Everywhere Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins take a step transforms into a scene. It’s a chilly spring day at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in Prospect Park, and the two of them — the duo that is New York punk band PWR BTTM — are strutting and mugging in between the rows of cherry blossoms that bloom for only a couple of weeks each year. “Linda Evangelista!” Ben screams — a supermodel mantra projected to no one in particular — while jumping on a bed of pink petals that have fallen from the trees. A tall blonde fan, recognizing them, yells “Holy shit!” and, with a friend, asks for a hug. Liv, the daintier of the two, is straight-faced and serious, with deep-red lipstick and a knowing smirk; Ben, face swirled with glitter and blue and green makeup over an amber dusting of facial hair, is teasing the hem of a delicate blush-colored dress up both legs like some ruffian Claudette Colbert. “This happens more and more,” says Ben, of the fans who recognize them. “We’re getting used to it.”
They better be. Since forming in 2013, PWR BTTM have exploded into the public consciousness off of two EPs, an album from 2015 called Ugly Cherries, numerous fun and funny music videos that capitalize on their charisma, and live performances that jolt between the chaos of a punk show and the witty raunch of cabaret. This week they are releasing their second album, Pageant. Like the two artists who made it, Pageant is both bombastic and sincere, a weaving ride through plainspoken songs about what all the most powerful rock ‘n’ roll has ever been about — love, despair, excitement, depression, being young and weird — but updated for the 21st century with jangly guitar, beaming choruses, and a burst of slapstick humor.
Take “Answer My Text,” likely the most relatable song of 2017. It was written by Liv (the two of them split songwriting duties throughout the album, with Liv predominantly on drums and Ben on guitar) as a kind of therapy about a real-life boy who just wouldn’t respond to a series of flirty texts, a pain and simmering rage anyone who dates in the iPhone age knows intimately. But then you left again and I just felt confused and nerdy/My teenage angst will be with me well into my thirties, Liv sings. Answer my text, you dick. “When that boy doesn’t text me back now, I can freak out a little bit less because I have written a song about it,” Liv says, settling into a sunny part of the park in between the trees. “I think that although the medium through which that happens is contemporary — cellphones — the story is timeless.”
Pageant is quite contemporary in one way, though: The band has been open and honest about the gender journey they’ve been on over the past few years, and their songs reflect their evolving sense of self — Ben has, since after the band began, started to identify as queer, and Liv has grown into identifying as queer, nonbinary, and transfeminine, beginning to take hormones in August of last year, a process that shows up as a theme on the album. ” ‘Styrofoam’ is about when I started estrogen,” says Liv. “That’s, like, actually a really special time.” That, Liv says, is the entire point of being in a band to begin with: to express in visceral terms the things that can be difficult to talk about. “This is such a bratty way to answer, but everything I have to say about that that’s for public consumption is in the music.”
On Pageant, in between songs about crumbling relationships and crushes on boys, there are layered LGBTQ anthems like “Sissy,” about the struggles and excitements of veering from masculine norms, and “New Trick,” about the invasive questions well-meaning people ask of those they can’t immediately understand. There are moments of bittersweet insight about the strange trip that queer life can be, like a lyric on “LOL” that rings with an empathy and honesty that every not-straight-and-cis kid will understand: When you are queer/You are always nineteen. “When you’re an openly gender-nonconforming person, you’re just always under scrutiny in public,” says Liv. “I think writing these songs helped me process that.”
Liv, 24, and Ben, 25, live in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, about ten minutes apart. In truth, they’ve always lived close to each other. They both grew up in Massachusetts — Liv in the Boston area, Ben about an hour away in South Hamilton — but hadn’t met until they both wound up at Bard College in New York State’s bucolic Hudson Valley. Bard has a reputation as something of a liberal-arts petri dish for experimentation and creativity, and Ben, who studied theater, and Liv, who studied dance, pursued their passions with a feeling for freedom and discovery. “It’s a very open-ended kind of place,” says Ben.
They met when, as they told Out in 2015, Liv accidentally stepped into Ben’s dorm room, mistaking a small get-together for an open-invite party. “Not just walked in — beat the runway into my house. And I was like, ‘Who is this sissy?’ I was confused by her because I wished that I was more like her,” recounted Ben. They started futzing around and making songs together and eventually played their first show in 2013. “I was actively trying to get better because we’re both self-taught,” says Ben. “I started to practice a lot and really care about being in a band.” A shared sense of theatricality has bled its way into almost every single thing they’ve done since, partly from what they learned during their college years, but also because of their interest in pop culture and the art of gender play: They’ve noted RuPaul’s Drag Race as an influence, and Ben claims Justin Vivian Bond, the pioneering New York queer performer, as a drag mother.
