While band names aren't the most important part of a musical act — the music is, duhhhh — they do have some weight. That's why when we heard about the New York duo PWR BTTM we were so intrigued. From talking with the band, who is playing a show at Rickshaw Stop tonight, I learned that their name is more than apropos. Like the musicians themselves, it's funny and risque and hints at the artists' queer leanings, while at the same time empowering the underdog (no pun intended).
The pair formed their punk band in 2013 while attending Bard College in upstate New York and have since continued the project after graduating and relocating to the hipster mecca of Brooklyn. They dropped their first full-length album, Ugly Cherries, last September and are now achieving another first — visiting the state of California. (i.e. The best state, lez be honest.)
Because gay and queer artists are becoming more prominent in the music industry, I chatted with them about their sexualities, preferred pronouns, and how being in a “non-hetero band” has impacted their lives. Read the interview to find out more.
What is your preferred pronoun?
Ben Hopkins: ‘He,’ ‘him,’ and ‘they,’ ‘there’
Liv Bruce: ‘They,’ ‘there.’ What I like about ‘they’ is everyone already knows how to spell it and define it. ‘The’ is harder for people to remember.
‘Ze’ didn’t appeal to you?
LB: I just settled on the one that I settled on
How did you guys meet?
LB: Ben had like three beers and two friends in his dorm room. And I was a freshman at my first week of college, and I thought that was what a party looked like. And so I just kind of walked into his dorm room and started hanging out. I was like, ‘Hello.’ And they were like, ‘Hi.’ And I was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And they were like, ‘What is anyone doing here?’
BH: It was very casual for Liv and very surprising for me.
LB: Ben had a stack of magazines with really awesome BDSM line drawings in them. I could tell right away that I hated him, but I stuck around at the party because I figured there was a chance I could get that magazine from him because I was really into collaging.
What inspired you to start the band?
LB: Maybe a year after we met someone said they were going to put together a queer and female-fronted music festival, and I’d always wanted to start a queer punk band called PWR BTTM, so I asked Ben if he'd be down.
BH: PWR BTTM started kind of as a joke. It was never intended to be something like, ‘Yeah, we're just going to to be people in a band.’ We just did it because it was amusing to be in a band called PWR BTTM. It was fun to write queer songs and then we just kept doing it.
What’s your preferred term for your sexuality?
LB: Man, it’s been such a long time since I’ve been asked that or thought about it. I’m typically attracted to men or male identified people 99% of the time. But I guess if I had to pick a label for it, I don’t know know… Gay doesn’t really work anymore because it means when a man loves a man and I don’t feel like a man. That doesn’t super work for me anymore.
So you don’t feel like a man. Do you feel, like, in between genders?
LB: Yeah. It changes. Sometimes I feel like both, sometimes I feel like neither. Sometimes I feel like something else completely. Gender-wise I identify as a non-binary person, which means not male, not female. And then sexuality, for sexuality, all I have to say is in the song “ I Want A Boy,” there’s a bit about how any potential lovers can send me their photos and names and email address and that’s kind of all I have to say about it. I guess I’m very resistant to identifying with sexuality right now.
BH: I agree with you. Identifying is very constricting, which is why the term queer has always been attractive to me. To put a fixed name on something restricts you to a set of expectations that other people might have for you. And queer for me, with the ambiguity of it, is endearing in that regard. I don’t think picking is important. It doesn’t help me know myself more. And I don’t really care if other people know. I have my feelings towards specific people. Its not like I’m trying to have a flag that I carry around or a pin that I wear that lets everyone know all the time. I might feel 100% different today than I do tomorrow or the next day. It’s all weird. It’s like a murky soup. But it’s delicious.
Ben, you said you weren’t even “out of the closet” before PWR BTTM started?
BH: I’ve always just sort of been casually bisexual. Although, I didn’t really identify with it. I still don’t really see the point. The whole act of coming out of the closet is something I never really felt prone to do. I’d always identified as queer but never really made it part of my identity, and PWR BTTM was really my way of coming out. I mean, my parents they were like, ‘Oh. What does this song “Trade” mean?’ And the lyrics to that go, “One man won’t ever love me like I need him to. One man wont ever love me at all.”
Did you tell your parents about your sexuality?
BH: I never even told my parents. I just kind of played shows in a dress in front of everyone at my college my senior year, second semester, in the middle of making my senior thesis. I guess that was my va va voom kind of moment. I never really had a moment where I was like, ‘Guys, listen.’
It seems that something that was a big deal for you was when you started wearing female clothing in public.
BH: Well, what I do is incredibly less brave than anyone who wears non-conforming, outfits. My drag is a costume. It’s not hard for me to wear a dress on stage. It’s not hard for me to wear makeup.
