Fearless Queerness: PWR BTTM Talks Visibility, Trolls and Ray-Bans

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PWR BTTM is everything.

No, seriously. In the space of thirty minutes, singer and multi-instrumentalist Ben Hopkins manages to touch upon a vast array of topics, running every available gamut in the process. Hopkins, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, transitions from talking about life after Bard College to playing dingy DIY spaces without a moment’s hesitation, speaking of the perils of privilege and of being apolitical immediately following a joke about Minions. From upstate New York, intersectionality and a lifelong commitment to playing Fender guitars (Hopkins's are named Teavana and Guitar 5000) to the Orlando shooting and a love for the Wicked soundtrack, nothing is off limits, and that seems to be how PWR BTTM likes it.

After all, the duo – which includes Hopkins and singer and multi-instrumentalist Liv Bruce – has garnered a significant amount of press for insisting on gender-neutral bathrooms at its gigs and emphasizing safety for all identities within the space. “Creating a safe space at our shows isn’t encouraging anything. It’s just saying thank you,” says Hopkins. “The least we can do is provide a fucking bathroom.”

The two have spoken at length on the Orlando shooting, and their cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in tribute to the victims has since become a set-list staple. Their original music, namely debut album Ugly Cherries, received enthusiastic reviews and landed them an appearance behind NPR’s Tiny Desk. Hopkins dressed in the usual performance garb for the occasion – which is to say, in full drag, including smeared glitter lipstick, bright-pink swimming goggles and a skintight red dress.

So while the archetypal indie- and punk-rock hero may be a straight white boy strutting around stage in a leather jacket or hiding behind his hair, neither member of PWR BTTM is concerned with fitting into the identities associated with the indie and punk genres. Being visibly (and audibly) queer is PWR BTTM’s most political and truthful expression. “For me, choosing to perform in drag because of all the things I enjoy about it is a political act,” Hopkins says.

“What we do is provide a suggestion. We say, ‘We’re queer, we’re going to do this, we’re going to open up the space to queer thought,’" Hopkins elaborates. "People don’t have to show up, but they do.”

PWR BTTM might be fine with the “queer punk” label, but Hopkins makes it clear that the bandmembers are not fine with being told their queerness is a gimmick, a savvy marketing tactic or the lone force behind their art. “People who pigeonhole us for our queerness are not people I’m interested in knowing,” Hopkins says. “They’re so boring. How dare you be so boring? Grow up. Get some Ray-Bans.”

Hopkins credits Twitter trolls (who they call “extra” and “uninteresting”) and the band’s enthusiastic fans for their no-shits-to-give attitude. “That openness, that candidness, comes from this massive group of people who come to our shows. People come because they want to be a part of this.”

Hopkins counts the PWR BTTM community and the queer community at large among great loves (also on the list: pet fish Jeff and playing guitar). In addition to the aforementioned bathrooms – which Hopkins considers a basic act of human decency in spite of the hubbub – the band encourages fans to wear whatever makes them feel most themselves, and PWR BTTM donated the proceeds from its recent Orlando show to the shooting-victims' fund. All of this, Hopkins insists, is political.

And then there’s the music, so unapologetically queer within its own traditionally straight-cis genre. Ugly Cherries, written and recorded in “weird, pastoral” upstate New York, features track after track on the perils of living, loving and showering (no, that’s not a euphemism) while human and queer. On “Serving Goffman,” which lives somewhere in between the Buzzcocks’ “Sixteen Again” and Veruca Salt during its mid-’90s heyday, Bruce ricochets between the insecurity and foolhardy self-assuredness that accompanies coming out to your parents. Then there’s the cheeky “I Wanna Boi,” which describes the ideal man and encourages potential candidates to “drop me a line at ob8419@bard.edu.” The tender “C U Around” pauses the punk party to wish an ex well while trying to heal from the kind of heartbreak that leaves you breathless. That sentiment, of course, transcends sexuality.

Therein lies the power of PWR BTTM: This is a queer duo making queer punk for queer people about queer subjects and creating spaces that value queer thought – all while keeping a manicured finger on the universal pulse of human emotion and raw pop-punk power. The band is as in line with the queer-rock lineage of Pansy Division as it is at home within the ongoing ’90s guitar-pop revival. Even as PWR BTTM positions itself at the forefront of the queer-punk realm, it inhabits multiple worlds. In the end, every world is better for it.

PWR BTTM  performs with Pity Sex and Petal at Lost Lake Lounge on Thursday, July 7. Ages 16 and up.

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