by Shannen Gaffney + Kirsten Becker
Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce, New York’s dynamic garage glam duo of PWR BTTM chatted with us about the things that matter: gender fluidity, their recent discovery of Bethany Cosentino, and their favorite carbs. If you’re lucky enough to have gotten a ticket in time, we’ll see you at their PhilaMOCA show tonight (they open for the very talented <3 MITSKI <3 )
So congrats on your first album, Ugly Cherries, we love it so much!
LIV: Thank you! We had a really good time making it.
Where did you record it?
BEN: We recorded in in New Paltz, New York, which is near Hudson, New York, which is where I was living, with a guy named Chris Daly who made a bunch of great records. He made a record with our friends in Diet Cig and we met him upstate. We didn’t really know if he was a good engineer or not but he was a cool guy that wanted to do our record and he’s like a genius, he’s amazing, he makes like all our merch and stuff, he fixes my guitar, he’s just this incredible, great friend.
LIV: He holds me when I cry. Just kidding, I’ve never cried.
BEN: Liv never cries, he can’t really spare the moisture. But yeah, his wife and I did the album art together.
LIV: PWR BTTM would be dead in the water without him.
So you both went to Bard, did you find a supportive scene there?
LIV: Absolutely, I started playing in the Bard scene in another band. The Bard scene is amazing because there’s two venues that are pretty much entirely run by students and they have the power to book bands outside of the school. So your favorite bands will be coming through the area and they’ll play Bard and you can start a band with your friends and have your first show be opening for a huge band.
BEN: Yeah our second show we opened for Upset and Potty Mouth.
LIV: There was just always people starting bands and doing incredible things. I really miss it actually. Obviously I love the scene here, but sometimes I’ll be on Facebook and see friends who are still there at Bard and seeing what bands they are starting every week and being like, “Ugh I wish I was still able to see those shows!”
What did you study at Bard?
LIV: I, for most of my time at Bard, was a double major in Computer Science and Dance. And then in my last semester after my Computer Science thesis, I had one more class to take and I just didn’t have the room in my schedule, partially because of PWR BTTM, so I ended up dropping the major after finishing my thesis and graduating with a degree just in the Dance Department. Which, it feels weird to say just the dance department because Bard’s dance department is like incredible. I learned so many things just about everything being there.
BEN: (In between bites of blueberry scone) I studied Theater, it was awesome.
We had another question relating to scones: What is your favorite carb?
BEN: Oh my God, the question we love to answer. I’m really, really feeling chocolate croissants right now. I work at a coffee shop and I have to come in to work at 6 AM and the first thing I do is kick that door open and fuck up one of the deliveries.
LIV: I’m really feeling my mom’s spaghetti and meatballs. I saw her yesterday and I was thinking about the stuff that she makes. I like everything she makes, but spaghetti and meatballs specifically.
BEN: Liv’s mom throws down.
You guys are so good live, you put on a great show. When did you start using drag in your performances?
BEN: It’s funny because it’s not like we sat down and were like, “Alright this is gonna be a drag queen band.” We started the band because a friend of ours who’s in a really great band Told Slant were putting together a queer-fronted festival that was supposed to happen at Bard. And Liv was involved in it and, I guess as some practical joke to the universe, asked me to be in the band. I just remember our first show being like, “Girl, what are you gonna wear?” and so I showed up, I had a bungee cord on my head and my friend’s dress and that was pretty much it. My makeup skills have not improved. It just kind of happened that way.
Being in drag, for me, forces someone to interpret me on my own terms. You can’t mistake me as a queer person if I’m just giving you everything you need and more. Let me tell you what I am before you tell me what I have to be. I’m gonna do this and you can deal with it.
LIV: For me, it started in a very drag sense of, “Before the show, find a dress, find makeup,” stuff like that. I identified as a gay man before PWR BTTM started and when I came out as non-binary/gender-queer/gender-fluid, it kind of got more confusing for me because I started wearing a skirt during the day or wearing lipstick every day and that still waxes and wanes.
