Thunderpussy: The Fight to Trademark Their Name
Eddie Vedder once sang that "The kids of today should defend themselves against the '70s," but Thunderpussy -- who have worked with Vedder's Pearl Jam bandmate Mike McCready -- have very sensibly ignored that advice. The band -- singer Molly Sides, guitarist Whitney Petty, bassist Leah Julius and drummer Ruby Dunphy -- draw a lot of inspiration from the music of that decade. They're from Seattle and are probably the most rocking band to emerge from that region since Pearl Jam and their peers exploded in the '90s. They recently released their self-titled full-length debut, and if you like hard rock, you'll want to check them out.
However, they've had a hard time trademarking their name; in this interview they discuss their legal struggle.
They're touring with the Struts this fall, which will put them in front of larger audiences, but don't be surprised to see them headlining large venues in the near future. Their music is a much-needed blast of fun and accessibility that hard rock sorely needs in 2018.
We're in a moment where we're all realizing the importance of representation, and having different voices in media and in culture. It feels like this moment is the perfect time for Thunderpussy.
Whitney: Yeah, I think it’s all happened very organically, but I would agree.
Molly: But it is pretty cool to be a part of something that feels bigger and stronger than just the beginning seed of what we were, and are.
Leah: I always feel like it’s a little less of a physical divide or whatever, but more of a feeling of what we stand for at our shows, which is just this idea of women are powerful. Be yourself, use your voice, we’re all in this together.
Molly: Yeah, and from the beginning, we always said that one of the important factors of our performance is inclusion. So that fourth wall is hopefully broken down from the moment you enter through the door.
Whitney: We will force you to have fun.
Molly: And I will jump off the stage into your arms, and you will catch me or not.
Whitney: I will rub my fun all over you.
Molly: Yeah. We like the idea of, "We’re all in it together."
At one point, in the indie rock world, it became cool to not engage... and not act like you're having fun at shows.
Whitney: Is that where the term “shoegaze” comes from?
Leah: Well, it’s hard when you go see a band and it kind of looks like they don’t wanna be there. That’s probably my least favorite thing to see in a band. If they’re up there and they’re doing their thing, and you can tell that they feel it and they’re having fun, it’s always fun to watch.
Whitney: You would think that would happen more often than not, but I feel like it’s the other way around ... definitely in Seattle.
Leah: Yeah, in Seattle sometimes you’re up there and people are playing their songs and you’re like, "Do you like this?"
Whitney: "Smile, dammit!"
Leah: "Why are you doing this is you’re not having fun?" I feel like the audience just can feel that immediately, and that changes the vibe of the room.
A couple of years ago, a woman filmed herself walking around New York, and she was responding to men who were catcalling her. Most of those men didn't seem to know how to process it when their sexism was deflected back at them. I feel like you guys are the rock band version of that.
Whitney: You just nailed it. That’s totally correct. Like Leah said earlier, we’re just being ourselves, and we’re confident, and we’re women. I think that that perspective just comes out of us, and then the rest of the world is like, "Oh, they’re trying to do something," and that’s not really accurate.
There’s not a lot of women in our position. There’s not a lot of [groups of] four women that are together in a band trying to do this thing that is so male-dominated from every aspect of the industry. We have a unique perspective, and I think people notice it, and they think that it’s, like, a "thing," but it’s just us.
Leah: I feel like people assume the name is trying to be a slap in the face to men, but that’s not really it at all, actually. This is just us doing what we want to do, and in the past, it’s traditionally been men doing it, and so people seem to be confused and a little taken aback when we’re doing it. I think it’s really important to make that distinction: we’re not doing this in any way for men, or against men. We’re doing this for ourselves, and this is just how other people are perceiving it.
I used to say that there's no difference, whether I listen to an all-female band like L7, or a female-led band like Hole, or a band of all guys. But I now realize that, as a guy, I didn't appreciate what seeing bands like Hole or L7 meant to women. What has the reaction been to your band from women?
Molly: Well, it’s a conversation, right? People are willing to get in arguments or heated conversations, but the important part is to be talking to each other. Because like you said, you weren’t thinking about it before. We just want to communicate. And we started it off as wanting to communicate because we love to play music and we love art and we love to perform.
Whitney: There’s been a great response though. One of our favorite things about our live shows is when a woman comes up... and it happens all the time. They'll say, "You guys are great role models." And a lot of times it starts off with, "At first I was really nervous about the name, and my kids love you, and they’re young, they’re like 10 or 11, and I don’t know how they heard about you. So I had to come check you out, and now we are so pro-Thunderpussy, because you women are so powerful, and you’re positive, and you’re great role models, and you’re really good at what you do."
