On Finding Quality Musicians, Quality Vans, and Quality Memories
An Interview with Whitney Petty of Thunderpussy
By Marcus Shriver
In Seattle, artists are everywhere, and when we talk about the abundance artistically-inclined local residents, we have to talk about them as our neighbors, our coworkers. A local musician you admire might email you at work. Or your your favorite illustrator could be carefully crafting your espresso.
Other times, you might not even notice when you’re passing a talented local artist on the street. That’s the thing about Seattle: members of our arts community tend to treat the city with openness, respect and love.
They also stand on the front lines of fights for culture and arts advocacy, expressing experiences that many of us can relate to.
Which leads me to Whitney Petty (pictured above performing at Sasquatch Music Fest, photo Sunny Martini). I don’t say this lightly, but Petty is one of the most accomplished guitarists in the Pacific Northwest. Her energetic and powerful licks have most likely entered your ears via her band Thunderpussy or one of the many other projects she’s been a part of.
Thunderpussy had a busy 2018. After a couple years filled with a steady stream of increasingly well-attended local performances and local festival billings, the group (Petty on guitar; Molly Sides, vocals; Leah Julius on bass; and Ruby Dunphy, drums) released it’s self-titled debut album and hit the road for a tour of the U.S. and UK, giving other parts of the world a taste of their theatrical and high-energy live show.
Clearly, Petty has good reasons to feel accomplished and excited for the future, but she’s quick to credit her bandmate’s talents and strength of character as the biggest contributors to the group’s success.
“On stage is really important,” she says. “Having great material is really important. And there’s this other thing, which is being present, kind, gracious, and just a good person.” She says this with confidence and a sense of relief comes off of her voice, her gratefulness radiating.
Not surprisingly, the band’s name has helped draw attention to their music as well. In fact, Thunderpussy is part of a large trademark case that has reached the Supreme Court. The case revolves around whether groups can claim trademarks on names or words that are considered to be “scandalous” by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Oral arguments will be made in mid-April in Washington D.C.
After all the trouble Thunderpussy has gone through on this issue, I certainly hope that they are granted the ability to trademark their band name.
Legal issues haven’t slowed the band down, musically. They are at work on a new album and, today, we’re excited to share their brand new single, a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” a staple and fan favorite from their highly entertaining live show.
The last time I talked to Whitney and her band mates was at Treefort (Music Fest) in 2017. At the time, Thunderpussy had just made some changes in their transportation, so let’s start there.
NM: The last time we spoke you had just gotten your brand new tour van, “Pussy Wagon.” You just finished a couple of tours so I have to ask: are you still using the Pussy Wagon (aka Paula Dean aka Speedy La Qui)?
Whitney Petty: I forgot that we called her Paula Dean.
It’s funny you should ask because we actually just put her to bed. She lasted a good long while, but the first week of February we donated her to KEXP. (A great way to get rid of all tour vans, tour Corollas, and tour CRVs. See here for more information.)
NM: We love you Speedy La Qui!
WP: Yeah it was bad. We cried a little. So we’re in between vans right now.
NM: For our last interview, you had just done your first sold-out show at Tractor Tavern. Now you’re coming off of a couple of 2018 tours on your debut album release. Any big cities you were really excited to visit? Any insider memories you can let us in on?
WP: There are countless, really. So many cities we went to for the first time.
Toronto was really eye-opening because they love rock n’ roll there. Rock is alive and well in Toronto. Some of the best crowds.
Montreal was fabulous too. It’s like a chill New York City, so we’re all ready to move there.
We had a blast in Europe too, especially in Paris. Actually, that’s where one of my favorite memories comes from. The French government actually provides grants and stipends to clubs and museums so that they don’t have to charge admission to certain things. I don’t know what all it covers, but I know our show was free and open to the public. So people get treated with free art every once in awhile and performers still get their guarantees, which is really cool.
So the show, even though it was our first time in Paris, was completely sold out. Packed floor to ceiling with people. It was the middle of the tour and we were getting a little tired of the sea of cell phones in the front row. There was one person being really obnoxious right in front of Molly. He kept putting his phone in front of her face. She would gracefully take it out his hand and put it into his shirt pocket so he would stop, but he kept doing it. Over and over. Like I said, everyone was packed like sardines in there so she just reaches for the phone like she’s going to kick it out of his hand and he grabs for her foot. So she dances onto his shoulders and he won’t let her go. So she just starts riding this man like a horse through the audience. She said she was turning him with her heels to direct him back to the stage. I think at the end of the endeavor she knocked his phone on the ground and he was not happy about the whole thing. But we were cracking up. People in the front row could totally tell what was going on and that she didn’t really want to be on his shoulders but he had pulled her off the stage. We were like, “I can’t believe Molly rode that person like a horse, that was awesome.”
