In honor of the forthcoming Heavenly reissues (Skep Wax will rerelease all the Heavenly LPs on vinyl soon: Heavenly vs Satan is available on pre-order now; Le Jardin de Heavenly will follow next April and the other two will come along at six month intervals)—in addition to the John Peel Sessions on Precious Recordings and the announcement of the band’s forthcoming gigs at Bush Hall in London in May 2023—we asked the band to think back to 30 years ago and tell us about their impressions of the U.S. in the olden days! The very first issue of chickfactor was handed out at a Heavenly / Lois gig in Sept. 1992; I reviewed their second album in SPIN around the same time, and we interviewed them in chickfactor zine (Amelia is on the cover of issue 2).
Going to America was overwhelming, partly because we were going to meet loads of people for the first time—people whose records we’d heard, but from a distance of 3500 miles. Two of the encounters I remember most vividly from that first Heavenly trip are Phoebe Summersquash (Small Factory) and Jeffrey Underhill (Honeybunch). Phoebe is one of the select band of people known as ‘girl drummers’. She was the most diminutive person in the band, she wore glasses and she smiled all the time, even while she beating the hell out of a drumkit. I loved that combination of effortless glee and thunderous noise. She was the living antidote to those theatrical drummers (and guitarists) who pretend to be working out in the gym, or summoning Satan, as if that was crucial to making a great sound.
Jeffrey Underhill, we met, I think, in Rhode Island. I don’t really remember the gig very well, but I was a big fan of Honeybunch. Their song ‘Mine Your Own Business’ was in my head all the time, and it still provides the soundtrack for my memories of our first trip to the US. Anyway, what I remember about Jeffrey was the fact that he showed up in a back alley in a really great old blue/green semi-beater of a car. I am a bit of a nut about old cars, and liked this one a lot. Me and Jeffrey didn’t talk much, I imagine we were both somewhat shy, but I do remember sitting on the bonnet thinking ‘this is the best car, and it belongs to the person who played the best song’.
The encounters with all these new people came to a head at the Chickfactor Party, where there was a whole community was assembling. I didn’t really know anyone there, of course, but I somehow felt like I could get to know and like all of them. We were a long way from the UK, but we felt at home. Part of the reason for this was that women were running the Chickfactor show, and these were wry, witty women. There was a lot of intellect behind Chickfactor, and a definite attitude, but there was a lot of humour too. The humour was a sign of confidence—there was nothing apologetic about it. That’s what being in Heavenly felt like. The women in our band were obviously in charge, but they wore it lightly. So New York, or at least this little indie corner of New York, felt more amenable to our band than a lot of places back in the UK. It was a good feeling.
I’m not sure any of my memories are really separable. The synapses which connect Heavenly to America all sit in a viscous bath of coffee and the new kind of cool of the straight edge punks and the smell of wet trees driving through Oregon and Massachusetts and the swooning delight of being in the same venn diagram overlap as the really rioting riot grrrls and gigs not being gigs any more but shows and the sheer heat of new experiences and new loves. America just felt so great. It was like finding a version of us that was just so sure of itself. So certain. Walk around the town like you own it…everyone, all the time.
Compared with that overpowering sense of it all, specific memories feel a bit humble. The drive down from Olympia to play a show with a band who turned out to be Tiger Trap, Calvin saying, classic understatement, ‘I guess you might kinda like this band.’ Meeting them to play a show together in this kind of basement garage, them all wearing roller skates, us being powerless to resist charms on that level. For some reason, having a conversation with a bunch of people about our favourite foods and everyone out-doing each other for eccentricity, then Molly from Bratmobile saying ‘I just want to eat rice’ and that becoming one of those weird things that I think of literally every time I cook rice. The novelty, playing at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, of being fed really well before a show. Laughing over-hearing an old guy in the audience, saying – after a whole raft of indie bands – about Lois, ‘Finally someone who can actually sing’. Meeting Ted and Jodi for the first time and being so jealous that Pete was somehow already friends with them, then seeing Jodi’s band (with another girl with a rad American name like Brooklyn or Maddison, I’m pretty sure the band was called The Runways) and thinking these were the most sensational people I’d ever met. Being interviewed for this magazine called Chickfactor and hearing of another wait what cool girls are somehow allowed to be mainstream now magazine called Sassy and realising that culture was an actual thing and the world changes and feeling that we lived in some small backwater but we were so lucky because we were here, for now.
– On our first US tour, Pete and I being dropped off by Small Factory in Hartford, Connecticut, in the middle of the night. We were near the place we were all staying with my parents, and figured we’d call a taxi to get us home. But it turned out that the place we stopped at had been robbed the week before, and we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by police cars. We were freaked out. It felt like an episode of Starsky and Hutch. Then, when asked where we were heading, we realised we couldn’t remember the address. Not at all suspicious! In the end, though, the police believed the daft English people and gave us a lift home in the police car.
– Meeting Claudia Gonson from Magnetic Fields at Chet’s Last Call in Boston. She asked if I had time to come and record a song for her and Stephin Merritt’s side project, the 6ths, the next day. I said why not. I had heard ‘100,000 Fireflies’ on the ‘One Last Kiss’ compilation and liked it a lot. I remember I sang ‘Hall of Mirrors’ in an especially breathy way, and Stephin commented that I came complete with my own reverb!
– Playing at the Fantagraphics Comics Warehouse in Seattle with Beat Happening and another band who I just remember as being very smelly! It was a great space, and I was excited because I was a big fan of ‘Love and Rockets’. Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl both came, which seemed pretty thrilling too. We were easily thrilled!
– Arriving in Olympia at the start of a West Coast tour, meeting Bratmobile and Bikini Kill and discovering Riot Grrrl. There was a visceral buzz around the whole place, and we quickly got very excited about it too. We had always been a feminist band, but in a quiet sort of way. We didn’t really feel part of the UK feminist movement at the time. It was fighting for stuff that was no doubt important but didn’t seem relevant to our concerns. So it was thrilling and empowering to find people discussing the issues that really had affected us. And to discover a whole set of new bands who had found a way of being outspoken and angry but also huge fun. It had a big impact on us, musically and personally.
I have opened the drawer in which I left my old memories of Heavenly in the USA. There is a lot there, but I can’t fit it together into any kind of story. My colleagues’ reminiscences do what I seem not to be able to. As a kind of coda, I do remember that we were brought down to earth by our first gig back in England after a West Coast tour, feeling rather pleased with ourselves. It was in a pub in Gillingham, to about five men and a dog. I don’t think they even turned the pub TV off while we played.