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Friday, May 23, 2008

Is this America's most dangerous band?

Staff writer

Nashville punk four-piece Be Your Own Pet are dangerous. That's the official line of their own label in the United States, Universal, where faceless suits chopped three songs from the band's new album, "Get Awkward," for being "too violent." Yes, the same label that releases albums by chain saw-wielding Eminem and gun-loving 50 Cent believes that Be Your Own Pet pose a threat to American youth.

News photo
Parents beware: U.S. rock group Be Your Own Pet is releasing an album in Japan that was censored at home by the group's label, Universal.

"It's very ridiculous," says Jemina Pearl, the band's singer. "These songs are (considered) too violent, but aren't we in a war in another country? That's pretty f**king violent. And Universal, they make movies and video games. Violent movies and violent video games are cool, but a comedic '60s girl-group murder ballad is not OK? Whatever. I guess that's just the way America is."

Fans in Japan can judge for themselves, since the album is available here in full. Will we see cleaver-toting lunatics rampaging on the streets of Tokyo and dismembering their peers after hearing "Becky," the infectious '60s pop-inspired song whose hilarious lyrics describe a snubbed teen's murderous revenge on a school friend? Unlikely.

"I felt totally gutted about it, and really frustrated that in the country I live in, the album that people can buy isn't actually the album," says Pearl. "We don't really understand why it's happened to [us]. It doesn't seem very fair."

And who can blame her? She's from Nashville, Tenn., a state that sanctions the death penalty and is historically well-known for its booming country music scene — a genre renowned for murder ballads.

Since their inception in 2003, Be Your Own Pet have been a breath of fresh air. A punk band with songs that are aggressive and playful in equal measure, they set an agenda of fun and freedom without compromise. Their self-titled debut album was released in 2006, when the band were still teenagers; their second album finds Pearl, guitarist Jonas Stein and bassist Nathan Vasquez at 20 years old (new drummer John Eatherly is still 17). Their sound has matured and diversified in a natural and beguiling way, making "Get Awkward" a layered and exciting album. While thrashing guitars and tight rhythm blast the 15 songs through the album's 35 minutes, Pearl's lyrics make the band sound like the coolest friends you've never met.

"I think artists should have complete artistic freedom," says Pearl when asked whether lyricists bear a responsibility in their work. "Singing about something you're frustrated about, someone else can relate to that. Music can be quite therapeutic and make you feel like there's someone else out there who feels the same way you do. There are so many songs like that for me, I don't even know where to begin."

For example, a trio of songs on the album deal with the acrimonious breakup of Pearl and Jeff Novak, with whom she also played in side project Cheap Time. The joyful "Heart Throb" details the thrill of making eyes with another guy while Novak stands unknowing beside her ("I don't know if he knows, but I'm looking straight at you"); the darker "Creepy Crawl" tells of the guilt-ridden pain of having cheated ("I know you don't believe me, but I tried to be good"); and the explosive melancholy of "You're a Waste" spits acid at Novak after he has spread his own presumably inaccurate version of events around their friends ("You're telling lies to anyone who'll listen, you want so bad to be the victim").

"(Novak's) already heard the songs; he knows," laughs Pearl. "He has songs about me, so I think it's all fair. We got together and he played me his songs, and I played him my songs."

Other subject matter includes small-town frustration on the banned songs "Black Hole" and "Blow Yr Mind," undead love on "Zombie Graveyard Party," and Pearl's distaste for the revival of '80s TV cartoon "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" as a computer-animated movie in 2007. In fact, Pearl's feelings for the Turtles run deeper than you might think.

"My favorite was Raphael, because he was a bad-ass," she says with a fluttering heart. "That was one of my first crushes. When I was three years old I had very strong feelings for Raphael."

Another standout is the minute-long "Food Fight!" with its cries of "Sucks for the janitor — food on!" The song is based on the band's love for spraying their audience with mustard and salt, although Pearl says recording the song has encouraged the audience to return the favor.

All of this goes some way to explain why you should see Be Your Own Pet when they next come to play in Japan, which could be as soon as this fall. Never afraid to throw themselves into something 100 percent, the band offer a ferocious show that is never short of thrilling (bring your own mustard). And Pearl has a special affinity for Japan that should see them go that extra mile.

"My mum lived in Japan for five years when she was in high school, so I was really excited to go there for Summer Sonic in 2005," she says. "Her dad was in the air force, so she lived on a U.S. Army base in Yokohama. When the band went my mum came too. She showed me all these places she used to go in Tokyo. It was pretty awesome. It's a very stimulating city; very overwhelming. So we just tried to sleep as little as possible and just see as much of it as we could. It's probably our favorite place that we've ever gotten to go as a band."

And when they do come, Pearl and friends will doubtless be pleased to see fans in Japan singing along to "Becky," "Black Hole" and "Blow Yr Mind," having purchased the album as it was intended (plus a few Japan-only demo tracks).

"I got a box of CDs of the U.S. version and I didn't even open it," sighs Pearl. "My personality is not allowed in America. My thoughts are dangerous to America, apparently. It's pretty ridiculous."

"Get Awkward" is out May 28.

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