ARTICLE KATHLEEN HANNA
PHOTOGRAPHY MELISSA DALE NEAL
STYLIST T.J. RUDY
THE ULTIMATE PUNK SINGER SHINES A SPOTLIGHT ON ONE OF THE BAY AREA'S MOST CONSISTENTLY ENTERTAINING UNDERGROUND TALENTS, BRONTEZ PURNELL. HERE, KATHLEEN HANNA CHATS WITH THE YOUNGER LOVERS SINGER ABOUT EVERYTHING FROM PUNK ROCK, TO HIP HOP, TO BEING A ROLE MODEL AND CAUTIONARY TALE ALL AT ONCE
KATHLEEN HANNA I know you always say how 'hella lazy' you are, but you've made a bunch of records, written a novella, acted in a feature-length film, started your own dance company. Do you prefer to work on one project at a time, start to finish, or have a zillion things going at once?
BRONTEZ PURNELL A zillion at once! I find that most art endeavors are just a lot of waiting around, you know? Waiting on money or like, the next step to be greenlit. Like, you record a record and then wait seven months for it to get pressed to vinyl and in the meantime you sit around twiddling your thumbs feeling all hella anxious and thats when I'm like, Time to go to the dance studio and work on a new piece. I like working on lots of things at once because its creates a sychronicity in my work and I get to dive harder into the common themes that run through it all. Identity, time, money, politics... You know, blah blah blah.
KH You once described your novella, Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger, as belonging in the N.W.A-meets-feminism category of literature, which made me think how much I would love to go to Barnes & Noble and ask, "Where's the N.W.A-meets-feminism section?" Is there any other rap that has influenced you besides N.W.A?
BP Well, there's my homegirl, Mykki Blanco. Fun fact: Me and Mykki used to hang out waaaaaaay back when he lived in Oakland in the early 2000s. I remember Mykki came over to my punk warehouse and we were getting drunk, making out, shooting the shit and we were just these two black punk gay weirdos. I was like, How are we going to make it in this world? Who's gonna listen to us? But then cut to now and like, Mykki is on the cover of the Village Voice and that made me want to live. There's also Le1f, who I totally adore. Younger Lovers played with Le1f in Kentucky like a year and a half ago and he told me he listend to Gravy Train!!!! when he was younger and I started gushing. I saw Le1f on David Letterman the other week and like started crying. I was so happy! But then I was like, Fuck, maybe I should've been a rapper! This DIY punk thing is wearing an old man down! And although she's not rap, I also dig Janelle Monae. Did you see the "Tightrope" video? Did you see the Maya Deren references in the video? DUDE.
KH You were referred to as "a staple of the Queer Underground" by OUT magazine and put on their "100 Most Eligible Bachelors" list. Has this notoriety caused any trouble, confusion or doubt for you as an underground artist?
BP Um, not really. I think the big issue (as always) is money. The fact that I still struggle to make my $400 rent in Oakland is why I still consider myself an underground artist. Back when I was younger I got ahold of the Geurrilla Girls [Greatest Hits] Postcard Book because they had this one postcard that was talking about the art world and the disparity of money in the arts as it related to women—I identified with the sentiment. It talked about how easy it is to get press but how hard it is to make money and I was like, Tell the truth! I have lived it, honey.
KH How has the notion of authenticity affected your life and/or your work?
BP Kind of a hard question. I often suffer from being too real. Like, I'm literally the queen of too much information, but if you've lived through too much hard shit and still have to struggle you can't really sugarcoat shit. Also, I'm a theater student, so I'm always drawing a line in the sand of how performative I'm being. It's funny I remeber growing up in Alabama, I was 16 and working at this fried catfish restaurant and listening to a lot of Bikini Kill and I was like, I wanna talk like a Valley girl. So I affected this West Coast accent just to keep myself entertained, but what I found was that when I talked like a Valley girl it would totally disarm all the rednecks that would come into the restaurant. They would hear me, stop dead in their tracks, and be like, Where are you from, boy? They'd treat me different than if I was standard issue. People are funny. Cut to almost 15 years later, after living on the West Coast for 12 years, my upspeak isn't really an act anymore. I code-switch too, like, when I hear the voice in my head I simultaneously hear a Valley girl, a pissed off old Southern man, a black grandma, etcetera. I sometimes have to stop and ask myself, Who the fuck am I?
KH One of the things that attracts so many fans to you is that whether you're playing music, reading in public or dancing, you always seem so three-dimensional and in the moment. Have you ever just phoned in a performance?
BP I can count on one hand the number of times I've done that. I'm such an attention-starved little boy on the inside and the stage is where I come alive, so I dont phone it in too much. I do have to be careful about my alcohol intake before a performance though, but thats a whole other topic… Lordy.
KH When I look at the way you traverse mediums I see a huge desire to communicate however possible. Was there a time when you felt silenced that drives you?
