Inverting stale gender paradigms is a time-honored tradition in rock ‘n’ roll. From David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust–era glammed-out androgyny to Grace Jones’ brazenly butch new wave to more contemporary gender-benders such as John Cameron Mitchell’s punk-opera opus Hedwig and the Angry Inch, screwing with constructs of sexual identity and roles are effective flame-fanners.
Save, perhaps, for Greg Dulli’s fondness for covering Supremes songs with the Afghan Whigs, the vintage context of girl groups has yet to be fully subverted. Bay Area provocateur Seth Bogart aims to change that with Hunx and His Punx. Their debut, Too Young to Be in Love, issued on Seattle’s Hardly Art in March, is a lo-fi love letter to the wall-of-sound harmonies he grew up on.
“My dad always listened to faggy, girl-group stuff when I was a kid,” says Bogart via phone from his Oakland home. “And my friend’s mom used to drive us to school and make us listen to the oldies station. We kind of hated it, but whenever a Supremes song or the Ronettes would come on, I’d really get into it.”
After initially gaining a cult following with his first electro-trash outfit, Gravy Train!!!!, Bogart began to cultivate the idea of running those childhood nostalgia trips through the lens of the queercore and feminist punk scenes that inspired him during his formative years.
“I’ve always been into not just girl groups, but female singers in general,” he continues. “A lot of gay guys are; they can relate to women a lot more. I was heavily into riot-grrl stuff as well. I’ve always just been more interested in what women have to say. They usually have better ideas and are more creative and original. They aren’t necessarily always more talented, but it’s a fresher look at things a lot of the time.”
Three years ago, he found a particularly fresh gaze in the eyes of bassist and vocalist Shannon Shaw, best known for her garage-rock project Shannon and the Clams. Along with drummer Erin Emslie, guitarist Michelle Santamaria, and organist Amy Blaustein, Shaw represented both the sound and the political perspective he hoped to capture. “I met her at a gay bar in San Francisco where we were playing a show. I just thought she was so cute and had a great persona. I immediately wanted to collaborate with her.”
The band first toured in 2009 with Bogart’s now-deceased peer, Jay Reatard. They released a collection of singles via True Panther, but then signed with Hardly Art, the Seattle-based Sub Pop imprint, for Too Young to Be in Love, which they recorded in New York City with influential producer Ivan Julian, best known for his founding role in Richard Hell and the Voidoids. The opportunity to work with the proto-punk pioneer was one of the decisive factors in choosing their label home. “They just made it happen,” says Bogart. “They are an incredibly supportive and artist-friendly label.”
The resulting 10 tracks are a sour-sweet set of well-crafted pop songs, with Bogart handling lead vocals, rendered with plenty of punk-rock energy but no shortage of the crystalline harmonies and flamboyant melodrama that so obviously appeals to him, regardless of the current rage of girl group–channeling artists like Best Coast and the Vivian Girls. “I know it’s a big ‘thing’ these days, but I don’t think we’re trying to hop on some trend,” he says. “I think that Shannon and I just love that kind of music.”
Much like the lovesick ladies who preceded him during the rise of girl groups in the ’50s and ’60s, Bogart also sees the value of surviving a broken heart to resurrect it as a song—and as the primary motivation to keep plugging away in an unforgiving underground-tour circuit that promises little more than salvation through song.
“That’s the best way to get over a problem—to write songs about it,” he asserts. “And that’s the only reason to do it, with all the bullshit you have to deal with, you know?”