A Chat with Corin Tucker and Tracy Sawyer of Heavens to Betsy

Heavens To Betsy

Corin Tucker and Tracy Sawyer are struggling to remember the details about their old band.

“Oh my God, when did we record [Monsters]? I think we recorded it in, like, 1993, with Tim Green. Tracy?” Tucker asks her former bandmate. “I’m trying to remember.”

“I think it was 1993? Well, we’re a great interview,” jokes Sawyer in response.

“Right,” says Tucker. “Trying to do an interview 25 years later!”

The band in question is Heavens to Betsy, the Olympia, Washington two-piece formed in 1991 by Tucker and Sawyer, who came out of the riot grrl scene of the early ‘90s and who might be most well-known as “Corin Tucker’s band before Sleater-Kinney.” However, as the newly remastered version of the band’s crucial 1993 7” These Monsters Are Real shows, Heavens to Betsy’s musical achievements are strong enough to stand on their own merits. This band’s primal punk sound and powerful expressions of young female rage and desire retains the power to startle decades after their creation.

Heavens to Betsy’s origin story is something of a punk legend: although both women harbored dreams of being in a band, it wasn’t until Tucker moved to Olympia to attend college, and she found herself in the midst of a vibrant DIY music scene that included Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, that things were set in motion. “I was able to finally connect with a group of people that were all in bands and they were all playing house shows. It was all happening so I just said, ‘Well, I have a band, too!’”

The band became a reality when Michelle Noel of Evergreen’s KAOS radio station phoned Tucker at her parent’s house and asked her band to play Girl Night at the upcoming International Pop Underground convention. “She called my bluff,” says Tucker. “I said yes, even though I don’t think we’d even written a song. I think Tracy had just graduated high school, and I was like, ‘Great, we’re playing a show.’”

From that first show at IPU, Heavens to Betsy was launched. They would last until 1994, putting out a string of singles and a single full-length and going on a few national tours (including one with Excuse 17, whose guitarist Carrie Brownstein would go on to form Sleater-Kinney with Tucker) before calling it quits.

These Monsters Are Real was their third release and first for Kill Rock Stars. As both Sawyer and Tucker point out, Monsters teeters between the rawness of their earliest songs and the heavier grunge feel of their sole full-length, 1994’s Calculated. On Monsters, 18-year-old Tucker’s voice has a wildness about it as she barrels through songs about rape culture, body shaming, and frenemies—commonly used terms that were unknown when the music was created, although the phenomenon themselves were as real as ever. The centerpiece is “Monsters,” a song that frames a cautionary tale as bedtime story with a denouement that’s almost more terrifyingly prescient than ever: “Someday you just might fight the monster / Someday you just might become one.” The only thing more unsettling is the cascade of blood-curdling screams that follow.

On the occasion of These Monsters Are Real’s re-release, we chatted with Tucker and Sawyer about being young women in a touring punk band, making a musical pilgrimage to Athens, Georgia, where they found their first instruments, and how bands survived on tour in the days before the Internet.

Where did you record the These Monsters Are Real 7”?

Tracy Sawyer: It was at the Red House.

Corin Tucker: Right, I remember it being at the Red House with Tim Green. And Molly [Neuman] was there, but I don’t know if she was just kind of hanging out or helping out.

What was the Red House?

Tucker: It was a legendary Olympia punk house. Tim Green had a recording studio there. He probably lived there, too. I think everyone lived there at some point. I lived there.

Sawyer: I lived there very briefly.

Tucker: There were some amazing shows and Tim made some great records in that basement, and lived in that room I think, as well. Looking back, we were so fortunate to have this amazing community. We were basically children at the time and we started this band and we had this community that was like, ‘Great! Let’s start putting out your records.’

Sawyer: It was incredible. There was so much support and so much talent, really. To even just have somebody available who knew how to do all of this was pretty amazing. I don’t think any real money was ever exchanged. People were just like, ‘I want to help you.’ We were really lucky in that respect.

How did plans for the 7” come about?

Tucker: Slim Moon, who ran Kill Rock Stars, was really supportive of our band and… This was before the record, right? Was it before Calculated or after Calculated?

Sawyer: It was before, because at that point all we had was the tape that Molly [Neuman] had recorded. Then Slim just felt like we really needed to be on vinyl and we wanted to be on vinyl, too.

You had recorded a demo tape before doing the 7”?

Sawyer: Wasn’t that actually for a recording project for school for Molly?

Tucker: Molly Neuman from Bratmobile offered to record us at Evergreen, the college that we went to, and she made this excellent recording of eight songs. Then Molly probably asked Calvin Johnson at K Records to put out the tape and he did, K distributed it. And we put out a split 7” with Bratmobile on K Records. Those were the first things that we put out.

Sawyer: I totally forgot about the split 7”.

Tucker: Then at the same time Kill Rock Stars was just starting, and they asked us to put a song on the CD version of the Kill Rock Stars compilation. So that’s when we started a relationship with Kill Rock Stars, and from there we developed a relationship with Slim, and he wanted to put out a 7” for us. Kind of testing the waters for us as a band.

