Thirty-five-year-old Brontez Purnell is energetic, queer and countercultural. He’s an artist who does a lot at once and makes it look easy. He grew up in the tiny town of Triana, Alabama, before relocating to Oakland at 19 to front multiple bands, including the electroclash cult-classic Gravy Train!!! and his current band, The Younger Lovers, which he founded once he heard Liz Phair had recorded her “Girly-Sound” tapes on her own.
At the same time, he’s released multiple film and video projects and is working on a new live show, “Chronic,” through his own dance company, that tells the history of pot clubs in San Francisco. This summer, Purnell also released his latest book, Since I Laid My Burden Down, his mostly fictional and deeply hilarious exploration of the life of his protagonist DeShawn, a queer Alabamian man coming of age through his relationships with men. Author Michelle Tea called it “an emotional tightrope walk of a book and an important American story rarely, if ever, told.” According to Brontez, the novel is “supposed to be like Tyler Perry meets Tennessee Williams.”
Last week, I caught up with Purnell on his way to work to talk about the closeted men he used to go to church with in Alabama; coming out to his mom as punk; and the ever-diminishing economic returns of trimming weed.
How did you choose Since I Laid My Burden Down as the title of the book?
It’s a standard negro spiritual. We used to sing it growing up. It was one of the ensembles we would sing in church. And that’s what’s in the book. It encapsulated the [protagonist DeShawn’s] whole moment. I like the idea of weights being lifted, of people being elevated. Transcendence, or whatever.
The book wades between memory and the present seamlessly. As individuals, we’re often very aware of different phases or time periods in our lives, but in the ongoing timeline of DeShawn’s life, it feels like every experience collapses into one. How does time factor into your own life?
If I look at my life right now, so little has changed between the time I was 20 and moved [to Oakland] and now. There have been these whole 15 years that still feel like one week. But there are things that happened fucking 25 years ago where I’m still like, “God, it took you so long to remember, but it still feels like it was yesterday, even though it wasn’t.”
That’s the way memory kind of flashes. Time is such a constant thing. As humans, we might live to be about 80, but in terms of time, it’s still like our lives happen in a second. Memory is constant; it exists in this same way. That’s why I’m not the type of person to be like, “Oh, that happened a long time ago…” Because the feeling of any memory can still be very fresh, you know?
Since you’re a queer black man from Alabama writing a story about a queer black man from Alabama, do people assume what you’ve written is basically memoir or some version of “your truth”?
I feel like any time you write anything, it becomes invented. My friend was talking to me yesterday, and she talked about how people like the fact that I write in my own voice. But even writing in your own voice — to translate that to other people means paraphrasing, it means kicking up certain things. It’s definitely real life, but someone in another part of that story might see it a totally different way. That’s why I’m hesitant to be like, this person is me, because DeShawn really isn’t me at all. In general, I’m a lot more pessimistic than that character. I don’t find peace with things so easily.
Of course, there are some obvious similarities. But sometimes I wrote that character filtered through the personality of one of my friends. I’d be like, “This is this friend, who is this way I wish I was; so I’ll use this character to live in that person’s hands.” By the time you’re putting that much filter on shit, it’s fiction, no matter what it is.
Also, I’m a theater person. I believe writing should be good theater, full of consequences and bold choices. Sometimes real life is more stagnant than that. In the book, DeShawn comes to all of these major conclusions in this very big way, but in my real life, most of my major conclusions and epiphanies have occurred simply — like while walking down the street and with no trigger at all.
Some of the best moments in the book are DeShawn’s experiences with gay characters at church, both from growing up and the present. A lot of these stories — or the relationships they’re about — involve desire just as much as shame. I’m curious if you have any thoughts about the way shame can inform desire, especially as someone growing up in a small Southern town’s church in the 1990s?
Of course growing up, there were gay people in the church. But even then, I feel like their roles in the church were so codified. You were either like the down-low husband who doesn’t say shit, but everybody knows your business because it’s a small town. Or you’re like, the choir director.
