Thunderpussy guitarist, Whitney Petty, can go from knee-smacking laugh to face-melting solo in less than a second. The range of her creative and emotional output astounds and the joy she exudes in conversation — whether discussing the hunt for crop circles or text exchanges with Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready — is massive.
During the past few months, Thunderpussy released its self-titled LP to rave reviews and undertook a national tour. And soon the band will head out on a European excursion traveling from Hungary to Germany, Ireland, and Finland. But before Thunderpussy leaves the States, we wanted to catch up the band’s stellar guitarist to find out how the summer has treated the quartet, what’s coming up next, and how the band molded its aesthetic.
What draws you to big anthemic rock music?
I think the theatricality of it. Every music has its own natural setting. Like, reggae belongs on islands. Folk belongs in intimate acoustic settings. And rock belongs in stadiums. I feel like punk music is great for clubs, like CBGB. And rock music works in all of those settings but I think to realize it fully, you have to be Queen or The Who and you have to have the light show and the theatrics to go with it. It just helps. And I love that. I love how dramatic, like, '70s rock is. It’s funny — when we were just on tour, we played on a really nice stage in a really nice theater to a completely empty crowd but I still had the most fun ever because I love being on a big stage. I love having the freedom, the monitors to be able to hear everything, the big room and the reverb, all that you get from large spaces. I feel like rock and roll needs room to breathe.
There was a significant amount of time between the band singing a record deal and the LP release. What did you learn during that period that’s been valuable?
We learned how to put out a record. I always had suspicions that there was more than just throwing a record up on Bandcamp, which is why we even took the painstaking efforts to shop the record around for the right home. It was akin to the knowledge that we gained when we found our producer. We all had suspicions there was a better way to record than just going to your buddy’s studio. We’ve always had this desire to take everything to the next level and signing with Republic, which is essentially Universal, it’s a different level of support. I think the label would have preferred that we waited even longer to put out the record but we were just so ready. We’re almost two years removed from when we finished it and we’re really ready to start working on the next one.
But I feel like we all just learned how the machine works. It’s very much like that Pink Floyd song, “Have A Cigar.” Like, “Hey, kid, you’re gonna go far.” I think we all gained a lot of perspective on the record industry as a whole and looking at bigger acts — like, how does Ariana Grande put her record out? How does this carpet unfold? We’ve learned there’s a much larger world out there so we’ve gotten a huge amount of perspective.
Is there something special about the group’s chemistry that helps drive you?
I think chemistry is really important. And our group’s chemistry has been a factor since day one. I think our chemistry comes from what we can do on stage and in our ability to really go for it when playing live together, communicating telepathically. When we started, when Lena Simon was on drums, I vividly remember our first show at The Crocodile and the three of us who are still in the band, we felt something click. Like, “Oh shit, this is different than any other band we’ve been in. This is gonna work!” I can’t really describe why, though. Just some sort of magic. Especially between Molly [Sides, vocalist] and I, there’s pure unadulterated joy in sharing the songs we’ve written together. Even the covers we play together. It’s so much fun.
What’s your favorite Mike McCready story since you started working together?
I just fucking love that guy. The first time we went into the studio with Mike, when we didn’t really know him at all, we thought, “Okay, he’s going to let us use his studio and we’re going to record a song here.” But his producer reached out and asked us to send him some songs and we thought, “Okay…” Then, when we get in the studio, while we’re setting up, Mike is on his electric guitar and he’s playing the whole song through. He learned it from the recording and he said, “I don’t want to intrude, but I have some ideas, would you be interested?”
That’s just the way Mike is. He gets so fucking excited about music. Every time we hang with the guy, all we talk about is songs. He always has ideas. To this day. I’ll send him some cell phone recordings if I get stuck and he’ll send me back a video of him playing a whole new part, saying, “What about this?” And I just say, “That’s awesome! Thank you!”
Thunderpussy released a handful of videos prior to the LP. What is it about the visually theatrical that intrigues the band?