Why did you decide to start a band?

Sawyer: I felt like we just had to.

Tucker: I think for our generation, music was the most important thing. Music was so powerful in terms of cultural meaning and aspiration. Those are the people I looked up to so much more than politicians or business people or anyone.

Sawyer: We were pretty young and a lot of the music we listened to was music made by men, and we just listened to music all the time. We kind of goofed around. Corin, remember us goofing around in your dad’s music room? And we were like, ‘Let’s start a band!’ But it was always kind of a joke until we got to the point where we were like, ‘Wait, this doesn’t have to be a joke. This can be a real thing and we can do this because we want to.’

Did you have an idea of the kind of band you wanted to be?

Sawyer: I don’t know if we necessarily knew exactly what we wanted to be. I think we were sort of at first limited by our capabilities. We were two people, and I don’t even know if in the beginning we were really steadfast about it only being two people. I can’t really remember if everything was like a really conscious decision, what we were going to be like. We were evolving as we went along.

Tucker: I agree. I think I was super inspired by these punk rock small bands like Kicking Giant, they were a two-piece. Bratmobile had three members, and Bikini Kill and Mecca Normal. I was able to see these incredible live acts that were very small and limited instrumentation. I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just learn to play guitar and Tracy will learn to play bass and drums.’ Everyone switching instruments in Olympia anyways. We were just making it up as we went along.

Sawyer: I think eventually we were pretty adamant about keeping it a two-piece because I remember we had gotten a few comments, especially when it was just guitar and drums, like ‘Oh, you should get a bass player.’ Eventually, we were like, ‘No, we don’t have to.’ It doesn’t have to be in this box: a full band has to be bass, drums, and guitar.

How did you decide who was going to play which instruments?

Tucker: I feel like I wanted to play guitar, but also since there was just two of us we could switch and Tracy would play bass and I was like, ‘Well, I’ll play drums then!’

Sawyer: We both had a desire to pound on things. I definitely wanted to play drums just because I am a lot more comfortable in the background, wanting to feel like I was little more secure behind a drum set. It felt a little safer than being a front person.

Where did you get your instruments?

Sawyer: We got parts of our first drum set when we went on a trip across the country.

Tucker: We went on a musical pilgrimage to Athens, Georgia.

Sawyer: It was the summer between Corin leaving for college and my senior year of high school. It was a train trip. And then Corin, didn’t your dad build your guitar?

Tucker: My dad lent me this guitar that he made from this really strange guitar neck that he got in Sweden, probably from some second-hand store, that he built a body for. So he was making this makeshift Gibson Les Paul, but it was totally unique and handmade and weird-looking. It really impressed all the punk rockers because it was so weird-looking. But it was really easy to play. He also bought me a guitar amp. We were like 17 and 18, and he really encouraged me.

Where did you get the drums from in Georgia? Had you already decided to start Heavens to Betsy when you took the trip?

Tucker: That’s a really good question. We went to Athens because all these bands that I love are from there. We ended up hanging out with this band called the Earthworms, who were struggling musicians who encouraged us. In retrospect, we were so lucky, again, that we just met nice people. And somehow we found a classified ad, maybe in the newspaper, for the drum kit. That’s my recollection. The whole thing is kind of bonkers.

Sawyer: It may have been a classified ad. I feel like it was at…I don’t remember, like maybe somebody we met knew somebody that was selling parts of a drum set.

Tucker: Yeah, maybe it was the Earthworm guys who knew somebody who was selling a drum kit for $100.

What was writing songs like when you first set out to do it? Did you write together or did you bring stuff separately?

Sawyer: Sometimes we would write together. Sometimes I know, Corin, you would write songs on your own, and the lyrics you for sure wrote on your own.

Tucker: I think that it was really part of the whole trial and error experimentation. I was just learning to play the instruments so any melody we came up with, I was like, ‘That’s great, that’s a song.’ But we had so much to say at that age. We were only like 17 and 18 years old. That’s such an emotional time for a young woman, and there was so much going on in our culture that we wanted to change. That passion really fueled the songwriting to be about this kind of intense passion for social justice, and to change our own pathway in society. I think as a 17- or 18-year-old girl, you really feel the kind of injustice that’s done to young women really personally, that kind of scrutiny of your own body that’s done to women and your sexual power. All of that happens so intensely at that age, and I almost feel like the musicianship was catching up with the actual statements that we were trying to make.

I was always loved bands like the Clash that were able to evolve, and I think we were able to do that by the time we put together Calculated. We became a little bit more developed and more of a punk rock band or a grunge-y band by that point. These Monsters was kind of a step in between the first songs we recorded and the album that we put out. This shows the progression of the band a little bit because we wanted to become this kind of heavier rock ‘n’ roll band but we were just so young. We had this sing-song-y element to our band to begin with, so it was a step in between those two identities.

Heavens To Betsy

Did you write all the songs for the Monsters 7”?