PWR BTTM have an openness to unexpected sounds and strange flourishes, including the use of a French horn as a punctuation to their guitars and drums. “It’s unique to have a rock duo that doesn’t sound bare, and that occupies so much sonic space in recordings and onstage,” says Cameron West, who helped with the arrangements on the album and played the horn. “A lot of our discussions were about expanding the instrumentation. I thought it would be unique to have some instruments that are often underutilized in rock ‘n’ roll, so we used bass trombone and alto flute. I knew that the parts needed to be outgoing, maybe even be a little histrionic.” Ben asked his mother, Chris Hopkins, a trained opera singer, to perform backing vocals on a series of tracks, too, adding a pretty siren’s touch that sounds halfway between the great backing vocalists of the 1960s and ’70s and Kim Deal’s voice in the Breeders. “It’s refreshing to hear a kickass rock ‘n’ roll sound again,” she tells me through email of her kid’s music. Which is true: The underground scene in Brooklyn has come, in the laptop age, to be dominated by electronic music and bedroom pop — any music that can be made with just a synth and a computer, really — and there’s something thrilling about seeing a pair of young bohemians pick up instruments and make pure and simple punk.
Indeed, beneath the sparkles and the bluster, there is both a virtuosity and a real talent for songwriting. If sometimes the spectacle of PWR BTTM can suck up more of the attention than the music, there are a number of moments on the album, particularly on somber tracks “LOL” and “Won’t,” in which Liv and Ben sound more like weary country cowboys than glitzed-up rock stars. If their over-the-top appearance is what brings audiences into their world, the quality of songs like these — whatever the subject matter — is what’s going to keep people around. “We write songs about things that we believe in, but we also play our instruments really well and practice them a lot and really care about the craftsmanship of what we do,” says Ben. There is the noted influence of shredders like Weezer and the White Stripes. The two share an affection for James Taylor, and there is a sense throughout that, stripped bare to acoustic guitar and voice, these songs could appeal in any context, to almost any audience. “People see me in drag and that’s what they see. They see us as gender-nonconforming people and that’s [it],” says Ben. “[James Taylor’s music] is so simple and clean and perfect, and simple and clean are not two things that come to mind when you think of PWR BTTM. But I think that is kind of at the beating heart of what we do.”
There’s long been queer swagger and spandex in rock music, from Jobriath and Freddie Mercury to the feminist punk of Nineties riot grrrl bands like Huggy Bear, but PWR BTTM’s friskiness, joy, and defiance feels profound for a moment in time in which gender and identity are excitingly — if tenuously — exploding right in front of us. There is, perhaps, more freedom for LGBTQ people than ever in some senses, but visibility has brought its own dangers: The Advocate reported in March that there has been a spike in murders of trans people around the country in 2017. “When I just look at, like, the queer world, I see this really important moment when the people who have benefited most from the gay rights movement” — meaning white gay men — “could turn their backs on all other marginalized people. They can have a life that is pretty much completely unhindered by their gayness now if they want,” says Ben. “Are you just going to take that and enjoy it and forget about everyone else?” It’s hard to look at last November’s election and a victory for Mike Pence, a character who feels pulled right out of The Handmaid’s Tale, and not wonder if every step forward is met with a terrifying lurch backward. Liv tells me that their way of dealing with that is ensuring that when people do encounter queerness in pop culture, there will be a healthy dose of radical spirit to what they see. “I see people learning what it means to fight back for the first time — people going to their first protests, people calling their senators regularly for the first time,” says Liv.
Barring whatever positive influence their success has had on the world, PWR BTTM has, at the very least, had the effect of making Liv and Ben more relaxed with themselves. “We just bring out the best in each other,” says Ben. “It would have taken a lot longer to get to an understanding of where I stand on the gender spectrum without PWR BTTM,” says Liv.
As the temperature and sun start to drop, before heading off — Ben to buy a plant, Liv to an anti-Trump rally in the city — they both express to me that, for all their bravado onstage, the best part about performing as PWR BTTM might just be that it forces them to figure out how to perform as themselves. “I came out of the closet through the band — I was sort of not publicly identifying as anything,” says Ben. “And PWR BTTM was the first place that I made public queer art. I never had [a] ‘Hey, I’m coming out’ moment — I just started writing punk songs about it.”
By now, Ben has changed into a plaid shirt and a pair of jeans, something of an everyday uniform, and wiped off the glitter and paint with cold cream and a towel, but Liv has remained in the same yellow floral dress from the shoot, telling me that while wearing dresses and skirts used to be just an onstage thing, in the past year or so it’s become increasingly comfortable to wear things from the women’s side of the aisle day to day. “I think that’s the job of being a performing artist — seeming confident when you’re not. I can’t think of a single performer who I really enjoy who ever looks scared onstage,” says Liv. “When you’re onstage, and you have instruments, that’s a very safe place to experiment.” Which is to say: Sometimes you gotta fake it before you make it, and if PWR BTTM have been playing the part of Brooklyn’s most famously fearless rock star queers, that fiction is starting to become reality.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 10, 2017