PET POLITICS: Haybaby’s Leslie Hong Befriends Felines & Fishes

Leslie Hong and her cat Miho. All photos courtesy Leslie Hong.

As an animal lover and musician myself, I wondered whether there was a connection between art (specifically in the music realm) and animals. I wanted to know how pets affect individual artists, and whether love for animals plays any role in bringing bandmates together. Mostly, I just wanted an excuse to talk to people about their fur babies as I hold my own so near and dear to my heart and they are on my mind constantly throughout the day. The last Monday of every month, Pet Politics (named after a Silver Jews song that’s probably not about actual pets) will showcase a different musician and their animal muse.

For my first installment, decided to hit up Leslie Hong, whose bands Haybaby (that’s “Hay” baby, not “hey” baby – so we are talking “hay” as in a horse’s meal) and Granny have made her a staple in the Brooklyn scene. Now she performs solo under the moniker Grandma. Despite her recent departure to Richmond, VA, Leslie continues to gain fans and make waves here in Brooklyn, periodically traveling back to play shows and visit friends. Of course, I am a huge fan of Leslie’s eclectic, dynamic, and catchy tune and know her to be an affectionate pet mom on a personal level. The apartment she once lived in with Haybaby bassist Sam Yield has even been dubbed The Cat Farm.

Miho, Lucy, and Leslie’s feet in Richmond, VA

NK: How long have you been playing music and how did you start? What was your first instrument?

LH: *Classic Asian parent move* – my parents wanted me to have discipline from the regimented learning of an instrument from an early age and we were privileged enough to afford it because I am the solo fruit of their loins. I started playing piano when I was six and I liked my teacher a lot. She was old and white and soft and she smelled nice. I can’t remember why but I switched to violin when I was eight, then later viola in middle school orchestra when we had ten violinists and no violists. My viola teacher was a sad young woman who looked like she cried a lot and was super distressed by the way I’d clearly never practice so I started hating lessons/listening to The Ramones. Meanwhile a hot media tech in middle school told me and some friends that we should start a band so I wrote my parents a standard five-paragraph essay on why they should allow me to get a drum kit and they found it so convincing that they let me get the cheapest trash drum kit and from then I was done with Suzuki. I taught myself guitar when my dad lost half the index finger on his left hand in a car accident the next year because he had just bought this gorgeous classical acoustic that was just sitting in the closet.

NK: You grew up in Maryland; can you tell me a little about what that was like? What was your earliest exposure to animals?

LH: The part of Maryland I’m from rests on the northwest corner of DC, so it wasn’t rural in any way. Sprawling suburbs and strip malls like most of America, but more densely populated, still close-ish to nature where there were enough streams to catch guppies with your hands and man-made lakes to spot turtles. My parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses and would take me door-to-door with them. When I was three, a bulldog latched onto my heel and would not let go, so I was wary of dogs until I started touring and getting to meet dogs more intimately.

NK: Who was your first family pet?

LH: Pearl, the hermit crab. I had maybe three consecutively named Pearl but they all died in a few months. Turns out hermit crabs need heat and we were keeping them in a drafty basement!

NK: Who was the first pet you cared for on your own?

LH: Pearl, the hermit crab, when I was six. My mom wouldn’t let me have pets unless I took care of them. I also had many hamsters, a couple guinea pigs, and a rabbit over time. 

NK: Do you have a favorite type of animal?

LH: I just recently moved to a new city where I don’t know anyone so I’ve been spending so much time with my cats and they make me feel #blessed every day. Cats are so cool. When you’ve won one’s affection/company, you know you’re worth their time, because they’re mostly fine hanging out on their own.

NK: What was it like moving to Brooklyn from a more rural area?

LH: I moved to Brooklyn from El Paso, Texas and it was a huge change. Super invigorating, everything I had dreamed of. Disgusting, grimy, human. Rats the size of cats. I was mostly just excited to be independent.

NK: How did you meet your current bandmates? How did Haybaby form?

LH: In 2010 (maybe?) I was playing drums in my buddy Zach’s band and Sam came to a show because he had met Zach at another show. There was one song where we switched instruments and I sang like a baby and Sam came up to me after wanting to start a band called Precious Metal where I’d sing like a baby to metal (obvs). It never happened, but eventually the three of us started playing together as Haybaby. Zach left a few years ago to focus on his current band, The Adventures of the Silver Spaceman. After suffering almost a year with an unreformable narcissist/misogynist bro on drums who would be late to practice because he was working out and would aggressively hit on every woman at every show we played (I’m so sorry every lady who came to a show during this time), we axed the guy. Jeremy knew we were looking for a new drummer and asked to play with us and we said yes please because we knew he was so talented but please but don’t be a perv. And true to his word, he hasn’t been.

NK: What has the transition from a Brooklyn resident to a Richmond, VA resident been like? Does everything feel the same or totally different when you come back to play shows?

LH: It hasn’t been easy. I had thought I was ready to move because New York is both exhilarating and intensely draining, but I find that I miss Brooklyn so much. I miss stimulus. I miss bodegas. I miss the music community that I’m lucky enough to be part of. I miss my friends, and running into people I know on the street. But on the flip side, I love the open sky, paying a third of my rent for three times the space, having a studio in my apartment, standing in the river ten minutes from my place checking out fish, and hearing crickets. I also know there’s a strong progressive music and arts scene here, I just need to find it!

