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Whitney Petty: Grabbin' 'Em by the Thunderpussy

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Whitney Petty: Grabbin' 'Em by the Thunderpussy

Anna Blumenthal

Whitney Petty, guitarist extraordinaire of Seattle’s Thunderpussy, is the first musician we’ve interviewed whose livelihood has been threatened by the Supreme Court, who counts Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready as a super fan, whose first stint playing was with Deerhunter – not too shabby for a first band – and who not only absolutely shreds on guitar but also kills it on bass and drums. Outfitted in some array of hot pink, leopard or leather, Thunderpussy’s live show is a perfect storm of classic rock, southern rock and blues, 1950s lounge acts, and well, lots of sex. Or, as Petty says, "Beyoncé meets Led Zeppelin." We caught up with her before their show at Brooklyn’s Alphaville in June. It was their first time in New York, and the size of the crowd showed that Brooklyn has been eagerly awaiting their arrival for quite a while.

Whitney Petty's pedalboard. Photo: Anna Blumenthal.

Whitney Petty's pedalboard. Photo: Anna Blumenthal.

Whitney Petty: I’m genuinely impressed [by EarthQuaker]. I think the universe interjected on Thunderpussy and was like, get to know EarthQuaker! Because we met [EarthQuaker Devices’ Vice President] Julie, and we all really enjoyed the EarthQuaker experience. It’s like a family. Everybody’s super chill, and after trying out dozens of different pedal companies, they are obviously a standout.

And then we had the luxury of getting to work with Sylvia Massy. We showed up at her place and she was like, “Do you guys know about EarthQuaker?” I’m like, “Are you kidding? We just met Julie!” The first day we went down there, Chris Johnson, her manager and boyfriend, and an awesome human, opens this closet of guitars, and there’s every EarthQuaker pedal. He’s like, “I gotta go do some stuff, but if you wanna stay…” I’m like, “I’m gonna stay” (laughs). I probably played with every pedal for six hours (laughs), I was so stoked. And the Afterneath blew me away when I plugged it in. I was probably twenty pedals deep and then played that one and was like (makes sound of awe). It’s so cool.

Anna Blumenthal: Were you really into pedals before EarthQuaker?

WP: I’ve never been into pedals. I’m teaching myself all about this whole guitar thing. I’m still figuring it out. And for a new guitar player, pedals are really scary. In a live sense, I think they’re terrifying. If you’re trying to play and have to remember when to click your pedal on, that’s really scary. Recording is really fun, because then you don’t have to do it live. You can get comfortable with that stuff and integrate it into the live set. And those ‘out-there’ pedals are really fun. It inspires you as a songwriter so you write a song that you would have never come out with if you didn’t have that specific tone, with that one pedal. Our song, “Young and Pure,” I would’ve never played it the way I played it without the Afterneath.

AB: That’s so cool that it helps you create.

WP: It’s really fun. And the Disaster Transport is really cool. It’s so fun to move the knobs while you’re playing it. You can hit a chord and you can send it into outer space, lean down and actually twist it into outer space! And then twist it back – that’s so cool. It’s just those little things that you would never be able to achieve without a pedal. And oh my god, the Organizer! Holy shit. What a trip!

AB: Do you know what that’s based on? The Guitorgan. It’s a guitar that sounds like an organ.

WP: Oh my god. Do you know about the SynthAxe?

AB: No!

WP: Fuck, man. It’s from the 80s and it’s like a synth interface that utilizes your knowledge of a fretboard. In the 80s, when synths blew up, people who were really taken by synths were keyboard and piano players ‘cause they were familiar with that layout - so somebody decided, fuck that – a guitar player should be able to use the fretboard layout and their knowledge and your right hand strum action to activate the synth. So they created SynthAxe, and it’s amazing. They’re super rare. When they came out, they were astronomically expensive, so now they’re pretty much priceless.

AB: Did you get to play it?