And somebody last night was like, "There’s no weakest link here, you guys are all so good together, and there’s this cohesiveness that traditionally male rock bands from the ’70s had."
Ruby: There’s this specific time in a girl’s life where you stop doing what you want to be doing, because you recognize that there’s no one who is like you, doing what you want to do.
Because I play with Thunderpussy, I [now] have three [drum] students now that are all women older than me [who have said], "I would only take lessons from a woman. I didn’t even know that this is something I wanted to do."
Leah: You didn’t realize it’s an option, almost.
Whitney: And that’s exactly how we felt about our producer, Sylvia Massy, when we found her. I was like, "There’s a woman that’s doing this at this level?"
Molly: We all were. We all looked at each other just dumbfounded, like, "Wait a second. Sylvia Massy, who has been doing this since she was 19, what?"
Whitney: So it’s cool. We’ve all had that “Eureka!” moment at different times.
I know you guys have been working to get your name trademarked. People may not realize how important that is, when it comes to selling merchandise and stuff like that.
Leah: We started this journey three years ago, almost four. Early on, before we even knew where we were going, we knew we should [trademark our name], to protect ourselves. So we applied. We heard back six months later and we got this denial letter. The best part of the denial letter was that the federal government chose to use the Urban Dictionary definition of "pussy" instead of the Webster’s Dictionary definition of "pussy."
Whitney: Which is a cat. You can look it up.
Leah: Yeah. I’m not even gonna say the Urban Dictionary one, because it’s even worse.
Whitney: Isn’t it like, it’s a box that you put a dick in?
Leah: Yeah. It’s fucked up.
Whitney: The government sent us this.
Leah: Yeah, exactly. So we got this letter back saying our trademark was denied on the grounds that our request was disparaging and scandalous.
Molly: And immoral.
Leah: So then we were like, OK, we'll appeal it, we'll keep fighting. It turned out that at the same time there was this band out of Portland called the Slants, and they were four Asian men, and they had applied to get the trademark of the Slants, and they were denied on the grounds that the mark was disparaging. So Simon Tam from the Slants fought that for eight years, took it all the way to the Supreme Court and then he won at the Supreme Court. We were like, "Oh great, we'll get our name!" and then our attorney follows up, and they write back "No. That case is just about the disparaging [nature of the name]. Yours is still scandalous."
The really weird part about the whole thing is that there’s other words or phrases that have been trademarked with the word "pussy" in it. So why they decided to deny ours, I have no idea. It’s just some arbitrary old white man judgment like, "I won’t let my granddaughter say it."
Whitney: We’ve got the pussy grabber in the White House. Come on, man. Can we write him for a pardon? Like, "Dude, we love pussy too."
So what turned you guys onto the rock music of the '70s?
Whitney: Well, I just discovered Def Leppard one day. My earliest influences are Wynonna Judd and Garth Brooks. I grew up in the South. I’m from Georgia, and that’s what was on the radio. And I still love country to this day. But I’ve always had this old soul, I guess, where I’ve always felt really connected to the earlier music, because even in my country tunnel, I gravitate towards Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings and the older stuff. But my parents had some records, they had some older rock records. The first time I heard “Stairway to Heaven” -- I know everyone has that story -- but I just started crying. I thought, "What is this? What is this music?" And I just felt so connected to it.
Molly: My mom is a rock lover to the core. And she’d always put a record on while we were doing dishes, and we’d be dancing in the living room. And the radio, my mom still always has the radio on, actually. I have so many memories of moving and dancing and listening to music growing up, in our living room.
Leah: I feel like I was probably the last of this crew to get into that kind of music, because my dad was Grateful Dead, Grateful Dead, Grateful Dead, maybe NPR in the car sometimes, Grateful Dead. So I got into punk from my older brother, and that’s kind of what steered me. From punk, you dig into the history, and you’re like, oh, the Ramones! Minor Threat. So that’s kinda where I got into it, and then honestly, playing music with these ladies, I’ve gone back now and opened my eyes to so much of that stuff.
Ruby: We listened to everything. We would make mix tapes, me, my mom, and my brother and my dad, and it would be like Slim Shady to Kris Kristofferson to Merle Haggard to, back to Eminem. And then I’m like, "Damn, I wanna play the drums."
