There’s a long history of gender fluidity and drag in rock music, from David Bowie to Roxy Music, Twisted Sister, k.d. lang, Kurt Cobain, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Against Me! and many (many) others. But it’s always easier to put on a mask than to be yourself. This is what sets Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins’s band, PWR BTTM, apart.
Even when Hopkins has half their face covered in blue glitter, or Bruce wears a dress and bright red lipstick, they don’t seem to be characters­­­—they look like themselves. It’s this holistic adoption of what some consider outré that’s made them one of this year’s most inescapable bands, feted by NPR and PAPER, among others. Both Bruce and Hopkins are genderqueer, and play around with genders and stereotypes in their lyrics and stage personae. Of course, their popularity is helped by how purely enjoyable their music is, pleasingly fuzzy in the tradition of ‘90s alt-rock, complete with arpeggiated guitar solos.
Rock has been stale for so long. It’s been waiting for real stars to reflect a reality that resonates with some people and, maybe, alienates less imaginative listeners. Thank God for PWR BTTM.
Where do you live and how old are you?
Ben: I’m 24, and I live in Bushwick.
Liv: I am 23, and I live in Bed-Stuy.
What made you first interested in your profession, and how old were you when that happened?
Liv: I started by playing music in middle school, but PWR BTTM’s like my first band. I studied theater in college, but I would say that our backgrounds are both in performance in general. Where we went to school, I think, performance is kind of interdisciplinary always, so us starting a band randomly was kind of a natural progression.
Ben: Yeah, I have distinct memories of watching S Club 7 on TV, or the video for “Baby One More Time” by Britney, and just knowing that’s what I, I mean, I wouldn’t say PWR BTTM’s exactly that, but I remember at that age thinking that’s what I want to do.
Do you feel Brooklyn is still a viable place for a young person to build a career?
Ben: Anywhere kind of is, in its own way, because of the Internet. You know what I mean? I think that the way that you make a good artistic career is you make art that you like and you make it with people who you like, and I think that Brooklyn, and New York in general, has always been a place that people make those connections and collaborate. The artistic resources there are hard to beat.
Liv: Brooklyn’s definitely been a great place for us to build our band and build our career, but I think it’s also a huge part of this band that we started in Upstate New York. I think that we would be a very different band if we had first practiced in Brooklyn.
Ben: We really like that we started in a different place, but became what we are because of places in Brooklyn, like the Silent Bar and Palisades, and Shea Stadium especially.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Ben: I see myself making stuff with hopefully more sensible clothes and interesting friends.
Liv: I see myself in space. Actually, no. I see myself in ten years probably having matured only slightly and, yeah, just trying to have fun.
Ben: Yeah, that’s what I was just thinking of saying. In ten years I see myself fucking around and having fun.
Have you ever felt like leaving your career path?
Ben: I think, yeah. I mean, who doesn’t? I think it occurs to everyone at some point.
Liv: You’re like, “Fuck this shit, I give up.”
Ben: Yeah, I think that someone once said, like, being an artist is 50% crippling self-doubt, and 50% rampant narcissism, and the middle ground is where you make something.
Liv: Also, like, in a way we both gave up on something else we were doing to do this band.
Ben: We did.
Liv: In college I studied dance, but I also was double-majoring with Computer Science, and in my last semester I gave up on that degree with, like, one class left. I did it for a lot of reasons, but one of them being that PWR BTTM was starting to play more shows, and I knew I wouldn’t have time to do the work for that. In a sense I gave up on something already.
What’s some advice you’d give to people trying to get a foothold in your industry?
Ben: I would say make things you like and be nice.
Liv: Yeah, I would say don’t make art for people who don’t like you. Don’t try to write a song that will make someone who doesn’t like you like it. Don’t try to paint the painting that will make someone who hates your art like you. It’s impossible.
Ben: Yeah. Make things that you like that make you happy, and that are, I don’t know, have a fucking sense of humor. That’s what I would say about anything, even if you’re making tragedy.
Who are your role models in your industry?
Ben: Both flippant and serious. I really look up to people like Mabou Mines, the theater company, because it was like JoAnne Akalaitis, she was one of my teachers in college, and also Philip Glass, the composer, and people who make interdisciplinary work. I also look up to people who really enjoy what they do, like whatever that means, like Alyssa Edwards from Ru Paul’s Drag Race. She really feels her fantasy, and I want to be able to completely do that every time I perform.
Liv: This gets back to your question where I see myself in ten years; I think down the line my career role model is Tilda Swinton because she does whatever the fuck she wants in all these different mediums. She’ll act in movies, she’ll do different performance art stuff, she’ll be in fashion photography, and you can tell that it’s all just what she wants to be doing. I aspire to have that kind of range that she has.
Who would be your pick for a 30 Under 30?
Ben: I would say just off the top of my head, Nora Dabdoub from Shea Stadium. She is just like entirely dedicated to keeping DIY culture alive, because Brooklyn is so lauded for these bands that break out of Brooklyn, but you know, those people wouldn’t have anything if it wasn’t for show space people, and, like, I’d say Liz Pelly, who works at the Silent Barn.
Liv: I think mine would be Pepper Fajans, He was a dancer in the Merce Cunningham Company. When that disbanded, he opened a new dance space in Brooklyn, called Brooklyn Studios for Dance, that has been doing incredible work, really creating a dance community in Brooklyn where there, I’m not going to say there wasn’t one at all before, but kind of creating a dance community that used to have to commute to Manhattan, or accommodating a dance community that used to have to commute to Manhattan. He does really cool stuff, and he’s done it in a very kind of beautiful, grassroots fashion.
Should we all move to LA?
Ben: No.
Liv: No. We have lots of friends that live there, and L.A.’s fabulous, but it’s not New York.
Ben: We wouldn’t live in New York if New York wasn’t New York. Do you know what I mean?
Liv: I think that L.A. definitely has great things about it, but I personally couldn’t live somewhere where I was so reliant on a car. One of my favorite things about New York is that I can usually get wherever I want to go without a car. We own a van that we keep in Brooklyn, and it’s kind of a ball and chain. Most of the time it’s just sitting around waiting for us to take it to the show.
Ben: What I would say about New York is that we wouldn’t, like I said, we wouldn’t live in New York if New York wasn’t New York. We’ve been lucky enough to tour all over America, and to Canada and other places, and there’s so many other cities in my mind that I think I would move to some day, but New York is just always going to be New York for us, even if it changes and whatever, it just always is for some fucking reason.
To learn about more sub-thirty standouts, visit this year’s list of 30 Under 30
Image by Jane Bruce