We had a blast seeing how festivals are run in Europe and navigating all of these foreign cities with different ways of doing things. We actually met our tour manager and driver, a couple of English chaps, in Budapest the night before the first show of our festival tour. It was at a HUGE festival called Sziget Fest held in northern Budapest. It’s on an island in the middle of the Danube River, so it’s hard to get to even when there’s not a festival, but when there is a festival it’s even worse because there’s only one way in and out. It took so long to get out there that we were running late. We get our passes and were like, “cool we’re going to head to the stage, where do we go?”
They replied with “We have a person that’s going to hop in your van and direct you. You have to go through the crowd.”
And we’re like, “No, what do you mean? It’s a festival, you have to have back ways.” And they’re like, “No, you have to go through the crowd.”
Our driver, the one we had just met…well, his first day on the job is driving this Sprinter Van full of us through 20 to 30 thousand tripping, drugged out, crazy kids. Our tour manager was parting the Red Seas like Moses in front of us to try and get this van all the way through to the stage.
He said one guy even came up to him and was like, “Hey man. There’s a van behind you.”
That was there the first day on the job for these two. It was hilarious.
We played so many fun shows last year. There are just endless experiences: taking late night Ferries and arriving at hotels at 4 a.m. It was such a great trip through so many fabulous cities.
NM: Now that you’re home, are you adjusting to a little bit more of a stationary life?
WP: I feel like we’ve been home, but we’ve also been on the road because at least every two weeks we’re back at the airport to head to a show. And we spent almost the entire month of February demoing for our new record down in Jacksonville with our old drummer, our first drummer, Lena Simon. She and her partner bought a house down there and they’re both big audiophiles, so, of course, they turned half of the house into a studio. We went down there and put our heads down and banged out a bunch of new songs. It was awesome.
NM: What’s the first thing you like to do when you get home from a tour?
WP: Well, it’s definitely not unpacking. I love to go to the grocery store because that is something I really miss on tour, cooking and being in charge of my own meal times and diet. So, I’ll just go to the grocery store and buy a ton of vegetables and STEAK and lock myself in the apartment for a few days to just veg out. Just rest and relax and kind of be on my own time. I try to be alone. That’s the thing about touring, you’re just never alone.
NM: After the big tour and album release, how are you adjusting to the amount of attention you’ve been getting?
WP: It has all ramped up gradually, so honestly it hasn’t been super overwhelming or anything. We’re still largely unknown in a lot of the U.S. and overseas, but we do gain more popularity and influence every day.
People are like, “Oh, you are doing so well, you’re being so successful.” I kind of have to remind them that they’ve been watching us for a long time. There are still a lot of people who don’t really know who we are. We want to keep garnering a larger circle of influence so that our music can have more of an impact. I think what we’re doing is cool and important and there aren’t a lot of people doing it right now. So I definitely don’t feel overwhelmed, yet, but I’m hoping for that shock-wave to come one day.
NM: What can you tell me about the new single that came out on April 12?
WP: Several years ago, a good friend of ours, John Wooler, said Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” would be a great song for us to cover and that Molly would be a great Grace Slick. We were like “cool, we’ll think about that, John.”
Later, we were playing a benefit show for John, so we thought we better learn it and perform it as a surprise. He loved it and everyone else thought it was great too, so it’s become a staple in our live set.
John was also the one who said, “You’ve really got to record that.” When we finally did, we were able to A-B our version with the original and it was just so fun. It came so easy for us. We just tried to make an homage to the original with a Thunderpussy twist. Our version is a little faster, a little grittier, a little more rockin’, but still has that fun psychedelic feel to it from that 60’s era. We tried to trip it out a little. I use way more reverb then I do with Thunderpussy songs.
Jefferson Airplane and especially Grace Slick have always been a cool influence on us, and so we’re really happy to pay tribute to that era since we are so influenced by music coming out of the late ’60s. Janis Joplin, Big Brother & the Holding Company, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Doors.
I’m also excited to have a new song come out because we are in between records. I think it turned out great.
NM: Is this the first cover you’ve recorded?
