The 2013 documentary The Punk Singer chronicles the rise of the riot grrrl movement in the ’90s and focuses on the revolution’s central figure, Kathleen Hanna. During a highlight of the film, Hanna discusses how she and her bandmates decided to form Bikini Kill even though none of them could really play an instrument. For Ben Hopkins, a then-theater student at Bard College in New York, the movie struck a chord.
“I was a playwriting student and I was really, really frustrated with theater…the venues in which it’s performed and the way that people receive theater,” Hopkins says. “After I saw that movie I was like, ‘Oh God, I wish I could be in a band.’ And then like literally the next week somebody asked me to be in a band—and I was struggling to come out of the closet so it all kind of just fell into place.”
When friend and fellow Bard student Liv Bruce was looking for a bandmate to play a festival of queer-fronted bands at one of the school’s DIY spaces, they were referred to Hopkins by a mutual friend. Hopkins had a basic working knowledge of guitar having taken a few lessons and watched some online tutorials.
“Liv was in a really cool college band at Bard that I used to go see all the time. But I was never openly identifying as a musician like at all,” Hopkins recalls. “But I always loved indie rock and I had a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of all the bands that I liked…But I never really thought of myself as a musician.”
That first gig marked the inception of PWR BTTM, the guitar-and-drums pop-punk duo comprised of Hopkins and Bruce. Both identify as queer and prefer gender-neutral they/them pronouns, and Bruce has a non-binary gender identity. They aim to demonstrate the type of queer representation that they couldn’t find when they were young.
“Queer people are conditioned socially to feel like we’re not protagonists in our own story,” Hopkins says. “When given the space, we wanna say things that mean stuff to us because in popular culture we’re often represented by very reductive portrayals of who we are…. And I don’t try to speak for anybody. I think that it’s really important to know that there is no singular queer experience. There is no singular political perspective. There’s no singular queer idea of anything. There is only like me, Ben Hopkins, like someone who grew up in like a middle class family on the coast of Massachusetts and went to a liberal arts college and like somehow wound up in a punk band.”
Despite what Hopkins says about their humble musical beginnings, they can shred with the best of them. A PWR BTTM show is a glitter-fueled explosion of power riffs, vibrant outfits and lyrical brilliance that’s part cheeky and all sincerity. It’s PWR BTTM’s ability to be both technically savvy and fun that makes them so accessible. And Hopkins and Bruce’s witty back-and-forth doesn’t hurt, either.
“As a kid, I was a standup comic, like that’s what I wanted to be, and I performed a lot doing that and so the banter thing, it kind of was just what Liv and I’s relationship was, manifesting on stage,” Hopkins says.
Another central component to their live shows is a mid-set instrument switch.
“When we switched instruments, it was kind of just like a challenge. I don’t know, I’ve always thought about musical instruments as kind of a means to an end, you know what I mean?” Hopkins explains.
It’s an approach the duo will continue on their upcoming sophomore album, Pageant. The highly-anticipated follow-up to their 2015 debut, Ugly Cherries, is slated for release in May on Polyvinyl Records. Hopkins and Bruce double up for guitar on one track, and elsewhere on the record Hopkins picks up the bass. The two will continue to share songwriting duties, albeit with two very different lyrical techniques.
“I think that I’m much more abstract and Liv is much more detail-oriented. In songwriting, like I tend to gravitate towards things like repetition…Every time you repeat a word, it has a different meaning to it,” Hopkins explains. “For my songs, it almost sounds like what I’m saying isn’t as important as how I’m saying it. Maybe that comes from me having an acting background…I only complete songs that I feel are urgent. Because I’ll start writing a song and if it’s worthwhile—and this is true of a lot of songwriters—I’ll finish it in like 20 minutes.”
Songwriting’s function is to process the goings-on of life, trying to make some sense of them before spitting them back out in a way that might resonate with others. So what better songwriting method is there than just living?
“I’m not trying to build a cabinet, you know, or like make a soufflé. There aren’t like 30 things that work every time,” Hopkins says. “My process is a bunch of dumb shit happens and then I get really confused and I have trouble expressing myself with words and so I just play guitar in my apartment and walk around in my underwear and drink bad beer. And in insane moments of clarity, I’m able to produce a song.”