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Punk Music's New Royalty: PWR BTTM

Beyond

Punk Music's New Royalty: PWR BTTM

Katherine Chavez

Interview and Photos by Rebecca Blandón

Remove the vowels from Power Bottom and you get PWR BTTM, the name of a band that’s breaking gender-normative barriers in the best DIY music scenes.   

PWR BTTM debuted their full album, Ugly Cherries via Daughter/Father/Miscreant, this past September and are currently on tour, so keep up. Liv (They, them, theirs) and Ben (He, him, his) met at Bard when they started performing an intermix of drag and punk under the moniker, not expecting the project to last. Now Brooklyn-based, the band continues to garner support from punk lovers and queer communities alike, reminding listeners that standing out is sometimes better than blending in. PWR BTTM proudly flags its queerness as the centerpiece of its grunge sound, especially during shows in which Liv and Ben jam like queens covered in glitter.

The balance between Liv and Ben is palpable on stage: constantly switching instruments to play songs and exchanging limelight along with a few affectionate insults, drag-queen style, are important parts of their act as deft musicians. In doing so, they take the stage as artists, but set the rules as gender-queer rockers glam enough to never wear the same dress twice.

In an interview with PWR BTTM, I got to learn more about their personal stake in the music, their past, and among other secrets, Ben’s fascination for America’s Next Top Model and Liv’s thoughts on PWR BTTM as the longest ANTM “go-see” of their life. Read below to learn more about how PWR BTTM came to be and how Ben and Liv keep witty and stay fine.

Liz on drums and Ben on guitar at Aurora on 10/14

Liz on drums and Ben on guitar at Aurora on 10/14

On West Texas you mention visiting Rhode Island. Tell me more.

L: My grandma lived in Newport, Rhode Island. When writing and recording lyrics, there were a lot of lyrics I changed the day of in the studio. Me leaving New York and this other person going to North Hampton didn’t actually happen. I thought it was going to happen when I wrote and recorded it. My grandmother passed away right after Ben and I recorded our first EP and so I thought it would be cool to shout her out. Something came up that next weekend – we probably had a show or something and so I didn’t go to Rhode Island. That was the first time that I’ve ever put down a lyric that was untrue. I’ve bent the truth before, but that was the first time that happened in my lyrics that didn’t happen in real life.

B: You know my favorite guitar store in the whole world is here, right? Empire Guitars! I was there today for two hours playing with all the toys. I found the best distortion pedal ever. It’s called “Pumpkin Pie.” It’s based off of Bill Corgan’s guitar sound, his distortion on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which is why it’s called Pumpkin Pie: The Smashing Pumpkins! I want it really bad, but it’s $175 and I am broke. Maybe when I get the kidney sold…

Tell me about your slang? In interviews y’all have used words like pokévolved, gaymazing, and google-ability.

B: We have sort of a lexic of what we do. There’s a vocabulary.

L: I don’t think there are ever words that we have made up specifically as much as they are weird slang that we use with each other that people we know use. There’s this whole subculture of queers on Youtube and there’s this one Youtube channel called HOMEWERQ that we watch a lot that has really funny terms for things. I don’t think any of their language ever makes it into our songs, but it definitely makes it into our car rides.

B: As an effort to be more inclusive to our queer experience; those things wind up in our songs and in the way we talk. A couple of our friends have been like we have no idea what the f* you guys are talking about.

L: One thing we do a lot is use specific quotes from Ru Paul’s Drag Race to denote very complex and nuanced emotions that there aren’t words for in English. “Face-crack of the century” is just something that surprises you, but that you should’ve seen coming all along and it involves something that you’re embarrassed about from your past. “Face-crack” has been around for a long time, but “face-crack of the century” is a specific quote from Drag Race. “I feel very attacked right now” is when you feel very anxious and everyone’s out to get you or something, which is from Laganja.

B: Or “the house down boots.” It’s a reference to an exclamation point: she looked amazing the house down boots.

How does drag come into the mix?

