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Pet Milk: Pain Packaged in Pop Music.

September 13, 2012
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Text by Brian Wilensky. Images by G.W. Miller III.

It’s 8:35 on a summer night in South Philly. Three of the five members of Pet Milk are sitting in the Broad Street Diner at the corner of Broad and Federal with a hankering for grilled cheese. Herbie Shellenberger gets his with American cheese. His bandmate and fellow guitarist, Richie Roxas, gets one with American and one with cheddar, both with tomato. Meanwhile singer Adriane Dalton takes advantage of breakfast being served all day and orders a mushroom and swiss omelette.

The other two members of the band, drummer Josh Agran and bassist Adam Herndon are across the street at the band’s rehearsal space, practicing with their other band, The Glotones.

Almost the entire band shares roles in other Philly bands. Agran’s also a part of Paint it Black. Roxas was in Hail Social. Herndon’s got his plate full with with two other projects; A Sunny Day in Glasglow and Faux Slang. Shellenberger was once in Brown Recluse. Meanwhile, this is Dalton’s first band she’s played in.

“It was a little intimidating at first, but it’s helpful in some ways,” Dalton says about having such seasoned bandmates. “Josh sings in a barbershop quartet, so he helped me with vocal parts and harmonies in the studio.”

Shellenberger, the mastermind behind the crunchy pop-leaning, post-punk sounds of Pet Milk, has been working on material with Dalton for a couple years now.

“We’ve known each other maybe six years, just from going to shows around Philly and having mutual friends,” Dalton says. “Then one day, he sent me an email with some songs and asked me to sing on them.”

Shellenberger just wrote a batch of songs that he felt would be best suited with female vocals and simply asked Dalton to be the voice on them.

“But it’s Herbie’s concept,” Roxas says.

While Shellenberger’s muse is alive throgh Pet Milk, the bandmates work as unit – even though at the moment, Roxas and Dalton almost seem like accompaniment to Shellenberger at the diner. Whenever he speaks, it’s like they know not to interject. They let him explain that Pet Milk represents the realities of being young and dissatisfied.

“Our lyrics are inspired by things like having a week and a half until your next paycheck and having only $40 to spend until then,” Shellenberger says. “And walking around town in the rain without an umbrella and feeling like you’re in a German film from 1970 or something like that.”

But he gets cut off by the arrival of their dinner.

The pause in his explanation makes it seem even more heartfelt and sincere, much like his demeanor. He’s tall and soft-spoken despite his words having to make their way through a woodsman-like beard. And as Shellenberger continues, his eyes get just a tad more glassy.

“A lot of the themes could seem personal,” he says. “But I’ve written things that she [Adriane] sings, so it’s like, ‘Who’s the one actually saying that?’ Or sometimes I’ll write things that are hypothetical or someone else’s experience.”

Putting it like that almost sounds like he’s telling a fictional story, even writing for a screenplay. Which probably comes from Shellenberger’s biggest hobby – film. And by film, he’s into the true stuff: reel-to-reel. He works at the International House. He studies and makes films. He even recently shot a video on 16mm for Bleeding Rainbow.

The films that he draws inspiration from came out of Britain in the 1950s and 60s, known as kitchen-sink dramas. According to Shellenberger, they’re relatable to Pet Milk’s tunes since they’re generally about young love that doesn’t work out.

He’s been working with Dalton on lyrics, and he jokes that she should take over that end of the writing process.

“I kind of fucking hate lyrics anyway,” he says after dipping the corner of his grilled cheese in ketchup and taking a bite. “I can easily come up with a melody and maybe something like what I want the lyrics to sound like but sometimes not actually get the lyrics for months on end.”

They’re almost through mastering their debut LP. It will be released on Batimore’s Fan Death Records and will likely hit the streets in the winter. But the band is approaching their first full-length with an open mind, adding more synths, making it a bit more atmospheric, Roxas says. The new album will be a step away from what’s heard on their earliest demo recordings and their self-released 2011 EP, Philadelphia Punklife.

But Shellenberger won’t be leaving his post as Pet Milk’s primary writer. And Dalton’s female vocals will still be first chair.

“Female vocals just fit this band,” she insists.

And that’s a recipe that listless Philadelphians will continue to eat up.

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