by Kyle Johnson
I have an incredibly vivid memory of the first time I heard Bad Brains. It was the first punk rock I had ever heard. I was fourteen years old, and I’m twenty-one now, but I can still conjure the feeling of that moment. The music tore through me. I felt the sound more than I heard it. It was summer, and I was staying in on a beautiful day to listen to music that a youtube algorithm was recommending me – but I’m so grateful I did. It made something click in my brain, like a light in a dingy basement being flicked on for the first time. I felt completely at home in the break-neck speed and sheer volume of the music. If you know that record, the first Bad Brains record, it is insane sounding even by today’s standards. I left the first playthrough of hundreds a completely changed kid. The world looked and felt different. I was in on some kind of secret.
I would later learn, of course, that I was far from being the only person that had this exact revelation. Very far. But it felt so special to me. I’ve played in bands and written at least a couple hundred songs since that day. I started a band with my best friends (Bad Nostalgia, check us out) that’s still kicking to this day, and we’ve played countless shows. We made an album by ourselves. I have grown as a person and lived through trial and tribulation as we all have. But that first experience hearing punk rock music was my watershed moment.
It encapsulated everything I love about music, art, and life. It’s all lead to me starting Pet Traits. I wanted to capture that feeling of excitement and wonder and use it as a creative power-tool. I threw out a lot of what I knew about music: the conventions, the chase of perfection, the safe bet, for total creative liberation. This is how I did it.
Listen to the album while reading the text.
A Pop-Punk Band Playing in a House Fire
Pet Traits was started as an outlet for my musical impulses. I went with my first instinct on everything, from the songwriting to the production. I wrote the five songs for Lap Dog, the first EP, in one sitting, which in total was less than two hours. I wrote the drum and bass parts as I recorded. I recorded that EP over three days, but collectively, the project was written, recorded, mixed, and released in less than one day. I came up with the name Pet Traits the night before I wrote the songs. Then less than a week after conception, the EP was available for the world to hear. It felt amazing.
I didn’t realize until a while afterward that Pet Traits was also designed to challenge me. I had never before acted so impulsively while making music. It took me a month and a half to track guitars on my band’s album because I was so obsessed with it, and I love how it turned out, but I also feel deeply proud of how I let go for the Pet Traits songs. I let the songs do the talking and the steering. I’m unabashedly pleased with a lot of the music I’ve made over the years, but the Lap Dog EP was the first time I felt like I produced the exact sound I was looking for; a pop-punk band playing in a house fire.
The Shadow of The Beatles
This sound came to me at a pivotal moment in my musical evolution. For all the punk rock praise I’ve given in this story, I really don’t listen to those records anymore. I occasionally do, but as maybe lame as this sounds, I love The Beatles now; quite possibly the antithesis of punk. But they also wrote “Helter Skelter.” They made the first concept album. They created new sounds and innovated with such a mainstream platform.
I’ve had this in mind for the past couple of years, the years that also happened to be the most creatively infertile times I’ve ever experienced. I couldn’t write anything. I held everything up to a Beatles standard, which is a really lofty standard. Really lofty. It wasn’t until November of 2018 that the drought ended. In one week, I wrote twelve songs (none of which were Pet Traits songs). I abandoned the dream of becoming an honorary Beatle. I only worried about writing what I felt, and it worked. I was elated, and for the first time in a long time, I felt confident in my musical ability.
Riding The Wave
That confidence is what lead to me tackling Pet Traits. Why not combine the energy and passion of punk rock music with the pop I had grown to love? I felt another creative surge coming on in March of 2019, so I rode the wave. That surge became the Lap Dog EP. I felt it again three months later, and I made another Pet Traits EP. The second EP, Janus Cat, was written a little differently than the first EP. I gave myself more time. I wrote eight songs and used five for the final product. I recorded all the music in a day, and finished vocals a few days later because I had blown my voice from a couple of Bad Nostalgia shows prior. I now had ten songs in three months that I loved.
I received a lot of positive feedback. People I didn’t know reached out. The airing of my musical dirty laundry felt so freeing. It is a sensation I have now learned to chase. If I’m not one hundred percent behind something I’ve created, it gets trashed. That concept used to be very daunting. The difference now is I know when something I’ve made is good or not. It may not be up to scratch in a Beatle world, but I’m not a Beatle after all, I’m a punk.
After All, I’m a Punk
I could write a dissertation on Pet Traits and how it’s changed my life from a creative standpoint, and even a literal standpoint. However, I fear to overanalyze it, because I started this project as an exercise in creativity without compromise. I made what I wanted to make, precisely at the moment I wanted to make it, and now it can be heard forever.
I wanted to saturate the vocals with distortion, so I did. I wanted to write about the opioid epidemic and also about nothing in particular, so I did. I wanted to sift through some garbage and make some art out of it. So I did. That’s what Bad Brains taught me to do. That’s what life has taught me to do.
For anyone reading, make music for yourself and no one else. Or make watercolor paintings or quilts or whatever it is that makes you happy. Write a terrible song. The next one will be better. Compromise for no one. Those in the know will appreciate your art for that and will apply it to themselves. It took me a lot of time and a lot of punk rock albums to figure that out.
Kyle Johnson, AKA, Pet Traits