BP Yeah. My ex-Marine stepfather (rest his soul) could be such a fucking dick to me, and I think he felt sorry for it right before he died. I grew up old-school Southern, and his thing was like, Children are to be seen and not heard—especially really faggy stepchildren like myself who talk-talk-talked—and I'm always wondering when I'm gonna calm down, you know? I want to give my damaged inner child a lollipop and say, You can quit crying now. The big bad monster is dead. But that's not true. The patriarchal sentiment is still around us. It grabs me by the neck often, and that's when I kick it in the balls. Every day. Especially the way it goes down in gay dude land. I fucking hate the way every dude is like, Please be masculine... On one hand, I'm like, I'm totally masculine—in a Portland dyke kind of way! But on the other hand, it feels like every dude wants to butch me up like they're my asshole stepdad or my gym teacher. There are those mornings I wake up crying. Sometimes angry, disoriented, and I want to blow shit up. But then I remember to breathe, take a walk, talk to a friend… It's a process.
KH Have you ever been starstruck?
BP Yes. There was that time I met Nikki Giovanni when I was 18. Going on tour with Le Tigre later that same year. Going on a reading tour with Dorothy Allison and Justin Bond, meeting Gloria Steinem, and meeting Ana Di Silva from The Raincoats, meeting Tobi Vail, oh lord. I am such a fanboy at heart, I get starstuck super easily. The thing I like about all the people I idolize is that when I met them they were all so normal about it. I love when a star has a casual swagger. If I could just meet Bill T. Jones, I would die happy.
KH Even though you grew up in the region, aka the deep South, you seem really loyal to the East Bay. What do you like about making art in Oakland?
BP I have deep ties to the East Bay. My grandmother's brother played blues in Oakland in the '60s and '70s up until his death in the early 2000s. His name was J.J. Malone. His father, my great-grandad was a bluesman too, but in Chicago and Alabama. My uncle J.J. would come to Alabama every year. He taught me stuff on guitar, and that's essentially one of the main factors on how I started getting into rock and roll. He had this wild white hippie girlfriend. They were both these West Coast bohemian types and I think they could tell I was gay and loved me for it. I was 12 and they would always be like, You gotta make it to California. I grew up reading Maximumrocknroll and loving Lookout! Records and I just always knew this was my destination. I always wonder if I'll ever leave, but no other place really calls to me. I love Oakland. It's gritty, it's wide open, and it creates a lot of space for me to create. I love the way the city looks. I basically had my second adolescence here and it's the first real place to me that felt like home.
KH I've been trying to think of a word or phrase that describes how you do a lot of things, and you do them all really well. Jack of all trades sounds like you're selling medicine in old-fashioned bottles or something, and dilettante just means you dip your toes into everything, and can't decide what you really want to do. While I'm pondering this, I'll ask a real question. Is there a medium you haven't worked in that you'd like to?
BP I have always wanted to understand visual art, you know? But at 31 I'm just now connecting to it, and my mind just doesnt work that way. But I wish I had the mind of a painter. Something about it seems so hands-on. Maybe I should date a painter.
KH As the lead singer for the garage band The Younger Lovers, I'm guessing you sometimes end up playing for predominantly straight white audiences. As one of the few gay men of color in the punk scene, do you ever feel pressured to be a role model?
BP Yeah, it's hard. There are ways in which I feel like a role model by proxy, but then there are definite ways in which I'm a cautionary tale. I wouldn't want any younger boy thinking I'm a blueprint because I've had to make some tough calls that I wouldn't want to see someone else go though. I've had to negotiate being a crazy black punk artist under the lens of the white gaze. If I act like a crazy performance art fool in a room full of mostly white art patrons, am I intrisically more demeaned by that because of my blackness than a white boy who does the same thing? But then, if I "act right," then it's me falling into the same cultural script of what it means to be a "real" black man in America, i.e. stoic, dignified, masculine, strong, silent. It's always been a hard thing for me to negotiate. Punk rock is mostly white, but this is America. What isn't mostly white? I've read Eartha Kitt's autobiograpy, I've read Nina Simone's autobiography, Josephine Baker's and Billie Holliday's, and they all say the same thing. There came a point in their careers when the more famous they became, the whiter the audience got. So what do you do with that? White performers have to perform for white people, so how the fuck is my black ass gonna get out of it? My hope is that one day if I'm an old man and I still get to rock out on stage and if I see ten black punk fags in the audience I'll die happy. But this is America, and race, gender, and class are always an issue. I love, and by love I mean am repulsed by, how many people are invested in trying to tell you it's never that way.
KH Between tight pants, tight shirts, short satin shorts, and full-on nakedness, the only thing I haven't seen you rock fashion-wise is Winnie-the-Pooh style, a.k.a. a red half-top with no pants. Who are your top three fashion icons?
BP Riot Grrrls of the '90s, Mod girls of the '60s, and French girls of the '40s.
The Younger Lovers will be playing Sled Island this July, guest-curated by Kathleen Hanna. More info
The Younger Lovers' Sugar In My Pocket LP is available now from Southpaw Records.