B: Drag is like armor for me. People will choose to perceive you in their own way - for me doing drag is like, no you’re going to perceive me on my terms. I’m going to style myself, I’m queer, I can’t be misinterpreted as not [being] queer - it’s that kind of thing. It makes you feel brave, like I’m prepared.

How did the phrase Power Bottom come back as the source of your band name?

L: I had been holding on to it for years and someone at our college was going to be put on a queer and/or female-fronted music festival. I thought, this is the event for which I’m going to start PWR BTTM.

How are you taking fandom thus far?

L: A lot of people who introduce themselves after shows or send us Facebook messages say “I read about you on X,” not ecstasy, but on “blog X.” But a lot of people actually say, “My friend showed me you guys.” So, I think we get a lot of word of mouth and I think that partially comes from our presentation: the comedy stuff we do on our live sets, the way we dress. That adds to the narrative that someone will present to their friend after they see us. When people say, “Oh I saw a band that I really liked and they were really funny and catty to each other and they were wearing dresses,” I think that makes people excited to share it with their friends, which isn’t to say that’s why we do any of that stuff. I think we’re just lucky that those things that presented themselves as the logical thing for us to do also make people excited and talking about us.

Talk to me more about your (Ben) personal revelation in the song Ugly Cherries.

B: It was weird because I started writing about someone I had had a relationship with. The themes of it were things about femininity and feeling alienated from this queer experience with somebody who was a cis hetero-female person. And I felt really misunderstood by them. And then I was like, shit, I’m actually the girl in the song that I’m singing about. As I was writing it, I asked myself, why can’t I access the truth in it? and then I realized that I wasn’t talking about her, I was talking about myself. I was like, oh f*ck...this isn’t sexy...do I want to share this with people? But I realized that it was empowering and that’s when I started writing the part “she’s alright” because I was trying not to be self-loathing about it. I can’t help what my subconscious wants me to say, so I just had to be okay with it. It was a really powerful moment.

Liv, are there any songs distinctly special to you?

L: They’re all personal. They all feel extremely close to me. The first song I ever wrote fully and saw to fruition was “Carbs” on our first EP [Cinderella Beauty Shop] and the second was “I Wanna Boi.” That one feels very special because there’s such an innocence to the song-writing style. I wrote the instrumental chorus in my head and then I had to learn guitar well enough to play it. For the first three months, I couldn’t really play the song. We played it live and I always f*cked it up. We have a really bad studio recording of it that was because I didn’t know how to play it well yet. But yeah, they each have a different origin story. “Serving Goffman” was always about being nervous about how I come across to other people, but it became about my gender when I rewrote the words the day of. “C U Around” came really fast, in a night. There was one little variation in the chorus the first time I wrote it, and then a few days later, the phrasing of the way I sing the line, “I hope you’re okay/I’ll see you around” came to me. There was an extra verse that we cut, but aside from those things that song came full-formed all at once.

How did you refine your sound?

B: People say we’re really tight in terms of our sound, we’re very succinct. When we were recording our EP upstate, we had a third band member for awhile, but she moved to another project so Liv and I made a lot of it together. We, in that period of time, just by virtue of the fact that she wasn’t around, started really refining what we did as a two piece. It sped things along.

L: Before PWR BTTM, I did bands in high school and I was in a Hole cover band in college.

Sophomore year, I started playing in a four piece: bass, drums, two guitars, a rockin’ college band. We played every other weekend the entire school year. That was really where I got a lot of my performance chops; I had a really good drum teacher when I was younger, but in terms of learning how to perform drums, it was just playing college shows every other weekend with my old band. A year after I started playing with that band, I started doing three different side projects in addition to it, and one of them was PWR BTTM. And then that band eventually broke up because all of the three people graduated and scattered.

B: I was in the same year as those people, but by virtue of a bunch of coincidence, I wound up staying around Bard for another year. We were like, why not keep doing it? I don’t know what was the turning point of where we were like, alright, let’s do PWR BTTM! I think I went a little crazy after graduating college.

L: I think it was also when you moved to Hudson after that time in Boston.