LB: In a way, a stage can be the safest place to be visibly queer and non-gender conforming because you're literally surrounded by witnesses. Any type of violence that a person might try to carry out on you, that’s just not a very likely place to do it. It’s much scarier, in my opinion, to wear a dress just walking down the street after work than on stage.
BH: Yeah, that’s what I was saying. It’s basically like what I do is not hard. It is empowering to me and I enjoy doing it and it is a big part of my personality. And I’m able to manifest a lot of the feelings I have through that performance, but ultimately its not in any way equivalent to the things that people who choose to present themselves in a way that can put them in danger in certain situations do. Like, I’m fine. Ill take my makeup off after shows and leave. I’m fine. I have an incredible privilege.
Based on pictures, you two seem to wear a lot of makeup. Do you wear makeup in your every day life?
LB: I usually put on a lip and some mascara before I head out of the house. It makes me feel good. I started experimenting with makeup back in high school. One of my friends, who shall remain nameless, shoplifted a bunch of drugstore cosmetics for me and I would just play with it in my room at night. When PWR BTTM started up, I started out with the makeup that ben does: makeup that looks like you put it on with a canon. And then I kind of realized that what I really wanted to do was a simple lip and mascara on the daily. And then that was the look I wanted on stage. Through the character that I was putting on onstage, I discovered what I wanted to look like everyday.
What is a power bottom?
LB: A power bottom is someone who receives but also is in control.
BH: The idea of there being a bottom in any situation denotes a hierarchy of power. Its like there’s a top and there’s a bottom.
LB: There’s power in any sexual act, but it’s on both sides of it.
What kid of reactions do you get from people regarding your band name, PWR BTTM?
LB: I don’t think anyone’s ever been offended by it. People are usually into it. People who don’t know what it is just kind of have a hard time figuring out what I’m saying and why we spell it the way we do. But people who know get it immediately.
BH: And they laugh.
Does the fact that you took out the vowels have any significance or did you do it because it looks cool?
LB: It means that you don’t Google it without finding lots of gay porn. But, even when you do Google it that way, you still find a smattering of gay porn and we like that.
On a random note, I feel like I heard a lot of references to showering in Ugly Cherry. Did you guys notice that or do that intentionally?
LB: I didn’t notice that. But I think a lot in the shower.
LB: I really didn’t notice it until after we finished recording. I can’t think of any reason it’s interesting to me or important to me. There’s a lot of things that sometimes turn up in songs that I wasn’t conscious of when I was writing them and when I look back I’m like oh that’s interesting. That must have been floating around in my head. And maybe that hasn’t happened yet. Maybe when I’m 40 ill be like oh that’s why I was so interested in showers.
BH: I mean, private space is always something that’s interesting. Like, I wrote “1994” in my parents’ basement by the boiler. I wrote a lot of songs in tiny small cramped-ass rooms in houses. And I always feel like I write best in tiny weird shitty places and the shower is like a space where you're just left with nothing but your thoughts. Maybe that’s something.
LB: Also, I think in terms of the relationship between me and ben, we're both very huge personalities and the kind of ongoing question of this project for me is how do those two personalities fit in the same place? And manage to complement each other instead of swaddle each other? I feel like with “Dairy Queen,” it’s kind of about me trying to back away from Ben. Or not back away but get private space from him.
What are some of your guys' queerest songs?
LB: I don’t know if I can make a Buzzfeed listicle on them. I think they’re all queer and they’re all not queer. They’re just songs.
BH: I think every song that we write as queer people is a queer song, you know? Like, I can make a beef bourguignon that is a queer beef bourguignon because queer hands made it. They're just songs written by a queer person. So, they’re lamentably normal, but they’re also like fascinatingly fabulous.
Do you ever think about the importance of being a queer band? Why do you think your presence is needed and what kind of influence do you think you're having on other people?
LB: I know that when I was a kid and discovering my queerness, I was kind of worried all the time about how I was going to deal with that because none of the musicians I liked were queer. Or, at least none of them openly identified as such. And it gave me a lot of worry about how I was going to fit into the music world. So, for me its important to be openly queer and to not keep it a secret or even a question for people who are the age I was then and looking for a future self they can be. Although I hope no one grows up to be me. Please don’t.
BH: Lord knows we don’t need two.
LB: Basically, I feel like with this band, I’m making the music that would have made me safer and more secure in my future as a child.
BH: I think that's the best answer. Bowie died today. He wasn’t everything, but a lot of what people are reflecting on today is really resonating with me. They’re saying that it did give them sort of a security for their future, especially as young people. Liv and I don’t have a lot of music in common that we like, but Liv and I both love the Dresden Dolls and Semi Precious Weapons. They’re two bands that made me as a 15 to 17 year-old feel very much validated and real in a way because they were saying things I wished I was saying and felt emotions as big as I wished I could emote. And David Bowie is someone like that as well. And I hope to create music that makes me feel validated as well as other people.