Editor’s note: Since the publishing of this feature - both online, and in the current issue of the print magazine - a series of sexual assault allegations have been made against Ben Hopkins of PWR BTTM. While we do not want to erase this feature as if it never took place, we want to state that following these allegations we will no longer be covering the band, in solidarity with survivors.
On a searing Austin afternoon, hot-coated by the greasy-sweet smoke of Red River Street’s multiple hot dog stands, PWR BTTM are making slow progress down the city’s main strip in search of some precious shade. They’re stalled at two-second intervals as they gladly take selfies with excitable fans, and navigating the milling swarms of green-clad Americans celebrating St Paddy’s Day hampers progress further. Eventually, Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins hone in on a rare patch of sun-shelter. Just up the hill from the venue where they just played their sixth (!) show of SXSW, it’s no wonder they’re holding back involuntary yawns. It’s been a gruelling week, and with second record ‘Pageant’ on the way, the real trip has barely begun. Add to that a potent case of hayfever on Liv’s part, and it’d be impressive to find any other pair still standing. PWR BTTM, on the other hand, are unstoppable on all counts. Their new record stands as both a middle finger to the world’s bigots, and a defiant sharing of personal experience that is impossible to silence. And their live show – roughly akin to standing in the firing line of a glitter-cannon – sees Liv and Ben darting around the stage switching instruments, chatting away familiarly with the assembled crowds, and making them mosh along to the french horn in the process. Quite a feat, anyone would agree.
“The show we just did,” Liv says, indicating down the road, “it was the middle of the day. My allergies were at their peak, my nose was running as I sang,” they add. “I felt like I was able to surrender myself to the demons a little bit more than I usually do.”
“You really did,” chips in Ben, approvingly.
“I really gave it to the demons,” Liv boldly declares. “Normally I’m like, surrounded by the demons, and shaking hands with one, but this one, I was jumping rope with those demons!”
“I think playing music is the closest I’ll ever get to having superpowers.”
Demons figure very heavily in PWR BTTM’s music; as well as apparently tangoing with the band over an invisible skipping rope on-stage, they’re heavily exorcised on record, too. “I’m a big, bad sissy, and I’m gonna make you listen!” yells the insult-reclaiming ‘Sissy’, loud in resisting gender norms and proudly existing in spite of those who try to deny it. It’s just one such moment on ‘Pageant’ where life’s bullshit is fed into an explosive super-combustor, and spat out the other side in tatters. For PWR BTTM, being unapologetically yourself is the strongest form of resistance.
“I don’t know if empowerment is the word I would use,” ponders Liv, “as much as I seek to impart things with value,” they add. “When I say value, I imagine everyone exuding this beautiful energy. That sounds like such a yoga mom thing to say!” they cackle before resuming. “I think that a lot of people are told that their experiences aren’t interesting or worth hearing about,” Liv continues. “That underlies a lot of systematic oppression, the idea that your pain isn’t important.” This, they add, runs all the way through PWR BTTM’s music.
“To me,” Liv explains, “it’s actually a political gesture to say me waiting for this text back is important,” they add, referring to recent single ‘Answer My Text’. “It does deserve to be sung about. Also, if someone says something mean to me on the street, about how I look, that’s also important. That deserves to be talked about, and one isn’t more important than the other.”
“I felt like I was able to surrender myself to the demons more than I usually do.”
Liv is bang on. As America finds itself in the sausage-fisted grope of a certain orange-hued demagogue, and Europe tears itself apart justifying its vile racism with referendum papers, shouting the stories of marginalised folk from the rooftops becomes vital rebellion. ”When people are choosing to try to hurt you, it’s because they don’t believe that your pain is real,” Liv nods. “You don’t have to speak specifically to them to counteract what they’ve said. You just have to insist that your pain is real, which isn’t really a radical statement at all. It’s a very simple statement, and it just highlights how awful they are.”
“I think playing music is the closest I’ll ever get to having superpowers,” a glitter-covered Ben says. “Playing guitar as opposed to having a sword. I channel that a lot. I think my make-up’s very reflective of that, too,” they point out.
Appropriately – considering it’s a record made by two riff-wielding superheroes – PWR BTTM’s second album is jam-packed full with bright, brash, colourful textures. There’s even a cheeky bit of opera (vocals courtesy of Ben’s mum) nudged in along the way. Liv and Ben packed off to a strange industrial building named The Cracker Factory, in Geneva, New York, to make the record. “They don’t make crackers there though,” Ben adds. “They made straight-edge razors.” With the foundations in place, they then linked up with a trusted and familiar face, producer Chris Daly (who also worked on debut ‘Ugly Cherries’). Retaining those foundations, they say, was instrumental in allowing them to push forward in other ways. After all, as Ben puts it, “we made ‘Ugly Cherries’, and it was like, we already made it, why would we make the same album twice?”.
”When people are choosing to try to hurt you, it’s because they don’t believe that your pain is real.”
“We both come from performance backgrounds, and in theatre and dance sometimes you have someone in your process called a dramaturge,” explains Liv. “They’re kind of an editor for a piece of performance; they tell you what’s working, what’s not, they ask you helpful questions that help you discover things about what you’re making, and help you make choices. Chris is kind of a dramaturge for PWR BTTM’s work,” they say.
“When we’re recording, it’s like we’re diving down into the ocean,” Liv adds. “We need to have someone on the surface, whose job it is to make sure we’re getting enough oxygen, and that we’re not under too much pressure. That needs to be someone you trust with your life.”
With several shows later on today, PWR BTTM have places to dash, and apparently they’ll be auditioning new bass players along the way. It’s something of a tradition. After all, PWR BTTM is about far more than these two musicians alone.
“If we encounter someone who’s a stranger,” Liv says, “who is incredibly strange or weird, in a beautiful way, or out of place, or glamorous in their own strange way that they might not be aware of, we’re like, oh, that’s our next bass player. It’s our way of pointing out the ridiculous theatricality that we embody on stage, that we see everywhere in the world.”
PWR BTTM’s new album ‘Pageant’ is out 12th May via Big Scary Monsters.
Photos: Emma Swann.
Taken from the May 2017 issue of DIY, subscribe below.