WP: No, I just heard about it. I started researching it, just spent a few minutes on it, and was like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this instrument,” but nobody has. I would die just to see one. I wouldn’t know how to play it, but if I could watch somebody play it who knew how to play it, it’d be awesome. There’s the official SynthAxe demo, you can find it on YouTube - it’s so good. You’ll know it’s the right one because it’s really dramatic in the beginning, it’s a dude being backlit, in shadow, and he’s holding the SynthAxe, somebody starts playing Bach or something. As soon as it comes on you’re like, “This can’t be real.”

AB: It could be part of your show, playing it in the background.

WP: Just the fucking video! (laughs) Oh my god, we could walk on to that. I’ll solo over it! (laughs)

AB: So how long have you been playing guitar?

WP: Since I was 15.

AB: Were you in a lot of bands before Deerhunter?

WP: That was my first band. I grew up with Bradford [Cox, singer, songwriter and guitarist of Deerhunter]. We had a lot of fun together. I didn’t talk to him for two or three years and then I just got a call from him randomly, he tracked my number down. He’s like, “Do you still play guitar? Do you want to play in Deerhunter? Can you fly home on May 1? We have a show in Dublin two weeks later.” And I was like, “I’m in.”

AB: So they had someone before you who left?

WP: Yeah, I was just a replacement. I filled in, but I’d never been in a band before.

AB: That’s an amazing first band.

WP: I know. First show I flew to Dublin. It was really cool, but at the same time I thought I could do this my own way, with a rock band. I was 23, so 9 years later, it’s finally come to fruition. But without Brad and Moses and Lockett and Josh, I would’ve never gotten to start a band.

AB: Who are your biggest musical influences?

WP: When I was 13, Aerosmith. When I was 12, Def Leppard. I grew in the South listening to a lot of country music and I love country music to this day. When I was growing up in the 90s in Georgia, I loved Dwight Yoakam and Garth Brooks and Brooks and Dunn. I loved Tanya Tucker and Winona Judd. Winona Judd has a song called “Girls With Guitars” and I used to play air guitar to that song on my bed endlessly, before I could ever even fathom holding one and doing it.

My parents were into southern classic rock; my mom’s really into Marshall Tucker. So I grew up listening to Marshall Tucker and Skynyrd. I loved all that music, I was soaking it all in. Then someone played me Rock of Ages by Def Leppard and I was like, “Oh fuck, that’s really cool, I didn’t know that was an option,” and then I just got into this whole attitude of rock 'n roll and that’s when I discovered Steven Tyler. And then I fell in love with the relationship between Steven Tyler and Joe Perry and I realized there was Mick and Keith, and Page and Plant, and I immediately was like, “I want to be Page, where is my Plant?”

So when I saw Molly [Sides, singer of Thunderpussy] sing, I was playing drums in The Grizzled Mighty with Ryan [Granger], and I was like, I can do that thing I’ve been wanting to do since I was 13, that’s my singer.

AB: Was she in another band?

WP: She was in a band called This Bitch Don’t Fall Off. And she was singing backup. And that blew my mind. ‘Cause when I saw her, I was like, “Are you fucking kidding me? She’s a star!” It was just a gut feeling I had - like, she could be my person.

AB: You didn’t know her?

WP: I didn’t. I had just met her. I saw her and her voice made me feel so much emotion, and I wanted to play with her. I haven’t even picked up a guitar now in four years because I’ve been focusing so hard on trying to teach myself drums. And I was sick about it, because I don’t want to sit behind a drum kit, I want to be up in front on the stage with my counterpart. So I saw her and I was like, “Oh my god, that could be my counterpart.” But then it took two years for us to start a band. She moved to Portland and a bunch of stuff happened in between. Then we wound up in Seattle together and we were both single and I fell completely in love, and then a year after that, it was like, “We need to start a band!” She’s the love of my life. It all happened very organically, and it laid the groundwork for us to do what we wanted to do.

AB: That’s awesome. So you started the band together and then you looked for the other two members?

