Atwood Magazine catches up with Leah Julius, bassist of Seattle hard rock band Thunderpussy, to talk their latest tour, the success of their debut album, and what it’s like to kick over rock and roll’s boys club.
The sprawl of LA tends to hide its wonders. One can drive for hours in any direction and still only take in a taste of what it has to offer. If you look carefully though, the city unfurls itself like a welcome mat. Tonight, one such treat lies smack in the middle of the Miracle Mile, a pitstop between Santa Monica and Downtown. You could drive past the marquee of the El Rey Theater without noticing, positioned as it is next to a CVS and a Smart and Final. But slip inside, and the gutted theater space hearkens back to the painted-on glitz of the Sunset Strip glory days – chandeliers and candelabras dressing up the sweet, rotting odor of decades of spilled alcohol. It’s rock and roll incarnate, the perfect backdrop for tonight’s main course.
The curtain pulls back on a naked stage save for a single figure under the spotlight. She draws a bow across the strings of her electric guitar, unleashing a mournful wail into the crowd. This is Whitney, lead guitarist of Seattle hard rock outfit Thunderpussy. The name alone should tell you everything you need to know. Four women from the Pacific Northwest properly melting faces on the back of wailing guitars – in your face and unabashedly feminine.
Hard rock cranked to eleven has felt like a man’s game for so long, that it feels more like a novelty than it really should. “We all just want to embody what feels natural to us,” says bassist Leah Julius. “It just so happens that’s in a traditionally male-dominated space, so it tends to seem like we’re coming out swinging to take over this boys’ club. It’s cool if we end up doing that, but there was never this intense agenda to do so. We’re just four women who enjoy rock music and decided to play it.”
And they play the heck out of it. The marquee outside advertises Black Pistol Fire, but the Thunderpussy show seizes the crowd by the neck and shakes it awake. Suddenly it’s 1988 on Sunset Boulevard, the walls shuddering from the squall of a band too big for this rickety stage. Rock’s heyday may be a distant past, but spiritual successors like them keep the torch lit. And this new wave of rockers are starting to look a lot like them.
Women are picking up guitars like never before, partially through the accessibility of the internet and partially through increased visibility. When Thunderpussy played an all-ages Pride Show this year, Leah commented on the number of kids, especially young girls in the audience. “There was this one girl literally mimicking every move Molly [Thunderpussy’s lead singer] was making onstage and my mind was blown. I was trying to focus on playing the show, but at the same time all I could think about was when I was a kid and went to shows, I never got to look up and see four ladies just raging.” It’s a powerful thing seeing someone who looks like you in a situation you didn’t dream possible. Rock is becoming a space for anyone to express themselves, and Thunderpussy’s music is a prime example of why that’s a good thing.
On stage, Whitney is joined by the rest of this hard-hitting quartet, immediately tearing into one rager after the other. The thundering road warrior love story of “Speed Queen,” “No Heaven’s” smoky lounge debauchery, a fierce cover of “Somebody to Love” that warrants Grace Slick’s seal of approval. Even during the quieter moments, the energy never dissipates – a solid block of adrenaline until the curtain falls.
Yeah, everything sucks, but this is the Year of the Pussy. This is our year to rise.
The story of Thunderpussy begins about five years ago in the great white north of Seattle. Guitarist Whitney Petty, singer Molly Sides, bassist Leah Julius, and drummer Ruby Dunphy (who has since left the band) met and knew each other through the music scene, though they played in different bands. But after the lot of them played the Doe Bay Music Festival up in the San Juans, Molly and Whitney cornered Leah and pitched her their idea for a new band. “They said it was called Thunderpussy and that I had to come practice with them when we got back to the city,” laughs Leah. “I said ‘okay,” but I thought it was sort of a joke.” It wasn’t until practice came that she realized it most certainly wasn’t. “I was like, ‘Oh, shit! These ore some f****n’ players.”
The subsequent years have been a barrage of recording and touring, spreading the gospel of rock and roll from their perch in the Seattle scene. As much as their artistic approach is music-first, their social media reads like a mission statement. Peppered throughout their Instagram posts is the tag #YearOfThePussy. More than a clever twist on their name, it lays down their ethos as a band as they grow artistically and in popularity.“Remember how everyone was feeling at the end of 2016? It was a shit show,” says Leah. “But in the back of my mind, I was like ‘Yeah, everything sucks, but this is the Year of the Pussy. This is our year to rise.’”
She started using the hashtag here and there, but after the Women’s March in January 2017, a switch flipped. “I thought it really does feel like the Year of the Pussy. It’s time.” Two and a half years later, it seems as relevant as ever.
“I feel like women weren’t women weren’t given permission in the past to get on stage and have fun with their friends like dudes have forever,” she says. “It makes sense that somebody our age who never had that motivation as a kid could come to see us and be like ‘Oh, I could do that too.’ If we can have that affect by doing what we love, then that’s awesome.”
Long Live the Speed Queen
During a lull between songs, a shout goes up from somewhere in the crowd. “I love you, Whitney!” The audience cheers and a smattering of applause goes up in approval.
Molly smiles and leans into the mic. “I love her too,” she says.
It’s true Thunderpussy’s foundation is the unshakable bond of all four members (they have matching lightning bolt tattoos to prove it), but that’s not the only connection at play. Whitney and Molly are a couple, and their chemistry on stage is a fiery treat. The artist/muse dynamic of their relationship shines through in a choice cut from their debut album Thunderpussy, “Speed Queen.” A thunderous anthem tailor-made for workout playlists, it plows ahead on the back of Whitney’s brash guitar work and a liberal dose of cowbell. It plays like a 2010’s take on Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen,” queering the lyrics but maintaining its story of sexual discovery.
