PWR BTTM on Gender Identity and the Power of Going Shopping

PWR BTTM
PWR BTTM. Photo by Ebru Yildiz.

Formed by two classmates at Bard College, PWR BTTM initially scan as a pretty standard rock band. They write tight, hooky songs using basic instrumentation—guitar, drums, that’s it—with lyrics lamenting the struggles of early adulthood, like loneliness and insecurity about the future. But look closer—or, better yet, see the duo live—and it becomes evident that their brash style is shot through with glitter. Though their music is essentially a minimalist take on power pop, it’s shot through with a subversive queer intelligence. The top comment on a live video of the band on YouTube reads, “This video has literally changed my life.” It’s not hard to see why: for young queer music fans especially, PWR BTTM’s music is life-affirming.

We talked with Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce about five songs on Ugly Cherries, coming out through their music, the excitement and uncertainty of graduating college, and why you’d give out your email address in a song.

“Ugly Cherries”

Why did you decide to make “Ugly Cherries” your album’s title track?

Ben Hopkins: Well, the term “Ugly Cherries” comes from my childhood. I would eat cherries out of my parents’ Manhattans when they would make cocktails, and then say, ‘Oh gross, these are ugly cherries.’ The record itself is very much about experiencing queerness and otherness and difference. A lot of it is the weird uncomfortableness of being queer—this whole coming to terms with one’s queerness. I’d always sort of felt like a ‘bad fruit,’ as a queer person—you know, like how they call queer people “fruits.” It’s easy to feel like you’re not ‘doing things right’ when you’re a queer person based on what other people are doing. Do you know what I mean? So that term just sort of fit a lot of the things we were talking about at the time. Plus, it’s a goofy, weird name.

I noticed, in the song, you use the phrase “my girl” before switching the gender back to male.

Hopkins: Well, the song’s about me. I’m the girl I’m singing about in that song. It’s about being a genderqueer person. I feel like our best work comes when we are genuinely both deeply, deeply mired in this sort of existential pain, but also L-O-L-ing the whole time.

The choice to talk about yourself in the third person in that way is interesting. Is that something you do on other songs as well?

Hopkins: I think that you’re always sort of talking about yourself in the third person when you write songs. Like, you become the abstract. It’s like in theater, when you do monologues, they refer to the person you’re talking to as ‘the other.’ So in this situation, I guess was my own other.

“Nu1”

Is the name of the song pronounced “new one”?

Hopkins: Yeah, it’s the best stupid name of a song ever. We wrote it in the studio while we were recording “Ugly Cherries.”

Liv Bruce: The song “New Hampshire” that just came out, we tried to record that during the “Ugly Cherries” sessions, but it just wasn’t working. I really loved it, and I was so bummed that we cut it. Ben was like, ‘Okay, I’ll just write another song’ and then wrote ‘Nu1.’

Hopkins: Yeah, I just was like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll just go home and write something else.’ I sort of came out through PWR BTTM as a queer person. The course of our lives in 2015 was really crazy. The band wasn’t established by any means, but I moved to Hudson, New York, to just keep working on PWR BTTM. A bunch of my friends were like, ‘What are you doing, girl?’ We started the band during my second semester in my senior year at Bard. We weren’t that developed or established, we hadn’t played shows in New York yet. So that song is very much about being like, ‘Oh my God, we’re actually recording this record. What the fuck is going on?’ I’m so passionate about this thing and it just makes me feel so alive when we do it. That line that I keep saying, “I’m feeling like the son of my dad”—my dad didn’t go to college, he just roamed around the world for a long time and wound up being a crazy restaurant chef, and was totally self-taught. I’m a self-taught musician.

“West Texas”

It’s funny that the song is called “West Texas,” but it is essentially about New York. What is your attraction to the city and what is your relationship with it?

