Few bands are as misunderstood as Butcher Babies. In turn, that misunderstanding serves to highlight the hypocrisy and misogyny surrounding women in hard rock and metal to this day. The two women that front the band, Heidi Shepherd and Carla Harvey, are fierce vocalists and charismatic performers, but in some quarters they were labeled a gimmick from day one.
That viewpoint was arguably fueled by the fact that, in the band's early years, the pair would often perform topless except for crosses of black tape covering their nipples. The look earned them plenty of attention, good and bad, but there was a reason behind it that went beyond sex or shock value. Shepherd and Harvey were paying homage to late Plasmatics frontwoman Wendy O. Williams, who sported the same outfit (or lack thereof). They even took their band's name from a Plasmatics song, “Butcher Baby.”
While it’s fair to say that women shouldn’t have to oversexualize themselves in order to get attention, Shepherd and Harvey felt there was also strength in standing up and saying, “This is what I want to wear, and to hell with the rest of you.” This is, after all, a band that formed in 2009 simply to play shows on the Sunset Strip, chasing the glamour that, in their minds, was still there years after the ’80s had passed.
“That Sunset Strip imagery from the 1980s was the whole reason I wanted to move to L.A. from Detroit in the first place,” Harvey says. “I idolized Guns N’ Roses and wanted to be part of that world. Yes, girls were sexualized, but so were the men. That whole era was about being sexy. Half of those bands would be nowhere if the lead singer wasn’t a hot dude that went onstage shirtless. Obviously, women are always judged by the way they look first. But I think it’s grown leaps and bounds over the last 10 years.”
“When we started, everyone thought that was us trying to be that sexual band,” Shepherd says. “But if you ever saw us live, that was definitely not the case. [Williams] didn’t get up there and shake her boobs to be sexy. It was about telling the general cookie-cutter music industry to F-off, and she’s gonna be the female she wants to be. ‘Don’t tell me how to dress, don’t tell me how to sound, don’t tell me who to be, I’m gonna be myself.’ I think we really embody that personality. When we finally grew into our own in L.A., we felt like strong, independent women. But people always over-sexualize people in music, and I don’t think that’s going away.”
Still, at some point over the last few years, the two singers decided to quit with the tape. It was a part of their onstage personas that they were simply done with. The band have evolved musically too, from the fun and frolic of their punk-metal past to something a little deeper.
“I’ve watched everyone in the band grow in leaps and bounds as entertainers and musicians,” Harvey says. “That’s been really neat, and also with our lyrics and using our voices as platforms for things that we believe in. As Heidi says, we started off just wanting to play some shows on the Sunset Strip and have a good time. We realized that we were put into a position where we could help people, so we’ve grown completely and changed direction a lot.”
Butcher Babies' third album, Lilith, comes out this week. The band worked on it for a full year, and the extra effort has been worth it. More mature and with a fully realized concept built around the mythical character of Lilith, the first woman, the album has offered Harvey and Shepherd the opportunity, somewhat ironically, to write more openly sexual lyrics than they have in the past.
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“We’ve never had anything sexual in any of our music before,” Harvey says. “With this album, we decided to kind of abandon that and embrace the sexuality and positivity of the character of Lilith. I think that it really drips in our music. It’s liberating in a way, to not have ever written anything like that and for it to come out, no holds barred, no parameters — we’re just going to write about it. It's kind of cool.”
On Thursday, Oct. 26, the Butcher Babies return to the Sunset Strip for a show at the Roxy with rap-metal goons Hollywood Undead. The theatrical nature of both bands, at least, allows the differing styles to fit. As for the Butcher Babies' set, they say it will be 90 percent new songs.
“We really wanted to come out with this, guns a-blazing,” Harvey says. “It’s going to be a year by the time we hit the road [since] we’ve been out, so we wanted to do something completely different. We amped up our light show and production. Everything is 10 times more than it was before. We’ve been sitting on the new material for so long. Between the old fans and hopefully making new ones, we’re so pumped for everyone to hear the new material.”