”

Pearl nods in agreement. “You have to remember, we were kids back then; we didn’t know what was going on. I was 16 the first time we came to London. For that reason, I think we didn’t have a typical late-teen or early-20s experience because we were really working our asses off in a lot of ways. We were having fun, playing shows and excited for the opportunities, but at the same time, I missed my friends.”

Just because Be Your Own Pet ended, it didn’t mean the adventure stopped. The band members have been incredibly busy since their shock split, which is one of the main reasons why they haven’t reunited sooner. Stein led the way with Turbo Fruits, delivering four studio albums and captivating audiences with his disco-filled DJ sets. Vasquez took his own turn at the front with Deluxin’, while Eatherly embarked on various projects, including the notable Public Access TV. Pearl released a solo album featuring Thurston Moore and Iggy Pop before taking a break to start a family. However, despite their individual endeavours, there has always been a lingering sense of unfinished business for the band. Originally planning to reunite for a couple of shows during the pandemic, their fans’ overwhelming reaction and the sheer joy of reconnecting as friends led to a change in plans. The desire to put the ghost of the past to rest transformed into a newfound enthusiasm for creating music and sharing it with their devoted audience once again.

“It’s crazy to be playing rooms where everyone knows every lyric to every song,” beams Stein, speaking about BYOP’s recent spate of shows. “There’s so much love in the room and it makes us want to do it justice. I mean, I flub the fuck out of almost every song every night, but it’s cool to see so many people into it.”

Things change though, and in the decade that’s passed since the band first called it a day, the members of Be Your Own Pet have undergone significant personal and musical growth. The band’s new album and first post-reunion, Mommy, unveils a newly self-assured and mature side of the four-piece. The lead single ‘Hand Grenade’ epitomises this journey. The track, with its howled chorus of, “I’m not your victim / I’m my own person / I’m not some casualty / I set myself free,” is Pearl’s ferocious indictment of the rampant sexism and abuse pervasive in the music industry, and simultaneously an assertion an unwavering determination to defy those limitations. Displaying righteous anger and a fierce determination seemingly at odds with the band’s fun-time appeal, ‘Hand Grenade’ makes you wonder if Pearl, once known for singing about pizza and bike rides, had been concealing her rage beneath a veneer of innocence all along.

“Back then, I was trying to be like this exaggerated, teenage version of myself. Like, let’s sing songs about pizza and zombies,” she explains when I ask her about this new emotional honesty. “If I was to do that now, it would be a little bit sad, I think. I’m trying to write songs about where I’m at now in my life. I used to write songs about zombies and pizza, but now I’m writing songs about my latex fetish. Trust me, it all makes sense.”

Mommy showcases a band on the verge of a new chapter. While the album reflects the band’s outward anger towards the sexists and abusers who marred their early careers, it also serves as a cathartic journey for Pearl as she confronts her own mental health struggles and comes to terms with motherhood and responsibility. Reflecting on the band’s past, she openly admits that much of her erratic behaviour in the early years of BYOP stemmed from a sense of being out of control, with a lack of understanding about her own mental well-being, which only exacerbated the challenges they faced. She’s candid about the intense struggle she experienced during the band’s breakup, saying: “I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder shortly after the band broke up, but I wasn’t in any kind of place where I was ready to accept the diagnosis. It took me a few more years, into my late 20s, to accept it and be like, ‘No, you really need help.’ I would be so depressed that I’d feel suicidal, and then you have a high where you’re just like, ‘Everything’s fucking great. I’m the greatest person in the world.’ I spent my time kind of being out of touch with reality. It was only when my husband was really like, ‘I’m worried about you, I need you to take care of yourself,’ that things were put in perspective. It’s been a long struggle that’s caused me a lot of pain, but now I feel like I’m in control of what’s happening.”

Be Your Own Pet’s story isn’t just one of unfinished business and redemption, it also serves as a testament to the transformative power of music and community. They openly acknowledge their past experiences, yet beneath the surface of laughter and jokes lies an unwavering determination not to be defined by their history. It goes beyond the clichéd ‘four people against the world’ mindset, as the band joyously embraces the reconnecting spirit and enthusiasm of their fans without the burden of previous bullshit. What sets this revival apart is the band’s newfound maturity and emotional resilience, allowing them to relish every moment this time around and seize this second chance with both hands. After all, they were only kids not just when they formed, but when they split up too.

“I think it’s more than just going along for the ride now. It’s about feeling good, having fun and keeping it in that space,” says Eatherly. “I can only speak for myself, but ever since we’ve kicked this back off it feels so fucking good to be back on stage with these guys. I have personally missed it a lot. I love performing, and there’s not really a way to recreate that without being in a band and performing. It’s not like you can find that in a hobby. It’s great to be back; and the fact we’re tapping into a real creative place again? That’s the icing on the cake.”