Bruce: Well, I guess this is a vague thing, but what we really were referring to was the state of New York in general [not the city]. We were both living upstate back then. I don’t wanna speak for Ben, but I’m more just talking about New York as where I am—meaning upstate New York—and then this other person getting away. One thing I realized recently when we were talking about this song in an interview was that when we wrote it, every place that’s not New York that shows up in it is somewhere we hadn’t traveled as a band. We’ve now either played in or been to every location in that song, but back then they were just kind of stand-ins for somewhere else. My grandma lived in Rhode Island, and I thought it would be fun to go there for a weekend and this person that I had this thing with went to Northampton for a weekend. Those were just the details in my life that were happening. I think the way the song started was as this weird, primal, rage-filled jam on both of our parts. And then the first verse was something Ben had written in another demo.

Hopkins: Yeah, it’s another joke. It’s a reference to a George Strait song—“All My Exes Live In Texas.” The person I’m talking about [in the song] actually moved to Austin, Texas, which is not in West Texas at all. I didn’t know that at the time. I just was like, ‘Yeah, Texas, and it sounds good!’ It’s just funny that we’ve driven through West Texas a shitload of times now, and it’s the most barren hellhole of a place. No one would move to West Texas, you know what I mean?

How do the two people you mentioned feel about being in this song?

Bruce: I have a personal policy as a songwriter that if I’m gonna write anything that could be construed as negative about someone, I need them to hear it before it comes out. I made sure with this song to play it to the person it was about. I was talking to him about it recently, and he had totally forgotten the conversation we had about it before it came out. A lot of the things I write are like me figuring out the best way to phrase something, to have a conversation with someone. There are a lot of important things that I need to be able to say exactly right before I can have a conversation about it, and usually writing a song is how I clarify that for myself.

“Short Lived Nightmare”

Why did you want to make this song the opener for your album?

Hopkins: Liv and I had had a massive argument over something really stupid around Christmas, in, I think, 2014, and they gave me a little guitar to, I guess, apologize. Would you say that’s fair?

Bruce: Um… sure.

Hopkins: I’m joking, I’m joking, I’m joking. Jesus Christ!

Bruce: I should clarify that this guitar is something that I think my dad found at work and just brought home because he was like, ‘Oh, my musician child will enjoy this.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I don’t really like guitars that much. I mean, they’re fun, but I know someone who loves guitars.’

Hopkins: I love guitars. I want 1000 guitars. Put in print that if anyone wants to give me all their guitars, I will take them. I was just fucking fighting with everybody around that period of time, for some reason. I don’t get into fights very often—I’m not a confrontational person. My dad was just coming to terms with me being queer, and he was like acting really weird, and it was really hurting my feelings. Even my mom and I were fighting—and I never fight with my parents, ever. Like, they’re nice white wine addicts from Massachusetts. Then Liv and I got into this big fight, and I was just like, ‘What the fuck.’ It was just like a short-lived nightmare. I ended up writing the song on this tiny-ass guitar at a house where I was house-sitting. I just felt so much aggression, but I didn’t wanna express it for a very long time. It just felt like this perfect little stupid, goofy opener.

Bruce: Yeah, when we were in the studio, there was talk at first of cutting it from the record. I was like, ‘No, it’s such a perfect opener because it kind of tells you everything.’  It’s like the medley that they play at the beginning of a musical: ‘Here’s what you’re about to see.’ There’s so many ways that it’s emblematic of the record. Musically, it does a soft/loud thing—such a dynamic range. That’s something that we really enjoy playing with in our songs. And sometimes a record [of ours] sounds like one person in a room alone with a guitar, and then it sounds like 15 guitarists all playing music together with seven guitars and two keyboards and the bass and the drum kit and three singers. I think “Short Lived Nightmare” covers all that territory.

“I Wanna Boi”

You mention shopping a few different times on the album, and on this song you mention that you want a boy who does not like shopping. What does shopping mean to you?

