Heloise & the Savoir Faire's debut album, Trash, Rats and Microphones (Simian/Yep Roc Records), is a brash, electric trip down dance-rock memory lane, equally retro-disco-clash and modern no-holds-barred self-mockery. But the band's studio offering has nothing on their wild live performances, which made us feel like we'd stumbled into the world's coolest, queerest underground club -- circa 1978.
Let's introduce the band: Heloise Williams has diva pipes and a wry, irreverent approach to songwriting. She's backed by two dancer-singers, Joe Shepard and Sara Sweet Rabidoux, and a full band: James Bellizia on guitar, Luke Hughett on drums and Jason Diamond on bass.
With five shows slated for this year's influential South by Southwest Music Festival, the album's release on April 29 and a couple of bold-name backers -- they're signed to actor Elijah Wood's imprint and the legendary Debbie Harry guests on two tracks -- we're ready to crown the band our pick for breakout stars of the week.
Especially after we talked with Heloise about the band's queer influences, their thrifty fashion scores and her onetime gig as a roadie for Peaches.
Out: Your live shows are so confident and complete. It's hard to imagine your band didn't just spring forth from a womb. How did you get started?
Heloise Williams: At first the band was just me, and Sara and Joe were dancing. But really it started with me and Joe doing these weird experimental videos where we were pretending like we were a really bad dance troupe -- like in '80s movies where they go to New York to try to make it big. We were both in Vermont then. That's when the "savoir faire" came about. It was our default -- instead of saying, "Whatever," we would say, "Savoir faire, savoir faire!'" When I moved to New York, it was the tail end of the whole electro-clash thing, and it was like, this is what I was dreaming of. Why don't we do some shows?
What were those shows like?
They were really kind of insane. We'd just get our friends to get up there and do stuff. We would play loft parties in Brooklyn, or at the Lit Lounge -- basically this basement in the East Village. We felt very comfortable there. It was like, this is so gross, and we're rats. All we have to do is look up from here! We were changing like every other song behind a shower curtain. It's really pared down from what it used to be. But I got sick of the canned music. I used to be in a jazz band and I liked that idea of improvising again. The [live] musicians add a legitimacy to it. We're always scheming about what the next weird thing we're going to do is. There are different themes every night. There's always an element of surprise. That's what keeps it interesting for us, too.
Musically, who inspires you?
I'm definitely influenced by Prince. I'm from Minneapolis, too. I remember writing in my diary about him. I would write down his lyrics and analyze them. There was a sense of humor, but at the same time it was very sexy, and you just wanted to dance to it. I used to force my brother and sister to sit on the bed and watch me dance to Prince.
Each of your different themes has a completely different costumed vibe. Who influences your fashion?
Our wallets? [Laughs] Whatever the five dollar bin offers us. We get a lot of fabrics from this place called Junk in Williamsburg. Church sales are like gold mines. Joe will find stuff on the street. He purchased this thing that we called the teen arctic cat. It's like a Latino teen's Halloween costume. It's acid washed with white fur coming out of the seams.
Do you fight over who gets to wear it?
Oh, Joe gets to wear it. He's the only one who can fit into it.
How would you describe your look?
Um... Rat-tastic? We look kind of undead. With sparkles.
What about your sound?
That sleazy '70s time -- but riding that edge between late '70s and early '80s.
Much like Debbie Harry, who appears on your album.
Yeah, she had a lot of different weirdo sounds, even back to the '60s.
How did you meet her?
Through a mutual friend. She came to a show of ours and our friend said, "You'll never guess who's here." I was totally beside myself. I was sweating and barely breathing. I remember she insisted in buying a CD and made me autograph it. It was the first autograph I'd ever done in my life. I keep pinching myself, but she really does like our band a lot! I just can't believe it still. Like, really? Really?
She must! She sings on two songs.
I had sent her some ideas, and when she came into the studio, she made me sing it to her a couple times. I was like, "But you don't have to do it like that, do it your way!" She did a verse of "Downtown," which is a bratty song about a kid who's experiencing the city. I love that movie Working Girl -- it's like that. And Debbie is the quintessential New York downtown chick in a lot of ways. She was good and incredibly, weirdly adorable. I'm a really big person, and she's really small. I feel kind of protective of her.
You were on the road crew for Peaches. What was that like?
I was the driver-merchandise girl, basically. It was a big tour for her because she was opening for these male rock bands, ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead and Queens of the Stone Age. The scene was kind of macho, and she was really interested in challenging that audience. It was inspiring for me how people were into it. Even though I never did anything as one-woman show as that, it kicked my ass into gear to perform out again. She's just so fearless. She's very small, and feisty, and some of those shows -- she'd wear strap-on dildos, and it was kind of extreme. And some guys were like, "What the fuck does she think she's doing?" Sometimes people would boo. The joke was that I was the biggest, so I was the bodyguard. I was the macho one. It took years off my life.
At your show in downtown Los Angeles, a guy in the audience stood up and yelled, "This isn't West Hollywood!" I couldn't figure out if he was an asshole or really into how queer your stage show is.
Sometimes it gets really extreme -- there's definitely nudity in these shows, both Sara and Joe. We're kind of going crazy and just give as much energy as possible. Whatever people think about that -- they can say whatever they want, we don't care. We haven't had too many hecklers, though.
I'm not even sure he was heckling. Maybe he just liked how Joe kept yelling "bukkake!" apropos of nothing. Let's talk about the other gay influences on your band.
When I worked in the West Village waiting tables, I fell in love with every gay man I worked with. It was a hard lesson for me to learn, especially because a lot were semi-closeted. I wrote this song about it called "Hot Chicks and Flaming Dudes, What's It Gonna Take To Get You in the Mood?" I always felt like, particularly with the gay male audience, there's so much more of a "yeahhh!" They get it and are so encouraging of the antics. Plus Joe is my best friend, and he's obviously gay. I let him direct what the stage thing is going to be like. It's just fun. we're trying to say, be whatever the hell you want to be. Express yourself, get naked, wear crazy costumes, whatever.
Is there a song on the album you think has a particularly queer side to it?
"Members Only" is pretty gay. My dream is to have lots of ladies and men wearing tuxedo and thongs dancing to that -- like Chippendales. It's actually a shout out to Divine, who's an icon of mine. I'm always looking in the mirror like, Oh my God, I look exactly like Divine! The scariest-slash-most fun ever on screen.