Sometimes it’s a huge part of my daily presentation and sometimes it’s not. I feel like I’ve learned from doing drag in PWR BTTM how I wanted to look every day. That line between what I wear on stage and I what I wear in life has become fuzzier and fuzzier as time has gone on.
BEN: It’s just really fun for me to just go for it in the drag and then just be a bum in my daily life. I used to play bass in this band that was just like leather jacket-wearing fuccboi choir – and that’s drag for sure. They’re telling you how they want to be received, they’re dressing up.
Is gender OVER?
LIV: I would love for that to be true. I wouldn’t say, “Gender is over,” I’d say, “I’m over gender.” In terms of the social construct of gender and its material ramifications, absolutely not. I think a lot of people are starting to question it in a lot of exciting ways, but it’s very much still a thing.
BEN: Liv, that is the most amazing tweet that has yet to be tweeted to the world. I would agree, I feel that way too. That’s kind of a hard thing to say because I think the idea of a binary gender system as being the accepted norm is over, hopefully, and is getting to be more and more over, but gender makes people feel safe. Like, “I feel this way,” is a means of defining oneself that makes you feel comfortable and lets people know how you choose to be interpreted. I wouldn’t say it’s over, I would say it’s more complicated. But I always have to remind myself that it’s so easy to think that I see gender as the way the entire world is seeing gender, which doesn’t work. There’s so much of the country and so much of the world that doesn’t operate in that way right now.
Do you feel that living in New York is a great asset to what you are doing with the band?
LIV: Oh yeah, one thing I love about New York is that whenever I’m walking down the street in an outfit that made me scared when I put it on, I always remind myself,
“There’s no way you’re the most ridiculous person anyone in New York has seen this week.” There’s always someone else who’s really, really, really going for it.
BEN: We did this photoshoot a few weeks ago and we were wearing crazy clothes and I was like, “Oh no we’re gonna get our asses kicked, this is crazy, in the middle of the day.” But then everyone’s just driving by was just like, “Yes bitch, get it!” Everyone was just so into it. And everyone in New York, they just come up to you, and sure there’s a lot of harassment and we have a lot of privilege in the way we look and everything, but you know, people just want to know what you’re doing. I feel like more often than not, they’re not like, “How dare you,” they’re more like, “What?” As soon as you’re friendly they’re ok. You’re not the weirdest thing anyone has seen.
How long have you been musicians?
LIV: I’ve been playing drums for 10 years now. I started when I was 12 and now I’m 22.
BEN: I played saxophone in high school for a couple years and then I taught myself how to play guitar in college and I started writing songs randomly my sophomore year in college for a musical. I wrote a musical and then PWR BTTM was really like, my first band that I started writing songs for in senior year.
LIV: I always used to want to write songs in middle school and high school. I used to fantasize about being able to write a song but I hated everything I made. The first one I wrote was “Carbs,” which was on our first EP and it sounds like the first song somebody’s ever written, wouldn’t you think? The second one was “I Wanna Boi” which happened around the time that PWR BTTM was starting. I didn’t show it to Ben for nine months because I was so convinced no one would ever really wanna hear it. I was like, “Oh yeah that’s just a song for me that I’ll play to myself sometimes and not have to worry about showing it to people.” And then I was at dance camp and Ben sent me a text, “I need you to start writing songs.” I didn’t have a guitar but I had a ton of pianos at my disposal in all the dance studios. After dance classes were done I would just go to the studio and write a song every day and I would send them to him. And when I got home from dance camp I was like, “We can’t really play any of these piano songs because they don’t translate to guitar, but here’s this other thing I wrote,” and I played him “I Wanna Boi” and he was like, “What!”
Who directed your video for “1994”? We love the aesthetic.
BEN: Ah, the queen of the universe.
