Like a fresh slap of glitter to the face, PWR BTTM is shining right now. After critical acclaim for their debut album, Ugly Cherries, Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce have been touring relentlessly and just announced their second LP, Pageant, out May 12. We sat down with the queer punk duo for an interview about everything from Crock Pots to the election to reaching kids through music.
When it comes to your shows, what is the main thing you want to give to your audience?
Ben: I’ve been trying to think about that a lot lately. What as an audience member do I enjoy about music? The feeling of being invited into something. I never felt like with music or art [that] I’ve responded to an artist or work that made me feel like they were better or different than I was. Like they couldn’t be reached. I wanted to be a part of something. I feel like with PWR BTMM, Liv and I tried to create something that was kind, and cared about the people who come. The space and the energy in the room is one that no matter what, you don’t have to know every word to a PWR BTTM song, you don’t have to dress up in a crazy outfit, you don’t have to [do] anything. You could’ve never heard our music but we want you to feel like you could be a part of this thing.
There are so many ways to draw lines between it. This isn’t just a queer rock show for queer people. We write so many songs for the many crazy reasons people write songs. Some of the coolest PWR BTTM fans I met are some straight dudes in Atlanta, or there is this baseball team in Tulsa, Oklahoma named the Ugly Cherries. They all come to our shows in Dallas, Texas in their uniforms. That’s what I really try to give. I can’t think I am trying to speak for everyone, I just know the general theme of “you can be a part of this thing if you want it to be.”
Liv: I’m always excited to create a space for people to relate to each other in addition to the band on stage. Whether that be us or an opener on tour. One of the things that really made me excited in recent memory was, we’ve played Atlanta three times in the past. There are fans that I met at the first show and then I saw them again at the second show and I was like, “Oh my god you came back.” The third time we were in Atlanta I saw them, and I was like “Oh cool, you’re here again,” and I saw them recognizing each other. They were like, “Oh, I’ve seen you at all these shows!” They’re hanging out with each other, hanging on the patio and everything. Despite having a common interest in our band they might not have otherwise been friends before. I thought that was really cool, you know? Bringing families together.
Ben: It’s worth knowing Liv and I write the songs we write, we go on tour, we have booking agent who books us places, we have a publicist who puts our music out for the world like any other band. The people make that happen at the show. Liv and I don’t say “just go and be friends.” There is something about the people who choose to respond to it, and we just play our songs.
Was it hard to walk out on stage for the first time and perform in front of people, not knowing their reaction?
Ben: I came out as queer through PWR BTTM actually. I think maybe to my private friends I was being queer. It wasn’t like I was out though. I had a lot of straight privilege my entire life through all social settings. Then I came out as a drag queen. It was scary, but it feels like the thing worth doing to see the other side of that experience. The amount that PWR BTTM has changed me as a person… I didn’t occupy queer space ’til I was part of this band, only internally. I’m incredibly grateful. I couldn’t go into the degree of how I am a different person because of this project and the people we met. It makes me emotional just talking about it. I’m incredibly grateful for it.
Liv: When we first started we were a band in college. The first time we ever played it was for literally all the people we know. Which I think is scarier. Scarier than playing for strangers. I remember the first people — over the many, many, many times I’ve come out.
Ben: You came out as a Power Ranger from the future, right?
Liv: There have been a lot of times in my life where I came out to a perfect stranger by some chance encounter. It’s way easier than coming out to your family. I started high school “out,” then I had to tell my family. I had to introduce myself to the family. You know, I didn’t say, “Hi, I’m gay,” but I never tried to hide my sexuality in high school but my family were the last people I told. They knew me the longest, so that required the biggest shift. So I think when we started it probably would’ve been less daunting when we lived in New York. That being said the Bard [College] music community is cool in that there are multiple student-run spaces which is a great resource for bands wanting to get off the ground. There are interesting bands because there is so much space and so many people willing to see a band who is going to fuck up hundreds of times.
Ben: Thousands of times.
Liv: Yeah, you get to watch them grow. As far as what is scary or dangerous to me, that’s tricky. I usually feel more scared off stage than on. The stage is actually a pretty safe space in terms of physical harm goes. There are a hundred witnesses for whatever someone is going to do. It’s at the merch table or walking down the street to get some new mascara at CVS, something like that. That’s much scarier, but being on stage for both of us, being on stage as PWR BTTM is a very familiar thing. That being said it’s always a little scary.
I love the playfulness and energy of your music. Will there ever be a follow-up to your early-career song “Carbs”?
Liv: Oh my god. Like what, “Protein?”
Ben: It’s so weird Billboard is asking about that. I made a video for that on Christmas Eve. That’s how I met Jess from Father/Daughter records.
Liv: I was thinking about that yesterday actually. I accidentally ate only carbs all day. I wrote that song when I was really high at Thanksgiving. I didn’t talk to anyone because I was worried they would know I was high. You know, that way when you’re really high at a family function. I just wrote “Carbs” in my head. I don’t know how we’d follow it up. I do think there is an innocence and naivety for the first song you write. The further and further you go the harder you have to work to get back to that place.
