For those that have been following the trajectory of Brooklyn queer punks PWR BTTM, the growing momentum behind their rise to the brink of a mainstream breakthrough is a little unexpected but wholly necessary.
Formed in 2013 by Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins while studying at Bard University, New York state, they released their much-adored debut album Ugly Cherries in 2015 and it became a word-of-mouth success. Their outspoken stance on LGBTQ issues as well as their empowering, glitter-strewn live shows have also boosted their profile significantly. Album-repackage single ‘Projections’ even reached the ears of Rolling Stone and was crowned the 6th best song of 2016, sitting snugly between Solange and Kanye West. Not too bad for a “rotted pair of queens”, as they often refer to themselves.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. In November, PWR BTTM had their first experience with protestors, with their show in Mississippi picketed by a handful of men bearing signs with anti-LGBT slogans. This was only a couple of weeks after their tour van, with all their possessions inside, was stolen in San Francisco. Then there was a bizarre spat with SNL host Colin Jost at the end of the month, over a transphobic joke he made on television linking the rise of gender identity politics to the Democrats losing the Presidential election. But if the challenges of 2016 prove anything, it’s that having loud and powerful queer voices like PWR BTTM is more vital than ever before.
Liv and Ben are in good spirits as we warm up with a coffee in Soho on a freezing winter morning. We quickly skip through a few minor details of their first visit to England as a touring band; the virtues of Eat, a review of their PR’s cooking skills (“as you were eating it I felt kinda embarrassed”, he offers remorsefully from the other table) and the poor quality of men on Grindr in the area they’re staying. Which leads nicely into the first important topic of the day…
DiS: What's your favourite Kylie Minogue song?
Liv Bruce: Probably 'Say Hey' off Impossible Princess. That album is a masterpiece and it didn't do as well as it could have done commercially, because it came out just after Princess Diana died. You couldn't put up a billboard that said ‘Impossible Princess’ right after that...
But it's very critically acclaimed.
LB: Critically, it did amazingly. It's the only album where she had full creative control. I love Kylie. I actually had a really funny moment in high school when my straight best friend who knew the coolest music [but] would never tell me where he found it. And I got really into the Aphrodite record when it came out and I was like: “I think he will like this but I can't tell him who it is because he'll be like 'that's gay stuff, whatever'.” So I put it on in his car and I put on the song ‘Aphrodite’ and after five second he was like: “Is this Kylie?”
LB: Yeah! So he showed me Impossible Princess which, I'll say it again, is a masterpiece. I think of my top five Kylie song,s I'd say at least two or three of them are off that album.
It’s funny you mention that thing about holding back the name of the artist because of its connotations. I’ve done exactly the same with PWR BTTM too, just to see the surprise on their faces when I divulge the name. Sometimes they can get a little spooked.
LB: I think it can work the opposite way sometimes too. Often I think there are people who wouldn't have clicked on our song on a playlist, for instance, if we weren't called PWR BTTM but that caught their eye.
That’s true. When I reviewed your album the only reason I did so was because I saw your name on a list and it immediately jumped out to me – I’d hadn’t read anything about the band beforehand. I was like: “What is that?”
LB: So I had the idea to call our band PWR BTTM when we were 17 and I saved it for years because I wanted it to be right. I was like “I can't waste this name on a project that's not good”.
Ben Hopkins: And then you asked me to join this band.
LB: Yeah! Because this is a great name and this name will do that thing you were just describing. And so it's very affirming to hear that it did.
BH: Yeah and I think gay people see that and get the joke in it, but also there is political power in the word 'power bottom'.
Definitely. Let's talk about pre-Ugly Cherries PWR BTTM because you've come a long way since then. How do you look back on that time in the band?
LB: I remember we had a writing day literally the night before we started recording our first demo and I said to Ben at that point “We're genre-queer” and I feel like Ugly Cherries doesn’t deliver on that. Every song sounds like it's in the same genre, written by the same band, and I think on our new record there are actually a lot more surprises as to what kind of band we are. I think most bands wouldn't have 'Kids Table' and 'Big Beautiful Day' on the same record and we have them side-by-side.
BH: It's funny. In my head, the way I listen to it, they are all different. When I listen to 'Silly' verses 'Oh Boy', they're like...completely different things.
So what’s inspired that change?
