Q&A With Be Your Own Pet's Jemina Pearl Abegg
Jemina Pearl Abegg may be the lead singer of Be Your Own Pet, a Nashville combo profiled in Westword’s May 8 edition, but she’s hardly rejected her family in favor of punk-rock mayhem. Far from it: The following conversation took place while she was riding in a car piloted by her father, photographer and guitarist Jimmy Abegg. She used his cell phone, since she’d lost hers a few days earlier, and even asked him a question to confirm her memory.
After discussing her visit to the Coachella music festival the previous weekend, the younger Abegg, who was approaching her 21st birthday at the time of this chat, talks about growing up around musicians thanks to her father’s career; his willingness to let her explore rock’s darker avenues even though his own proclivities lean more toward contemporary Christian fare; the DIY mentality she developed while hanging out at an area pizza joint turned punk mecca; her band’s discovery by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and subsequent signing with Universal; the decision by lawyers at the label to snip three tunes deemed lyrically questionable from the group’s latest disc, Get Awkward; the debatable impact of violent rhymes on young people, with a brief detour into the subject of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School; and the pros and cons of maturity.
Growing up ain’t easy – but it helps if you get along with your dad.
Westword (Michael Roberts): I heard that you lost your cell phone. Did you lose it in Europe?
Jemina Pearl Abegg: No, I went to Coachella this weekend, sort of spur of the moment. I just decided to go to Coachella, and I had a lot of fun and lost my phone (laughs).
WW: What did you see there that you liked?
JPA: I mostly went to hang out with Steve McDonald from Redd Kross, and I saw Redd Kross play, and actually got up onstage and sang backup on two songs. And I was really excited to see the Black Lips, because they’re friends of ours. I hung out with them a whole lot. It was mostly just to go have fun. I saw M.I.A. play, and that was really good.
WW: As coincidence would have it, I just got a chance to interview her yesterday [look for an M.I.A. profile and Q&A in Westword’s May 15 edition]. You enjoyed her set?
JPA: Oh yeah. There were some technical difficulties, but other than that, it was really a good show. I talked to her afterwards, and she was really awesome. I had a really good time.
WW: Well, I wanted to ask about your dad, which I’m sure will be fun, since he’s in the car with you. I know that he was in bands and released some albums. Was he still doing that when you were old enough to know what was going on?
JPA: Yeah, definitely. He was touring until I was about… [To her father] When did you stop going on tour? [He responds.] I was like thirteen? [Another response – and then she’s back.] Yeah, he was in bands until I was, like, fourteen, fifteen.
WW: How would you describe his stuff?
JPA: He was in, like, Christian music bands, and he had a new wave band in the ‘80s. I would describe it as that (laughs).
WW: And he was doing photography and music videos as well, right?
WW: Did you get to hang out on photography sets or music sets a lot when you were growing up?
JPA: Definitely. All my dad’s friends, they’re all photographers. So we were always posing for pictures for them and stuff like that – me and my sister. I grew up around photographers and musicians and artists.
WW: Did that kind of whet your appetite to get involved as a performer yourself?
JPA: Yeah, definitely. Art’s always been a very important thing in my family, for both my mom and my dad. I’m really that I lucky I grew up around people who are so passionate about it.
WW: You mentioned that your dad had been in contemporary Christian bands, and I know he also did a lot of photography and videos with contemporary Christian artists who probably don’t have a lot of songs like “Bitches Leave” [from Get Awkward]. How did you develop your taste in music? And was your dad okay with it all along?
JPA: Oh yeah. My parents are really excited about everything. I grew up having to listen to, like, Leonard Cohen every single day of my life (laughs). So I think I just decided I wanted to listen to whatever the opposite of that was. And I think when you’re in seventh grade, the Sex Pistols are pretty much as far away from Leonard Cohen as you can possibly get. I mean, I didn’t want to hear Carole King and stuff like that anymore. I think my mom owns, like, three albums, and those are two of them (laughs).
WW: Who turned you onto the Sex Pistols? Was it friends? Older siblings?
JPA: My older sister was kind of into punk music a little bit. She was into Nirvana and stuff. But me and Jamin [Orrall], our old drummer, we kind of started discovering all these old ‘70s punk bands together. A lot of our friendship was based on, “Have you heard that band? Have you heard this band?” We kind of did research. The Internet definitely helps when you’re young and trying to figure out what’s cool, what’s out there.
WW: How did you transition from being a fan of that music to actually making it?
JPA: Well, when we were younger – like fourteen, fifteen – there was a bunch of really awesome punk bands in Nashville. Like hardcore bands and stuff, and they’d play all ages shows at this pizza joint. So we were really lucky that we got a way to see punk music. Be able to go out on a Friday night and see a show – and anyone could go. It went from seeing these people who – they weren’t, like, great musicians, but they were trying to give it their all and put on a really good show. And it kind of made you be like, “If they can do it, I can do it, too.” So we all started bands together, just to have fun.
WW: Your former bandmates, as well as your current bandmates, all come from families that have been involved in the music business in one way or the other. Did that help you in terms of making that leap from listener to performer?
JPA: I don’t know. Probably, but I never felt like there was a difference between being a fan of something and doing something yourself. To me, it’s an important aspect of punk rock, that scene. The audience and the people onstage are usually the same. They all have bands and they’re all doing creative things. There’s not really very much separation, which is why I think it’s such a great musical genre.
WW: It wasn’t as if you needed to have your background to get up the nerve to participate, because the scene was so inclusive.
