Wednesday, November 29

‘I was susceptible to being taken advantage of’: Be Your Own Pet return after surviving sleazy indie | Punk

Recently, Be Your Own Pet singer Jemina Pearl was going through her parents’ archive of articles about the Nashville punk band, who blazed briefly in the mid-2000s. “One of the reviews of our first album said, ‘The slutty Jemina Pearl …’” she says with a grim laugh. “It’s crazy looking back on some of the really sexist, awful things – every review talking about the way I look, as if that matters at all.”

Worse still, Pearl was only 18 at the time – the only girl in a band of four Tennessee teens whose wolfishly catchy garage rock about bikes, adventures and fuuuuun set them apart from the era’s preening indie acts. Their wild gigs were heavy on puking and punching. More than once, Pearl and her bandmates had to fight off stage invaders trying to grab her. She tried to emulate Iggy Pop. But where he leered, “I wanna be your dog,” she snarled “You’ve got me on a leash / A damn damn leash,” and hungered to get free from the constraints of school, controlling boys and gender norms.

It only got her so far. “A lot of attention was placed on what I would do as being very sexualised, but that wasn’t where my motivation was coming from,” she says.

For those of us who understood the wellspring of her feral, funny energy, Pearl became a cult icon. Be Your Own Pet (BYOP) blew up immediately, one demo CD taking them from all-ages gigs in pizza parlours to the NME. “I think youthful energy is contagious and we had a lot of that,” Pearl, now 34, speculates of their appeal.

‘Being on stage was a true place of power for me’ … Jemina Pearl performing at SXSW 2006. Photograph: Roger Kisby/Getty Images

But it turned out to be an exhaustible resource when subjected to the demands of the music industry. The band burned out after two albums, splitting suddenly in 2008. Fourteen years later, they’re reuniting for (so far) two gigs supporting Jack White (Pearl’s husband is Ben Swank, White’s business partner in Third Man Records). The only goal is to have the fun they missed the first time, which went by so fast they barely got the chance to finish school. The boys took night classes but Pearl dropped out, overwhelmed by the pressure.

Zooming from her home in a Joan Jett T-shirt, Pearl says she was a “very troubled teenager”, drinking and doing drugs to paper over mental health issues she wouldn’t address for years. Had her parents not let her tour with BYOP, she would just have run away. “BYOP was this great, cathartic release,” she says. “When you’re a teenage girl, you feel like you’re the lowest rung, and so being on stage was a true place of power for me.”

They signed to XL in the UK and Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace in the US. “Getting attention from someone we grew up idolising was pretty fucking sick,” says guitarist Jonas Stein. None of them had ever been overseas before they were booked to tour the UK, a stint that included 2005’s extremely flooded Glastonbury. “I’ll never forget seeing all the other acts wearing their pristine stage attire and we ran up there with mud all over our clothes,” says bassist Nathan Vasquez.

Pearl, though, still fretted about their performance. “I always put a lot of pressure on myself to perform and be wild.”

Young female performers with a turbulent onstage persona are easily dehumanised and see their creativity reduced to an accidental side effect. “It was very cathartic,” says Pearl, “but there was purpose behind what we were doing.”

Be Your Own Pet: Let’s Get Sandy – video

She cites their song Bunk Trunk Skunk, from their self-titled 2006 debut album, in which she yowls: “I’m an independent motherfucker / And I’m here to take your virginity.” Original drummer Jamin Orrall wrote it for his other band but she convinced him to let them use it: “It’d be way cooler because no one would expect a teenage girl to say that. It’s always boys talking about the notches on their bed.”

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Her nascent feminism was instinctive, though she noticed from her parents’ clippings that as the band went on, she got more androgynous. “I wore less makeup and I’ve chopped all my hair off because I was just so tired of having that male gaze on me – maybe you guys will leave me alone and I can just be a person rather than a teenage girl.”

It didn’t work. Photographers asked her to suggestively suck lollipops and called her a virgin when she refused. Fans yelled for her to show her breasts and groped her at the merch stand. Pearl had to stop crowdsurfing because “every time I did, someone either put their hand up my pants or in my shirt”. She blames the media in part. “Everything written about me had this very sexualised tone, so when people come to your shows they have some expectation of what you’re going to be.”

