Even in the middle of all the chaos that descends upon Austin, Texas, every March, it’s hard to miss Ben Hopkins. As half of the guitar rock duo PWR BTTM, Hopkins, 24, walks through SXSW like a radiant queer Moses parting an ocean of boozed-up heteros. He’s tall, for one, like 6 feet plus, and walks with a stride that makes him look even taller. He wears a face full of makeup, or really a face overflowing with makeup and glitter and sweat that bleeds into his stubble and his knotted-up hair. He’s also fond of long polyester dresses emblazoned with bright patterns.
“I intend on being in drag in every building in Austin, Texas,” Hopkins says into the microphone during PWR BTTM’s Wednesday set at Swan Dive, their second performance of the seven they’ll play during the week. “Not as a political gesture, but because I want to meet a husband.” Later, after PWR BTTM’s other half, Liv Bruce, jumps up from behind the drum kit to swap places with Hopkins, the two bandmates will quip back and forth about going to jail for tax fraud and meeting husbands behind bars.
Plenty of bands approach SXSW as an endurance test, something to survive and then brag about having survived, but PWR BTTM thrive here. The five-day music festival is wild and messy and full of unplanned hiccups, which makes it the ideal environment for a band who never wants to be able to predict what will happen at their shows.
Both Hopkins and Bruce come from a theater background — they were in a production of Euripides' The Bacchae together at Bard College, where they met in 2011 — which explains why their concerts feel as much like improv comedy sets as they do rock shows. They tease each other mercilessly, and are even more ruthless in making fun of themselves. The Swan Dive day party is sponsored by a dating app called Bumble that also lets you meet friends, to which Bruce says, “I don’t want friends. But if you’re a happy person, check it out.” After a particularly spittle-y spell behind the mic, Hopkins says, “I’m sorry I drooled. And by that I mean: You’re fucking welcome.”
Bruce, 23, plays perfectly into Hopkins’s idiosyncrasies, and vice versa. “We’re very different people,” Bruce, who uses the pronouns they/them, says when we talk by the river after the set. Bruce could disappear into the SXSW crowds if they had to; their songs (like the yearning “I Wanna Boi”) tend to be more melancholy and introspective than Hopkins’s, whose songs (like “Ugly Cherries”) are often powered by messy, dynamic guitar riffs. (“It’s not about the individual notes,” Hopkins says of his wild soloing. “It’s about the energy.”) PWR BTTM is what happens in the magnetic pull between the two members' personalities. In the mid-aughts, the Dresden Dolls' biography on their offical website said that that group was born when Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione fell in “rock love.” I think PWR BTTM are the product of rock love, too – a kind of empathetic friction between two queers who draw out the most vivid versions of each other.
Since releasing their debut album, Ugly Cherries, last fall, PWR BTTM have spent most of their time on tour. They’ve opened for Ra Ra Riot and Mitski, and played a string of headlining shows along the West Coast. While they thrive on the unpredictable, there is one thing at their shows they’ve been doing their best to control: Since November 2015, their tour rider has included a clause requesting that every venue they play provide gender-neutral bathroom facilities.
If a venue doesn’t already have gender-neutral facilities, PWR BTTM ask that they neutralize their gendered ones for the duration of their show. At Swan Dive, that means paper signs reading, “Everyone is welcome!” have been taped over the bathroom doors. It’s a way to ensure comfort and safety for attendees who, like Bruce and Hopkins, don’t neatly fit into a box marked M or F.
So far, PWR BTTM say their bathroom clause has been working all over North America: If a venue won’t accommodate their policy, it’s usually due to local ordinances, not cultural resistance. “If they’re booking a PWR BTTM show, they know what they’re in for,” explains Bruce, who notes that some of their most welcoming shows have taken place in deeply red states. Queer and trans kids are born everywhere, not just in the country’s hippest metropolises.
A few days after SXSW ends and PWR BTTM continue on their spring tour, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed a law requiring state residents to use public bathrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate. Although trans people are infinitely more likely, statistically speaking, to be victims of violent bathroom attacks than perpetrators, the reactionary legislation – which is already facing a court challenge from the ACLU, Lambda Legal, and others – reinforces the age-old myth that trans women and transfeminine people are men in disguise exploiting tolerance to prey on cis women. No evidence supports this dangerous fiction, but, like many cultural hangups about gender, it persists.
PWR BTTM respond almost immediately to the news. “To queer folks of North Carolina: We stand with you,” they write in a statement on Facebook. “Thank you to The Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro for accommodating PWR BTTM’s gender-inclusive [policy] when we played there recently. We will do everything in our pwr to ensure that all future PWR BTTM shows in NC remain inclusive of all gender identities."
Bruce and Hopkins don’t write protest songs, per se, but the simple fact of being queer while wanting to use the bathroom at the venues they play has turned into a subtle protest in itself. “The personal is political,” notes Hopkins.
A day after their Swan Dive show, I’ll see PWR BTTM play the outdoor stage at Grackle, a few miles east of downtown Austin. The SXSW fatigue is starting to set in a little, but they muscle through it, jokes at the ready. Hopkins is still playing guitar with what’s left of a fake nail he broke at Swan Dive, red makeup dripping bloody onto his collarbone. He has to stop and restart a song due to sound issues, but he laughs it off: “Like my gender, sometimes things don’t come out right the first time."