Lit like Kathleen Turner in Crimes of Passion, PWR BTTM take the stage. It's Tuesday, Aug. 18, at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, and I'm on my first (?) vodka soda as the duo launch into their set. Every couple of songs, Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins switch places, trading off who gets to hold down guitar and lead vocals at the front of the stage and who drums from behind. There are two stars in this show, both entitled to the spotlight and the affirmation that comes with it.
The validity of existing—of one's right to simply take up space—is a subject that comes up a lot for Ben and Liv, both onstage and off. I mean, they're queer artists doing pretty unassimilable queer shit; of course the issue of identity, and how to outwardly embody that identity, would be present. That embodiment might arrive in the form of a glitter-smeared face or a song about a "boi" or a perfectly timed Alyssa Edwards tongue-pop. But however their queerness manifests, it feels as limitless in form as it does in feeling—something I intuited the first time I heard "Ugly Cherries" struggle-blare through my tinny MacBook Pro speakers. I found myself compelled to learn as much about these genderfucking Raggedies Ann as I could, and, thankfully, my job lets me do exactly that.
An email to PWR BTTM's PR rep at Riot Act Media turned into a phone interview, which turned into a pre-show interview, which turned into a promise to grab McFlurries, which turned into a canceled show, which turned into another interview after their Knitting Factory set. We never did get those McFlurries, but here's what I managed to gather about the band, whose debut album, Ugly Cherries, is out now on Miscreant Records and Father/Daughter Records.
PWR BTTM was formed while Ben, 23, and Liv, 22, were students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Both of them, coincidentally, hail from eastern Massachusetts, but, as Liv told me outside the Knitting Factory: "The magnetic forces repelled us from each other before Bard."
Liv, who identifies as genderqueer and uses they/them/their pronouns, was born in Boston ("Brigham and Women's, bitch!"), but their family later relocated to nearby suburban Newton. Ben, who uses he/him/his, comes from South Hamilton, Mass., which he described as "the middle of fucking nowhere." He says that he didn't see his first rock show until he entered Bard at age 18: "I don't know. I, like, Pokévolved when I went to Bard. I turned into a real person. I was like a drone before."
The two met when Liv arrived at school the following year, although details of the encounter differ depending on whom you ask:
Liv: I crashed this queen's party, and the rest is history.
Ben: It wasn't a party.
Liv: To my freshman eyes, it was a party.
Semantics aside, Ben, who studied theater, and Liv, who has a background in dance, didn't think to play music together until they heard of a female- and queer-fronted on-campus music festival, organized by fellow Bard alum Felix Walworth of the band Told Slant. The festival never materialized, but Liv's interest in forming a band held steady. They cornered Ben at the gym—he "wanted to get butch" in order to play Pentheus in an upcoming production of Euripides' The Bacchae—and laid their intentions bare.
"Power Bottom," vowels still intact, was a band name that Liv had been holding onto since high school. A power bottom, in case you don't know your Queer Sex Roles 101, is a receptive partner who eschews submission to play a dominant role during sex—i.e., they might be on "the bottom," but they're still on top. Conjuring up the image of someone who subverts sexual and gendered expectations also appealed to Ben, who told me he finds the name both "transgressive" and "empowering." Disembvoweling the name made it more SEO-friendly; otherwise, Liv said, the band would get lost in a sea of porn every time an interested party tried to search for them on Google. There are worse fates, but I can understand their concern.
And thus, PWR BTTM was born.
The group began to release music over the course of the next couple of years; their debut EP, Cinderella Beauty Shop, dropped in 2014, and the following year they teamed up with Jawbreaker Reunion for the Republican National Convention split. Ben graduated from Bard last year, but stayed in nearby Hudson so that the band could continue making music during Liv's senior year. They're now based in Brooklyn—Liv in Williamsburg and Ben in Greenpoint—and this Friday, Sept. 18, sees the release of the duo's first full-length, Ugly Cherries.
The title of the album comes from the idea of being "a bad fruit." Ben explained the concept to me on Saturday, Aug. 15, in the corner of a parking lot shared by a McDonald's and a Staples, adjacent to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The three of us had found some time to talk before their show at a sweltering Morgan Ave. spot called Aviv, a show that was ultimately canceled before PWR BTTM could go on.
