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On Top With PWR BTTM

Photography by Tanner Abel

Need a yesteryear dose of queer? This '90s-inflected punk-pop duo has your name written all over it (just forgo the vowels). 

Globs of glitter abound when Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins, a.k.a. PWR BTTM, perform. During their live sets, they're often dressed in thrift store dresses, their bushy chest hair peeking from spaghetti straps. In photos and performances their faces may resemble a preschooler's finger-paint canvas, but they're more reserved when not on stage. With their new album Ugly Cherries (out September 18), the guys, both in their early twenties, are ready to share their loud, frenetic, and catchy songs with a wider audience. Clever guitar hooks -- and lyrics such as "I want a boy who thinks it's sexy when my lipstick bleeds" -- are bound to get caught in your head and stay there. And while the record seems built on anger, alienation, and loneliness, PWR BTTM takes those negatives and turns them into tongues in cheeks and middle fingers. They also don't take themselves very seriously.

We meet for a beer at North Brooklyn's latest gay watering hole, Macri Park, and it's clear that Bruce and Hopkins, both Boston-area natives who met at Bard College in 2011, have the kind of rapport that can leave a third party's head spinning. Speckled with quippy and comedic jabs ("When is your lobotomy again? It should only take 20 minutes."), their dialogue is as lively and engaging as their music. It's clear they're in it all for the fun -- and they're admittedly still pinching themselves from the Ugly Cherries hype.

Out: So how did you two come to make music together?

Liv Bruce: I crashed a party that wasn't really a party.

Ben Hopkins: It was me and some female-bodied people I was romantically interested in at the time, and they were in my apartment, and Liv saw from the outside and thought it was a party.

LB: It was the first weekend of my freshman year and I was feeling myself. I just walked in.

BH: Not just walked in--beat the runway into my house. And I was like, Who is this sissy? I was confused by her because I wished that I was more like her.

LB: So we met that way, and PWR BTTM had been a name in my head for years. I was in another band that was not a queer punk band--it was a straight boy moment and I was just that queen in lipstick flinging my hair around. PWR BTTM became this side project. Our first practice was in my living room, and we wrote three songs in the first hour. They're on our first EP, Cinderella Beauty Shop.

BH: I had always played guitar alone in my room 'cause I'm self-taught, but I had never really played in a band. PWR BTTM was my first. I always felt like I wanted to, but I never thought that things that I wanted to write about could be presented in a band.

You recorded Ugly Cherries upstate. When did you move to Brooklyn?

BH: We just moved to Brooklyn.

LB: I graduated college in May, and Ben very, very generously spent his year after graduation upstate in an apartment alone in the cold in the dead of winter in a town with no one in it.

BH: Hudson, New York. Some professional opportunities presented themselves to allow me to move right away to New York City, but something in me was just, like, I don't know--I love playing in the band so much. It's completely antithetical to anything that made sense, but not knowing anyone, I moved to Hudson to stay with the band. I moved here six days ago.


Ben Hopkins (left) and Liv Bruce | Photo by Tanner Abel

Do people ever think that your queened-out PWR BTTM persona is a gimmick?

BH: I can always tell. We have some more intricate musical parts, and I can tell at first they'll be like, Oh, whatever. But then we do that and it's like, Oh! Fuck yeah! It's hard to say though because it's always subjective. I find that the people we think are going to be our worst enemies are actually our best friends.

LB: That's what I've encountered to be the "New York Bubble." One great thing about New York City is that no matter what you do, you're probably not the strangest looking person that someone has seen that day.

BH: If you're kind and you give something, then people are willing to embrace you for it. We've been really lucky. There've been a couple moments that are weird, but we are very privileged in the sense that even though we are queer people and exist on a sort of gender spectrum, our presentation allows us to exist much safer than a lot of our friends.

LB: The way that Ben and I both present, it grants us a certain degree of male-passing privilege. But I mean, for me, it varies by the day.

So do you consider what you do onstage "drag?"

LB: We've fought about that a lot.

BH: I consider what I do to be drag. My look is different than Liv's. My basis of aesthetics is people like Taylor Mac--my "mother" is Justin Vivian Bond.

LB: I used to be into that kind of aesthetic, but when I came out in a very public way as genderqueer and changed my name, I remember I said to Ben a few times at shows, "I don't know what drag means to me anymore." But then there are also trans women that do female-presenting drag. "Drag" doesn't necessarily imply "dress as a girl."

It's like that one line in "Serving Goffman": "I wanna put the whole world in drag, but I'm starting to realize it's already like that."

BH: That's one thing that I've always thought.

LB: And that's why I wrote it. That song had completely different lyrics, and then when I changed my name and came out, I realized I wanted to have a song about this moment in my life. All the songs that I had written the lyrics to before then hadn't covered that. So I rewrote most of the song.

Punk music as a genre is often imbued with a sense of anger. Is there anger behind Ugly Cherries?

LB: There's definitely a lot of anger to my music: anger, desperation, loneliness.

And a lot of that through the album seems to be grounded in romance.

BH: It's funny because all of the writing was done in a period of time when I had no love in my life. And even when there was, it was unsuccessful. It wasn't peaceful, happy, fulfilling relationships.

Is that the kind of relationship depicted in the title track?

BH: "Ugly Cherries" was actually a song that I wrote to myself. I'm the girl I'm singing about. "My girl gets scared, I can't take him anywhere." I'm singing about my queer self in that song. It's easier to perform yourself away for the satisfaction of other people in order to make them more comfortable, but it's that performance that has made me so uncomfortable my whole life--trying to mask something that I am.

What kind of emotion went into a song like "I Wanna Boi"?

LB: At the end I say my school email address, and I actually had that idea first and kind of wrote the song around it. But it was just this night in college where I was alone in my cold house--our heat didn't work and we were too afraid of our landlord to ask her what's wrong. I started it and sort of worked my way back, and when I felt like I was at a stopping point, I took a shower. And so the first line came to me when I was like, My bed is gonna be cold as fuck when I get out of this. I didn't date anyone until this year--ever. I didn't even do the middle school fake girlfriend thing. I always felt like I was always so unlucky in finding love because there were no queer people around me and that as soon as I was around other queer people I would find someone. So that song felt like my whole life--my life ages 14 through 22. This loneliness was a daily thing.

Do you find yourself intentionally tackling queer themes in your music?

BH: All themes we tackle are queer themes because we're queer people. For me, I have a female-bodied partner at the moment, so some songs recently have been about her, but a lot of the songs are about me. I sing to myself. Some are also about male-bodied partners.

LB: I would say that for me, it never felt like, Oh, I need to make this song more queer, as much as it felt like I can't fully commit to what I'm singing and to what I'm writing about and not have it come off as overtly queer. There are a lot of queer singer-songwriters who will kind of remove the specifically queer elements of their songs. They'll not use someone's name or they'll use "you" instead of a gendered pronoun, and I totally get that. They usually do it to keep themselves from getting pigeonholed and also to make their songs identifiable to everyone, and I wasn't really down with that. I respect people who do it, but the way that I write is very specifically about certain situations.

Now you're setting off on a little tour. What's next for PWR BTTM?

BH: We're in the process of writing our next record. We work fast. So don't expect anything, but expect everything from PWR BTTM soon -- and never.

Ugly Cherriesis available Sept. 18. Watch the video for the title track below:

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