My phone’s ringing. That’s probably my mom. Her ears are burning. [Answers phone] Hey, mom? How did I get into rock as a kid?
Ruby's Mom [on speakerphone]: Into rock and roll? I would say probably more your dad than me, because I like the weirder stuff.
Ruby: But remember all the mixtapes? How did I get to Zeppelin?
Mom: I have no idea how you got to Zeppelin. I was listening to Vic Chesnutt and Tom Waits, and you hated that. And Mark liked Grateful Dead, and you hated that. I turned you on to They Might Be Giants.
Ruby: Yeah. I did love They Might Be Giants.
Mom: Modern Lovers. You kinda liked them. You want me to tell you something cooler?
Ruby: No, that’s OK.
Mom: You used to listen to [Led Zeppelin's live album] The Song Remains the Same, like, for hours.
Ruby: I love you.
Molly: We’ll call you back, Laurie.
You guys are signed to Stardog Records. As of now, the roster is you and Mother Love Bone -- the band that Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament were in before forming Pearl Jam and Temple of the Dog. I didn't realize that Stardog was still a thing; how did you end up on the label?
Whitney: It was through [Pearl Jam guitarist] Mike McCready. We met Mike at a festival, and he became our friend almost immediately and wanted to make a record with us, because I think he immediately saw what we were trying to do and saw our influences. Mike and I have a lot of the same influences. We both love Aerosmith, and we geek out over it all the time. He saw the show and the energy and saw the ’70s/Thin Lizzy kind of vibe band from the album-oriented rock era coming back. We made a record with him, and he loved it and he was our friend when we recorded the record with Sylvia Massy. So when we came home with it, we played it for him and his engineer and producer and his friend, Josh Evans, who ended up mixing our entire record through that process, and Mike got really familiar with the record. "Obsessed" would be the word.
He eventually got it to Christian Fresco who runs the day-to-day at Stardog. We went to meet with Kelly Curtis, who owns the label, and he's Mike’s manager in Pearl Jam. Even Kelly was like, "It’s really hard for me to explain what this label is, but really, you’re also signing to Republic Records." And we’re like, "OK, we’ve heard of that one." And he’s like, "But what you’re really signing to is Universal Music." We're like, "We definitely heard of that one. And he’s like, "You just gotta go to New York," and we were all super impressed, because we went to the office, and there were tons of women working there, which was cool.
Leah: That was a big thing for us. After we left, we were like, "OK, that’s cool. That makes us feel a lot more comfortable."
Whitney: The industry is so male-dominated. It’s a big sausage party.
Ruby: And we were referred to as “the band,” not “the girls.” That was huge.
Leah, you recently recorded a track with Mike McCready: a cover of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down," which also featured KT Tunstall.
Leah: That was a really cool couple days. KT was coming into town to do the track with Mike, and he was like, "What if we put a couple of local female players on it?" And she was super stoked, and so he was like, "Check out this band, Thunderpussy," and she was like, "Oh, hell yeah." So he reached out and asked Ruby and me if we’d come in and play rhythm, but Ruby, who is now a college graduate, at that time she was not, and she couldn’t go. And so Mike was like, well, Leah, you play drums too; the drums were my first instrument. And I was like, "Yeah, but not in the studio with professional musicians." And he was like, "You’ll be fine." So I had a day, I locked myself in my practice space with a click track and did it, and then walked in. I was terrified. Mike now is one of our really close friends, so being in the studio with him feels really normal and natural, and he’s one of my favorite people to work with, because there’s zero ego. He still asks the producer and the engineer all the dumb questions I ask, and it makes me feel so much better about my life.
It turned out really well, and then I was extra stoked when she decided to release it in the way she did with the protest video and the money going to the Pearl Jam Vitalogy Foundation to help homelessness and all these causes.
A lot of the hard rock music of the '70s is pretty misogynistic, but you don't always realize it when you first discover those songs. But how do you feel about those kinds of lyrics when you hear them now?
Whitney We should pull in Missy Elliott and just start singing about dicks and just flip it around. One of my favorite lyrics of all time is “The buzz you be getting from crack don’t last, I’d rather be ODing on the crack of your ass,” Aerosmith ["Fever"]. I don’t care, I think it’s great. It’s just a feeling, right? “You ain’t seen nothing till you’re down on a muffin.” ["Walk This Way"] You know what I’m saying?
Molly: And I think that sometimes you can find humor in lyrics. Actually, let me take that back. You kind of have to find humor in a lot of old school rock.
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