Gabbing with PWR BTTM

PWR BTTM is the band you need in your life right now. Composed of Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins, PWR BTTM delivers knock-out songs to which you can sing, cry, and dance. Their debut album, Ugly Cherries came out earlier this year, and they’re currently on the road with Mitski and Palehound–with a stop in Bloomington Nov. 17. WIUX caught up with Ben and Liv while on the road. Below they discuss their creative partnership, fashion inspiration and queer visibility.

WIUX: Your debut album, Ugly Cherries came out this past September and since then you’ve played CMJ and gotten some much-deserved buzz. What’s been the most surprising or surreal part so far? Or has it felt pretty normal?

Liv: Um, I mean, we’ve never done this before, so it was all kind of surprising, but it was also very normal. It was both. Playing CMJ shows and playing release shows, it’s all another show to me. And that’s not to say like, it sucks. I love playing shows. I love playing a CMJ show at 1 p.m. in Manhattan as much as I love playing a sold-out Brooklyn DIY venue on a Friday night.

Ben: As much as we love playing like, sandwich stores in upstate New York. Like they’re all really cool and weird. What I get excited about is we use every show to try new material. It’s all really exciting. We just feel really lucky to be doing everything.

You have a pretty unique style of drag when you perform. How did you develop your individual looks and do you have any style inspirations?

Ben: My price range is a big style inspiration. For me I was inspired by very beautiful, high art conceptual drag queens like Taylor Mac and Ethyl EichelbergerBut I’m broke and have no talent, so that’s what inspired my look.

Liv: My inspiration is Ben. Specifically, looking better than him always. That’s really the only thing I try to do. So you know, I set a low bar and then I jump over it.

You’ve said that the goal of your music is to make people feel less alone—which is like one of the best reasons to be doing anything. But who are some artists that do that for you?

Ben: At the moment, a band called Sports, out of Ohio. They’re incredible and their record is fantastic. Other people, just like David Bazan from a band called Pedro the Lion is my ultimate. Like lyrically makes me feel real and important and seen. Music I’m always turning to is like people who are sad in a happy way, I think is a good way of describing what I love.

Liv: All the bands that I’m really excited about right now are bands that we get to play shows with. Like Palehound and Mitski, obviously. Both of their most recent records have been really important to me personally and as a musician. I think that covers what we’re both listening to. I try not to listen to music because it stresses me out.

Ben: Oh. I like Death Cab for Cutie. They’re funny as hell.

What was the first music each of you heard that made music matter for you?

Ben: That’s a really big question. Um, the Shins’, Oh, Inverted World, and Pedro the Lions’ The Only Reason I Feel Secure. I’ve been listening to them for ten years at this point.

Liv: For me it was the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack and Frances the Mute by The Mars Volta.

Ben: Also, the Wicked soundtrack really fucked me up.

Can you describe your creative partnership with each other in three words?

Liv: I think even calling it a “creative partnership” is far more generous than we deserve.

Ben: We prefer the term ‘fartnership.’

Liv: My three words are ‘catastrophic,’ ‘asphalt,’ and ‘dry’.

Follow up to that, since you switch instrumentation and vocals, how does the song-creating process work?

Liv: Sometimes one of us will write most of a song and then finish it with the other one. And sometimes it’ll be more messy and collaborative. “West Texas” we share vocal duties on. Ben had the vocal line with the different chord progression and then we made up the chord progression that eventually became the song in a jam. Like “Dairy Queen” I kind of wrote the chord structure and lyrics and then Ben made the guitar part something completely alien that never could have emerged from my tiny brain.

I feel like visibility is super important because as you’ve mentioned, queer folks aren’t often depicted in TV shows and movies as being in rock bands. How does that inform your ethos as a band?

Liv: I feel like I grew up thinking that my story was one that people didn’t want to hear because they only cared about me as a sidekick. So for me, it’s just about giving myself the space to talk about what I’ve experienced. And I think that realization that your stories are important and people would like to hear them is not something that only queer people have to realize. I think everyone who ends up telling their story at some point has to realize that about themselves. But I do think that with queer narratives there is that hurdle to overcome—that you can only really relate to like Damien in Mean Girls.

Ben: You know, it’s funny. For me, playing guitar became this quest to try to like overcome that for a long time. I mean, I could have stopped, but when I was teaching myself to play, I had to play things that were like super intricate in order to be validated. Because I had a lot of people tell me like, “Oh, you’re playing bass for that band. Good luck.” And really invalidated me because of my personality and femininity and stuff like that—like I wouldn’t be able to ‘hang’ as a guitar player in a band. So I just went nuts with my guitar all day for like months and months and months to be like, “Well, I’ll fucking show you.” That’s kind of a juvenile impulse, but it feels like as a queer person I have to really really serve it in order to be validated.

Your music feels so personal and introspective, but I feel like that also allows people to really identify with the songs—like through the specific, people are able to find something truer. Have there been any surprising moments where people have gotten something unexpected out of your music?

Ben: Yeah, lots of my like hetero male friends from high school are very much into PWR BTTM, and can feel something when Liv sings about wanting boys. Liv has a good thing they’ve mentioned before in interviews about how we both related to Rivers Cuomo singing about how he loves girls or whatever, and we always felt that kinship even though that’s not our experience. When we sing about “all the boys they don’t love me” and people relate to it—it’s something we didn’t expect, but it’s really cool.

No pressure, but what’s up next for PWR BTTM?

Liv: We’re on tour right now, and then after this one, we’re going to do more touring. We’re writing songs all the time and eventually they’ll end up as another album. I want to definitely take our time writing another album. I’m in no rush, and I don’t think Ben is either. We’re starting to pursue a dance theatre project that we’ll probably do in New York City. We’re thinking about doing that because Ben studied musical theatre, and I studied dance in college. We’re kind of looking at a bunch of different things. Eventually, one of them will be another album. But not for a while.

Ben: But that might be a lie.

Liv: Yeah, who knows with us.