Originally published for The Skinny April 2017 issue.
PWR BTTM tell us about rediscovering themselves on new album Pageant, being born performers and how Lady Marmalade changed their lives
It’s only been a matter of months since PWR BTTM last graced our shores but, just like their fast-paced music, the New York queer-punk duo are not slowing down.
“Liv and I actually walked into a haunted cave as children and we’re cursed to be touring musicians, so an evil witch will kill us if we don’t do this,” says Ben Hopkins, speaking from their van on the way back to New York, having just completed another round of live shows in the US. Their touring schedule has clearly been quite gruelling, judging by the sound of Hopkins’ voice: “I’m criminally an optimist despite my sore throat.”
It barely feels like any time has passed since the release of PWR BTTM’s debut album Ugly Cherries, a 27-minute long collection of short, sharp and sassy pop-punk tunes about love, heartbreak and fucking shit up at Disneyworld. But the duo refuse to rest on their laurels, quickly returning with the announcement of their second album.
Pageant feels like a second album should: a growth and progression on the first, with a more reflective, looking-from-the-outside-in perspective. “We had to take some time to figure out who we are now because we’ve grown up so much since writing Ugly Cherries. I think this record reflects the difference in who Ben and I are since we made that last one,” says Liv Bruce.
“We’ve been working on it for a really long time,” adds Hopkins. “Not as long as Solange, but a long time.”
The UK release of Ugly Cherries in October 2016 was followed two months later with their maiden jaunt to the UK, by which time it had been out in the US for over a year and work on Pageant was nearly complete. “The last time we were in the UK we were finishing our record via conference, getting masters and mixes back every night, so we were non-stop working,” says Bruce.
This time the band are doing things the other way around, with their live shows preceding the album’s release date, a decision they say was intentional. “It’s just fun to take the doggy on a walk before anyone knows the songs. As a music fan, it’s really exciting to me to get to hear new music live before the band puts it out and to remember songs from the show when you finally hear the record.”
They’re not only looking forward to less after-hours work on their upcoming tour, however; they’re also hoping for some warmer weather. “I remember Ben was furious all the time,” says Bruce. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this cultural difference but I think people in Britain just generally don’t believe in heating the way that Americans do. We would be soundchecking at a venue and everyone working there would be wearing a scarf, hat and gloves and be like, ‘What are you talking about, turning the heat on?’”
Having both studied performance-related subjects in college where they met (Hopkins studied theatre and Bruce studied dance at Bard College in New York), the live show is an intrinsic element of PWR BTTM. “I feel like I don’t really understand our music until we perform it,” says Hopkins. “Just on this last tour, there were a couple of songs that we recorded that I’ve sort of had an idea how to play, then after the live shows I’m like, ‘Oh, this is where the real vibe is.’”
There’s one specific performance Bruce remembers as being “truly life-altering”, that being the iconic rendition of Lady Marmalade by Mýa, Pink, Lil’ Kim and Christina Aguilera, as performed at the 2000 MTV Movie Awards. “I remember downloading the video of that performance on Kazaa after it happened and then watching it all the time and just being like, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up,’ and here I am. Gotta get that dough, sister.”
Their love of performing seeps through very obviously into their music videos, where the song’s stories are visualised in a very PWR BTTM way. Their video for Pageant’s lead single Big Beautiful Day is a glitter drag fest, which sees the pair at a party anyone would want to be at. Bruce tells us: “That was the first time we had ever done a music video with a stranger but it felt very similar, very collaborative.” Is it more difficult working with a stranger, though? “It just takes more emails.”
For anyone in their early to mid-20s, PWR BTTM’s music is likely to have an element of nostalgia to it, a throwback to the pop-punk bands of their youth. But the band’s influences spread much further out with that genre. “The first time I heard Mykki Blanco, I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is possible,’” says Hopkins.
“I was very much influenced by that music and still am,” Bruce agrees. “The queer hip-hop explosion of the early 2010s.”
You might think that it would be more difficult to be accepted as a queer rapper, given the narrative of mainstream hip-hop’s prominent and oft-discussed issues with homophobia, but Bruce is quick to interject: “I think that the indie rock community can be just as closed off. It happens in ways that might be subtle and not easy to put your finger on, so instead of someone saying, ‘that person is a fag,’ or whatever, they would say, ‘that doesn’t seem very authentic to me,’ or ‘that seems fake,’ or ‘gimmicky,’ but it’s all kind of coded language just getting at the same misunderstanding and almost fear.”
Being an openly queer punk band does come with its controversies. Last year, a group of anti-gay protestors picketed PWR BTTM’s show at Big Sleepy’s in Jackson, Mississippi. Instead of allowing them the satisfaction of causing upset, however, PWR BTTM reacted in the only way PWR BTTM would: with humour. “These protestors at our show said my asshole was going to fall out, and I was like I think I’m a better bottom than that,” the band posted on their Twitter feed. “In a way, I understand them because I want attention too,” says Bruce today, “but we’re better at it and we don’t have to resort to violence and evil to do it.”
No matter what’s thrown their way, however, PWR BTTM just keep bouncing back. It really seems there is nothing that can fuck up their big beautiful day.
Pageant is released on 12 May via Big Scary Monsters / Polyvinyl
PWR BTTM play The Deaf Institute, Manchester, 11 Apr; CCA, Glasgow, 15 Apr