Band To Watch: PWR BTTM
I sure do wish I’d had a band like PWR BTTM to help me get through high school. I grew up a nerdy, quiet, queer kid sandwiched in between two malls in the middling suburban wasteland of central Jersey. While it obviously wasn’t the absolute worst adolescent experience one could have, it did leave me with a depressing lack of role models that I felt I could relate to. And as a teenager who primarily used music and television as a way to help me feel more confident about myself and understand the world around me, the infectious positivity of PWR BTTM would have made things a hell of a lot easier. Picking up their influences from a wide swath of glam-rock and queercore bands that I wouldn’t really end up getting into until well into college, PWR BTTM are equal parts cocky, graceful, and ridiculously fun.
The band — made up of Oliver Bruce and Ben Hopkins, who interchangeably cover vocals, guitar, and drums — put out its stellar debut EP, Cinderella Beauty Shop, last year, and they’re about to put out three new tracks on a split with fellow Band To Watch honorees Jawbreaker Reunion. Both bands are based out of Bard College, and they share an knack for needly progressive punk that’s as revelatory as it is warm. On Cinderella Beauty Shop, PWR BTTM are at their best when they’re tongue-in-cheek and anarchic. Take the all-too-relatable “Carbs,” which consists of the band rattling off a long list of yummy foods they’d rather eat than anything else. Or on “Kill All Assholes,” whose chorus is just a round of Sesame Street singalong refrains: “Kill all assholes, 1-2-3/ It’s not hard, just do it with me/ Kill all assholes, 6-6-6/ Let’s just get it over with/ Kill all assholes, 6-9/ I’ll eat your heart and make it mine.” They even manage to work in a reference to Gucci Mani on the brash opener “All the Boys”!
But PWR BTTM aren’t content to just stick to the fun side of the equation. When they get serious, it’s equally powerful. On “Trade,” Hopkins breathily sings, “One man won’t ever love me like I need him to/ Ever, won’t ever love me like I mattered at all,” which then erupts into a lifting chorus that’s as heartsick as it is catchy. And “Baby” is a back-and-forth love song that’s tender and sweet. The band refers to themselves as genre-queer and it’s easy to see why — they cover a lot of ground over the few songs they have out, and they pull off each style marvelously. Bruce and Hopkins have a winning creative partnership, bouncing off of each other musically as well as they seem to in real life.
And they’re only growing from here. The songs on their forthcoming new split, Republican National Convention, are the best PWR BTTM songs to date. They hit harder than anything on Cinderella Beauty Shop, exhibiting a patience and sophistication that was only hinted at on their debut. Take “Hold Yer Tongue,” which is as cutting and incisive as they’ve ever been, and takes full advantage of a better production quality to sound absolutely massive. It’s an exciting step for the young band, and it’s a reason to keep an ear out for them when they put out their first full-length later this year.
STEREOGUM: How did you two meet?
OLIVER BRUCE: Ben is a year older than I am. The first weekend of my freshman year, I walked past a dorm that looked like it had a sick party going on, so I just kinda walked in.
BEN HOPKINS: By “party,” he means it was literally me and like 5 rando people who had also just wandered into my apartment because I had beer.
BRUCE: He had a VHS of Armageddon and this BDSM magazine with really cool illustrations that I wanted to use for collaging, so I charmed him into giving me them.
HOPKINS: I found that magazine in a file cabinet. Hi, Mom and Dad.
BRUCE: We were just kinda acquaintances for the next year or so until we were in a play together.
STEREOGUM: What play?
HOPKINS: It was The Bacchae by Euripides, and we were both in drag. Our friendship has been a Greek tragedy ever since.
BRUCE: Ben wore a dress and a mask with a pig’s head on it. He’s never looked better.
HOPKINS: I won’t deny that.
STEREOGUM: How did you get started making music together?
BRUCE: In high school, my friend and I were bouncing hypothetical queer punk band names off each other just for fun. I came up with “Power Bottom,” and we both agreed it was a goodie, but I knew, like, three other queer people total — let alone any who were down to be in a band — so I just kinda forgot about it for a few years. Fast forward to college, Felix Walworth from Told Slant put out a call for bands to play a queer/woman-fronted festival they were trying to put together, and that kind of made me remember the name “Power Bottom” and want to start that band.
HOPKINS: Oliver asked me about it at the gym. Before that point, I had stalked Oliver’s old band Wave Envy at like all the shows they used to play. I had never been in a band before so I was totally down. I had written a musical before but I had never like “rocked out.” So we started “rocking out hard.”
