Header image credit: Scott Dachroeden
By Andrew Daly
As one of the preeminent guitarists amongst the ranks of “the new wave of classic rock,” Thunderpussy’s Whitney Petty stands tall and proud as a woman in a male-dominated field.
To explain the explosive nature of Thunderpussy, one has to look to the towering legacy of classic rock bands from the ’70s while simultaneously looking toward the other end of the spectrum – ’90s grunge. In Petty, Thunderpussy has a swaggering six-stringer who gloriously stands side by side with devilishly carefree vocalist Molly Sides.
“For me, Thunderpussy was created the moment I saw Molly Sides singing with another band,” Petty recalls. “I had stars in my eyes! I thought, “My God… I’ve found my Mick!” And the first show was the two of us at The Pink Door in Seattle. We played a piece that went on for about 15 minutes and would later become the song ‘Make Me Moan.'”
“I played guitar and a little toy kick drum,” Petty continues. “And Molly was on the stage for all of about 30 seconds before she left me to prowl through the audience, hopping on laps and mounting tables and empty chairs. I’m sure there was some signature Molly backbends happening out there, but I was too terrified to look up!”
With one album under their belt – Thunderpussy (2018) – and two EPs – Greatest Hits (2018) and Milk It (2019) -Thunderpussy’s all-girl lineup has shaken up the industry in ways once thought unthinkable. Rupturing basslines, cataclysmic drums, sidewinding guitars, and harrowing vocals simultaneously work to linchpin Thunderpussy’s expansive sound, leaving listeners and scene mates alike quivering in their wake.
“For many years now, women have been coming up in a man’s world, competing with men and with other women for the recognition of predominantly male-driven industries,” Petty says. “The Great Sausage Party. But every man came out of a woman, and it’s past time for women to recognize their power in this existence.”
“If you have fingers and a soul, you can play guitar,” Petty defiantly says. “We just need more women in the industry. It’s a numbers game. Young girls need to hear that it is possible to rock, to have a voice, and to succeed. Having a pussy is not a weakness or a disadvantage; it is a strength, and that is what the word ‘Thunderpussy’ means. Powerful. Woman. Have confidence, ladies. We got this.”
Sure, Petty and her cohort’s music is as blustering as their brazen mindset, and if that were all they had to offer, that would be nothing short of impressive. But with many shouting from the rooftops that “rock is dead,” Thunderpussy’s influence, style, and determination to preach the good word of rock are all the more meaningful under the circumstances.
“Playing this music came naturally because ’70s rock is my bread and butter,” Petty admits. “It’s practically my religion. We are more than happy to play rock music for the young and old alike. Rock takes many forms, and many things that are called rock are not. Thunderpussy is here to set the record straight. Well, not too straight – we are certainly not straight. As for those who feel rock is dead, I say: My my, hey hey. Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay.”
Looking toward what appears to be a busy year ahead, Whitney Petty logged on with VWMusic to run through her origins with the guitar, the recording of Thunderpussy’s debut record, the importance of having Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready in their corner, and what she hopes to accomplish as she moves forward.
What first inspired you to pick up the guitar? Who were your early influences, and how did they shape your style?
I think the guitar inspired me to pick up guitar. I’ve always been drawn to the instrument – its shape and sound. I just thought they looked so cool. My first guitar was electric, and I never even plugged it in. I just jumped up and down on my bed with it, listening to “Girls With Guitars” by Wynonna Judd. She was probably my first hero.
What sort of scene were you exposed to growing up? How did that shape your outlook as a musical person?
I’m fully a rock ‘n’ roller these days, but the first music I listened to and connected with on my own was the contemporary country music of the ’90s, growing up in Marietta, GA. Wynonna Judd, Tanya Tucker, K.T. Oslin, Garth Brooks, Alabama, Brooks & Dunn, Mary Chapin Carpenter… the list is long. And my folks were always listening to outlaw country, which I revere to this day – Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, aka The Highwaymen. That music still gives me goosebumps. That music shapes my sensibilities as a songwriter still.