Bruce: I never really felt comfortable with the identification of gay male, but [when I wrote the song] I kind of accepted that that was how people saw me. and how I was moving through the world and decided to take more authorship in my identity. That song was a jab at my internalized femmephobia, which is a huge thing in the gay community. It was about wanting this manly man who doesn’t go out shopping. It’s funny because, back then, I hated shopping. It was such a dysphoric experience for me. Since I’ve come out and started really experimenting with my style as it pertains to gender presentation, I love shopping—it’s like my favorite thing. At the end of the day it’s still just stuff, and stuff can only be so exciting. Experiences are what really matter. But what I’m starting to learn is that there are certain clothes that are an experience, and that makes it fun to acquire them, and makes it easier to part with them when you’re done with them, because they’re an experience that’s over.

I guess I should also talk about the shopping in ‘West Texas.’ My grandmother was a hoarder. It’s actually kind of sad: Her husband died when I was a lot younger, and she would go shopping a lot to buy things for her friends and relatives. Shopping was just her daily activity. Most of the stuff she bought, she would keep in her house, but if you asked her, “What’s that for?” she would say, “Oh, it’s a present for so-and-so.” It was this way of reminding herself of all the people in her life. And I think that’s actually a really sweet relationship to have to things. There might be some connection between that and that kind of internalized femmephobia that it’s shorthand for in “I Wanna Boi,” but I don’t know what it is yet.

Why did you decide to put your actual email address in that song?
Bruce: That was actually the first thing I decided to do. We went to Bard College, and their formula for making student email addresses is the first letter of your first name and the first letter of your last name and then four random numbers. It’s so strange. No one really gets why they do it that way. Pretty much every other college has something that makes more sense.

alt_info
PWR BTTM. Photo by Ebru Yildiz.

Before I even started thinking of it as a song, I started thinking of it as like a puzzle— like, ‘What can I do to rhyme with that ridiculous email address?’ I was playing this little mental puzzle while I was in the shower and then I figured out: ‘So if you think that you’re the boy for me and I’m the boy for you/ drop me a line at ob8419@bard.edu.’ I got out of the shower, and my room was freezing and my bed was freezing—it was October. So I was like, ‘Oh, I wish that there was someone else who had been keeping my bed warm while I was showering.’ I was like, ‘Well, I also am cripplingly lonely, and just wish I generally had someone else in my life.’ By that point, I was sitting in my bed, and I fired up TextEdit on my computer and just started writing, ‘I wanna boy who ____’ or ‘I wanna boy to ____.’

So do you get emails because of the song?

Bruce: Bard lets you keep you keep your email address for like eight or nine months after you graduate. That meant that I would’ve had that email address for two months after the record came out, and so I sent them an email asking, “Please let me keep this email address,” and sent them the song. They let me keep it. I mean, 75 percent of the emails I get are from people who have heard the song and ask, ‘Hey, I wanted to check that this is real.’ I’m like, ‘Yes, it’s real. I’m a real person.’ Some people send pictures. What’s really valuable to me is when I get ones from people in really far away places asking, like, ‘When are you going to come to Ukraine?’ I know nothing about what sort of bands tour those places, and so I’ll sometimes start up correspondence with them and ask, ‘What American musicians come there?’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, well, Madonna just came here,’ and I’ll be like, “Well, I’m not Madonna yet.” It’s turned into this exciting way to get in contact with fans.

Do you ever get people who are following the directions you lay out in the song? It’s essentially a personal ad.

Bruce: I’ve never gotten nudes to that email address, I will say that. First of all, by the time the song came out, I had a significant other in my life, so I wasn’t really looking for that. There’s such an inherent power dynamic to learning someone’s name and seeing their picture for the first time because they heard a song that you wrote somewhere. I’m not gonna say never, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable pursuing any sort of romantic relationship that started that way. That said, if Hugh Jackman emailed me at that email address and he was like, ‘Hey, I just found this song. I’m Hugh Jackman,’ I would be like, ‘Okay, I’m down.’

Sophie Weiner

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