I think it’s just another piece of the puzzle, another piece of the story. I think what’s really compelling about this whole lifestyle that we’re choosing to be a part of — because this has become so much bigger than just writing a couple songs, playing a couple shows, and seeing what sticks. It’s this whole very strategic, all-encompassing, life-consuming puzzle with all these little pieces that you try to lay out and look many years down the road. With our first video, “Speed Queen,” we immediately wanted to tell the story and basically be ourselves. We’re a couple, Molly and I, and we’re in love and so here’s the beginning of the story. “Torpedo Love” was a mini lifestyle documentary in this giant nuclear cooling tower. And then “Badlands” was the flip side of “Speed Queen,” and it’s kind of serious. We want to feel like we’re well rounded, we strived to make our debut record well rounded. So it’s all part of the same process, trying to tell this story.
How did you come up with the band name and what is the status of your patent?
Man, I’m ready to throw in the towel. [ed. note: the band is currently in dispute with the U.S. Supreme Court for the right to trademark their name. ] We’re in a queue basically. We’re piggybacking off other people’s cases. This has been a problem for many people, many have gotten the same rejection letter we got — and, god, that was like three years ago. It called us “amoral and scandalous.” The Slants [a Portland-based all Asian-American dance-rock group] were “disparaging and scandalous.” The Slants won their case but they weren’t “amoral.” Now, we’re riding the coattails of another trademark case, this time for “FUCT” and we’re waiting on the final verdict. It’s going to the Supreme Court and I honestly feel that if they win their case, we’ll get hit from some other angle. But if we win, our name will be retroactively trademarked. And, you know, there are natural copyright laws that protect us. We own our trademark in Washington State, we had no problem in Washington State. But it’s tough, as the band grows and gets more popular — if we ever get to Rolling Stones level, just hypothetically, then people are able to bootleg our name and we can’t do anything about it. So, it would be nice to have it trademarked. As far as where the name came from, there’s no way to know. We’ll just say Sean Connery came to me in a dream and said, “It’s Thunderpussy, you rogue!”
All the band members are such joyful people. Is that hard to maintain as you get further into the business of entertainment?
I’m sure for some people it is. But I still feel really excited and lucky all the time. When things get hard, I look back at the last eight years of my life where I was crawling around on my hands and knees in the freezing Seattle rain, as a gardener. I loved it in the summer and I love plants, but I just kind of think, “You know, Whit, it’s not so bad now. Your job is to write songs.” If anything, though, it’s the pressure of not having any roadmap for how you have a career as an artist. It can be overwhelming at times. It’s more crushing because of the responsibility I feel as opposed to “Oh, gosh, I’m so jaded!” But it’s been a blast. Our team is amazing. Everyone at Stardog and Republic and Universal is seriously fucking awesome. Everyone I met there feels the same way, they fucking love their job.
Is there a particular mission or some new ground the band wants to aspire toward?
Total world domination has always been the mission. But, creatively, we always want to grow. I just want to get the band tighter, really. Like, really right. I’d love for us to reach a James Brown level at some point live. To be more spontaneous. I think that’s happening. Historically, Thunderpussy has not played that many shows. We’ve always been big proponents of economics, especially in the supply-and-demand sense. We’ve never done a lot of shows. I haven’t done the math, but it feels like this year we’ll do as many shows on tour than we have in the entire span of Thunderpussy’s existence. So, I’m stoked we are getting to support this record we all believe in and I think our live shows will get better and better.
In fact, you have a big European tour coming up. What’s a must-see for you along the way?
I’m really hoping to track down a crop circle in the UK. I’ve always been into crop circles. This summer, we’ll be driving around the UK quite a bit, so maybe we’ll get to track one down. I would love to see Stonehenge. But I looked at the map already and I don’t think it will happen. Leah [Julius, bassist] wants to climb the Eiffel Tower, which sounds amazing. We’re also taking an overnight ferry ride through icy waters from Stockholm to Helsinki and I’m so fucking stoked for that. There’s so much to do and see. The list is endless. Everyone has things they want to see but I’m banking on a crop circle.
Thunderpussy's self-titled debut album is out now via Stardog / Republic Records. The band is playing a special Fourth of July show at Drunky Two Shoes BBQ in the White Center neighborhood of Seattle before heading out on their European tour.