LB: We just got better at doing it. I think that if we wanted to we could re-record Ugly Cherries and it would sound a little bit more diverse now that we've gotten more proficient at our home instruments and definitely at the [other] ones. Like, I've gotten way better at guitar and Ben's way better at drums. Well, Ben's gotten better at drums since we recorded Ugly Cherries.
LB: But yeah, it's funny that you mention that because the genre-queer thing was really important to me before Ugly Cherries. And then we recorded it and it doesn't really meet that label. Maybe it does to some people, but I don't hear genre-queer, that it defies categorisation. Now I think we're finally living up to that label that I thought of just as a funny pun when I was 19 or 20.
That's the other thing, I was at university when we started this band and I was so all over the place. Before we recorded Ugly Cherries and when we were recording it, I did a million things back then. Now, this band is a full-time job. So when I think back on that time in my life, I thought about PWR BTTM but I thought about so many other things too. I thought about the dance pieces I was making. I thought about the other bands I was in. I thought about the classes I was taking. I thought about...
LB: ...being a Broadway actress. I thought about my Bernadette Peters impersonation, which I've never stopped doing.
BH: She's doing it right now.
Would you say this is a more ‘focussed’ record then? Is this where PWR BTTM become, dare I say it…professional?
LB: No (laughs). Absolutely not.
BH: The sort of "amateurishness" of what we do is always what has made the project really amusing and good to me.
LB: I think “professional” isn't the right word for us. Also, I have so many associations with that word coming from a dance background.
BH: And from a theatre background too.
LB: A professional dance-training environment is very technically rigorous, very rigid in its forms. I just don't think that’s how either of us relates to music. I took drum lessons for a long time but it was a very non-traditional sort of learning. I can read sheet music if I really have to, but I prefer not to.
I've heard the new album is a lot more expansive in terms of instrumentation but also Ben's mum is singing on the record. How did that come about?
BH: Well it's something I've always wanted to do! With PWR BTTM, the thing that's been great about the project is that Liv and I are such messy bitches that we'll be like: “Yeah, let's have a French horn, let's do that”. It's never been like: “Oh, that wouldn't sound perfect”.
LB: Well, there's French horn, violin, saxophone, and it kinda happened by accident. Originally it was just going to be saxophone, but then the person that was doing that couldn't do it anymore and so we started talking to someone else.
BH: PWR BTTM has always been just whatever we wanted to do. My mum, we're very close obviously, and she is a virtuosic, technically trained singer. She sang with John Williams and all these amazing people, but then quit singing because she hated the professionalism of being a musician so much. With PWR BTTM, it's my dream to take her on tours forever. Well, everywhere she wants to go.
The thought of you forcing your mother to tour with you...
BH: No, literally, I'm not going to make her go somewhere she's doesn't want to go but she's so fabulous so she wants to go to New York, Chicago, London, everywhere.
How many tracks is she on?
BH: [mouths the number ‘eight’]
Oh. My. God.
I'm so intrigued as to how that will sound.
BH: It sounds like drama, bitch. She's a fucking classical singer with a five-octave range. She's amazing and she fucking slays it.
I think having a sense of humour about everything is what's made PWR BTTM good. There's a track on the new record that...makes me happy every time I hear it because it's like a self-affirmation sort of jam but it has really stupid gang vocals on it.
Like a pop punk gang vocal?
BH: I think these gang vocals are very gay.
LB: I know what you mean though. I always imagine a cesspool of dudes like naked...
BH: Shirtless with Levi's on.
LB: You know how in anime there'll be like a chorus of Japanese schoolgirl voices saying something?
BH: Yeah, even in Naruto they'll be like: “We're going to win!” and then they'll be like: “Yaaaay!”, there's that. Actually, that's much more Digimon than anything. Love those twinks. My God. But so much of what we do is based on pleasure. There's a song I wrote on this next record that has more of a head-noddy feel. I don't want to say hip-hop because I'm not part of that community...
[woman walks past]
BH:....What a great scarf that is! Love that scarf. I bet it's from Primark. I'm going there today. Can't wait.
Prepare yourself. It gets messy in there.
BH: Guuuuurl! Bitch, I have been to Primark. I have some shit from there still, amazingly.
[to Liv] Yeah it's slutty. It's a mess. You can't go to the changing room bitch, you just got to try it on.
LH: I love it.
