WITH CONSTANT COLLABORATION and long hours on the road, playing in a rock band can become a personality pressure cooker—especially for duos. But Brooklyn two-piece PWR BTTM, who are currently victory-lapping their critically acclaimed 2015 debut, Ugly Cherries, embraces the tension.
"We don't work well creatively," Ben Hopkins (guitar/vocals) says, laughing. "We're sort of like high-fashion, high-glamor Spy vs. Spy. We're trying to kill each other with music."
Even over the phone, Hopkins and Liv Bruce (drums/vocals) share kinetic energy and biting wit. But for now, Bruce gets serious: "I think one reason we work together well is because we are very different people."
The self-described queer punk band met at Bard College in upstate New York. Hopkins studied theater and Bruce studied dance. They apply this passion for performance to an outlandish, full-throttle live act.
"Our shows are two people with performance backgrounds who, by some strange twist of fate, wound up being musicians," Bruce says. "We're not the kind of band that stands there and plays the songs and goes home."
Describing PWR BTTM's creative process, Hopkins notes, "A two-piece band is defined by its limitations but also strengthened by them. It has its limitations, but limitations are interesting to make art with."
There's a seemingly contradictory pairing of intimacy and antagonism threaded throughout Ugly Cherries, alongside examinations of identity and assumption. Hopkins and Bruce consider themselves gender-fluid; the band name PWR BTTM refers to sexual submissives possessing their own kind of power. This toying with stereotypes carries through to PWR BTTM's sound, which Hopkins and Bruce describe as "White Stripes meets Wham!" PWR BTTM creates fun, exuberant, crunchy garage rock nuggets for the rest of us, a sound long dominated by macho posturing and patriarchal sexuality.
Ugly Cherries is not overtly political music—tracks "I Wanna Boy" and "All the Boys" are love songs first, and odes to queer love second. On "Serving Goffman," PWR BTTM sings over a spritely power-pop backbeat: "I want to put the whole world in drag/But I'm starting to realize it's already like that."
PWR BTTM gives voice to a generation unwilling to conform to gender norms and predetermined behavioral expectations predicated on sexuality, not as protest but as a new normal. It's particularly salient that the duo makes music in a world where horrific acts like the Orlando shooting can scar LGBTQ communities.
"It's all performance to me but music is the most interesting," says Hopkins. "Everyone listens to music. Music is the most interesting, digestible, credible way to express what I'm trying to convey as an artist."
"I don't know if there's any way to put it into spoken language," Bruce says. "I think music is the best way to describe it. What we do on stage is like evidence. It's like watching a war."