The misogyny of the era also poisoned Pearl’s self-conception. “Few women were allowed into the boys’ club,” she says. “It felt very territorial, like there’s only space for one of us – one crazy lead singer. I’d meet my peers and it would always be standoffish because we were so used to being the only woman in the room.” To survive, she tried to “have the dirtiest mouth and be harder than anybody else so I was part of the boys’ club. But I don’t think you can ever really be part of the boys’ club.” She’s still trying to unpack her internalised misogyny from that time; one day she hopes to study gender and counselling.

The general pressures on the band worsened around their second album, 2008’s Get Awkward, a record that dialled up the manic fun as a stand against professionalisation. Drummer Orrall quit, replaced by John Eatherly. BYOP became the guinea pigs in Ecstatic Peace’s new upstreaming deal with Universal. The major label apparently completely misunderstood the appeal of their new charges, banning three songs from Get Awkward for being too violent. The band were baffled by the inconsistencies. Some songs about self-harm were removed, others remained; meanwhile their label mate Eminem could rap about “wanting to kill his child’s mother, and that’s cool”, says Pearl, baffled.

Be Your Own Pet: Becky – video

Writing about violence was an emotional and creative outlet, says Pearl. “I would write about things that I was struggling with. There was a sadness and a dark quality to me at that time so that is in the lyrics – but we also wanted our band to be fun.” She loved violent punk and gory films: one banned song, Becky, fantasised about a showdown with knives after class and was inspired by John Waters’ Female Trouble.

Another banned song, Black Hole, about being so bored you want to die or kill someone, is a favourite of film-maker Edgar Wright. “The lyrics are extremely witty and bleakly beautiful,” he says. “That a female lyricist isn’t allowed to put out a song like black hole – a scabrous piece of poetry – is ridiculous.”

While Universal didn’t appreciate BYOP’s teenage sensibilities, they wrung out their earning potential: Pearl recently found a schedule that took them away from home for six months. Before they were all 18, a parent always toured with them. Now they were out on their own.

“We probably shouldn’t have been under so much pressure and scrutiny,” says Pearl. “I really wanted us to do well and make our label happy, say yes to every opportunity. When I felt like we weren’t doing a good enough job, I took it out on myself.”

The band had no idea how to discuss the pressures they were under. “We were all separately trying to cope in ways that were probably not the healthiest,” says Pearl. For her, that was “drinking and drugs and hanging out with people I probably shouldn’t have been hanging out with”.

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“As time went on,” says Vasquez, “I was drinking a lot, and it became an all-the-time thing for me.”

The final straw was a tour for Nylon magazine with 22 people living on one bus and the band constantly being filmed. The boys told Pearl they were quitting. “Our highs and lows were too drastic for me to cope any longer,” says Stein. “I wanted some sort of stability in my life.”

Pearl didn’t want the band to end, though she had no intention of replacing the boys and carrying on under the name. They did a messy farewell tour. But they still owed Universal another album. The label declined a record from Stein’s new band Turbo Fruits; they wanted a Pearl solo album.

“I was not in my right mind to be making any decisions, but it fell on my shoulders,” she says. The pressure to maintain momentum was on: “Like, ‘You’ve got to put it out quickly because no one’s going to care pretty soon.’”

Universal tried to push her towards pop and being photographed at celeb parties. While she ultimately worked with good people on 2009’s Break It Up (Moore, TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, Iggy Pop) the overall experience broke her, she says. “I had some bad things happen in the time between BYOP breaking up and working on my solo record. I was a bit lost and so I think I was susceptible to being taken advantage of.”

Pearl grows tearful, but declines to go into further detail. “You sometimes trust the wrong people.”

BYOP in 2006.
‘Our highs and lows were too drastic for me to cope any longer’ … BYOP in 2006. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

She toured the album and went into debt paying her backing musicians. One date coincided with the death of fellow Tennessee punk Jay Reatard. “I knew him a little bit and I knew people that he worked with. I felt like: there it is, people just take and take until you break,” she says. “They’re like vultures. I was like, what am I even doing this for any more? My heart’s not in it, I’m going into debt and I need to step back and focus on my mental health or I’m not going to make it.”

Pearl walked away, made to feel washed up at 23. “The misogyny and the sexism is a big reason why I got fed up with it,” she says. She recognised her own experiences in the scandal around LA punk label Burger Records, which in 2020 was accused of normalising a culture of sexual assault. “There’s these young women saying they were taken advantage of – I was in so many of those same situations. I felt like a peer to these people but really I was still a child.” She admits there would have been no telling her otherwise. “You feel like you know everything when you’re 17 years old. I don’t think you ever have anything figured out.”

She moved back to Nashville to get well and intended to start a new band. “I’ve had a couple of little projects but time keeps going on and I haven’t really done anything,” says Pearl. She married Swank, had her first kid aged 25, worked as a seamstress and got her high-school diploma five years ago, during her second pregnancy, reckoning: “If I don’t have one when my kids are older, they’re probably going to give me a lot of shit for it.”

Pearl says she loves being a parent (and her two kids love BYOP’s Zombie Graveyard Party) but I get the sense she regrets being deprived of a career in music. “I would have loved for BYOP to have kept doing our art into our 20s,” she says wistfully. “I would love to hear what our third album would have sounded like. We were supposed to write the music for the Scott Pilgrim movie.”

Scott Pilgrim director Wright says he even wanted to cast Pearl in the film, which started with him and Scott Pilgrim writer Bryan Lee O’Malley swapping mixtapes in which BYOP were the common factor. “Maybe they were one of those bands that were too cool for school, they couldn’t exist,” he says. “A classic punk band destined to burn out very quickly.”

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Last summer, Pearl and Stein started to notice their peers reuniting. “We were like, shit, do you think we could do that? That’d be kind of fun,” she says. They floated the idea and got a warm reception. “That was the first time all four of us had been in the same place since flying home from our last show in London,” says Pearl. It had taken a while for them to be friends again. “Now so much time has passed that it feels like no time has passed, and none of those things matter any more,” she says. “Even if nothing comes from this, the fact that we’re all on great terms again is enough for me.”

Pearl is always delighted to hear them cited as an influence – Paramore’s Hayley Williams is a fan, as are London punks Big Joanie – and was happily surprised to learn that 50% of their Spotify listeners are aged 18-22: brand new fans, not just nostalgists.

She is now more than double the age she was when BYOP started: presumably the energy behind her performance has to come from a different place than that feral teenage wellspring? “Oh, I’m still angry,” she laughs. “I think before I just felt angry but I didn’t understand why. Now I know why I’m angry.”

But there’s another source too, she says. “It’ll be coming from a more joyful place. I’ve worked my shit out a lot so I can just enjoy being on stage.”

Edgar Wright on Be Your Own Pet

“There are six Scott Pilgrim books, and each one came with a playlist of what Bryan Lee O’Malley was listening to as he was writing and drawing. BYOP’s October, First Account was on one of those playlists. And I was a big fan of the first album – iTunes says I’ve played their song Adventure 102 times! We thought they had the right kind of sound for Sex Bob-omb [the band in Scott Pilgrim] even though in the books and the film they have a male singer.

I brought Nigel Godrich on to do the score and find the bands to play the different parts [in the film’s Toronto International Battle of the Bands]. We were talking a lot about BYOP but we hadn’t had a chance to see them – this was in 2008 when they brought out Get Awkward, which I really loved. It soundtracked the pre-production of the movie. I was in LA trying to get the movie going and I remember driving around and listening to Becky and Black Hole and Bitches Leave. That album hit the bullseye for me – it had lots of references to things that I love, like The Kelly Affair, a song about Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

The trailer for Scott Pilgrim vs the World featuring Be Your Own Pet’s Black Hole – video

Nigel had enquired about BYOP, then I got an email from Thurston Moore saying, ‘Hey, I hear you guys are interested in BYOP, they’re a great band – also Jemina might be a good fit to be in the movie as an actress.’ Having seen how funny she is in the Bicycle video, I thought, ‘That sounds great.’

And this is where the story doesn’t have a very satisfactory end. They broke up before our proposed meeting. Although the song Black Hole was banned by Universal we used it on the trailer for a Universal film, so I hope they at least got some money from that. I remember feeling bad for them that the two best songs on Get Awkward weren’t on the US edition: isn’t that what the [parental advisory] sticker is for?

I’m excited that they’re coming back. I still really love their albums. Maybe they were one of those bands that were too cool for school, they couldn’t exist – like a classic punk band destined to burn out very quickly. The idea of them reuniting and me being able to see them 14 years later is very exciting.”

Be Your Own Pet support Jack White at the Atlanta Tabernacle on 28 April and the Nashville Ascend Amphitheatre on 30 April.

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