Queer punks PWR BTTM play The Hollow
By ELI ENIS
They waded through the dense crowd of chattering twenty-somethings, stepped up onto the stage, and picked up their respective instruments. One of them sipped from a PBR before setting it atop an amp, the other stretched their arms behind their back and readied their drum sticks. The guitarist said some sort of obligatory, lighthearted introduction sentence before they began their set with a brand new song.
From that description, this could be any of the thousands of bands that played in front of a live audience on the evening of March 2. Throughout the night, their actions on that stage weren’t anything out of the ordinary and on paper, they could’ve been mistaken for any other band. In actuality, PWR BTTM (pronounced Power Bottom) are unlike any other band and by the end of the set, everyone in that room could’ve told you why.
Ben Hopkins, who uses the pronouns they/them/their, was clad in a tight red dress, tube socks with multi-colored frogs on it, black tights, and black Doc Marten boots. Their face had a streak of glitter painted down their upper right jawline and purple glitter lipstick on their lips. Liv Bruce, who also uses they/them/their, was wearing light blue overalls, a pink sports bra, and a subtler red lipstick than their bandmate. They both had stylistically untamed mops of hair, although Liv’s was partially dyed blonde. Despite being just a two-piece, they commanded the stage, switching instrumental roles mid-set and providing some hilarious banter that often referenced their queerness.
But it’s not just that they’re queer that makes them unique. It’s that they’re so openly proud of it in a manner that’s incredibly refreshing, empowering and admirable. It’s their unbridled willingness to be true to themselves and stand for what they believe in in a genre that always has, and continues to be dominated by straight and cisgender males. In a genre where the concept of “music with a message” has become trite, PWR BTTM found a way to not only avoid stereotypes, but to smash them.
After their set, Hopkins and Bruce sat down in the venue’s backstage area to talk about how being queer affects the band, their fan base, and to reflect on their career since releasing their debut album “Ugly Cherries” last fall.
Q: Obviously your queer image and culture is very important to the essence of the band. But would you guys prefer to be called a “queer punk band” or a “punk band who also happen to be queer?” How important is that distinction to you?
Hopkins: My kneejerk reaction is to say both. Being a queer punk band denotes this idea of being fetishized. Like “oh they’re queer punks.” Some people see it as being lesser than. I actually take that as a badge of pride. Often in our society, it’s hip, in a way, to be queer but it doesn’t feel glamorous. I started calling myself a queer punk ’cause it was scary to me to embrace that as a public image.
Bruce: There are queer artists who don’t label their music that way, and that’s totally fine, that’s their right to do. The reason we were interested in doing it is ’cause it comes through in the music whether we affix that label or not. And just by putting it there it stabs away the thing where people are afraid to say it. If we say it, then no one’s gonna feel uncomfortable calling us that, ’cause we call us that.
Q: You guys recently announced that you have a request on your tour rider for gender-neutral bathrooms to be made easily accessible for fans at each venue you play. How’s that been going since implemented?
Bruce: It’s been really exciting to do so far and a lot of our fans have been really grateful to us for it. Not every venue can do it and when a venue can’t do it it’s complicated. We don’t want to make it seem like we should be like “fuck these venues even though we’re playing here.” There’s some venues that can’t do it because of laws and local ordinances. That’s the only place where we run into trouble.
Q: What’s been your most rewarding experience that came as a result of being in PWR BTTM?
Hopkins: I wasn’t openly queer before PWR BTTM. It actually pushed me to come out of the closet and have queer experiences. The summer before we were gonna do the band I was like, “I’m sick of thinking about this every day, I’m just gonna do it.” So I downloaded Grindr and started fucking boys.
Bruce: It’s been a really exciting way to connect with other queers, to travel around the country and meet queer people. I never had a lot of queer friends in New York and Boston, where I’m from. It’s a whole other thing to go to Eugene, Oregon and meet a boatload of queers.
Q: Is there a message or thought that you want straight, cis males, specifically, to take from your music or live shows?
Bruce: Straight cis males are the last people on my mind when I write my music. I don’t think about them when I’m writing it. I’m writing for myself. But it is sometimes exciting when I’m writing a song and then I think of a line I can imagine someone identifying with. Those people that I imagine usually aren’t straight, cis males. If there’s anything that I want [them] to get from PWR BTTM’s music is that we’re not writing for them, but that’s okay and they’re still welcome at our shows if they’re respectful to people.
Hopkins: I don’t think we write songs for queer people. I think we do, but I don’t think we write songs for just them. I think that would be a really shitty way to make art.
Q: You guys released “Ugly Cherries” last fall. How do you feel about the record now after having months to let it soak in? Anything you’d change?
Hopkins: It feels old. Actually it doesn’t feel old, it feels right. It feels like a perfect chronicle of that period of time. I actually listened to it the other day and was like “oh this feels far away from how I’m feeling right now,” which is good because it feels like we have something to say with this new record we’re working on.
Q: It seems like PWR BTTM has been getting a lot of media attention over the past few months in particular. How do you guys feel about the majority of the articles that’ve been written about you? Are the writers generally channeling your thoughts well or is there something that’s getting lost in translation? Is there something you want to say that’s not getting said?
Hopkins: A good interviewer feels like a collaborator. A lot of people helped us understand our band more through interviews.
Bruce: It’s really fun when we get asked questions that make us think about our work in a way we haven’t yet. You never really know beforehand who’s gonna give you one of those magic interviews. It’s kind of fun. It’s like playing the lottery.
Q: Tonight marks the beginning a fairly lengthy run with Sun Club and Ra Ra Riot. Both of those bands are pretty different than the bands you guys usually play with so what are you looking to accomplish on this tour?
Hopkins: Just to be visible. To show that our audience is no different than anyone else’s audience.
Bruce: To be very openly and resolutely ourselves in front of crowds that are not the same as crowds we always play in front of. Give PWR BTTM shows to people who don’t know they’re PWR BTTM fans yet.