B: I got hired to go back to Bard after graduating to live in the Hudson Valley and worked on a play with Amanda Palmer at Bard. That summer, I’d send you demos everyday. My tendency is to make a bunch of new sh*t. In the beginning, I’d be like, “I wrote a 150 songs!” and then Liv would be like, “I don’t care.” We would then spend a lot of time refining them. I don’t know what made me go nuts, but it was just like…PWR BTTM. I only really started playing guitar obsessively then. That’s just sort of how it all fell into place.

Liz of PWR BTTM at Aurora on 10/14

Liz of PWR BTTM at Aurora on 10/14

Did y’all sing a lot growing up?

B: I taught myself to play guitar and I didn’t sing in public ever.

L: Except for when you were in an acappella group in college…nice try.

B: It was really embarrassing. I beat-boxed and arranged the music. It was tragic. I was like, gadadingduh guys, c’mon! It was called the Orcapelecans.

L: I tried out for the acappella group in my high school when I was a freshman. I did “Irreplaceable” as my audition song. The guy sent me an email and he was like “You were really fun to have around, but we just don’t need anyone in your voice range. Have a good one and I hope you try again next year.” And I was like…no.

What do y’all do when you’re not performing?

B: Writing. We’re writing a lot right now. We’re working day jobs - I work at a coffee shop. We’re also touring with Mitski in a month!

L: I work at a pizza place in Bushwick that I love to death. I love my coworkers, the food and customers. There’s a half hour rush every day when it’s kind of taxing, but other than that it’s just awesome. I do little odd jobs, like freelance gigs and dancing. I had my first dance gig in NY with someone who could pay me well. That was my day job then – rehearsal every day for four hours and then I would go play a show or do an interview or something. The day of our release show was also the day of this dance performance. We had six performances and one of them was the same day as our release show. And that was the day when the New York Times came to the dance show so it was an exhausting day. The show was called Whistle Blower. It was by a choreographer named Mark Dendy.

What is the most memorable gig PWR BTTM has had thus far?

B: In a cupcake shop on a Sunday afternoon with Diet Cig on our tour in Oakville, CT. It was nuts. It was like no one was there. We were all sober. All these other bands were there. It was major. There was an air conditioning unit above the drum set, way close to it, so we were all doing rim knocks on it. It was one of my favorites.

L: It was the last day of August when we played at Jacob Riis Park, which is a beach. It was in the daytime and we played a set at 3pm and then dove in the ocean, which is what I want to do after every set we play. We drank frozen margaritas and swam, which is not a good idea, you shouldn’t swim while drunk.

B: You should only swim while drunk.

L: We did that until the sun went down and had a great time with all our friends.

B: Yeah, and got legendarily sunburnt. I got sunburnt. My girlfriend’s band is named Charly Bliss, they’re amazing. And they played the next weekend and I was already a little bit sunburnt and I was like I can’t get more sunburnt than this. They played a set and I got drunk on the beach again and I got sooo sunburnt.

There are many artists, movies, and popularized media that have centered the discussion of LGBTQ narratives. Where does PWR BTTM stand?

B: I’m going to let Liv take this one because Liv probably has an answer in mind.

L: We are lucky that we decided to start this band in a time when people are starting to be ready to hear these stories and when more people who aren’t us are kind of standing up and refusing to be ignored. There are already a ton of incredible people working to shift the music industry away from something that is so cis-hetero-male dominated. I don’t think we deserve credit for starting anything or inventing anything, because giving us that would eclipse the amazing people who have been doing it already. A trans punk artist who’s really notable right now is Laura Jane Grace from Against Me! There are a lot of queer musicians who are active in the same space that we are. One thing that might make us distinct is that we’re very comfortable with being labeled the way we are. I know a lot of queer artists who are very wary of doing anything that would get them pigeonholed as just an artist for queer people and we wear it very much on our sleeve and say it and embody it. I’ve found that by doing that we become more accessible to people who aren’t queer. We have a lot of queer fans, but we also have a lot of straight fans and I think that’s great. Everyone is invited.