“It kind of throws in your face this traditional type of drifter love story,” explains Leah. “But flashforward and it’s two girls meeting, falling in love, and riding off into the distance.”
The nuance is what sells it. “Speed Queen” doesn’t shine a spotlight on the politics of its same sex love story. Moly and Whitney write from their perspective, baking in all the normalcy that comes with it. They sing what they know, without any shame or qualifiers.
I knew right then that I’d finally found her
Climbed on the back and wrapped my legs around her
I felt so fine, I felt so free
I was looking for her, she was looking for me.
Never look back, never be the same.
Tell me again, honey, what’s your name?
It’s funny that the visibility of queer stories is still a conversation that needs to happen in 2019, that a song can’t exist about two people who love each other without that extra meaning. But the music shines through first and foremost, tearing through the status quo with all the immediacy of classic hard rock. It’s an adrenaline shot to the heart, kicking into fifth gear against roaring engines and a punk breakaway like an out of control motorcycle. It’s fast and uncompromising, but also unabashedly feminine. “Rock doesn’t have to be one thing,” says Leah. “Yeah, it’s been a bit of a boys’ club in the past, but it doesn’t need to be gendered in any way. We just play what we feel. Sometimes it’s loud and aggressive, sometimes it’s soft and tender.”
Don’t You Want Somebody to Love?
Their self-titled debut may only be a year in the past, but Thunderpussy hasn’t yet cooled their engines. Before hitting the road with Black Pistol fire, they dropped a tease of what’s next in the form of “Somebody to Love,” a take on the Jefferson Airplane classic. They take it for a spin at the El Rey, Molly channeling Grace Slick with haunting effusion. In many ways, it makes sense that they would travel down this road. Their music already feels like it would sit comfortably at the tail end of the Summer of Love.
According to Leah, their decision to tackle Jefferson Airplane came out of the same moment that #YearOfThePussy did. “We originally learned it for New Year’s 2017 for all those same reasons,” she says, reference the strife and mission of perseverance that marked their hashtag. “We just got through an insane year and we thought ‘let’s just keep preaching and trying to spread the love.” Likewise, “Somebody to Love” grew out of another period of unrest. After playing it for the first time, the ladies of Thunderpussy felt that vibe of resistance. And it’s grown stronger with each subsequent show.
At the El Rey, the crowd bobs along to its timeless lyrics, sketched into everyone’s heads like instinct. Even those who haven’t seen the band before share in the moment, lips and bodies moving as one. “There’s something live music and performance has over everything else,” explains Leah. “Politically, everyone in a room might believe something different, but if you can get people in the same room and hear music, move together, and just be in each other’s presence; it kind of breaks down barriers.”
As someone who studied and worked in politics before music, Leah loves the close connection and interplay the two have with one another. Unfortunately though, she thinks the role of music in untangling our polarized culture is limited. “Music is more an act of setting the groundwork for the society that we want to see,” she explains. “We make a statement with our songs and the way we present ourselves to the world. Hopefully that translates enough into how we treat other people and inspires action based on our values.”
That may seem like wishful thinking, but it isn’t unprecedented. The protest songs of the late-60’s stoked anti-Vietnam sentiments, and the cultural impact of Woodstock is undisputed. Even if it didn’t directly lead to change, the communal aspect fanned the flames. “[Music] can be really powerful in that sense,” she asserts. “It can be a bigger part of an over-arching strategy to inspire change.”
In their press release for “Somebody to Love,” the band emphasized that empathy and compassion seem to be lost and that polarization is king. But their message of love persists.
The Storm Rages On
The group ends their set in a crescendo. This doesn’t sound like a band coasting between albums. It feels like they’re gearing up for something truly sensational.
After weathering a lineup change that saw founding drummer Ruby Dunphy leaving for personal reasons, the remaining members kept their momentum going. “The three of us have always been really close and I think [Ruby’s departure] has brought us even closer together,” she admits. “Ruby is still very much a part of the Thunderpussy family and always will be even if she doesn’t tour with us anymore.” To hear Leah tell it, the “on the road” lifestyle took its toll on Ruby. Moving from city to city and delivering one earth-shattering performance after the next is enough to deplete anyone’s batteries, so the split has been nothing but amicable. “We’re still a force to be reckoned with with or without Ruby,” Leah continues. “And we have another badass drummer we’re super stoked to break in.”
Touring drummer Lindsey Elias more than brings down the house in her absence. If there was ever a question of the storm raging on, it crumbles in a flurry head-banging percussion and thunderous kicks.
And it won’t die after their tour either. Once their shows wind down, the band plans to jump into the studio and lay down the follow-up to their debut. Mark your calendars for 2020. It’s going to be another Year of the Pussy.
As the curtain falls, the air bristles with electricity. Many have come to see Black Pistol Fire, but conversations now turn to the women who have just left the stage.
“That was incredible,” shouts one voice.
“They f****g killed it,” chimes another.
The church of Thunderpussy gains more followers tonight. And as they continue their unstoppable rock and roll train forward, there’s no telling where it will end.
And for fans of Tunes & Tumblers, Leah would describe Thunderpussy as “a straight shot of whiskey.”
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📸 © Christine Mitchell