Tucker: I think we did. We were always trying to write new songs. I have all these old lists where I would list every song that we had so I would remember them. But the idea that Kill Rock Stars wanted to put out a vinyl 7” was a big deal, so the fact that there’s four songs on it, we were trying to put out maximize by putting out as many songs as possible.

Were you happy with how it came out?

Tucker: Looking back, there are some intense choices on that recording. There’s a lot of screaming. It definitely was a recording that was really more about telling our own stories rather than trying to be a band that appealed to a lot of people. But I think that it was an important thing to go through at that age and that’s an intense thing to go through as a songwriter. I think every songwriter does that, you try different things and certain things are really important to you to get out. But you also need to realize that you want to have an audience.

Sawyer: Listening to it recently, I was really impressed. I think the recording sounds great, I’m really happy with it.

Tucker: I am too. I’m super proud of it and I’m so glad people are so interested in listening to it today.

How many tours did Heavens to Betsy go on?

Sawyer: We went on a couple. We did a U.S. tour with Bratmobile and then we went to England, and then we went on another U.S. tour with Excuse 17.

What was it like touring back before cell phones and the Internet? How would you book the tour?

Tucker: It was insane. Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile booked the first tour that we did. You would call the bar or the venue on the phone and set things up with the promoter and get directions. We had all these handwritten notes. It was so insane.

Sawyer: We went with two cars and got walkie-talkies.

Tucker: I forgot about that! It’s a miracle we ever made any show even remotely on time.

Sawyer: We were constantly splitting up between the two cars.

Tucker: And getting lost! It was so bonkers.

Sawyer: But it was amazing.

Is there any stuff you recorded that never made it onto cassette or vinyl, that was never released at all?

Tucker: Those first eight songs, a bunch of them came out in different places but some were never put on vinyl. I’ve really wanted to put it out, but I can’t find the master tape. Calvin [Johnson] thinks he sent it to me, but I can’t find it. I’d really like to put that out on vinyl and digital. We might have to remaster from one of the cassette tapes I guess.

You could put it out on cassette, again.

Tucker: Right, because that’s cool again! That would be fun.

Why did Heavens to Betsy break up?

Tucker: Well, I think it was probably my fault in a lot of ways.

Sawyer: No, it wasn’t!

Tucker: It kind of was. We met in middle school and we had been friends for that long, but there’s a maturity factor when you go from being children to being adults and mature from a childhood friendship into a business or just a professional performance relationship. That can be very challenging. I definitely lacked the communication skills on a lot of levels to make that leap. I sort of left the relationship without really taking on that next step.

Sawyer: I don’t think you can put the blame all on yourself, though. I had some communication issues as well. At first we had this really intense bond, we were thinking it would be a really easy so many things tied to that, that as soon as we started really playing seriously our personalities started shifting. We sort of were becoming more distant with each other. It’s like going from one type of relationship to another and sometimes works out, sometimes it doesn’t. At the time it felt like so many things were really emotional and intense, but in hindsight, certain issues could’ve gotten worked out so easily. I really feel like it’s totally on both our parts.

Tucker: I completely agree with that for sure. It was also not easy. It was really hard to be this kind of struggling band, to be so young, and to navigate the next steps. There were only two of us, too, so it was really challenging.

Where do you see Heavens to Betsy’s place in the lineage of female punk bands?

Tucker: I’m so proud of us for doing it, looking back. I think that I’m really proud to be a part of women who do speak out and do try to change things. I have a 10-year-old daughter now and I look at the world that she’s growing up into and I worry about her and I hope against hope that things are different for her. And that if I have achieved anything with my musical career, if I’ve added my voice to people trying to make things better for women, then that’s a huge accomplishment.

Sawyer: My daughter is 10 and going into 6th grade next year. That’s crazy.

Tucker: That’s the other thing. We did this all when we were so young, and it’s so inspiring. I hope that our daughters feel that empowered to just go for it when you’re young.

Do your daughters play music?

Sawyer: I still have the old drum set that we bought in Eugene. I’ve been slowly putting together parts for my older daughter. She’s been starting to play.

Tucker: My daughter plays piano and writes songs.

Have your daughters heard your Heavens to Betsy music?

Tucker: No. My children have almost no interest in my music whatsoever.

Sawyer: I remember when Calculated was repressed and we got some copies for Record Store Day a few years ago. We played it, and my older daughter was like, ‘Hey, this is pretty good!’ Then when I was listening to the These Monsters 7”, she was like, ‘Eh.’ And I have a four-year-old daughter as well and she was like, ‘I don’t like this!’ They have to have their opinions. So not a whole lot of interest! But even sometimes I’ll play stuff for her and she doesn’t like it one day and a few days later I’ll catch her singing along to something.

-Mariana Timony

One Comment

  1. Posted May 4, 2018 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Oh the memories!
    Hey, I wonder if Corin remembers submitting this little blurb to Zine! zine back in 1995:
    https://thedoesntsuck.com/2017/09/13/throwback-13th-005/

    It was immediately after Heavens To Betsy broke up, and right as Sleater Kinney got started. She mentions both in the blurb. Also, Blake Schwarzenbach’s Top 10 of 1994!

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