I’ve lived in Brooklyn my entire adult life. You have to be a specific kind of crazy to live and want to live in New York and I’d been there and worked in food service long enough to think I had everybody pegged at first glance. One thing I enjoy a lot about New Yorkers is that we’re all some kind of neurotic. You make a joke in a bar about wanting to die/needing a vacation/general depression and everyone’s like ‘hear hear.’ A lot of people I’ve met in Richmond seem pretty normal and well-adjusted and it’s difficult for me to connect because they actually seem happy. Part of me wonders if it’s because they’re not faced with the abrasiveness of others on a daily basis like the cat-callers, man-spreaders, and open racist comments of just getting to work in Brooklyn. Here, that hate is more insidious and it’s been shocking to see all these Confederate flags and Trump stickers and have to check myself from snapping at men when they call me sweetie or darling. It continues to be a culture shock. When I go back to Brooklyn now I’m more acutely aware of the things I liked about it, and I revel in its familiarity.

NK: You are currently a pet owner. Can you introduce your pets? What are their names, ages, temperament, animal kingdom residence, and how did they come to be under your care?

LH: I have two cats, one betta fish, two cory catfish, and two big snails. Miho is the oldest – she is a 12-year-old grey tabby cat with green eyes. I lived in El Paso when I was in high school and this little girl had rescued this tiiiiny kitten from being eaten in Juarez by its cat mom to bring her over the border to my mom. She has always been a princess and snuggle monster but is easily spooked and easily irritated if you pet her wrong and likes to rip cardboard and eat cheese. Lucy, my 8-year-old cross-eyed cream tabby, attacks Miho all the time. She is a bodega kitty who we brought home also as a tiny kitten around Christmas shooting green snot and crusty-faced and is a total badass. She digs in the trash, fights neighborhood kitties, eats pizza crust, and will play attack anything that moves. She also sits on my tummy all the time and it is the greatest. Baby Bo is my betta who I got as a baby from Petco earlier this year when I found out my dad had cancer. His mouth was too small to eat the betta pellets so I painstakingly hatched brine shrimp and pipetted them to him and I found it to be really helpful to have an environment where I am fully god at a time where I felt like I had no control over my life. He seemed bored so I got more tank friends (Mom, Spud, Timmy, Tommy) who are largely personality-less and enjoy dividing their time between frantically searching for food and sleeping on the bottom of the tank.

Leslie’s fish family.

NK: How are your fur babies adjusting to the new environment?

LH: Lucy hyperventilated and meowed her head off for an hour during the drive down until I gave her some Popeye’s. It was tough at first because she is such a city kitty and seems weirdly scared of open space (though she had no problem terrorizing the cats in our blocked-in backyard in Brooklyn) but now she seems to like hanging around the house. We have a lot of sun and two decks for them to go out on and lots of bugs to catch and it finally seems like they have more space to be largely at peace with each other. They’ve territorially divided out parts of the house but now they sniff each others’ faces sometimes. Miho, though previously a solid scaredy homebody, has been enjoying forays into the yard and flirting with George Lopez, the tom next door.

NK: I recall a heartbreaking Haybaby song

[“Edelweiss”] about a certain furry friend you lost a few years back. Would you mind talking about that song and your experience writing it?

LH: I actually think about this song and am periodically embarrassed because it’s so dramatic. I was sitting in my trash backyard in Brooklyn one day (which you can see in the album art of Sleepy Kids) and this comically adorable white rabbit with a fluffy mane hopped up and started sniffing my leg. He would always visit when people were outside and though we brought him in the house during Hurricane Sandy, it was obvious that he was a fully autonomous bunny who didn’t take any crap from anyone. A real Bushwick badass. To me, he became a symbol of New York tough. Then one winter there was an icy sleet that turned into rain and lasted for two days and he never came back. When I started singing the words that eventually became the lyrics they were a placeholder, but it turned out I was able to put a lot of feeling into the words because the song stopped being so much about the death of the rabbit but about the death of a friend you took for granted and realized retrospectively that you could have been better to.

NK: Are there any other songs that you have written that were inspired by animals?

LH: I went through a period in college where I was writing a lot of open chord pop ditties about my cats and fictional dogs because I was flirting with the thought of becoming a writer of childrens’ music. It could still happen one day.

NK: I know you are currently a Cat Mom. Would you consider yourself more of a “cat person” than a “dog person”?

LH: I’ve dogsat a few times and found that I am overwhelmed by the amount of attention they require. It stresses me out when they mope because you’re not petting them enough and it makes me feel inadequate. I feel like I’d make an okay dog mom because my spouse would make an excellent dog dad but overall I think I’d make a way better dog aunt. The entire history of dog breeding/domestication makes me really uncomfortable and sad. That said, I’d really like a smiley Pomerian. Its name would be Paul Meranian.

“Lucy” Lucifer Hong in Richmond, VA

NK: Do you think animal ownership has any bearing on the bond between you and your Haybaby bassist Sam Yield or your former Granny drummer Mattie Siegal, as both are cat parents as well?

LH: 100% totally verifiable facts shows that people who like animals are 100% of the time nicer, more patient, more capable of empathy, and less likely to be homicidal psychopaths. I don’t want to open the can of worms about cat people vs. dog people but in addition to my brief psychoanalysis of people in Richmond vs. people in Brooklyn earlier, I’ll say that people in Richmond tend to have dogs, where people in Brooklyn have cats.

NK: Do you feel that your pets provide you with emotional support?

LH: Absolutely. My cats are my favorite.

NK: How does this translate into your art?

LH: Well my music might be more interesting if I didn’t have cats because I’d probably be a lot more lonely and sad. Sometimes I find it difficult to motivate myself to be productive at home because I would so much rather lay around with them than do anything else.

Leslie lounging with Miho and Lucy at her home in Richmond, VA