JPA: Yeah. We were the younger kids on the scene, so I think people thought it was really cool. They were like, “Here’s the new, young kids.” People were definitely really nice to us and tried to help us out with setting up shows and stuff like that.
WW: How did you come to the attention of Thurston Moore?
JPA: I still don’t know exactly how this all happened. Actually, I do know. I think our old manager, David, he knew them, and he used to run their fan club. And I think he just shot Thurston an e-mail – like, “Hey, you might want to check this out.” And Thurston went online and bought our little crappy CD-R single that we were making, and I guess he really liked it. And from there, he ended up coming to Nashville months later and hanging out with us. He came to one of our shows, and we just really hit him off with him.
WW: He actually bought the single? He might be the last person in America who’s actually buying CDs online.
JPA: Maybe (laughs). We had a mail order thing, and he ordered it. He got the actual copy.
WW: How did you move from his label to Universal. Does he have a deal with them?
JPA: Yeah, well, when we were meeting to hang out, he was telling us – him and Andrew Kesin, who runs Ecstatic Peace as well – he was telling us that they were working out this new thing with Universal, and we were going to be the guinea pig to see if it would work out well if we were interested in trying to do that. And we were like, “Sure. Why not?”
WW: And how has it worked out?
JPA: Well, three of our songs got taken off our album, so I’m not really sure how it’s worked out (laughs).
WW: I was going to ask you about that. Did Universal really think that your fans would want to knife a girl named Becky coming out of school? [“Becky,” one of the songs removed from the CD contains the lines, “That doesn’t matter anyway/‘Cause I’ve got a brand new friend, okay?/Me and her, we’ll kick your ass/We’ll wait with knives after class.”]
JPA: I have no idea. And it’s not any of the people we work with at Universal. I don’t know: It’s like the people at the very, very top of the entire corporation have looked at the lyrics. These mysterious, dark-figured lawyers looked at the lyrics and said, “No.” And I don’t understand it. I don’t get it at all. I’ve talked with a lot of people at Universal who I’m friends with, and it’s such a mystery as to why this happened. I really don’t understand at all.
WW: I’m calling you from the land of Columbine, and as you can imagine, there are plenty of people around here who get freaked out at the idea of kids listening to music and then doing bad things…
JPA: Yeah, but I don’t think it’s music’s fault. I guess they find something that they can hold onto and relate with because they’re not friends with their peers or they’re not getting support from their family. So I guess they’re going to latch onto something they can relate to. And those kids at Columbine took it to a place that was really bad. But I don’t feel like it’s music’s fault. I feel like what music’s there for is to be honest, and for people to listen to it and relate to it and feel like, “I’m not alone in the world.” Everyone was, like, blaming Marilyn Manson, and that’s the most ridiculous thing. People just want a scapegoat. They don’t actually want to look at our culture, they don’t want to look at themselves and look at how things really are. They want to blame someone else and say it’s not their fault, it’s not their problem.
WW: In fact, when people actually looked deeper into the Columbine situation, they discovered that the shooters weren’t actually into Marilyn Manson at all.
JPA: (Laughs.) I didn’t know that! That’s really funny. I didn’t know they weren’t even actually fans of Marilyn Manson. That makes it even more ridiculous. I don’t know. I think corporate America’s so scared. Violence is everywhere. We’re in a war right now. How can you say America’s not a violent country? It’s in movies, video games, television. It’s everywhere. If you’re an American teenager, I think violence is a big aspect of your life. So to try to deny that and say it’s wrong – you’re being so hypocritical. I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense to me.
WW: The lyrics on the songs they pulled: Did you look at them as almost like scenes from a movie? As opposed to giving directions to people?
JPA: They definitely weren’t directions to somebody. I’ve always said being in this band has helped me not be as violent of a person as I probably would be. I’ve always hit people ever since I was a kid. Being in this band has always helped me deal with my temper. I don’t know: It was just a way to get out my frustrations. A song like “Becky,” I was taking bad experiences I had with girls, and being friends with girls, and trying to turn it into a funny narrative song. Not like killing people’s hilarious, but dark comedy is definitely my favorite genre.
WW: On the other hand, one of the words that crops up in your lyrics again and again is “fun.” Is that the main motivation for you in music – to have fun with it?
JPA: Definitely. It’s not like we don’t take our stuff seriously, but we don’t want take ourselves too seriously. I think it’s way better to have a good time. We’re not concerned with the way we’re dressing or stuff like that. We’re just having fun onstage. Music, it seems to me, has become so serious, and that’s completely the wrong thing. People trying to put together outfits and look really cool. That’s not where we’re coming from at all. We want people to come to our shows and have a really good time – listen to our music and relate to it and start their own bands. And have fun.
WW: One of the terms that gets bounced around a lot when it comes to artists is “maturity.” But there can be a downside to maturity, too: The more mature some artists get, the less entertaining they are. Can you relate to that?
JPA: Definitely. When we were writing stuff for this album, we didn’t want this to be, like, a real grown-up record, because we’re not real grown-up people in general even though we’re getting older. I’m sure no one wants to admit to the fact that I’ll be 21 in a month; everything I read, I’m still 17. But I definitely don’t want to come off like we take ourselves so seriously and we’re this intense and serious group. I think you can have both sides at the same time.
WW: So for you, it’s more entertaining to write about food fights [“Food Fight” is another song on Get Awkward] than some boy who tragically broke your heart?
JPA: Yeah, but there’s both things on the album! (Laughs.) Both of those things are part of my personality. Sometimes it’s dark and moody, but most of the time, I try to keep things bright and just have fun.