You spoke about humour earlier which reminded me of a quote I read about how in the genesis of PWR BTTM, you used humour to diffuse nervousness on stage, which seems wild now because you both seem so confident. It’s strangely empowering to watch you both perform.
BH: I think when the show really works it's actually when we're having a lot of fun.
LB: I think there is something to be said for projecting common confidence when you don't have it. That’s something I specifically learned when I was 12, as a way to make people stop making fun of me for being gay and effeminate. I noticed that some of the straight boys could do things that [had I done the same] I would be made fun of, because they had no sense of shame around it, so the kids didn't pick up anything to taunt in them.
There was one time specifically where I told someone I watched Gilmore Girls and everyone in my class made fun of me for it that day. Literally everyone I saw that day was like: “Oh my god, I heard you watched Gilmore Girls. Are you a girl? Haha.” It was awful. It was one of the most miserable things ever. And then a few weeks later I heard a straight boy that I was friends with – and I wasn't out by any means then – but I heard him just casually mention that he watched Gilmore Girls with his sister but no one made a big deal out of it because he didn't have any sense of shame around it. He didn't say it like it was a secret. I remember specifically saying to myself then “Okay, if you project that you’re calm or confident about something, people won't want to make fun of you for it”. That's what I trained myself into; this ability to appear calm when I'm not and appear confident when I'm not.
At one point a friend of mine said to me “You have this deep sense of calm in you and it actually calms me down when I'm freaking out”. That's when I was like: “Oh God, it's all a lie.” I'm freaking out just as much as anyone.
I think that's important when we think about the picketing at your shows recently. I read that being calm in front of the protesters and not giving them the attention was a deliberate strategy on your part to make sure that your audience are ok.
BH: That was really the most important thing. Liv & I can handle it because we're older. I'm 25. I think the first time I was called a faggot was in first grade. So it's the kinda thing you have [built] muscles for. But for some kid who drove for three hours to come see us play, coming to what they view to be a safe space which is queer, that's all ages, and having that kind oppression added? It’s a let-down for me because I don't want that experience to happen when they come to seek asylum from bullshit. So that's what's actually hard about it, to make sure that doesn't happen to them.
Were you surprised that it happened?
LB: Ben & I have never spoken about this but I think we'd both been expecting it for a while. We've both known that as this project gets more and more momentum behind it eventually someone who wants to do that is going to hear about [us] and show up. So, I don't think either of us were surprised but, if anything else, why does this have to happen on this tour?
Why specifically this tour?
LB: There had already been so much stuff that had happened. But what really struck me was that many of the fans there seemed very apologetic for it. They felt like it was their responsibility to apologise for it.
BH: Like they had to own it, but this wasn't your fault at all.
LB: I definitely know what it feels like to be ashamed of someone who is ostensibly in a community with you but you don't actually identify with them, at all. I remember feeling that way when George Bush was the President. I feel that way now Donald Trump is the President-Elect. As a liberal American I don't feel like I'm represented by the person who ostensibly represents me. So, for them [the fans], it seemed like they really just wanted us to understand that those people don't represent everyone in Mississippi, and we understood that. Probably before we were told that by any of them. One thing they keep saying was: “I hope you keep coming back here even though that happened” and we were like: “Of course! We'd love that”.
Given that PWR BTTM does have that platform now where you reach those queer people in isolated places, I suspect there must be a sense of responsibility that comes with that. How does that sit with you both?
BH: There is and we think about it a lot.
LB: I think it's important to acknowledge that we have that responsibility, but if I take it too seriously to the point I stop having fun with the project, then everything else will fall apart. My primary job in this band it to always write good music and enjoy playing it. If I ever let the responsibility of being a visibly queer artist who's achieving mainstream press and success detract from my ability to do those things, then it will all fall apart.
BH: Agreed. When you're queer, you need things you can relate to. Be it Kylie Minogue or something like that, it's a touchstone. It's like: “This feels authentic to me”. And it only feels authentic because that person is being authentic in their writing. That's where the power comes from [in] that relationship. The artist didn't make it for you but they made it for themselves because they needed that. But then inherently after that comes that relationship [with fans], y'know? A good piece of art is empathetic to yourself. Every song I think I've written on this new record and the old one is something I needed to do for myself and then other people can relate to it, because that task was achieved.
PWR BTTM’s second album is expected “sometime in 2017”. Tickets are currently on sale for their next UK tour in April.