LIV: So, before PWR BTTM, I was in a band called Wave Envy. We were a college rock band and it was super fun. Our bass player was this amazing artist and musician. He made the “1994” video, his name is Rufus Paisley and he’s incredible.
Ben, you do a lot of tapping and finger picking, did you listen to a lot of Van Halen growing up or something?
BEN: That’s the sweetest question! No, I didn’t, my favorite guitar players are, well I have a lot. I really like Dave Davidson from Maps & Atlases, I also like Dave Longstreth from Dirty Projectors. All my favorite guitar players are named Dave. I don’t know, the tapping and stuff and the shredding, it’s all kind of just a means to an ends. I play open tuning, you can’t play minor chords in the way I have my guitar set up, you can’t do a lot of things that a lot of other guitar players can do but you can do more weirdly intricate things that are kind of stupid.
Once someone described it as “cock-rock.”
LIV: I’m desensitized to it. There was a while when we’d be writing a song and he’d just go off tapping and I’d be like “Ugh, no!” I hated it for a while, but the first time I ever was like into it was when we wrote Ugly Cherries.
BEN: There’s something about the style of guitar playing that I’ve developed with this band that fits the statement of the band. We have this sort of bratty, like “Fuck you, we’re queer!” aesthetic, so for our guitar playing to be kind of over the top fits in a way.Rock n’ roll is based on that loud-quiet-loud thing, and so songs like “House in Virginia” is a good example of the kind of song I’d like to keep writing. A year after graduating from college, I moved back upstate to be around Liv and I literally did nothing but play guitar all day for like six hours of the day for an entire year. It’s my favorite thing to do in the whole world, I could play guitar for twenty hours straight and be happy.
What are you into musically or anything you’re drawing influence from right now?
BEN: I just discovered Best Coast this morning. It’s probably like, the best music I’ve ever heard!
Which album are you listening to?
BEN: The new one, the one where she’s all like, “Fuck you, I’m sad,” cause I’m also sad so, it’s chill. Her first album is all like, “I want a boyfriend.” And then she gets a boyfriend, and she’s like, “Fuck this!”
LIV: I don’t listen to music.
LIV: Yeah, I’m definitely post-music.
BEN: Well girl, what album are you most excited for more than anything?
LIV: Oh yeah, I’m really excited about the new Bloc Party record. They were one of my favorite bands when I was younger and definitely Kele Okereke was an early role model for queer musicians. I’m really into the single from their new album. And the new Enya record. That’s coming out the night we play Chicago and I have been so diligent about making sure I have somewhere to sit down and smoke weed and listen to that record after the show. I love Demi Lovato, I love the new Joanna Newsom record, it’s amazing. Take a bath and listen to that shit.
BEN: Oh yeah, I did that too girl. I had some red wine, ugh. Heaven.
LIV: There’s this band we saw last night, Winter Passing, they’re from Ireland and they’re incredible.
BEN: I’ve been listening to the new Palm album and now I’m only gonna listen to Best Coast all this tour and I’m just gonna cry constantly. I’ve been listening to the new Hop Along album too, it’s so good.
LIV: Painted Shut is an incredible record.
BEN: Oh my god that song, “I Saw My Twin,” with that drop. Incredible.
We’re so excited for your show in Philly!
BEN: Yes, we love Philly! We love Kississippi, also Palm. Go see Palm. They are the best band ever. At Bard everyone would just refer to them as The Best Band. Cause they are.
LIV: Back when I was in that band Wave Envy, Palm was around and they were best band at Bard. Castles fall, seasons change, babies are born, and Palm is always still the best Bard band. They released a new album called Trading Basics, it’s one of the most incredible, intricate, guitar playing. I wish I could have a guitar threesome with them.
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PWR BTTM open for the very talented Mitski tonight at PhilaMOCA with Palehound and I Tried to Run Away When I was Six. Show starts at 7:30 and is is sold out!