But there’s a difference in the experience of gays coming up in the 1980s and that of a character DeShawn’s age, coming up in the mid-1990s, when there was a huge jump in representation. Suddenly, this whole in-your-face gay style was very new and very happening. And there’s this idea that those codified roles, those scripted behaviors, were all they had access to. In the book, the gay people in the church add on to DeShawn’s experience in a certain way. He was a really effeminate boy, but beyond that, they saw him having access to something. It kind of made them single him out in this way.
I always think it’s crazy to watch how one generation gets freedom of something, and yet, that alienates them from the older generation. I can say this much: When I was a young kid getting into punk rock, my parents thought it was the craziest fucking thing in the world. They’re totally fine with it now — my mom bought my little nephew a guitar and a drum set and he’s not even 10 yet — but when I was 16, I wasn’t allowed to practice my instruments in the house. I got told I was “listening to the Devil’s music” and shit like that. My parents literally didn’t go to school with white kids until they were teens. So to go from this segregated reality to having a punk rock child… It had to be such a trip.
Since you mentioned punk, do you feel like punk-rock sensibilities still inform your work as much as they did when you were growing up?
You know, the older I get, the crankier I am. Sometimes I’m just like, I don’t want to look for shit in a room full of bums ever again; I just want to be in the woods by myself. But it really did create this framework, you know? And it definitely left its mark on me. I also think it’s definitely given me a pass within myself. It’s given me the permission to try something and fail at it and keep going if I feel like I want to be better at it.
In terms of these ideas of self-worth, is that something that you specifically thought about in terms of crafting DeShawn?
DeShawn is really a composite of a lot of friends who have had experiences like mine. And so, a theme of the book is, “Who deserves what?” Such as feeling unlucky in love because the person you really love doesn’t love you back. Or that the person you love has taken on someone completely unlike you to be their primary partner. What does that say about you? What does it say about you that you care so much? We don’t live in a vacuum. We need different relationships to validate different parts of us. That’s very real — just as real as the idea that DeShawn has to achieve a sense of self-love first. It’s so simple and basic that it’s weird.
I want to touch on Gravy Train! That band was iconic for a lot of young queer people on the internet. Did you understand its influence at the time?
You know, it’s weird, I was such a baby when I was doing that band. So when I look back on it, there’s a part of me that cringes. Not because of anything that’s necessarily bad, but because of being so young and so intense and making so many mistakes. But being so young, you make these paths for yourself that you don’t even know you’re making.
I thought about it yesterday, and there’s no way in hell I’d walk into a fucking bar in the middle of fucking Kansas in a jockstrap and just dance around. But I was doing that during the fucking Bush years. What was I thinking? Plus, I’m fatter now and have gray hair, so it would have a whole different look about it. That stuff was fucking crazy, but it seemed normal at the time.
That’s the thing about punk and youthful exuberance.
Yeah, I’m 35 now. Around the age of 33, I was just like, “Man there are lots of people in the world who really don’t live like me.”
There’s so much power in permitting yourself to live however you want, even if that means interrupting what people expect of you — or what you expect of yourself.
Oh my God, yes. I first moved to Oakland when I was 19. I thought I was going to find a job at a restaurant, have my own apartment with my boyfriend and that was going to be my life. Simple. I still don’t know how I missed the damn mark so hard. I’m really at that age where a lot of boys I used to party with are all married to their gay husband and living up in some apartment. I’m just like, “I have 30 cents in my bank account and herpes.” It’s like, “Fuck! These are the choices I made.” But I don’t know, I’m still having a really great time.
One last question, totally off-topic: As someone who has worked in the Bay Area weed industry for a long time, do you see any specific changes in the culture of cannabis trimming now? Or the economics of it? Are the jobs less lucrative as we look toward recreational marijuana policies in California?
The main change is the money. The more legal weed becomes, the less you make as a trimmer. I’d say a little less than 10 years ago, you made like $225 a pound trimming weed. Now it’s $150 a pound. If it gets any fucking cooler, I’m sure it’ll probably get down to like $100 a pound. That’s probably when I’ll be like, “Okay, it’s time to go back to college.”