WP: We also recorded “Taking Care of Business” for a film that just came out called Fight With My Family. That was really fun because we were sort of being directed by the director, with different ways of recording it. It’s interesting putting your spin on material you are already really familiar with.
NM: Releasing a cover as a single leaves a lot of room for anticipation about the direction of your new album, because we can’t quite see where your writing is headed. Do you have some insights on where you are going with it?
WP: Well, it’s still going to be rock n’ roll at its core. There’s is just no way around that. It’s what Molly and I love. We are always bringing different influences and there’s definitely going to be a very bluesy side to this second record.
I think the biggest difference is that we have more resources in the way of people to collaborate with, more of a sounding board with our new management team, A&R guy and label behind us, whereas when we were recording the last record it was just us. This time around we have more connections with established songwriters and producers, and we’re exploring that. Obviously, we would love to work with Sylvia Massey, again. She is fantastic. We actually had every intention to do that, but our label was sort of like, “Hey, why don’t you see what else is out there, because that’s what we’re here for?” We were like, “Why not? Let’s see what else is out there and do this process with you guys, and let’s see how it feels to spread our wings and take the production of this record in a new direction.”
Of course, we don’t want to make some polished, over-produced, pop-sounding record or anything like that, but, maybe we’ll have a more dimensional sound this time, adding in these other influences and layers.
NM: You mentioned you worked on Fighting With My Family and you have also done some work with Mike McCready on a film called Sadie, yes?
WP: Yep. Molly and I wrote a song with Mike for Sadie. Scoring is fascinating. It’s something Molly and I would love to do more of because we love film.
NM: Is there a big difference between recording a score and making an album?
WP: The thing with scoring is that it involves some indirect contact with the director. A director has a vision and you have to kind of start there. The music doesn’t really belong to you. It lives in this other space and you have to do what’s best for the film, which isn’t always what’s best for the song because it puts parameters on things like the length and the cadence and what kind of instrumentation you use. It’s actually really cool to have some parameters like that because when you’re working on your own record there are none, except for the ones that you impose on yourself.
NM: Is there a special kind of satisfaction hearing your song in a movie that you don’t get from hearing your songs elsewhere?
WP: Totally. It’s cool to go into a theater and be so engrossed in a film that you almost forget that it’s coming and then, BOOM, there’s your song, super loud. Your ego really has to leave the room, though, because like I said, it doesn’t really belong to you does it? You’re not the director.
Marcus: With all of the success of your album and tours, we’ve seen a lot of growth and we’ve seen a lot of exciting new things coming your way. How has it been interacting with your friends and peers in other Seattle bands, after coming into a decent amount of your own success?
WP: I feel really lucky to have had this level of success. There are so many bands in Seattle that I thought would get signed and become an overnight success and either they’ve gone away or broken up or are still doin’ the same thing. So why did we get chosen to be popular in Seattle? Who knows what spark of luck or magic got us to this point.
At the same time, you always believe in your band. I believed in The Grizzled Mighty. I thought for sure that was going to pan out. I think a lot of it is just being gracious. What you do on stage is really important, having great material is really important, and there’s this other thing that’s important which is being present and kind. Being gracious and a good person about it. I have also been in a lot of bands with people who don’t know how to behave off stage. Everybody in Thunderpussy is a really solid person. I feel good when I leave the stage and we all disperse to talk to the fans and sign autographs. I know everyone is out there being awesome to the fans, being cool to the sound guy, and being gracious to the venue and tipping the bartenders. I think that that goes a long way.
NM: Are there any local Seattle bands that we should look out for?
WP: Probably ones that you already know about, but I have to mention The Black Tones (#41for2017). They played with us at New Year’s Eve and just blew the house down. Molly and I are going to see J GRGRY (#41for2017). We’re also excited to see Razor Clam (#41for2018). Honestly, I am kind of burnt out on shows though.
NM: Do you have any advice for bands that want to grow in Seattle, and see the kind of success that you’re seeing?
WP: I think it’s a simple equation that most bands don’t understand: quality over quantity. Many bands try to play a thousand shows and that’s just not the best path to success. If you want to be successful, you have to pretend like you are already a huge success. Project yourself as someone who knows what they are doing. Which means you don’t play a show every week. Focus on a smaller number of shows and treat them like they are everything.
Thunderpussy are a favorite subject of our local-music obsessed photographers. Here are some of our favorite shots dating back to 2015. – Ed