Photo by Amina Cruz
I didn’t know Oakland existed before Brontez Purnell. I remember being sixteen and asking where his electroclash band Gravy Train!!!! was from. “Oakland,” my friend responded. “It’s near San Francisco. But like, dirtier.” This description of Oakland is also a pretty accurate description of Brontez himself, at least his early work as a go-go boy/singer in Gravy Train!!!! and his book Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger. But he’s also branched out into more romantic and gentle territory over the years with work like his ditty bop punk band The Younger Lovers.
Brontez has always been himself, even going back to his days as a baby gay growing up black and high pitched in the Deep South hamlet of Triana, Ala. (population 496). At the same time—in his semi-autobiographical debut novel Since I Laid My Burden Down and in his persona—Brontez doesn’t shy from admitting he wants acceptance and love from others in his community. It’s this vulnerability that makes him more believable to me than other queer artists who choose to present as indestructible. Brontez’s creative efforts are most commonly characterized by acceptance and fascination with these sorts of conflicts and contradictions in human interaction: individuality vs. acceptance, sexual freedom vs. emotional heartbreak, bottoming vs. pain.
Along with being a musician and a writer, Brontez is also a dancer and filmmaker. The work of the Brontez Purnell Dance Company, which he founded in 2009, recalls a more soulful, DIY Michael Clark in its conjunction of rock’n’roll and modern dance. Along those same lines he also directed the documentary Unstoppable Feat: The Dances of Ed Mock, which shed light on the work of the experimental gay black dancer, a fixture in the San Francisco dance community who passed away from AIDS in 1986. “I felt like I connected to an ancestor I didn’t know I had,” Brontez recently told Alabama Public Access. “It filled in a lot of pieces about my own life.”
Introducing me to Oakland is not the only first that Brontez represents in my life. One of the very first concerts I ever attended was seeing Gravy Train!!!! open for Le Tigre in Philly circa 2004. Seeing Brontez and company exposing themselves figuratively and actually on stage in a parade of dayglo sleaze changed my entire concept of what performance could be. It was a feeling of shock that I was exceptionally receptive to when I was sixteen. So I was thrilled when Daryl asked me if I wanted to Skype with Brontez on a Sunday morning for a meet-cute with this heroic California-based artist. I had too many questions to ask Brontez Purnell to fit in a single interview—did Gravy Train!!!! get any royalties when their song “Hella Nervous” was utilized in the adult film Neu Wave Hookers? That question didn’t make the cut.
Introduction by Johnnie Jungleguts
Interview by Johnnie and Daryl
A CA20 Installment
A Collection of California Artists’ Voices in the New Decade
Funded by the California Arts Council