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Riding Out the ‘Shitstorm’ with Thunderpussy

Guitarist Whitney Petty chats with OutSmart ahead of all-female rock quartet's Houston show.

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If there was ever a time that we needed a band such as Thunderpussy, it would be now. A raucous, rowdy and rocking all-female quartet, Thunderpussy whips up a storm on songs such as opener “Speed Queen,” as well as “Fever” and “Velvet Noose.” Thunderpussy isn’t all blast and bluster as they demonstrate on numbers such as “Young & Pure” and “All In.” I had the pleasure of speaking with co-songwriter, guitarist and backing vocalist Whitney Petty about the controversy around the band’s name, the new album and being a queer woman in rock.

Gregg Shapiro: Whitney, if you don’t mind, I’d like to begin by talking about the 2017 case, Matal v. Tam , which allowed Thunderpussy to keep its name. Did you ever imagine that, when coming up with a name for the band, you would be involved in a Supreme Court case?

Whitney Petty: It was very shocking to us, obviously. When we got our rejection letter, we felt a little deflated. When we applied for the trademark, I thought maybe it’s a longshot. I realize, especially recently, that we’ve become so desensitized to the name. It kind of rippled from us, initially, in our families. Our moms were like, “Oh, my God. Don’t call it that.” Now, even they say it with pride. I feel like, for us, it’s a good reminder that there are a lot of people out there who still find it shocking and are offended by it. But that’s not what we’re going for. That shock factor is so far from what we’re trying to do. Can’t everybody just get it? Can’t the Supreme Court just get it? It’s about empowerment. It’s tongue in cheek. It’s fun and lighthearted. It’s rock and roll. Why can’t they see that?

Being based in Seattle, how much would you say that female-fronted rock band Heart, also from Seattle, had an influence on Thunderpussy personally and professionally?
We’re all big fans of Heart, for sure. The female thing, the sister thing, they really cultivated that mystique. I think they utilized that tool and marketed themselves well without it being gimmicky. When you have siblings in a band, that’s obviously compelling. The fact that they’re gorgeous women and so talented. I think they paved the way for women in the sense that they could be rockers and not just be the bassist or the keyboard player or the vocalist in the band. Ann Wilson is an insane flute player [laughs]. Nancy Wilson is a guitar genius, a classically-trained badass. And their harmonies! It was inspirational to have them making music in the world. The Seattle connection — I think everybody is really proud to be coming from that city where they got their start. I fucking love Heart.

I could tell. While we’re on the subject of Seattle, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready gave Thunderpussy his stamp of approval. What does that mean to the band?
[Laughs] it means that we can have a career. We are grateful for his encouragement. He’s very cavalier about it. He doesn’t look at us as a girl band. He just sees us as a great rock band. He loves rock-and-roll music. He’s done everything in his power to help us along the way — passing our record to his manager, Kelly Curtis, who runs the label we’re now signed to.

What can you tell me about Thunderpussy’s songwriting process?
Each song has its own blueprint in its DNA. All songs start differently. There’s no way to know how one’s going to come about. Sometimes it starts with a lyric or a melody, sometimes with a riff. Sometimes it will come out of a jam. A majority of the time, our songs are written by me or Molly [Sides] going to the other one and saying, “I have this thing” [laughs]. Sometimes I’ll show her a lyric or she’ll have a melody or vice versa. Molly will hum something and I’ll be like, “Oh, that’s cool. Let me write a lick to it.” Once we get a base structure, we’ll ask, “What kind of song is this going to be? Where is it coming from? Where is it going?” Once we get the lyrics, a chorus or a cool verse fleshed out, we’ll take it to the rhythm section and they’ll give us their seal of approval or say, “This sucks! Let’s redo it” [laughs]. Not all songs make it. For every song that makes it, there are three songs that didn’t.

