Photo by Andrew Piccone
In the song "Serving Goffman" off PWR BTTM's debut LP Ugly Cherries, (out today), Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins arrive at a realization about the real world: "I held my breath in a suit and a tie because I didn't know I could fight back/I want to put the whole world in drag/But I'm starting to realize it's already like that," Liv sings. This then leads into a chorus where they join together to ask, "Am I making a fool of myself? I sure hope so." Like several of the other tracks on PWR BTTM's debut album "Serving Goffman" trades weighty, real world seriousness for a lighter, liberating perspective: Don't take yourself so seriously, and just be.
"Just be" sounds like something you might hear repeated in a soothing voice on a meditation iPhone app, but PWR BTTM flex their indifference for societal requisites in a much louder, caked-on glitter way. The fuzzed up garage-pop songs on Ugly Cherries justify the struggles most young people, queer or not, go through: frustration with dating, the pressure to "grow up," balancing responsibilities, and coming to terms with sexuality. Propelled forward by punk-inspired arrangements and several perfectly cued up head banging moments, Ugly Cherries acknowledges the weight of these struggles, which ultimately makes not giving a shit about their implications, or what others think seem totally doable.
Liv and Ben created PWR BTTM at their alma mater Bard College, where most of the album was composed. With nascent affinities for drag that had yet to be fully realized, Ben and Liv used PWR BTTM as the outlet for pent up queer frustrations, both eventually finding peace in drenching themselves in glitter and messy make-up to complete, unabashed drag looks for their live shows. Eventually, the safe space that PWR BTTM fostered helped Ben and Liv to acknowledge who they are every day, not just while playing in the band: loud and queer, a duo who would rather laugh while the world tries to typify them, than give any straightforward answers.
Below is the premiere for the video for "1994." Clad in their preferred style of DIY disheveled drag, Ben and Liv revisit some of the cornerstones of 90s culture including Hulk Hogan doing ballet with a little girl and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The track is a scuzzy, feelgood singalong with some gnarly guitar and thrashy drums to offset their happy-sad melodies.
We talked to the duo discuss drag, make-up, music and gender identity.
Where are you guys?
Liv: I'm in Worcester, MA right now. I'm visiting my boyfriend he's an auto-mechanic and he has an apprenticeship out here.
Liv: Yeah so I'm doing this while he's on a webinar.
Ben: Liv's boyfriend is like straight out of porn. It's amazing.
That's amazing! So he's all sweaty and oily from fixing cars?
Liv: Yes, his hands are like dark gray. It's amazing.
Perfect. So Ben you're older than Liv?
Ben: Yeah in almost every way. I'm more rounded and educated and just mature.
Liv: Ben is only one year older than me but he looks about 20 years older than me.
Ben: That's easy to say because you're like the saddest microtwink in Brooklyn.
It sounds like the album really has a place at Bard. What does it feel like to open it up to the rest of everyone when it feels like such a specific place created it? Ben: Sure there are people at Bard who understand a particular energy of the record, but I hope other people—you know John Darnielle from the Mountain Goats was interviewed about this band Jawbreaker once. When he was asked if he relates to the song "Boxcar" he said the truest thing about punk is that everyone in their life at one point feels beleaguered in some way. If the record worked out in the way I wanted it to, me singing about myself in "Ugly Cherries" like reflecting on my own gender and masculinity someone can hear that and take that element of feeling insecure and misunderstood and apply it to their relationship with their parents, or something like that. You can really only write in your specific environment and then the hope is that it's big enough of a feeling that someone in a different environment can relate to it. You know, so I hope people from Bard will get it but I also hope people in North Dakota will get it too.
There's definitely queer people who live in remote places who would benefit from hearing you guys. Is that something you're after?
Liv: We've already gotten some messages from people who have had that experience with our music, who are queer and have felt empowered or comforted in some way by it. But we also have noticed that there have been a lot of people who aren't queer who really identify with things we write about and with our music. And so we're really happy if it helps people who have struggles that are similar to ours, but we also by no means are making something that's exclusively for them. If I could identify with Rivers Cuomo singing about half Japanese girls, then a straight dude can identify with what I'm saying.
Can you tell me more about what being queer means to you, Ben?
Ben: The whole point of identifying as queer for me is having a queer label is just a public way of acknowledging that I don't consider sexuality or gender to exist on a binary and to be much more gray and murky. That's my way of feeling safe. In my life, I've experienced everything, but it's almost like I don't even need to have done everything to "count" as a queer person. There is no criteria. There's no list of accomplishments or achievements. If you say you're queer, and that's how you feel about it, then that's that. Queer is not a matter of having done, it's a matter of perspective. I could be some chaste person living in a bell tower and if I still saw the world as existing in a way that's as complicated as a queer perspective, then I'm queer. And it's also good to say that you don't have to have ever done anything to decide. It's your perspective, not your accomplishments. It's an idea of understanding this complicated in between space of a lot of things that we define as one.
It's the best way to classify this thing that can't be classified.
Ben: Exactly. It's the best way of putting a name to something that doesn't need a name. Categories can make people feel safe, but they can also be very restrictive. I don't ever want to live my life in a way where it's like, oh well I can't be a boy and wear make-up, that's not what boys do. Queerness is a gigantic, steaming, hot middle finger with a really good manicure to everything that anyone has ever told you to be.