BRUCE: The band has included two other people at different times, but it’s gradually boiled down to a two-piece. The rest is herstory.
STEREOGUM: Creatively, how is it different being in a two-piece since the first EP came out?
BRUCE: Only having one melody instrument in play at a time meant that we could improvise more in our practices. We have some songs that were almost totally improvised from start to finish. But mostly, we write songs on our own and send each other rough demos.
HOPKINS: And then we restructure the format of those demos together. We had to figure out how to get as much sound as possible out of two instruments, which was really challenging, but it’s a fun problem to solve. it forced me to learn how to play guitar and really focus on specifics because we’re much more exposed.
BRUCE: In the studio, we sometimes will add bass, or some other stuff like more layers of the same guitar part that’s already there, but ultimately the sound is about guitar and drums.
HOPKINS: And vocals, or as the French call it, “singing.”
STEREOGUM: How do you think your songwriting has changed over the course of the past year?
HOPKINS: Well, for the split songs in particular, I’ve started with weird prompts. I would say things like, “What if I wrote a country song?” and things sort of came out naturally. Before the split or the stuff for the full-length that we’ve been working on, I would just sit down to write. Now, we sort of affix some sort of goal to the process and hope the best. Like, “Gee, that dude from Maps And Atlases shreds really hard. Maybe I can shred really hard.” And blammo.
BRUCE: One thing we hadn’t really gotten all the way down when we recorded for Republican National Convention was that we’ve started doing songs where I sing and play guitar and Ben plays drums. Which is … a challenge at times.
HOPKINS: I like to smash them a lot.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk a little bit about your live performance. I saw you when you opened for Diet Cig a few weeks ago, so rad. What’s your goal with the show?
HOPKINS: Thanks! We both had the flu so hard. Are you talking about the drag specifically?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I guess, but also just your energy in general.
HOPKINS: The best way I can answer that is it’s a heightened form of our real relationship.
BRUCE: We do this kind of (hopefully comedic) malicious bickering thing on stage. That’s partially from drag culture, where queens show affection by insulting each other. But it’s also part of our friendship.
HOPKINS: Our friendship informs the music we write, and so it naturally informs the live show a lot.
BRUCE: As for the drag thing, we each do it in different ways and for different reasons. For me, it’s kinda about expressing a side of myself that’s always in there, but usually doesn’t come out. Mostly because I’m too lazy to look that good every day.
HOPKINS: Ironically, for me, it started as a stage fright thing. It felt more comfortable to play the songs with t-shirt paint all of my face while wearing a wedding dress than it did like in my normal boy clothes. Which is weird, I guess, standing out like really hard was more calming than trying to blend in. I think that’s still true.
STEREOGUM: So who are some of your queer inspirations? Whether music, fashion, attitude, whatever…
BRUCE: Oh god, where do we start? I first went to Rocky Horror when I was 14 and nothing was the same after that. For about two months afterwards, I would watch that movie in my bed every night. Semi-Precious Weapons was a huge influence for both of us. I also had a big John Waters/Divine phase in high school. Same with Hedwig And The Angry Inch. This is such a hard question for me to answer because there have been so many. But those are some of the big ones. Oh, also Ani DiFranco. I live for Ani DiFranco.
HOPKINS: This question is also hard for me too. Theater performers like Ethyl Eichelberger, Taylor Mac, and the witch that I chained my soul to Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, all changed my life. In terms of music, I was really drawn to stadium rock musicians like Led Zeppelin and Guns ‘N Roses because of their inherent flamboyance. But I have also been shaped greatly by people like Arthur Russell and Rufus Wainwright. Above all though is Richard Simmons, for whom I would cross oceans and slay pirates.
STEREOGUM: As queer performers, what do you think is important for listeners or an audience to take away from your music?
HOPKINS: I just want them, and anyone else who listens to it queer or otherwise, to feel less alone in some way.
BRUCE: Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. The only thing I would add is that our society prescribes certain roles to queer people and I’m really into breaking out of those. When I was younger, I was really anxious because I had these fantasies of playing drums in a rock band, but movies and TV were always telling me that there was only room for me in the music world if I wanted to be, like, Rihanna’s hairstylist or something. (No shade to Rihanna’s hairstylist, you’re killing it!) I hope that what we do stands as a counterexample to expectations of how queer people are supposed to sound, act, and be.
PWR BTTM’s debut EP Cinderella Beauty Shop is out now. Their new split with Jawbreaker Reunion, Republican National Convention, will be out 2/14.