Ten years after
Pets’ Derek Fieth and Allison Jones talk about longevity in the Sacramento music scene, drum machines and the art of noise
When Derek Fieth and Allison Jones formed Pets in 2003, the pair didn’t have much musical experience. Jones had played guitar in the local punk band Riff Randals, but Fieth, her boyfriend—now husband—had never so much as touched an instrument.
That all changed, however, after the pair attended a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club show at Old Ironsides. Inspired by the garagey, blues-rock group, the pair bought a bass for Fieth and launched a new band.
“[Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was] playing some really rocking, fuzzed-out stuff,” Jones remembers. “I don’t think we had seen anybody playing with distorted bass before that, and the bass and guitar were equal in sound.”
The show was part of the Lipstick! dance night—a weekly event where the couple had already spent a lot of time bonding over music.
“Derek and I actually had our first date [at Lipstick!], and we found out we had a lot of the same tastes in music,” Jones says.
The dance night further influenced Fieth and Jones to opt for a drum machine, instead of recruiting a live drummer. The decision was inspired, at least in part, by hearing the Lipstick! deejays spin a mix of rock, indie and electronic music—but also by a desire to keep the band a two-piece.
Pre-drum machine, though, the band employed a cheap Casio keyboard for rhythm. Well, for the first gig, anyway, which took place at a friend’s house party.
Now, a decade later, Pets will play its anniversary show Saturday, August 31, at Bows & Arrows in Midtown—exactly 10 years to the day after that first show.
In addition to BRMC, the Dandy Warhols also influenced Pets’ musical direction. Jones and Fieth took the Warhols’ psychedelic pop style, mixed it with BRMC’s driving rock riffs and then filtered it through a fun Le Tigre indie-electronic lens.
Such influences made for an eclectic first show.
“[A] rock ’n’ roll dance party was exactly what we wanted. We even set up a light show with strobes and light cans that Derek would control with his feet,” Jones says.
By their second gig, Jones and Fieth had purchased a proper drum machine, although it was still only programmed to play rudimentary beats.
In 2004, the duo released a four-song EP, Step (“Pets” spelled backward). These songs were sparse, with a raw feel. Then, in 2006, the band released its debut full-length album, Pick Up Your Feet, for which the pair spent a considerable amount of time writing and crafting songs in the studio.
It was on this collection that Pets perfected the rock ’n’ roll dance sound they’d visualized back in 2003. Here, the songs are packed with layers of synths, guitars and fun electronic beats.
By the time they released their second album, 2011’s Ready the Rifles, however, Pets’ direction had once again changed. They had, for the most part, dropped the synths in favor of thicker, more varied psychedelic guitar tones. Jones also had employed the use of different distortion pedals through which to play her guitar.
“We always wanted to sound bigger than a two-piece. So, I started off with about three pedals for the first album, and then just bought more as time went on,” she says.
Part of this change of sound was because they weren’t really frequenting those Lipstick! dance nights anymore. It had been three years since their last album, after all.
“We write slow. We’re not prolific by any means. The songs just come to us when they’re ready. We only do things that are fun for us,” Fieth says. “That’s part of the reason why we’re so slow, but it’s also why we still have fun. … There’s never any pressure.”
By the time Jones and Fieth entered the studio to record Ready the Rifles, the plan was to record only guitar, bass and drum-machine parts. After they finished, however, their engineer, Ira Skinner, offered to play drums on the songs. Pets agreed, so Skinner replaced the machine tracks with live drums.
As such, the resulting album exhibits a much heavier, thicker bona fide rock feel. It was also recorded in a significantly shorter period of time, as the musicians took only a couple of takes for each song and also opted against layering several keyboard tracks.
“The first one, it was really a studio album. About half of it we could never have played live, because [there were so many] overdubs tracks and synth parts,” Fieth says.
“The second [album], we wanted it to [only include] what we could play live,” he continued. “Just drums, bass and guitar.”
Around the release of that second record, Pets started playing some of their shows joined by a rotating cast of drummers, including Skinner and local musicians Eddie Jorgensen, Dog Party’s Lucy Giles and Kepi Ghoulie.
Ghoulie has also played drums for the band on tour.
“There are so many reasons I like Pets,” Ghoulie says. “[They play] big, fuzzy, catchy rock ’n’ roll that nobody in Sacramento [plays].”
Ghoulie’s style behind a kit is different than most drummers—he plays while standing up with the kick drum behind him.
It makes for a good fit with Pets, Fieth says.
“All of us are standing, and it’s super energetic,” he says.
The band is currently working on material for a new record, which it plans to release in 2014. This new batch of songs represents yet another stylistic phase—inspired by its time onstage with the likes of Giles and Ghoulie.
“[Giles and Ghoulie] both come from a really punk background. The songs that we’re writing now are a lot shorter and to the point, and I think we’re letting our Ramones influence show now, just drenching it in reverb and distortion,” Fieth says.
The new songs are also the least complex, at least structurally.
“As a fan of popular music from the past 60 years, [we] just know what the next note should be: It’s already been figured out, and it’s perfect,” Fieth says. “We get that some people want to play a different note there, but we dig the way it sounds when we play those natural-sounding notes, and [then make] it ours with the way we play it and the noise we add.”
For the anniversary show, Fieth and Jones have planned a set that works through a chronological history of their songs. The show will also incorporate both the drum machine and live drummers who’ll take turns on various songs.
So, what’s next? Might there eventually be a 20-year celebration?
“If we keep having fun, we’re going to keep doing it,” Fieth says. “I don’t know that we’ll always be playing shows—I can see that ending at some point, [but] I think we’ll always be playing music together.”