Image credit: Sarah KC Photos
How did Thunderpussy meet Mike McCready, and how integral was he to the success of Thunderpussy early on?
Mike used to go to the Sasquatch! Music Festival in George, WA, and we happened to be playing the main stage one year very early on in our genesis. He was there, side stage, when we finished and just so excited to talk to me about my pedals, I remember. I didn’t know who he was, but I connected with him on a musical level right away.
He immediately invited us to come record at his home studio, and we were all too thrilled to accept. For me, his biggest gift was, and is always, his confidence in the band and particularly in me as a player. He has always been our loudest spokesperson, and we are forever grateful for that, but having a rock god like that believing in you and putting you in situations where you have to get better is priceless.
What gear did you use most during the recording of Thunderpussy’s debut record? Are you using the same gear now?
Oh, that was a while ago… some things stand out, though. Working with Sylvia Massy means working outside the box of convention. I remember recording a guitar solo through the mic’d motor of a blender, hotwired to a solid-state amp—a glowing pickle with cables coming out of it. A microphone shoved in a garden hose… Sylvia had just received via mail one of each of the Earthquaker pedals. I think I tried them all! I still keep an Afterneath and an SV Transport on my board. I’m sure I used a Les Paul for the main tracks, and I always play my Marshall 4140 combo. I love that amp.
Walk me through your approach to “Velvet Noose,” which is my personal favorite. Describe working with Mike McCready on the track and what lessons you took away.
It’s my favorite as well, and largely in part because of the arrangement to which Mike and our producer, Josh Evans, contributed to in a big way. Their ideas in arrangements during the session, which actually consisted of two other songs as well – “No Heaven” and a cover of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” – were huge takeaways for me. Chorus teasers, guitar breaks, key changes, and a general sense of the importance of these things, they helped us refine and develop many tools we are still working on/with.
I had been much more of a perfectionist on the album session with Sylvia and maybe a bit scared to leave my comfort zone as a player. Mike has a much more cavalier approach in the studio. He lets it all hang out. He embraces mistakes. He experiments, and watching that changed my playing forever. Mike gave me the confidence to fuck up in public.
You are well known for your use of the Gibson Les Paul. What does it provide you that other guitars don’t?
Well, my favorite players play them, so there’s that. Jimmy Page and Joe Perry, just to name a few. I just think the tones are killer and the most rock-sounding. And I love the way they look! You have to be in love with all parts of the guitar in order to get obsessed in order to practice in order to express yourself. I honestly love anything with strings on it and will play it all. I do love my Tele as well; I just wish it had a few more frets on it.
Images credit: Ashley Genevieve
Are you one for effects pedals and other forms of gear?
Tone starts with the guitar. Then you’ve got to have a great amp because so much of the effect is right there. The only effect that matters is the effect you make on people – and indeed on yourself – so whatever it takes to inspire your playing is just right. Pedals can send you down different avenues, just like new tunings. I love it all. Violin bows and Ebows are really fun for me.
How have you evolved as a guitarist, and how will you apply that to Thunderpussy’s next record? Are you working on new music?
I think I have improved as a player by putting myself in situations that make me very uncomfortable. I try to play at the edge of my ability whenever possible. And the great lull of the pandemic had me learning music theory for the first time. Understanding intervals and musical modes have given me a new appreciation for melody and composition, which is very inspiring. We actually just finished tracking an album that I am very proud of. I think it sounds more mature than the first record, but who knows? I’m too close to it to say.
What are the most meaningful things you’ve yet to accomplish, and how will you make them happen before it’s all said and done?
I think the most meaningful thing one can do as a musician is unlocking the ability to express yourself without your brain interfering. I’ve always felt like I’m only a channel for the music that is happening all around us all the time, out in the ether; everything is music. I feel that if I can keep my channel clear, I can express myself through music better and better.
This is essentially a full-time job, so work to improve yourself, your ability to listen, your ability to express, and your ability to play. It’s this kind of pure expression that you hear when you listen to a truly great guitarist. I want to be able to do that. And hopefully, inspire others along the way.
Images courtesy of Getty Images/Wiki Commons