“Do you ever tell a joke so surreal in your own drag queen band that no one gets it but you?”
South by Southwest act PWR BTTM (fill in your own vowels and check Urban Dictionary if you need further illumination) does. The whipsmart and savagely witty duo describes itself as a “queer punk band” with a DIY bent. That was crystal at ScratcHouse a little after midnight Wednesday.
Ben Hopkins (guitar and vocals, then drums) looked like Jesus of Nazareth got in a heated argument with a clearance bin of McCall’s dress patterns, festooned in a crown of rainbow threads and draped in black sequins and garish prints. He fell face-first into a makeup caboodle, his mouth a shiny red crater. Bandmate Liv Bruce (drums, then guitar and vocals) took a softer look in a shiny pink negligee of the Disney Store variety.
Their sound check contained a few bars of Celiné Dion. And based on the drag and the sexually suggestive name, you would correctly surmise that PWR BTTM makes gay music. But “gay music” doesn’t mean anything.
Austin has its own radio station marketed toward an LGBT audience, but it’s a whole lot of Katy Perry and David Guetta. (Both straight.) RuPaul put out a new album this year, but if you’re not ready to werk, it might not be your cup of T, hunty. At SXSW, there are some options — electroclash titan/freak hive mother Peaches is making the rounds, unofficial queer showcases like Stargayzer are at Oilcan Harry’s, etc.
What makes PWR BTTM a vital band could be felt plainly Wednesday: They’re weird glittery drag queens that rock oh so hard and feel oh so much. The aesthetic is not a disguise; it’s part of the conversation as twentysomething mundanities and indignities are keenly felt onstage and then off. On seeing an ex every day: “I’m looking forward to the day when I can see your face and not wonder what it was I did that made you run away.”
The band sings plainly about love, about hoping to find someone who likes the movies they like, and they burn with lyrical empathy. The song “I Wanna Boi,” introduced snarkily by Bruce as a song “about looking for a partner in sodomy,” ached with everyday sweetness: “I want a boy to keep the bed warm while I shower … I want a boy who isn’t anything like me.”
That remarkable tension between garish and sincere seemed to be PWR BTTM’s whole gig. The glam rock bravado of “Ugly Cherries” reclaimed rock and roll’s flamboyance with swaggering swish, and Hopkins’ lightning guitar licks were head-spinning. The band is punk in ethos and in sound at times, but a familiarity with the garage reigns.
And know how Spider-Man cracks wise while saving the day? So goes PWR BTTM. Among their quotable absurdities: “That chocolate fountain was fierce.” “I just sat in the corner cackling with a mojito.” “Try Sprite. It’s good. It’ll make your dad love you.” “I know you’d think by my outfit that I don’t have my (expletive) together. … You’d be right.”
Throbbing to Peaches is awesome. Sashaying to Ru is essential. But for sad suburban gay love without apology, run to your nearest Hobby Lobby and wrap yourself in the ugliest tablecloth. It’s the PWR BTTM way to mix tears with glitter.