By Brian Tucker
Pet Names’ new album White Noise Machine features a valentine-shaped balloon on the cover. It floats in the rear of an empty, closed moving truck. For an album of songs singer Tommy Hall says are “about complicated relationships” the image (Hall took the photograph years ago) leaves much to the imagination. Does it reflect a lonely soul, a bitter heart? It simply follows the continuity of two previous albums (2014’s Missed Connections and 2013’s Strangers) whose titles are intentionally vague.
“That’s really to keep it open-ended enough to invite different interpretations,” Hall said. “We just wanted make songs that we enjoy, to write something fun (for) a show or put on at a party. But also something you could listen to alone, with your good headphones and connect emotionally.”
In two years Pet Names have amassed a solid catalog, songs that deftly marry great hooks, pop-meets-guttural vocals, and blazing, on-the-run guitars. A powerful live act, the energetic songs only add to the fire. Hall writes image-rich, whimsical, and earnest lyrics for concise rock and roll material. A few lines from the new songs – “Is the man who is happy tall?” “Standing out in socks just watching the rain,” “You were waiting up to let me in” or “You know my money’s fake but you take it anyway.”
This is a band able to accomplish in two and a half minute songs (sometimes less, like the excellent “Swedish Fish”) than most bands do on whole albums. Their indie rock/pop punk sound may be familiar – imagine the call to arms energy of The Clash or So So Glos mixed with caustic melodies of Green Day or Buzzcocks.
White Noise Machine was recorded over two days last May by Kris Hilbert at Legit Biz in Greensboro, resulting in an incredible, immediate sounding album. It’s awash in high flying guitar riffs and soaring vocals. Surprisingly, the band didn’t plan on finishing recording the initial weekend.
“Somehow we started getting everything tracked in one or two takes and it just came together,” Hall said. “It also helped that Kris is amazing at what he does. It was by far the best recording experience I’ve been a part of.”
Most of the material was written this year and they played songs live to get reactions from people before going in the studio to record. The result is a fierce sounding album that doesn’t let up across dynamic material. “Talk of the Town” is a slow burner that has an 80s feel and the fireworks of “Before It Gets Better” insists it be turned up loud, and then louder. And desperation never sounded so good on standout track “Sadie.” With White Noise Machine the band has delivered one of the year’s best local albums.
Pet Names have an album release show on Friday with Naked Naps and Closed Caption at Scrap Iron Bicycle Gallery.
Additional Q&A with Tommy Hall
First, how old is the band?
Hall: We’ve been a full band for about 2 years, but Kyle and I have been playing music together for a long time. We were in our first band together when we were thirteen and then worked on songs together off and on in college.
We just wanted to do fun stuff and make songs that we enjoy. I’d say the goal is to write something that’s fun to see at a show or put on at a party, but also something you could listen to alone with your good headphones and connect emotionally.
Can you share the story behind “Before it Gets Better” or”Burner Phone”?
Hall: That’s funny because those are the two songs that Kyle brought in the music for. Not to be too specific, but “Better” has to do with seeing the end of something and trying to be optimistic about the uncertainty that’ll follow. “Burner Phone” is sort of about accepting where you’ve lied to yourself and recognizing when you’ve hurt people. Some of these are cryptic for a reason.
What does White Noise Machine mean to you?
Hall: A white noise machine is something you can use to drown things out, which can lead you to avoid issues that you really need to face head-on. I was also reading White Noise by Don DeLillo while writing a lot of these songs, so that worked its way in.
The album cover image is great. Where did that idea come from?
Hall: Well, I sort of work in the Valentine’s industry and I took that picture at work as one holiday was coming to an end. I never used it for anything, and when we needed a cover, it just kind of fit. It’s honestly older than most of the songs.
Have you seen growth in the last year?
Hall: Yes 100%. I’ve learned so much just from playing more shows and being involved with other bands. It feels like we’ve found a lot more of what works for us in terms of writing and playing and everything else.
How fresh was the material went you went to record?
Hall: A few songs were a little older, but most were written early this year. We played everything live to see what people reacted well to, and to try to get a better feel for them before we recorded. It also helped us decide which songs to scrap in the process.
White Noise Machine full playlist:
Strangers EP full playlist: