It’s rare for lyrics to be inspired as that of queer punk duo Pwr Bttm (pronounced “Power Bottom”)—at least in a way that could manage to blow the minds of society-upheaval-minded punk fanatics and liberal arts professors alike. It’s consistently lines like “I want to put the whole world in drag, but I’m starting to realize it’s already like that” that to give their new album Ugly Cherries an endearing, well-thought-out edge.
Below, members Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins reflect on how they’ve grown since meeting at Bard, their experimentations with drag and gender, and what’s to come on their next album.
How’s the tour been going so far?
Ben Hopkins: It’s been amazing, it was great. Due to Thanksgiving, and some audio troubles, it sort of naturally extended itself into being a month long […] there were a lot of shenanigans along the way.
What kind of shenanigans?
BH: A lot of live-tweeting—I live-tweeted us listening to the new Adele album, that was really great. It’s a very interesting record. The last two songs are incredible, and so I was kind of making funny commentary up until the point when the last two songs came on, and they were so good that I just started tweeting pictures of Carol Channing, so that was good.
And then at one point we got trapped in a Walmart in Ohio, and I went on a quest to take pictures of all the [Despicable Me movie] minion art, like all the minion products that they have at Walmart, which I literally never would’ve stopped just because they’re simply on everything. So, yeah, lots of hijinks involving Twitter.
So are you playing “Hello” on repeat now?
Liv Bruce: We actually, we were into “Hello” when it first dropped, and I remember playing that to Ben in the car when it first came out, and he looked at me and he was like, “I love that song, but I can’t listen to it again right now.” He was just like, “screw it.” But really for us, it’s all about the last two tracks, “All I Ask” and “Sweet Devotion.”
BH: So good, so so good. Specifically the key change in “All I Ask,” is like, everything either of us has ever wanted from Adele. And then I also love “When We Were Young.” I keep forgetting the name of it, but I love the second track [“Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”], it has a little bounce to it, a little shake. I think it’s a really, really good record.
Back to the tour, Liv, you said that your definition of drag is kind of changing, that you don’t really know what drag means to you anymore. Now that you’re doing more shows, have you gotten any more clarity on that?
LB: Ah, no (laughs). It’s still a mystery. I—I don’t know. I feel like my thinking on it changes so much, so it’s hard to make any statement on it that would pin it down. One thing that I realized about what kind of happen with me and Pwr Bttm and drag was that, like, when Ben and I would do our makeup together, and I would do a similar heavy painting aesthetic with him, I would always get really frustrated with the look I was putting on myself, and I realized it was because all I really wanted was like, a subtle lip and some mascara. So that’s really become my day look at this point. Right before we go on, I’ll do a little bit to just make it a little more pronounced, but not really. One thing I learned—I think it was from DJ from Full House, was that the secret to makeup is to not look like you’re wearing any.
BH: Oh my god.
LB: (Laughs) No, I don’t know. I feel like every day I learn new tips and tricks of ways that you can cake yourself. My mom just gave me some new hair products while I was at home. And lord knows I need them.
[…] Do you have any thoughts about how people are challenging gender in a sort of mainstream way now?
LB: What I’d say on that is it’s exciting to see trans people starting to take space and starting to be seen on their own terms, and I just hope that that doesn’t end up creating some prescriptive mold or box of what that is, of what a trans person is supposed to look like. Because I think that’s sort of the tendency when anything gets some sort of mainstream attention is that it gets sort of essentialized. And I just hope that people just keep broadening that space that is being created in the mainstream right now.
None of the respectability politics bullshit?
LB: Yeah…yeeeah…I’m sitting in my room right now, and I just saw a headline in scrolling around of—apparently she [Caitlyn Jenner] is apologizing for the Time interview, so I’m not going to say anything about Caitlyn right now until I read what she says in her apology.
Going back a bit now, how has your music progressed since you two met at Bard?
BH: Well, a good example of that is, like, I think like in terms of guitar playing—I didn’t know how to play guitar, really, when we started Pwr Bttm, and it’s now become my obsession in life. So the kind of songs we’re writing are much more like, just focused around the things I do when I’m bored, things like capping, new techniques I’m trying to figure out, so that’s become a big part of my process. Like all my songs are usually guitar lines that I write first, and then I figure out what I’m trying to say when I’m saying them. And we write more collaboratively these days. We write songs completely together.
What does that collaboration look like?
BH: Oh, it’s horrible.
LB: It’s like, really bad.
BH: It’s a disaster.
LB: It looks like a cat barfing.
BH: Like, I’ll come up with a guitar line, and then Liv and I will jam on it—that’s how we wrote “West Texas.” On a different song, I’d written the harmonic intro part, and then it just had a bunch of parts to it and Liv and I were jamming on it, and we decided in the second verse, we wrote the end together. I wrote “1994” by myself, now we’re trying to write more consistently together.
But a lot of your songs are very personal. How are you fusing your experiences together?
BH: Well “Dairy Queen” we wrote together. Like, Liv started the guitar part, and I ended up fleshing it out, but on Ugly Cherries usually whoever’s singing wrote those words. Liv and I are incredibly different people in the way we deal with reality. Some of the commonalities of our lives are what we end up writing from, in that slim window.
My impression would be that the commonalities would be some of the vulnerability, loneliness, you know, that comes from being young and queer.
LB: I would say so. I think it’s telling that those are all themes that, even though on Ugly Cherries we wrote lyrics very distinctly from one another, like we each wrote our own lyrics, I think it’s very telling that all those themes emerge in my lyrics and in Ben’s lyrics, but in completely different ways. They’re like two ways of painting the same still life, but wildly different styles of showing it.
LB: Because we just have such different approaches to lyrics—Ben has a lot of experience writing plays, and I have a lot of experience writing code.
How does one incorporate writing computer code into songwriting?
LB: I think of it as like, my writing process is very mathematical. Well, not mathematical, but it’s almost like writing an algorithm. When I’m doing it, what I’m thinking about to help me come up with a line is, “What is the most efficient use of this many syllables?” or “What’s a word that really fits this rhyme that can say something also that I really want to say?” It’s all about function and efficiency. It’s not like I have a computer program that writes songs for me, although that would be incredible, but the kind of energy I get into when I’m writing, it’s a very analytical mind that I would get into when I was program.
I was listening to Ugly Cherries on your Bandcamp website, and someone left this comment: “I wish I’d had this to listen to in middle school instead of Green Day.”
BH: Oh shit.
What does feedback like that mean to you?
BH: It means a lot, especially because Liv and I listened to Green Day a lot in school. So I don’t know. It’s funny, it means a lot—my whole philosophy is, you write songs to make yourself feel less alone, and accordingly, other people will feel less alone with you as you do it. And so it’s kind of like, it relates to other people at a time where people tend to feel alone, like middle school—Liv and I can only write for ourselves, about our own experiences. Like, I don’t write with the idea of that kid in middle school. I mean, it’s kind of selfish, but you’re trying to get through the day and make yourself feel better, and everything like that. […] I feel really privileged and lucky that people have chosen to have that experience with our work, but the truth of it is that it comes from a place of keeping ourselves alive.
[…] You’re still writing your new album, right? How’s that going?
LB: It’s going great, it’s a great old time. With Ugly Cherries, we wrote, we started with like 30 songs, we fully wrote and completed about 20, and then 11 of them became the actual record, and we’re doing a similar thing right now. We’re casting a very wide net, trying out a lot of ideas, not trying to make too many decisions beforehand about what the album is before we actually make it. We’re just seeing what comes out of us right now, and at a certain point, when we feel like we have enough, we can start writing down what the tracklist will be. […] What I will say is we’ve been experimenting with these new songs live, so if you come to see us, you’ll get an idea of what we’re getting at, what we might be getting at on our next album.
Catch Pwr Bttm on Jan. 9 at the Brooklyn Bowl. Their new album, Ugly Cherries, is available now. For more information, visit their site: pwrbttm.bandcamp.com.