“You get to a certain age and you try to revert back to what it feels like to be young again.” This is the kind of thing one would expect Evan Weiss to say upon turning 33 and shifting his focus to Pet Symmetry, the punny pop-punk counterpoint to the autumnal indie rock of Into It. Over It. Weiss had spent most of 2016 restlessly touring Standards, Into It. Over It.’s most critically praised album and, not coincidentally, most of the praise centered around its ornate arrangements and “maturity” — signifying an understood progression from Into It. Over It.’s unheralded early work, typified by bashed-out scene reportage and song titles like “Gin & Ironic” and “David Caruso TV.”
If Weiss, guitarist Erik Czaja and drummer Marcus Nuccio were trying to get in touch with their younger us on Pet Symmetry’s upcoming LP Vision, it would be a savvy maneuver: They’re on Polyvinyl Records, whose past five years have been largely defined by albums like Celebration Rock, The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us, the second American Football LP, and White Reaper’s The World’s Best American Band — all of which were incredibly successful at speaking to the closest thing to a renewable resource in rock music: the wistful, nostalgic 30-something who needs a certain kind of throwback to access that beautiful time in high school when, if only for a moment, they could, “stop caring about feeling judged about what you like and what you don’t like,” as Weiss puts it. But in order to join that subgenre, Weiss would have to invest in the idea that punk rock saved his life. Pet Symmetry, on the other hand, is a break from the obligations of giving rock or any kind of music that kind of power. “When I was a kid, I didn’t care about guitar, I only gave a fuck about the Philadelphia Phillies and the Flyers,” Weiss says before asking if he’s ever told me about his treasured, autographed Ron Hextall jersey. He definitely has, more than once.
Though Pet Symmetry are something of a Chicago supergroup — Nuccio formerly drummed in Dowsing, which is Czaja’s main gig, though he also plays guitar in Kittyhawk. However, both Czaja and Weiss grew up in New Jersey, and perhaps as a kind of method acting, they lodged at Weiss’ parents’ house in the Philly uber-exurb of Cherry Hill while recording. “You get pampered, it’s the best,” Czaja beams, recalling the times when he’s slept over after Dowsing shows in Philly. “Staying with this family for three weeks was amazing because they would make us dinner and we’d all watch TV together. It’s like a surreal little family.”
“They were joking about how much better they understood me once they lived in New Jersey for three weeks,” Weiss laughs, particularly after hearing him get roasted repeatedly by his friends during NBA playoff watching. Czaja notes, “If you’re from the state of New Jersey, there’s a perspective you share with anyone from there.” And any time he connects with a fellow Garden Stater at his day job, “It’s a couple of wiseguys on the phone all of a sudden.” “My little Midwestern brain was blown away by that,” native Chicagoan Nuccio recalls.
Vision does indeed sound like a Chicago band rediscovering its Jersey roots, evoking the freewheeling, try-whatever spirit of early Into It. Over It. and Dowsing with a craftsmanship forged by collaboration. Witness new single “You & Me & Mt. Hood,” a twisty, verbose vignette with shouted backup vocals that would’ve fit on 52 Weeks, though it has a restraint and instrumental confidence that those songs rarely accessed. It’s perhaps the best example of an album from a band that appreciates the distance between their current age and their youth without losing sight of what they’ve gained in the meantime. “You know those dads who are hanging in the garage together drinking beers and jamming and having a good time, trying to relive their youth?” Czaja asks, and it’s obviously a rhetorical question in regards to Pet Symmetry.
STEREOGUM: Considering all of the other projects the three of you have going on, what makes Pet Symmetry endure?
EVAN WEISS: I feel like with the three of us, there’s no preconception about what we want to achieve. We have a good time and write songs together, and have a pretty equal say in what we’re doing. That really makes the whole project have this air of fun and enjoyment, which can get lost in other projects that are taken a little more seriously.
ERIK CZAJA: I like hanging out with my boys — I’ve never been in a band that hangs out all the time, like our little club together.
WEISS: There’s no expectations, but when we set our mind to something, we get it accomplished. But if there wasn’t anything going on, it wouldn’t be detrimental to the project itself. The casualness makes it something we want to do.
MARCUS NUCCIO: There can be lengths of time where we don’t write or we don’t see each other. But then we’re able to bring the ideas that we’ve been wanting to do and this is a place where we can express them and we don’t have to worry about the boundaries our other bands have. We can put in some weird guitar riff like, “Hey it’s fun and cool.” It’s a relief to be in a band like that, because if we’re writing a song that’s silly and fun, we’re not thinking, “What are people gonna think about this song?” No, we like this song, so we’re just gonna do it. It’s not something that’s gonna be our livelihood and our careers. If we like it, that’s all that matters.
WEISS: We’re kinda spoiled with that. You start playing in a band, get to a certain level and then you start getting disappointment. There’s no disappointment at all [with Pet Symmetry] — 100% of the time, it feels like hangout time. We’ve already written 11 songs for the next album.
CZAJA: Rather than picking apart every detail, we’re just able to enjoy ourselves. We set the bar so low for ourselves.
