Bill Patterson rediscovers the magic, mystery in music with Pet Rabbits

The former Wet Darlings songwriter and guitarist steps into the role of frontman for the first time with new tune ‘There Are Ghosts’

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Bill Patterson of Pet Rabbits

In recent years, it became clear to Bill Patterson that his previous band, the Wet Darlings, had run its course.

“There was no real conversation, but everyone just kind of falls into their own lives,” Patterson said recently by phone. “We accomplished a lot in 10 years, and we got to do a lot of cool shit, and I don’t know if there was anything else that left us hungry for it, if that makes sense. … It just kind of matured to its peak, I think.”

In the band’s wake, Patterson started to experiment with new musical directions, adopting styles and textures in his songwriting that might have felt out of place within Wet Darlings — a pursuit that accelerated as society slowed down amid the COVID-driven shutdowns of 2020. In addition to exhibiting a different sonic palette, Patterson said the new songs, released under the name Pet Rabbits and also featuring former Wet Darlings bandmate (and brother) Joe Patterson, have been driven by a motivation more connected to his childhood.

“With Wet Darlings, there were always ambitions and goals. We wanted to do this, and we’d like to play this city and that city. We wanted it to be big and bold, and there was always something to shoot for,” Patterson said. “And, it’s funny. Having done all of that, I just wanted to see these songs come alive in the world with no expectations. And there’s something really freeing about that. I’m not logging on to see, ‘Oh, does it have 10,000 plays on Spotify?’ I don’t even think about that, and I used to really want that, which is strange. I don’t know if I’ve matured, or I’ve just accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, but now the music just gets to exist for itself.”

Patterson said the pandemic accelerated this process by taking away the usual avenues for promotion. With concert venues shut down, there were no places to perform new songs. And with more people working from home, there were fewer folks listening to the radio while commuting to work, so even if a song did get some airplay, it might reach only a fraction of the population it would have prior to COVID. 

“In one fell swoop, the pandemic took the possibility of ambitions away for a while,” Patterson said. “It put this instant quiet on the world of art and music, I think. It caused me, at least, to step back, and I paused for a bit. And it was everything going on in the world, not just the pandemic, but the Trump presidency, Black lives matter and the trauma happening everywhere. And I had to ask, what’s the point? Where does music … fit now? Is this something people still need? … It’s a big question, and I don’t know if I’ve found the answer to it.”

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This sense of uncertainty echoes throughout the illusive “There Are Ghosts,” the debut song released under the Pet Rabbits name, which finds the longtime songwriter stepping into the frontman role for the first time (“The larger challenge was to become OK with myself singing it,” he said). On the track, Patterson delivers his haunted, sometimes elliptical words atop a bed of patient acoustic guitar and distant electric wails that eventually drift into the fore. “There are ghosts, there are ghosts, there are ghosts around us,” he sings as the instrumentation mirrors the feel of apparitions gently filling a space. “They’re in these floors and in these walls, bet they talk about us.”

Patterson said he wrote the song in 2020 at the point of the pandemic where things were just beginning to open up after the initial shutdown, and the tune reflects a degree of the anxiety he was feeling in that moment. The musician said it was also influenced by past pandemics, and the idea that society had been through this before, new ghosts joining with the old. More than anything, though, Patterson said the song took sonic shape as he chased the sensation he experienced the first time he heard the Beach Boys song “Good Vibrations” on a turntable as a child, a moment that inadvertently launched his career in music.

“My dad had [‘Good Vibrations’] on 45, and I had a little Fisher Price record player, and I put that thing on over and over. I didn’t even know what I was feeling, but I loved how it felt,” said Patterson, who used to form “bands” with his stuffed animals, singing along to the Beach Boys backed by a gaggle of teddy bears and the like. “It just made me feel something that I needed to feel. And I think I needed to feel that again during the pandemic. During all of this darkness, I wanted to find a place where you could be somewhere else for a moment, or it could transport you away.”

Recently, Patterson said he experienced this sensation again recently when he revisited “Good Vibrations” for the first time in years and was almost immediately rocketed back to his childhood bedroom.

“It was so jarring and magical,” said Patterson, who fondly recalled the era when not only the music but the artists themselves retained a degree of mystery. “Then the internet comes along, and you can find out where Phil Collins ate dinner last week, or you can find Bon Iver’s address, or what his dog’s name is, if you want. That information is out there, which is great, I guess. But on the other hand, you lose some of that otherworldly magic, and I missed that. And not in a curmudgeonly, old-guy-shaking-his-fist-at-the-clouds kind of way, but I missed the little bit of unknown that used to go hand-in-hand with these sounds.”

Listen to "There Are Ghosts" below.