Be Your Own Pet Return With Full Control
We sat down with the Jemina Pearl to discuss the male chauvinism that tainted the band’s initial stardom, their long path to reformation and Mommy—their first album in 15 yearsPhoto by Kirsten Barnett Music Features Be Your Own Pet
In beat-up Vans, dirty black jeggings and a “Where’s Waldo”-reminiscent raw-hemmed shortsleeve, Jemina Pearl does a punky bridge-pose on the littered floor of an outdoor stage. Her hair—an explosion of bleached blond spattered with patches of fading blue and hints of her natural brown—flames out in front of her face as she screeches into the corded microphone she’s tangled up with. It’s March 2006 and she’s not yet 19, but Be Your Own Pet—the punk rock outlet she’s helmed since she could barely drive—had already made it to SXSW and were about to join the roster of Ecstatic Peace, the label of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.
By mid-2008, the band had broken up. Though Be Your Own Pet cited sexism toward their frontwoman as their primary reason for splitting, Pearl recalls being the most reluctant to abandon ship. “The band was my life; it was how I defined who I was,” she tells me on a late-July afternoon, when I ask about the demise of Be Your Own Pet’s first iteration. It’s hard to describe how perfect a tableau she makes, sitting in confident repose amidst walls upon walls of records in her small home office, swathed in warm light and a comfy tee. Her hair’s the same bleached blond, only now cut in a simple bob that curls in to hug her chin. “But now, you know, I think if we would have kept going, it would have only gotten worse, for all of us. For our mental health,” she adds, grinning. “But I guess I ultimately got my way.”
She’s absolutely right: After 15 years apart, many of them filled with estrangement, Be Your Own Pet has reformed and created Mommy, a thunderous LP that recounts the pitfalls of adulthood and rails against the ever-growing laundry list of Shit That Sucks in the 2020s. But Mommy is celebratory and joyous, too; its album cover features Pearl reigning over a 1980s, suburban-style dining room in a latex onesie and towering stilettos—as bandmates Nathan Vasquez, Jonas Stein and John Eatherly sulk beneath the band’s matriarch, a frontwoman in total control.
It wasn’t always like that. The punk scene has undergone many rebirths and reconfigurations in the last 30 years, and attitudes toward women and minorities have been an area of perennial improvement. A lifestyle centered around unfettered community and antiestablishmentarian ideals left Pearl feeling ostracized and drooled over—a fetishism which, she muses, seemed especially to center around her youth. “There’s such a fascination with teenagers,” she shudders. “It’s like, who’s gonna be there for you when you’re 26, and you’re not so cute anymore?” Their upcoming tour is called Teenage Heaven for that very reason—a nostalgic “fuck you” to the creepy adulation that choked her young career. She recalls nightmare interviews from decades past, sleazeball reporters (one can’t help but picture a Howard Stern-shaped outline) treating her like a sexy baby with a naughty misandrist inclination. “I was a teenager getting interviewed by these older men, and there was a lot of hostile energy towards me. I don’t know what it was, me just merely existing bothered them. It’s like, I got into an interview and I was being attacked half the time,” she scoffs.
And so the media lurked, eyeballs glued to her boobs with devilish, middle-aged man glee. “I was 17, and people would be talking about my body, about, you know, ‘she moves with wild sexual energy.’ I didn’t see myself that way, so I felt really uncomfortable,” she frowns, furrowing her brow. Pearl was tired; they all were. Drugs, drinking and not much sleep were the name of the day, as they barrelled through their touring cycle for 2008’s Get Awkward. Pearl also suffered from a then-undiagnosed bipolar disorder, creating a powder-keg of emotion inside their cramped tour bus. “We were under so much pressure,” she explains. “We had this major record label who invested all this money in us and had certain expectations of what we were going to do. And, you know, sometimes we felt like we didn’t really have a choice.”
Three months into a seemingly never-ending tour, Vasquez, Stein and Eatherly approached Pearl with a bitter truth: They couldn’t do it anymore. With Australia, Europe and Japan on the horizon, the three bandmates saw themselves on the verge of a breakdown. In her fragile mental state, Pearl felt blindsided: “It took me years to recover,” she admits. “I needed to lick my wounds and heal and process all the stuff that had happened.” But she wouldn’t get that chance until she fulfilled a Universal contract that obligated the band to produce a triumvirate of albums for them. Bereft of the boys, Pearl was left to complete the last LP alone, lest they all get sued. “That’d be a whole ‘nother interview,” she laughs dryly of her solo project Break It Up. “I just felt so burned by the industry. I was like, ‘I’m never going to make music again.’”
But she did. Pearl went to Nashville to nurse herself back to health, where she met and married Third Man Records’s Ben Swank. 15 years and two children—a son and daughter, of whom Pearl speaks with utmost pride—later, Stein winnowed his way back into her good graces via a longstanding friendship with Swank. Post-pandemic, the group coalesced for the first time since they’d imploded, and they began toying with the thought of playing some live shows. Vasquez had a caveat: He’d only play again if they wrote new music. They weren’t going backwards. The four set to work, and it felt different this time. “It wasn’t trying to make something that doesn’t fit, anymore,” Pearl notes. “We don’t have baby egos. We’re all much kinder and more understanding with each other than we were back in the day. We’re all adults now.”
Pearl was elated—and determined—that things would be different this time around. Motherhood, she notes, has shattered the worldview she let get in her way the first time around. “It just cleared away all the bullshit,” she says. “It’s a shedding of the bullshit, that’s what motherhood is all about.” Enter Mommy: A sexy, angry, clear-eyed return to glory helmed by the band’s own fearless matriarch. “Mommy is the new daddy!” Pearl shouts into the camera, beaming as she details the joys of singing “Goodtime!,” a tongue-in-cheek indictment of the responsibilities of middle age. “I’ve got two kids and a mortgage, what the fuck?” Pearl gasps exaggeratedly, just as she used to snarl “Get some acid or smoke some grass” 15 years ago. “Erotomania” and “Pleasure Seeker,” thrashing punk tracks that sound exactly as horny as they ought to, show the album at its most double-entendre’d—basking in the hedonism of rock ‘n’ roll’s chaotic glory days. Other songs on Mommy veer political: The slicer “Big Trouble” flames with rage at the abortion bans rocking American women’s fundamental freedoms, and “Hand Grenade”’s jagged chorus punches out at the aforementioned boob-oglers—and at Pearl’s own sorrow.
Her punk streak is as much a part of her as it ever was, but she hopes to use her position as an “elder mom” of the genre to catalyze improvements in the community. “It’s insane how misogynistic [some lyrics] are,” she remembers of her old favorite rockers. “This was my favorite music as a teenager and it hated me, it hated women.” Mommy, with its proud femininity and insolent look at the American ethos, channels Pearl’s revelations into an album that is, all at once, a nouveau-riot grrrl imputation of the patriarchy, a Dionysian celebration of female sexuality and an ode to the complex community she’s been embedded in for two decades. She’s got a new handle on that community these days: “I set myself free!” Pearl crows on “Hand Grenade” as the album reaches its end, Be Your Own Pet back wholly self-possessed and completely in control.
Miranda Wollen is Paste‘s music intern. She lives in New York and attends school in Connecticut, but you can find her online @mirandakwollen.