STEREOGUM: How do you set boundaries between your work for Pet Symmetry and your other bands?
CZAJA: Sometimes it’s easier than others. Usually it’s, “Oh, we’re gonna have fun with this.” It’s not, “Oh, we can do something cool with this.” More recently, it’s been, “This would be a sick Pet Symmetry song.” Before it was, “I think we can have a song with this!”
WEISS: Erik shows up with the ideas and then Marcus will take on the responsibility of organizing, figuring out transition and feel. It’s so natural, there’s never a lot of discussion, we run through it a few times and record the demo. “OK, that sounds pretty cool, that’s a song.” We tweak a little a bit, ride on that chord, chop that part. It’s not editing, it’s just whatever would happen naturally. The first or second idea we would come up with is generally what ends up being a song.
STEREOGUM: Evan, has there ever been an Into It. Over It. song that you stole back for Pet Symmetry?
WEISS: “You & Me & Mt. Hood” was a bass riff I was fucking around with for a year. We were getting ready to make the record and I said, “I got this dumb idea, what can we put together?” We kinda wrote it on the fly in the studio. I didn’t think it felt right for Into It. Over It., it felt a little too playful and a little too silly. It made a lot more sense to be a Pet Symmetry song, it sounded goofy to me in a great way and this is the project where we can do whatever we want and not have preconceptions about what the band is supposed to sound like.
STEREOGUM: How did the story in “You & Me & Mt. Hood” come about?
WEISS: I was on vacation in Portland after touring about a year straight and feeling pretty directionless. That song was just about the trip and me feeling more grounded. There was a section of the trip where Kate [Grube of Kittyhawk] and I visited the hotel where they filmed The Shining and we got all the way to the top of the mountain where the hotel was, and the car was out of gas. I had to coast the car from the top down to the gas station at the bottom of the mountain. And I remember feeling like that drive down the mountain was one of the most excited feelings I’ve felt in a long time — genuinely filled with adrenaline by the fact that we might run out of gas on this mountain. That was freeing to me after feeling sterile for a while — touring can be like the movie Groundhog Day, and that trip was pretty eye-opening as far as getting perspective and placing my mind where my life would be in 2017.
STEREOGUM: I think of Pet Symmetry as a Chicago band, but a lot of this album seems to take place outside of the city.
WEISS: We’re an East Coast band that’s been transplanted in the Midwest. Our first single is about Chicago, but when we write songs, not many influences in this band are Midwest-centric. Maybe Smoking Popes. With Into It. Over It., there might be, but with this band, it’s always been about writing fun songs. The original idea was, “We really like Harvey Danger, let’s start a band like that.” How do we write songs that are simple and fun, keeping it casual and writing things that we would enjoy listening to? It hasn’t lost that spirit.
STEREOGUM: And yet, despite the lowered expectations and casualness, this record is coming out on Polyvinyl, which is having a hell of a year so far. Do you feel more pressure now?
CZAJA: I’m really proud of [Vision], I think we made a pretty mature record for how immature we are to each other. It can stand with them, even if it’s maybe not as great as Jay Som and PWR BTTM. But if someone thinks our record is as good as that, that’s a huge compliment, those are incredible.
WEISS: That whole team is super supportive, Chris [Hassen] put out the Pet Symmetry cassette for the last record, they did stuff with Into It. Over It. We gave them the record, like, “Hey, what do you think of this?,” not sweating it, but the fact that they believed in it…
NUCCIO: I think it makes sense given the spirit of the record and the spirit of the ones that have come out lately. There’s good, high energy going on at Polyvinyl.
CZAJA: Also, they laugh at our dumb jokes. They think the jackets are hilarious.
WEISS: They get our vibe, it feels good to be at a place where our sense of humor and our presentation is respected and appreciated and knowing that we’re on a roster with that same spirit
NUCCIO: Like that White Reaper record. They’re funny in a way that we’re funny.
STEREOGUM: Is that next record the one where Pet Symmetry gets serious?
CZAJA: We had a joke that our next record will be a double album with 20 songs in 2020 called 20/20.
NUCCIO: We’re not there yet!
WEISS: Most ideas we have stem from some funny joke, “Hey let’s pursue that!” And there’s a way where if it’s funny to us, we can make something really creative and great out of it. At the end of the day feel like we accomplished something even if it’s tongue in cheek.
CZAJA: The title is Vision because the whole time we were recording, we kept saying [old-timey Jersey mobster voice], “You got vision, kid!” We all laughed at that shit. Everything comes from a pun, our humor is fully dad — a loving smile and a wink.
Vision is out 5/19 via Polyvinyl, and you can pre-order it here. Pet Symmetry are touring a little bit, too. Here are the dates:
05/26 Chicago, IL @ Schuba’s
05/27 Howell, MI @ Bled Fest
05/28 Cleveland, OH @ Mahall’s
05/30 Boston, MA @ Middle East
05/31 Brooklyn, NY @ Baby’s All Right
06/01 Philadelphia, PA @ Boot & Saddle