Ben Hopkins admits that it’s a privilege to be in a band. To tour, to play shows, to get write-ups. It’s great. Being in a band with his best friend (Liv Bruce) though, makes it greater still. But Hopkins thinks their band PWR BTTM has given the duo an even greater privilege: “…being queer in public spaces and being celebrated for that is something a lot of queer people don’t get to experience,” Hopkins said.
PWR BTTM started in 2014 on the campus of Bard College. Bruce is a non-binary transperson, meaning they identify as genderqueer, eschewing gender-specific pronouns. So, as an example, when we paraphrase the Hopkins’ retelling of the day he met Liv, he describes them waltzing in, uninvited to what looked like a quasi-college-party inside his apartment. “…and they just walked right the fuck in and they said: ‘Hello!’” Hopkins, meanwhile, uses he/him/his pronouns and identifies as queer.
The duo, as PWR BTTM, let loose a chaotically elegant live show, appearing in ferociously splotched Kabuki-makeup and consistently improvising witty, risqué (and sometimes surrealist) banter back and forth throughout the night. PWR BTTM are provocative and charismatic at the same time; transgressive pot-stirrers who also feel like the life of the party. Their music, as Hopkins succinctly put it, can sound like “shreddy straight-boy rock,” with tastefully blended late ‘90s influences such as Weezer and Elephant-era White Stripes, but the lyrics nonchalantly rattle off topics and circumstances that may be autobiographically exclusive to Hopkins/Bruce respective experiences.
You probably read their band name and did a double take. Or maybe you thought it sounded kinda bawdy. (Taking out the vowels assured you wouldn’t find porn when you went to Google them.) But provocation…or maybe even bringing some blush to the cheeks of those straight, shreddy-boys in the rock clubs, was never the overt intention. “The only story that Liv and I ever tried to tell with Ugly Cherries was our own. I’m a drag queen, Liv is a non-binary trans person, that’s just who we are. And we wrote a record together.” PWR BTTM released their proper debut full length, Ugly Cherries, last September on Miscreant Records and Father/Daughter records.
The artistic philosophy that stuck with the duo from their studies at Bard was to create something that would help stave off a feeling of loneliness, because the less alone you feel, the more confident you become. And PWR BTTM’s music does exactly that: alleviates lonesomeness, kickstarts confidence. The lyrics offer meditations on identity, catharsis over heartbreak, and dissections of self-doubt and how to cure it. The music is an effervescent blend of indie-rock riff-outs for club coasting boogies and pared back twangers for a heavy-hearted lone late night walks.
Through Ugly Cherries, Bruce and Hopkins tell their own personal stories, and however outrageous their on-stage appearance or the sporadic shades of facetious playfulness in the words they sing, others can still either empathize or find assurance through their “truths,” as Hopkins put it. “Then it then becomes bigger than our own story,” he said. “So, other queer people can key into that; because the particular story to PWR BTTM that we’re telling is that of two queer people from different queer backgrounds. The girl in the title track is me, I’m singing to myself.”
Bruce said that they spent so much time in their life feeling isolated by their queerness, feeling like there was no one who could relate to the things they were thinking and feeling about their gender and sexuality. ”So, to hear a room full of people sing along to a song like ‘Serving Goffman’ or ‘I Wanna Boy’ is mind-blowing,” Bruce exclaimed. “Meeting people at shows or online who can identify with these songs and who feel less isolated because of them is an enormous gift.”
We mentioned Kabuki-makeup earlier, but should probably clarify that you’ll often see Hopkins much more done-up than Bruce. He describes one evening when they performed “West Texas,” which features guitar-harmonics. He was wearing a ridiculous outfit with flowers duct-taped to his head. “I looked crazy,” he admits with that charismatic verve to his voice, as if he’s just holding back a self-deprecating chuckle as his own antics. This was more than a year ago, but Hopkins remembers it vividly, particularly that moment those trippy harmonic notes reverberated and he felt a sort of out-of-body experience. “I didn’t feel like me in that moment. I felt like I’d mutated into something much cooler than I am…”
“Ben Hopkins is a very nervous, neurotic kind of person who is afraid of not being liked by people all the time,” Hopkins says, appraising himself. “But, Monster-Me doesn’t know who those people even are.” He then responds as his “Monster Me” version when he says: “I’m just livin’ for myself, girl!’”
Bruce, meanwhile, said that they receive a recharging confidence from the acquaintances established through their live shows and tours. “There’s something really special to me about sharing mutual admiration with another musician,” said Bruce.
“When we were on tour with Palehound and Mitski,” said Bruce, “there were a lot of nights when Jesse [Weiss, drums for Palehound], Casey [Weissbuch, drums for Mitski], and I would just babble about how much we love each other’s playing while we broke down the kit at the end of the night. Thinking back to moments like that gives me confidence when I need it.”
When Bruce thinks back on 2015, their favorite moments are any time PWR BTTM brought them closer to other people. “It has brought me closer to (Hopkins), to the artists we’ve worked with and to everyone who has enjoyed the music and let us know, in one way or another. I’m grateful for that.”
Bruce came from bustling Boston, while Hopkins came from the much more low-key South Hamilton, Mass. “Liv and I are completely different people,” said Hopkins. “Liv is calm and logical; incredibly calm and very organized. I’m a freewheeling flower-child falling down the stairs constantly. The fact that we don’t understand each other in certain ways is why we understand each other.”
Bruce studied dance and Hopkins studied theater, so that likely accounts for some of their gasp-inducing punk-grace and irreverence-soaked exuberance. But we think it’s something more supernatural, an exchange of their individual energies and unique personalities, up there on stage, that stokes their shared confidence. Hopkins describes their time on stage together as “incredibly tense…wait…not tense…It’s…well, it’s not like a war…but we face each other and there’s something about it, it’s intense…”
Bruce interjects: “… ‘intense’ is an understatement.”
“It’s like it’s on fire, all the time,” Hopkins concludes. “There’s no one I love more in the whole world (than Bruce). They have never not told me the truth… And, that’s a horrifying thing to think about as being remarkable in terms of people, I know. Liv always tells me their opinion and will just be honest and transparent about their values and stick to things that are important to them. I’ve never been in any other band, but I would only want to be in a band with them.”
Hopkins concludes by noting that they are “not the only ‘PWR BTTM,’” in a sense. And here, he’s implying our inevitable emphasis (even from the introduction) of the duo identifying as queer. “There are a lot of incredible queer projects right now, G.L.O.S.S., Adult Mom …, a bajillion other people like us and more will come to rise. And they will, ‘cuz queer people have the right to be seen and to be real.” In fact, that last sentence couldn’t sum up Ugly Cherries’ subtext more succinctly.
But why pigeonhole it with a label? Some people, Hopkins said, attach a “really gross word to it,” considering the queer identification as “good marketing” for a band. “What the fuck am I trying to market?” His voice sharpens. “If you listen to PWR BTTM, or to Gloss, If you look at me on stage, it can make you feel less alone. It makes you feel like you’re a queer person and you have this singular power, but it’s not like we’re a brand. We’re just real.”
PWR BTTM tour dates
22 – Seattle, WA @ The Vera Project
23 – Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios
24 – Arcata, CA @ The Bat Cave
25 – San Francisco, CA @ Rickshaw Stop
26 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Bootleg
28 – San Diego, CA @ Hideout
30 – Eugene, OR @ Boreal
3 – Grinnell, IA @ Grinnell College