Ahead of their first show at Brooklyn’s Shea Stadium in January, Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce were excited, yet under extreme duress. Going by the name PWR BTTM, Hopkins and Bruce — who had started making music for this particular project in New Paltz — had moved downstate and were ready to showcase their brand of queer punk, but there was another obstacle they had to battle beyond the frigid winter temperatures outdoors and sweaty crowd inside the venue.
“We both had the flu, and I think I threw up right before we went onstage,” Hopkins confesses. “But looking out in that crowd and seeing five familiar faces really made things easier.”
That show introduced Hopkins and Bruce to a new audience after they’d gradually crafted their sound as students at Bard College. These days, listening to the duo speak over the phone is akin to hearing two brothers who can finish each other’s sentences — but it wasn’t always like that. In late 2013, the duo met at Hopkins’s apartment, a place known for its ample supply of alcohol, where Bruce crashed a party that wasn’t really a party. Though they’d seen each other on campus before, this was the first time they’d formally met.
“My first impression of Liv was that I was off-puttingly interested in being friends with him,” Hopkins recalls.
“That was a really strange time in my life,” Bruce says. “I remember thinking, ‘Who is this glamorous giraffe?’ ”
Their friendship may have started tepidly, but there were events taking place at Bard that hastened the bond between them. After hearing about a queer and female-fronted punk festival, Bruce was ready to form a band he conceptualized as PWR BTTM, even though he was playing in another group. His recruitment of band members for PWR BTTM was initially rudderless, until a few friends told him to call upon Hopkins. For his part, Hopkins admits, “I realized Liv could play music before we were in a band because I used to stalk his old band. I barely knew how to play guitar, and watching his band, I wished I could be in a group like that. So when he asked me to be in this band and if I knew how to play guitar, I said yes even though I didn’t know how to.”
The band was slow to materialize. Moving at what they call “a glacial speed,” the duo didn’t play their first show until five months later, blaming other projects, the fizzling of that festival, and summer vacation. While at Bard, Hopkins and Bruce found time between classes and other activities to record enough material to constitute a proper demo, Cinderella Beauty Shop, and a split EP with Jawbreaker Reunion. On these releases, Hopkins plays guitar and sings while Bruce plays drums, though the two will often swap instruments and singing duties.
Settling in New York City after their graduation, the duo continued to hone the sound they call queer punk. So far, that organic approach has allowed Hopkins and Bruce to see their band garner accolades beyond the D.I.Y. scene. They’ve been written about in a number of publications, and their numerous friends in other bands helped the two become immersed in that scene and put on shows. Their sense of showmanship — they perform in drag, doused with glitter — in both their live shows and their creatively conceptualized videos has allowed PWR BTTM to move from an idea hashed out on a college campus into an outlet where they could express themselves and their sexuality, even if that wasn’t the initial plan.
“We’re queer people, and our truth is that and the music we make, and what we say in our music is representative of who we are,” Hopkins explains. “It is us making ourselves feel less alone through our work.”
“Sexuality has always been a part of rock music,” Bruce adds. “But that didn’t necessarily mean that it was queer. One of the things that made me excited about writing about my own sexuality and asserting it was doing that in a queer voice and using that to tell a queer story.”
With their debut album, Ugly Cherries, slated for a September 18 release, PWR BTTM are excited that their music continues to find an audience beyond the queer community. Thematically, the album focuses on Hopkins’s and Bruce’s experiences with sexuality and gender during their collegiate years. PWR BTTM’s serious overtones may get lost in their frenetic sound, but the duo appreciate anyone who can relate to their words and music.
“Because we’re exposing something that’s so personal about ourselves in our music, that makes everyone — including people who aren’t queer — feel like they’re in on something,” Bruce says.
“We’re presenting an open version of who we are through our work,” Hopkins says. “If somebody admires us from that, then it’s amazing and hopefully it’s something they use to strengthen their own lives with.”
PWR BOTTOM play the Knitting Factory on August 19.