WP: Exactly, yeah. It’s all Molly and I meeting and going, “Let’s do this together, what do we love, what do we connect to?” It’s all rhythm and blues and classic rock. And then initially, Lena Simon [of La Luz, Boytoy, Bacteroids, and Kairos], was our first drummer, and that’s Molly’s best friend from Cornish [College]. I actually met Lena before I met Molly. And I respected her a musician immediately. I had the same reaction the first time I saw Lena - I just had dollar signs in my eyes. So when I realized that Molly and Lena were best friends, and Molly and I really want to play in a band, we all had this thing in common. Molly needed to be a frontperson, I needed to be a guitar player, and Lena needed to play drums. She played bass in three other projects. We all had this need. We needed to be ourselves. We got Leah [Julius, bassist of Thunderpussy] on board, she’d been on the scene but she was playing bass in a band called Cumulus, and I had met her, but I only knew her as a drummer. She played drums, and still does, in a band called Sundries.

AB: Everyone was in a hundred bands!

WP: I know! And we were all drummers.

AB: And you were all playing different instruments from what you’re doing now.

WP: Yeah, we were all playing different instruments. The three of us can play guitar, bass and drums. And so, that was like, “Oh my god, cha-ching! We can switch instruments on stage.” This is gonna be great, a bunch of girls who just play everything. And Molly is a dancer by trade. She thought she was gonna be a dancer and actress her whole life. I saw her sing and I was like, “Girl, please. You’re a singer.” It was really fun the way it all happened. When we got Leah, I was like, “Damn girl, you play bass? Let’s do this!” But then Lena wanted to play in La Luz. So for a whole year we didn’t have a drummer. But then [we got] the kid, young Dunphy. Ruby is the best drummer that I’ve ever played with. She’s incredible. And we met her through Cornish.

Molly was slinging coffee at Joe Bar in Seattle and this girl that she knew from Cornish walked in and said, “I’ve heard you’re looking for a drummer,” and Molly was like, “Yeah, we’ve been asking everybody around town, and the girl literally was like, “I’ll be right back.” And she found Ruby, Ruby had been at Cornish living in Seattle for one week, said, “Come with me,” took her over to Joe Bar, said, “Meet your new drummer, this is Ruby Dunphy, she’s the best drummer.”

AB: It’s like out of a movie. So dramatic! How long has she been in the band?

WP: Almost two years now.

AB: And how long has the whole band been together?

WP: We’re coming up on our four-year anniversary in August. We’re just gelling, now that we have Ruby.

AB: What two bands is Thunderpussy the bastard child of?

WP: Led Zeppelin and Beyoncé!

AB: What are some of the most laughable reactions you’ve gotten to the band’s name?

WP: Oh, man. I’d say the most laughable reaction we’ve gotten is getting our trademark case sent to the Supreme Court! But you know what was laughable about it? Our lawyer friend sent an application for the trademark, and then we got a denial letter, and they sent us a page from Urban Dictionary, that says "pussy" is derogatory! We’re like, “The federal government uses Urban Dictionary?” We had a good deep belly laugh about that. And then we were like, “Fuck! What do we do?” (laughs). But seriously! Urban Dictionary? Really?

AB: That’s insane! Are they thinking it’s a real dictionary?

WP: I don’t know! It’s really weird that they’re even allowed to cite it. But now it’s in the appeals process and it’s all the way at the Supreme Court. Any day now there will be a verdict. But it’s not just us. We got lumped into a larger case. The Slants are spearheading it. [Update: The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Thunderpussy and The Slants, extending trademark protection to words and names that may be offensive. Go Thunderpussy!].

AB: So if you lose, which I hope you don’t, you can’t make t-shirts with your band name?

WP: We can. Just using it offers you a certain amount of copyright prior protection for certain things, but the worst case scenario is if somebody cashes in on our name or our likeness, we can’t send them a cease and desist. The other really insidious thing is that we’re not vulgar or derogatory. The band is literally about empowerment, and bringing people together, so all the government’s doing is propagating this belief that pussy is a derogatory word and all we’re trying to say is no, it’s not. There’s nothing dirty or wrong about that word.

AB: What about Alabama Thunderpussy? And Nashville Pussy? Did they have to deal with this?

WP: And the record store Magnolia Thunderpussy. There are plenty of examples. I mean, did they trademark Octopussy when they made that amazing James Bond film?

AB: Back then it was different I guess – not so uptight.

WP: I think so. Everyone kind of got uptight. But Urban Dictionary…

AB: That’s insane.