It can feel tedious to talk about at times, but it's just shocking how many people don't talk about this kind of stuff.
Ben: Yeah, because it's violating. When you're straight no one's ever trying to pick apart your sex life. And that's fine. When you're queer it's always a matter of conversation. Don't ever let anyone call you something that you don't feel like you are.
Liv: One thing I try to be careful about and have become really conscious of in the past year is that because there are so many different lived experiences that can fall under the umbrella of queerness, it's important for anyone who identifies that way to remember to hold space for people who are oppressed in ways that they are not under that umbrella. For example, I identify as a queer person, but there are still queer experiences that are not mine over which I have privilege. I identify as gender fluid. A lot of the time the way that I present in fashion is read as male, which is a different experience than that of some trans women who are harassed daily for the way that they're presenting. That's just one example or hypothetical, and I'm not saying that's the experience of all transgender people. One thing I've been trying to be careful about is that, even though we're all under this queer umbrella together, that I'm not trampling on anyone who is also under the umbrella but is oppressed in ways that I'm not.
My question about drag—since I know you guys have been asked about it a lot—is did you guys both like to do drag before you met or is it something that you started doing together?
Ben: I think the first time I ever saw something that looked like myself in a way was watching Eddie Izzard perform. I watched Dress To Kill every single day for about four months. Eddie's gender variance is you know—he's not a drag queen, but in terms of seeing that combined with comedy I was like, "That is me." I've always sort of been gravitating toward performing gender in some way. Liv and I bonded over an interest in RuPaul's Drag Race actually before we were even friends. We would just kind of talk about it together.
Liv: We're still not friends.
Ben: Before we became professional enemies. I have a theater background. That is my training in college. It just came out of me eventually. I read about it enough that one day I had glitter smeared all over my face.
Liv: I saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show when I was 14 and I became obsessed with that. Kind of like Ben was saying he would watch Eddie Izzard for four months, I would watch Rocky Horror every night in my bed for about the same amount of time. One of my friends shoplifted me a bunch of make-up from CVS when I was in high school, and I started experimenting with it at home. I definitely wasn't about to ask my sister or my mom how to do it because that was kind of scary. I would look up YouTube tutorials and a lot of them are for drag makeup and so I would practice that way a lot in my room when I was a teenager.
In March I came out as genderqueer or gender fluid, I didn't really know what I was coming out as, I just knew that it was not cisgender gay man. And that's when I started sometimes wearing make-up in my day to day. And that's where I'm at now with it. There was a period where I was like I don't even know if I can call what I do on stage for PWR BTTM drag anymore because to me it implies an opposition to who I am everyday, but then I was rewatching drag race and I was like, "Oh there are so many trans women who have been on drag race and still have a home in drag as an art form."
Do you guys do each other's make-up?
Ben: No I've never touched Liv. And I'm not trying to start now.
Liv: We each have our own make-up kit that we carry around and sometimes we'll borrow each other's stuff. I'll borrow Ben's glitter, he'll borrow my lip stuff. Even if I'm not feeling the capital D drag fantasy the day of the show, we'll always get ready together and that's when we make ourselves uglier and talk about the set. We used to watch a lot of Alyssa's Secret, but we kind of let that fall away. That said, Alyssa Edwards is the patron saint of PWR BTTM.
Ben: Please have her tweet at us. I've tried so hard.
Is she your ultimate favorite?
Liv: In the theology of PWR BTTM, she is the goddess.
Ben: We actually do pray to her sometimes.
PWR BTTM Tour Dates
09/18 @ Silent Barn - Brooklyn, NY (record release show w/ Charly Bliss, Fern Mayo, Kississippi)
09/30 @ Elvis Guesthouse - New York, NY
10/03 @ Palisades - Brooklyn, NY (w/ Diet Cig, Air Waves, Haybaby)
10/06 @ Silent Barn - Brooklyn, NY
10/14 @ Aurora - Providence, RI (w/ S featuring Jenn Ghetto of Carissa's Weird)
10/18 @ Palisades - Brooklyn, NY (Father/Daughter + Miscreant CMJ)
10/31 @ Shea Stadium - Brooklyn, NY (w/ Joanna Gruesome, Aye Nako, King of Cats)
11/10 @ PhilaMOCA - Philadelphia, PA *
11/11 @ DC9 - Washington, DC *
11/12 @ Southern Cafe - Charlottesville, VA #
11/13 @ Pinhook - Durham, NC #
11/14 @ Caledonia Lounge - Athens, GA #
11/16 @ The High Watt - Nashville, TN #
11/17 @ Bishop Bar - Bloomington, IN #
11/18 @ The Frequency - Madison, WI #
11/19 @ 7th Street Entry - Minneapolis, MN #
11/20 @ Beat Kitchen - Chicago, IL #
11/21 @ Rumba Cafe - Columbus, OH #
11/23 @ Smiling Buddha - Toronto, ON #
11/24 @ Casa Del Popolo - Montreal, QC #
11/25 @ BSP Lounge - Kingston, NY #
* = w/ Mitski
# = w/ Mitski, Palehound