I think that more than a few queer female listeners are going to be intrigued by the song “Speed Queen.” Is it about a woman, a motorcycle or both?
I wrote that song, and now Molly sings it. I wrote it thinking of Molly as the “Speed Queen.” She’s my partner. We’ve been together for almost seven years. There’s a line in there that goes “I was looking for her she was looking for me.” That’s the way I always felt about Molly. When we met there was instant sparks and complete attraction. She’s my muse and my inspiration. There’s definitely a love story in the song, and I always thought about it being between us. My 20s were spent roaming around and being a vagrant. (In the song) the character stumbles into a bar and there’s this beautiful woman. That’s what happened to me. Stumbled into Seattle and there was Molly; it changed my life. 

I found it admirable the way that Thunderpussy struck a balance between its hard-rocking sound, on songs such as “Fever,” “Velvet Noose” and “Utero Tango,” and its softer side on “Young & Pure,” “All In” and “Torpedo Love.” Was it important to the band to have both elements represented?
Yes, it was intentional. Molly and I like those kinds of rock and roll. We’re both into acoustic music. Take a band like Heart. They have the most rocking songs imaginable and they have really tender songs; beautiful soundscapes such as “Dreamboat Annie.” I think it’s important for us to show who we are and we are those people who love that kind of music. I love really mellow music and I love to rock the fuck out [laughs]. It shows up on the record.

I also have a fondness for bands that have theme songs, like the Monkees, as Thunderpussy does on the 11th track of the album. What was the inspiration for the band to have a theme song?
I love that you mentioned the Monkees. People will start going down the list and say Bad Company and Black Sabbath. No one has ever said the Monkees and I hadn’t even thought of them. Personally, I’ve always thought it was cool for a band to have a theme song. The last band I was in was called The Grizzled Mighty and I was always trying to talk the guitar player into writing a theme song. He was never into it. I had all this pent-up desire to write a theme song; years of wanting to do it and thinking about it. With a band like Thunderpussy, and the name is so powerful, it’s so catchy, I thought, “This is almost a better song name than a band name. We’ve got to write a Thunderpussy song!” Molly was totally on board. It’s a little bit of an opus. It was one of the first songs I ever wrote. Molly contributed some lines. We were just trying to make each other laugh while writing it.

Thunderpussy is renowned for its rowdy reputation. What can fans attending a Thunderpussy concert expect to experience?
They can expect to shocked by how fun much they are allowed to have. A Thunderpussy show is a lot about us giving the audience permission to be present and to let go, go with the flow and enjoy the music. There’s no judgment. If you want to dance or mosh or whatever you want to do. We want to make a safe place for people to come and wave their freak flag if they want or stand in the back if they want; to just enjoy themselves.

Finally, we began with the SCOTUS and we’re ending with it, too. On this sad day when Brett Kavanaugh is one step closer to being confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, I was wondering if Thunderpussy ever gets political at their shows, perhaps having people at the venue to register voters and?

When the band started four or five years ago, it was a different political climate. So much has changed in the last two years. It’s just a shitstorm. When that started it was important for to be a refuge from that shitstorm. Our overall perspective on life is that everything is still beautiful and we’re all connected; let’s embrace and move past this together. I didn’t want to take a staunch political stand. As we move forward through this fucking ridiculous situation we’re in, you can’t turn a blind eye to it. We haven’t done too much overt political action. In our shows we definitely talk about our differences and similarities. Molly likes to make everybody introduce themselves to the person next to them. We try to create a community in our shows where everyone can feel welcome and happy. There’s no wall between the band and the audience. I think that that’s a small step and, in a way, it is a political statement. I feel like the atmosphere is so charged and it’s not okay. We’re creating these rifts and differences and at the end of the day, none of that is important or real. I hope the band can continue to stay lighthearted and fun and foster a sense of community, but it’s not all fun and games in the society in which we’re living now. As women, we care about women’s rights and equality.

What: Thunderpussy in concert
When: 7 p.m. on Oct. 12
Where: House of Blues Houston, Bronze Peacock Room
Tickets: houseofblues.com/houston/EventDetail?tmeventid=3A0054F3B1A82E3D&offerid=90267

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Gregg Shapiro

Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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