Glam rock’s stars have always played with gender norms, but Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins, the rock duo known as PWR BTTM, take that tradition to an entirely new — and politically relevant — level. Both Hopkins, 25, and Bruce, 23, identify as queer, and Bruce also identifies as non-binary and transfeminine. Their punk-meets-performance art aesthetic blends lyrics matter-of-factly taking on gender issues with melodies as epic as any Queen anthem (with a lot of glitter, too).
“There used to be this big link between gay people and punk rock. It’s nice to see that again,” says Rufus Wainwright, 44, himself a pioneering queer artist, speaking with the two on the phone recently. “You’re on the right track!” Following 2015’s critically acclaimed Ugly Cherries, PWR BTTM will release its sophomore album, Pageant, May 12 on Polyvinyl, while Wainwright is prepping for European tour dates in May and June. Before departing for shows in Australia this month, Wainwright, a longtime fan of PWR BTTM, chatted with Bruce and Hopkins.
Rufus Wainwright: Today I went to the gym and played your music for my trainer — a straight guy who told me he’s sleeping with a Donald Trump supporter because the sex is good. And he really dug it!
Liv Bruce: Honestly, if a Trump supporter can have sex to our record, then I think we can change the world!
Ben Hopkins: We joke that PWR BTTM is an average band: There’s drums, there’s shredded guitar, there’s singing and pop hooks. I wouldn’t call what we do avant-garde. We make pop music — and maybe that’s a window through which the straight guys at the gym can get down.
Wainwright: Back in my time, I was as honest as I could be about my sexuality, but it had to be more shielded. It’s so great that you’re able to be totally honest about what your lives are like and have fun with it, too.
Bruce: I don’t think we would be able to do what we do if there hadn’t been people before us like you, who subversively articulated a queer aesthetic through the mainstream, not-queer-friendly apparatus. The best I’ve ever heard it described was Justin Tranter saying, “You greased the hole from which we came.” So, Rufus, we want to thank you for greasing the hole through which PWR BTTM emerged.
Wainwright: Who are your influences?
Bruce: It is a primordial soup from which we have emerged…
Hopkins: Nirvana’s Nevermind was the first album I ever bought, and I loved epic bands like Led Zeppelin. But I gravitated toward artists with female-identifying singers — Rilo Kiley, Frou Frou, Imogen Heap, Joanna Newsom. And there are so many queer performers I was exposed to. Taylor Mac, my queer mother Justin Vivian Bond. And Eddie Izzard! I used to watch Dress to Kill every day.
Bruce: Growing up, I was listening to Scissor Sisters. Honestly, I was listening to you [Rufus].
Wainwright: Listening to your new music, I’m sensing a more morose moment. Am I right?
Bruce: Oh, you’re right. This record is as concerned with the morning after the party as it is with the party itself.
Hopkins: We worked on Pageant over the election year. The Trump administration makes everything personal and political.
Behind the Seams: PWR BTTM shares details on their fashion rack as well as makeup/glitter application techniques.
Wainwright: It’s inevitable as an artist that you have to adjust to the world around you — certainly right now, with this madness.
Hopkins: It’s a death drop. Doing three national tours last year, we met queer people all over America, and that changed my perspective on my own politics a lot.
Bruce: We ultimately use good art as a tool for people to contextualize themselves, and the folks in all the places we play experience it how they will. All we’re doing is saying what we think. I never really wanted to be anyone’s hero.
Hopkins: I want to be their songwriting hero.
Wainwright: Everyone always asks me, “What is it like to be a gay icon?” And I’m like, “That has never been one of my goals at all. I was just doing what I wanted to do.”
Bruce: Over the last year, I realized that what’s important and exciting is mutual heroism. I have many queer friends who I consider to be heroes of mine, and they feel the same way toward me. That forms the kind of networks that we can then use to mobilize in the face of people who want to kill us or change us.
Wainwright: Do you see PWR BTTM as setting a new precedent for what bands can be?
Hopkins: PWR BTTM is just one queer rock band among so many. We need to have a much broader conversation to give more people a platform. I love bands of straight white boys, but labels only putting out those records is very much over.
Bruce: The future of diversity in music depends on the future of society in general.
PWR BTTM talks favorite TV shows, what high school was like for them and more in the new episode of Billboard’s You Should Know.