“Carbs” is the first song I wrote, and “I Wanna Boi” is the second song I wrote. I am very proud of every song I made since then. Anything I’m not proud of I wouldn’t show people. There is a really naive quality to those songs. I’ve tried to write songs from that perspective again but it just doesn’t work. It’s just a fake naivety which is the most cynical thing in the world.
Ben: It’s so funny, we never thought anyone would hear PWR BTTM. Ever. It was supposed to one show for a queer-fronted show. Felix Walworth from Told Slant was hosting this festival but it didn’t happen. We practiced anyway and we played one show, then we made one record, and it’s been a downhill snowball of glitter and confusion since. I wake up sometimes and I think, “Aww, I’m in a band, this is sick.” I love music for so many reason. My mom is a trained opera singer, she actually is singing on our next record.
*Ben makes the loudest tongue pop possible*
I also adored your “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” cover. I thought it was a beautiful response to the Pulse shooting in Orlando. When you’re facing these different difficult circumstances, do you have a hard time being entertainers while facing your own problems?
Ben: An example of something that happened. We had our car stolen with all of our instruments and our most of our clothes the day of the American election happening. We had a show in San Francisco at the Rickshaw Stop that night. Not only was Trump the president, but everything was stolen. I’m such a gearhead, and I’m so attached to my instruments. I don’t have a lot of other possessions I care that much about. I was thinking, how am I going to face a group of people who want some sort of answer, hope, or entertainment? And how am I going to do it without the things that make me comfortable. It was one of the best shows we had. There was a spontaneous dance party after, it was amazing. You just sort of do it, does that make sense? It’s tough to explain because it’s something you can’t really explain. People have always been trying to strip away systems of joy and entertainment for those who feel alone. You just can’t let them do it, because they like to make you sad. It’s hard to talk about without sounding like you have some sort of God complex. It’s not your job or anything, it’s just what you have to do.
Liv: That was a really interesting 24 hours, when the election was happening as we were driving to San Francisco in our van, safe and sound. We were thinking, “How are we going to play a show for all these people, this is so depressing.” Then when our gear got stolen, I don’t think anyone once brought up the prospect of canceling the show. Getting a bunch of borrowed gear together for one night is easy. It’s really, really fucking hard and we relied on a lot of people to make it happen.
Compared to the mind-fuck of Donald Trump just got elected, how do we get on stage and give a show? That was easy. I think that kind of tricked us into forgetting about Trump for the day. Remember we were just running around looking for the van? We thought it might’ve gotten towed. I really didn’t think about Trump once that day. That situation got us out of thinking about it.
Ben: I thought about him when I looked at the faces of the kids in the audience.
Liv: When we got on stage that was different. If our van didn’t get stolen though, we would’ve stewed around just being so mad. That’s just one time though. There have been other times where something far more personal that everyone in the audience can’t automatically relate to goes down in your life that everyone can’t relate to. Then you have go on stage. You get in a fight over text with a person you’re in love with. You literally have to put your phone down and go play a show. That’s a tricky thing to learn how to navigate. You leave it off stage but you also bring it on with you. Otherwise something will be missing, and the audience can pick up on that.
Ben: I think some people gravitate to our stuff because we come from a performance background that really prizes vulnerability and authenticity. It’s a little more direct than what’s asked from musicians sometimes. We’re also two emotional people, so maybe it comes up a little bit more.
For the teens out there who might not be able to see your shows or know about DIY spaces, is there advice you’d give them?
Liv: The thing I always say to someone who can’t see a show is that there will always be more. If we get abducted by aliens…
Ben: Which we have.
Liv: Then there will be plenty of other shows. There are plenty of other bands out there too. To a young person who can’t come out to our show, make your own band. Make your own music project. One of our fans made a project where they ran our lyrics through Google Translate and it was the best thing I’d ever seen. I said to them, “so when is your record dropping?” They never thought of making one and I was like we didn’t either when we first started writing songs.
Ben: Furthermore PWR BTTM isn’t the only queer rock band. We’ve been lucky to receive a platform. If you go on Bandcamp and search for “queer rock” and you can find 150,000 bands that you could love more than PWR BTTM. We’ve tried our hardest, too, to play all ages show, but sometimes it’s hard given local laws. Know that we aren’t the only queer rock band. In New York City there are bands like Adult Mom, Aye Nako, Told Slant.
Liv: They’re all over the place
What does this year bring for you?
Liv: First of all I’m not done realizing stuff. I think Kylie Jenner was talking about the next ten years — you know in 2016 when she released that fireside video and said “I feel 2016 has this energy about it and we’re going to realize some stuff”? Everyone was like “lol,” then holy shit did we realize some stuff. I think in 2017 we’re going to keep realizing. We’re going to learn a lot about interdependence when previously reliable structures fail to provide support that they have for decades. I hope, I pray, we learn how to be okay disagreeing with each other.
Ben: I’m getting a Crock Pot. I know what we’re going to do as PWR BTTM. We’re going to put a new record out, we’re going to go on tour a lot, and we’re going to do cool stuff. We’re going to try to be kind to our friends and family and loved ones. And we’re going to look cute.