Being fanboys of the Brooklyn boy band Bottoms, we caught up with them at their Secret Project Robot home base in Bushwick just before they take off on their European tour. But don’t freak, you still have a chance to catch Jake Dibeler, Simon Leahy, and Michael Prommasit at the Butt magazine party this weekend (appropriately titled Club Butt). For the uninitiated, Bottoms are a gay electro-punk band known for their wild, confrontational draggy shows. Steeped in punk and DIY as well as performance art, these ladies really know how to shake up a static room.
When I arrived at Secret Project Robot, a heavy-eyed Simon Leahy (who you might remember from the notorious NYC Porn Fest, he confirmed: “We didn’t get sued.”) greeted me and poured me a cup of coffee and we sat down at the bar, which looked more like a haphazard kitchen at this hour. Occasional dramatic screams and whinnies issued from the back room. Apparently Jake was helping Michael get into drag gear, something he never does.
“We usually don’t let him,” Jake explained. “Because Michael just wants to be in a wig. You can’t be in a wig, you have to be 110 percent like a character. We also need someone who’s not in just a shitty wig so we don’t just look like a shitty drag queen band, which we are not.”
This is 100 percent true. Bottoms are not just a gaggle of drag queens doing their worst to make people laugh, the lead singer Jake screams about serious issues facing the gay community (HIV and AIDS, for one and two) as well as body issues and other supremely personal, often chaotic matters. And where Bottoms have an occasional streak of punk nihilism, they’re all about energy and catharsis as well.
Jake streaked out of the room. “What, Michael?!” he screamed. “Is it moving around?!”
Finally Michael emerged, bedecked in a skin-tight, pale flesh colored dress, wearing whitish snake-eye contacts and a black wig. He was shifting around a bit and actually did look a little uncomfortable plopping down onto the chair next to me and letting Jake roughly rub a black makeup crayon across his eyelids. Michael turned to me and smiled, his teeth covered in a black tar-like slime.
“I always do this look on stage,” Jake explained of Michael’s do. “I’m not interested in being female, I’m interested in being feminine and masculine. I don’t do much to disguise my masculinity, it’s just a character from a horror movie. I just love looking disgusting.”
This gristly tension is also evident in their music. And though their sound is replete with minimal, early techno blips, moans, screams, a distant darkness, it still maintains a certain amount of, how do I say this? Party.
Michael: Yeah, I used to skate so I grew up around a lot of skater punks and weird traveling kids because I’m from South Carolina.
Jake: That sounds awful. But yeah, I’ve been goth since I was 12. But I’m from Philadelphia, there was cultural run off. So I wasn’t totally isolated as a child.
Simon: I grew up in Manchester, England and the first club I went to was the Hacienda because my cousins ran the door. And they let me in when I was like 14. And then I started doing club nights with noise bands and stuff, like Skam Records.
Simon: Not really.
Jake: Yes, you do! What are you talking about?
Michael: I guess I’m like Acid influenced, not like the drug.
Jake: I’m just really inspired by weed and molly and coke! I’m in a band because I want to have unprotected sex with guys all over the world. No, vocally– because I’m not a singer– I was like, go with what you know. You can’t sing, but you can scream. I was like, OK the Cocteau Twins, that’s someone who made a career out of not making words and just making sounds and it’s like the most beautiful thing. I think a lot about people who use their voices as an instrument. Diamanda Galas, and a lot of writers too.
Musically we’re influenced by AIDS-era electronic music: Throbbing Gristle, early industrial stuff.
Jake: The queer anger, I guess.
Simon: I think it changes. Initially I was interested in music made by gay men during the AIDS crisis, because a lot of it is very emotional and about love. Now it’s kind of changing into more of this masculine techno, like challenging those norms.
Jake: Well, I was kind of the popular girl in high school. I didn’t come from this angry place because I was bullied or whatever. I came from an angry place that was inherent, it wasn’t sparked from anything outside.
Simon: It was definitely horrific growing up in Manchester.
Michael: Same with South Carolina, there weren’t any cool gay people where I grew up. It was either really terrible, cliche gay people or like really homophobic type figures. So I feel I definitely came into myself in New York and now I’m wearing a dress.
Simon: I just want to play in big nightclubs.
Michael: Well, we make like really serious music.
Jake: I think the appeal is that it’s punk in this way where we don’t give a fuck. Our shows have the punk energy where it’s catapulting from somewhere, a place of rage and disquiet. So in that way it is punk — it’s coming from somewhere that’s like rebelling. I think in the message of the music and the music itself, it brings it to this place that’s not like anger, but a place that is kind of accessible. So in that way, it’s not punk. It’s not exclusive.
I think people use it as a place to rage, especially at shows. People are always wiling out. It’s really fun to just dance to something that’s dark. There’s this sad energy, but in an upbeat way. The first album was like dark and light at the same time, there was this dichotomy of dancing to something that’s super brutal. It’s punk, but it’s for, like, people.
Simon: And at techno shows, most of the people who play techno, it’s just like two guys hiding behind their equipment. You don’t have this element of a show. It’s not necessarily problematic but it’s like, I dunno. With bigger clubs it’s just males dancing to techno so it’s weird to add this element of drag to shows.
Jake: You go to one of our shows and there’s someone in a dress, but you’re like, oh, that person in a dress is like totally in my space and it’s making me have to consider this in a way that’s not just “I’m at a club listening to music.” There are people involved and like, energy involved. It’s not just like, I’m here to dance and dance about myself or whatever.
Michael: Right, if there’s no energy in a room, we’re doing something wrong.
Simon: It’s the idea of challenging techno masculinity. Techno is a very masculine music so it’s fun to try and make really good techno but play it in this mode of drag queens and faggotry because then it’s really confusing. [In techno music] the focus is the DJ, and everyone is just like staring at the DJ. I read this amazing PhD thesis on techno music and it was saying the reason why that is, is so that the other men can avoid the homosocial gaze. The music is quite like, you’re really high and it’s erotic and sexual and everyone focuses on this one point.
Jake: Oh my God! $10 for a record is so cheap! Six songs?! I think people use it as an excuse to exercise their anger, especially in this queer way. We want people to come and see we’re totally like them and we’re screaming about things they can’t because they don’t have a place to do it. And I think that’s why it’s been really successful. It surprised me. We just started doing it here [at Secret Project Robot]. I mean this is our home base so we totally could have just stayed here and played shows on this stage.
Jake: All the time! I love it, for me as a performer I’m like failure is fine.
Michael: Everything is kind of funny when it turns out like that.
Jake: I love when I’m on the floor in a gown in the splits. And people are just like [open-mouthed]. I’m wild no matter what.
Simon: Also being queer and a failure kind of run into each other.
Jake: Not me, darling! I’ve only been a queer success!
Simon: Well, the idea of celebrating failure is not bad.
Michael: It’s funny when you fail.
Jake: For us, we got on stage and do a show and the only time we’d decide it was a failure is if the sound wasn’t right.
Michael: That’s the most frustrating type of failure.
Jake: I’m never like, oh no, people didn’t connect! That’s not our fault. The chemistry goes both ways. Sometimes we’ll be in a show that’s totally inappropriate and people will be like get them in here! And there will be a lot of straight people, which is great — we have a lot of straight fans — but I think as a whole, it’s not not for them, but it’s harder for them to find a point of connection. At at a point it’s like there are these gay people singing about AIDS and at a certain point it’s not about me.
Simon: But that’s just life.
Jake: I’ve definitely made jokes people don’t laugh at, but that’s fine by me — I know I’m funny.