WP: But we’ve also had so much positive reaction to the name too. We convert people all the time. People bring their little girls to our all ages shows. They’re like, “Oh my god, at first we didn’t want to say the name but you know what? Now we say it proudly.”

AB: Our president says it. I mean, it’s a word that’s out there so we should be able to talk about it. We can’t not talk about it anymore.

WP: There was an interview we did with the Seattle Times right after that Pussy Gate scandal, and we were like, “Motherfucker can say, 'Grab ‘em by the pussy' and we can’t just throw in our trademark?" We immediately made “Grab ‘em by the Thunderpussy” shirts and they sold out. We did make a little money off that asshole.

AB: If you guys weren’t called Thunderpussy, what would you be called?

WP: Obviously, Lightning Cock.

AB: That should be the boy band you tour with.

WP: If I had a nickel for every time a dude emailed me and said, “Heh heh heh – we’re going to have a band called Lightning Cock, can we open for you?” I’d be a millionaire.

AB: (laughs) That’s pretty good though.

WP: It’s so funny.

AB: What kind of guitars and amps do you play? Do you always play a Les Paul?

WP: My first guitar that I still love is one that I call Old Reliable, my Fender Mexican Fat Strat. Stevie Ray Vaughn is a huge influence on me, and I have his amp, which is the Marshall Club and Country Combo, and it’s the only amp that I’ve ever owned, and I really need a backup amp.

AB: Are they hard to find?

WP: Probably. I found it on accident, it was just a time and place thing. When Bradford called me and asked if I want to be in Deerhunter, I flew home and I didn’t have an amp and I went on Craigslist and I literally picked it out ‘cause I thought it looked cool. I drove 45 minutes outside of Marietta where we’re from, and it sounded good, and I bought it and I brought it home. I bought it for $700. And it was in perfect condition when I bought it. But now if you go on eBay, they’re $1300, and they’re rare. I just found some old guy in the suburbs in Georgia that had one.

I just got a custom Telecaster that’s really cool, 70s. My amp is like ’78. The Les Paul is a ’59, and I think ’59 is my favorite. Mike McCready [Pearl Jam guitarist] has had a huge impact on Thunderpussy in the last year, and he turned me on to his custom ’59 Les Paul - he’s got his own signature and it’s killer.

His actual ’59 Les Paul, he played on our single that we recorded with him [“Velvet Noose”] and I’m blown away by that guitar, it’s beautiful and it’s got a cool history, it’s a great guitar. And I was already playing a ’59 reissue at that point, and I was playing a ’58 reissue before that, and I really love the ’59, it’s killer. It sounds really good.

AB: How’d you hook up with Mike McCready?

WP: He saw us at Sasquatch. He just instantly got it.

AB: And then you had him produce your single?

WP: He asked us to record with him. He’s got a studio in his basement. When I met him I was like, this guy just really loves guitars as much as I do, so I was excited by that, cause like I said I grew up in Georgia listening to country and all this other stuff, I missed the 90s Seattle thing. It’s this huge legacy but it just wasn’t really on my radar. After I met him, I listened to Ten and I realized that I instinctively know every note of every solo of that record because it’s permeated the fucking stratosphere and he’s a genius and one of the best guitar players of all time, so I did freak out a little bit once I realized that that’s my friend Mike. And I still geek out constantly when I’m around him, but he’s just been a really good influence on me. He’s really pushed us to the next level.

AB: Did he play on the single ["Velvet Noose"]?

WP: He did. It’s so funny, ‘cause I was listening to it on the radio and someone was like, “Mike McCready plays some really killer solos on that song,” and it’s actually me. But people think it’s Mike! That’s the best compliment of all time!

AB: How hard is it to find a good man?

WP: I see you read the bio (laughs). How hard is it? What’s that hardness scale that you learn in school? Diamond? I’m gonna go with Diamond hardness. The hardest.

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Anna Blumenthal handles Sales and Artist Relations for EarthQuaker Devices. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, plays guitar in Party Lights and bass in Sit N Spin, DJs 60s soul and R&B at various Brooklyn bars, and has seen Cheap Trick over 30 times.