"It's this idea that I'm an ugly cherry. I'm a fruit, and I can't help who I am and I hate what I look like—but I'm down with it. I can take up space, and I won't be erased." He continued: "A lot of us queers are conditioned to think that we can only be someone's hairstylist or somebody's best friend. It's not often that you're encouraged to be a rock musician that takes up space."
None of the 11 tracks on Ugly Cherries are as sonically hard-hitting as a lot of their earlier material, like Cinderella Beauty Shop favorite "Carbs," but the subject matter explored is far more destabilizing. Take the lyrics to "Serving Goffman," a song rooted in the performative aspects of everyday presentation that brilliantly references both sociology and the ballroom scene in its title:
I used my favorite pen to draw outside the lines until the lines got blurry (lines got blurry)
I called my mom on the phone today, I told her not to worry (not to worry)
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
Am I making a fool of myself?
Am I making a fool of myself?
Am I making a fool of myself?
I hope so, I sure hope so
Liv told me that they wrote and recorded the first half of the track right after they came out as genderqueer: "It was like, 'I don't know what the fuck I am, but it's not what people are calling me. It's not what people are seeing me as. It's not the way I'm presenting myself every day."
"I didn't know what was going on with my gender, and I didn't feel like I could know until I did some kind of change," they continued. "I'm still figuring out my pronouns. 'They' is starting to feel really comfy to me, but my presentation is very genderfluid. I'm either my approximation of butch or femme-the-house-down-boots."
What isn't captured in the Ugly Cherries recording is the physicality with which PWR BTTM perform live. Ben's face contorts with a Jim Carrey-an ease, shifting from manic snarl to melodramatic grimace at a moment's notice. Liv, on the other hand, is more controlled, the unbothered lineface emoji to Ben's swirling masks of comedy and tragedy.
You'll also miss out on the enrapturing dynamic the two band mates share onstage. The rapport is vicious yet loving, one that Ben and Liv say is "a little Jackie and Joan" Collins. Here's a campy sampling from their Knitting Factory set:
Liv: She had the nerve to tell me to move faster, so I just sauntered my way up here.
Ben: What would they say at your Waldorf School, Liv? Could you eurythmy your way forward? Could you dance yourself progressively to the front?
Liv: What I know for certain is that I'm going to dance my way all over your grave.
Ben: That's funny, because I'll never die.
And then, there's this gem:
Liv: Sorry, I left behind the most important part of my performance practice.
Ben: Your free-ass Google water bottle? The bitch went to a fucking talk just to get free stuff.
Liv: I didn't have to sit through anything. They just literally gave them to all the comp sci students at school.
Ben: That's nice. How's that comp sci education working out with your drag queen band?
If "Coven" is your favorite season of "American Horror Story," run—don't walk!—to the nearest PWR BTTM show.
Last, but certainly not least, are the tongue-pops, of which I counted at least 15 over the course of my time spent with PWR BTTM. The explosive, guttural sound is a signature move of "RuPaul's Drag Race" contestant Alyssa Edwards—Liv and Ben often watch an episode of her YouTube series, "Alyssa's Secret," before going onstage—and it has become a go-to in Ben's arsenal of taking up space. It feels playful, especially when paired with an accompanying burst of the backhand. But the tongue-pop's power lies in its frivolity. It can punctuate one's sentence, or it can be used to interrupt someone else's. Either way, it asserts a fruit's right to be heard, even a bad one's.
Worried about silencing that right to be heard, I asked Liv and Ben how comfortably they would feel about me using terms of identity, like "queer," when describing their music. I didn't want to do what so many music writers have done to queer artists in the past, using words like "queer" or "post gender" as a reductive, catch-all way of describing the musician's work. (Remember all those "Look at These Queer Rappers!" articles from the summer of 2012?) Doing so can be incredibly limiting, but Liv assured me that it would be inaccurate not to discuss queerness when discussing PWR BTTM.
"There are a lot of queer artists who want identities separate from music, but for us to come off as 'neutral,' that would take a lot of work," they said. "When Ben and I started incorporating the performative element of our banter and the clothes we wear into our act, and all of the other elements of queerness that seep in like writing a song called 'I Wanna Boi' or whatever, it was never like, 'Oh, we have to add this in.' Why do we need to subtract it? Why would we, I don't know, put on a pair of pants and a sweater when what we wanna wear is a gown?"
PWR BTTM's debut album Ugly Cherries is out Sept. 18 on Miscreant Records and Father/Daughter Records.
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.