w/ Marilyn Manson. $39.50, 8 p.m., Jan. 25. Oakdale Theatre, 95 South Turnpike Rd, Wallingford, oakdale.com
You have not experienced discomfort until you're about to ask two women — two strangers — about electrical tape. Here, "electrical tape" doesn't just mean the black vinyl electrical tape you can find at any respectable hardware retailer. No, "electrical tape" is code for "nipple tape" — criss-crossed strips certain female stage performers use to disguise the flesh that whipped post-2004 Super Bowl America into outrage — because asking Heidi Shepherd and Carla Harvey, vocalists of Los Angeles-based metal five-piece Butcher Babies, about nipple tape directly is almost too uncomfortable to fathom.
Recently, nipple tape has been employed by the likes of Lady Gaga and Rihanna, but in Shepherd and Harvey's case, the key figure behind the adhesive was the late Wendy O. Williams, the social-more-bending, consumer-electronics-destroying ringleader of punk outfit Plasmatics. Butcher Babies get their name from "Butcher Baby" off Plasmatics' 1980 debut New Hope for the Wretched, also use theatrics for their live show (even if they are far less outrageous), have talked warmly about Wendy O. in interviews and, for live shows, have their front women don the black X's. So, for the sake of contextual investigation, I ask them who in the band had the idea for the tape.
"We don't talk about the electrical tape in interviews anymore per our record label's request. Obviously, we took that look from Wendy O. Williams, but we're not really supposed to even mention the electrical tape in interviews anymore," Harvey says. Shepherd reaffirms Harvey and then gets ultra cryptic herself. "For us, evolution happens, and we're evolving as a band and we're going to evolve in every way possible, and that just happened to be one of the ways." (Perhaps they don't wear it anymore?)
This topic segues into another touchy one: slut metal. In September 2011, Babies spoke to metal mag Revolver, who asked the band about "slut metal," a term they had apparently been applying to themselves at the time. "We can't go balls out — so we go tits out!" Shepherd said. "When girls are perceived as sexual or outspoken, they get labeled sluts, but we embrace those qualities and bring them to our music as well. Butcher Babies is true slut metal: We're doing what we want, how we want."
Unsurprisingly, "slut metal" temporarily became a notable topic in the metal press because of how the two women going with this tag portrayed themselves as sex objects, and what effects something like that would have on the rest of the genre. I ask the singers if they can talk about this subject, but no go again. "That was something someone gave to us," Shepherd says. "That wasn't even something that we really started. It has nothing to do with us."
Nudging aside the complicated sex/gender debates (and Shepherd strangely rejecting her own Revolver quotes), it's a shame that Butcher Babies have ditched nipple tape and slut metal (or at least discussing them) so quickly because those details sync with the band's preference for excess. They are harsh-sounding, which is a metal band needs to be, but also feisty and over-the-top. The fact that they have a song called "Jesus Needs More Babies For His War Machine" (which is played straight) says a lot. Though they're playing down the props now, they've used knives attached to microphones before and nearly OD'ed on leather, chains, makeup and fake blood. Harvey, a longtime comic book fan, wrote an Anthony Winn-illustrated comic based on the band to enhance their mythology. The brilliantly ridiculous cover of their 2012 EP Butcher Babies mimics a B-grade exploitation flick's poster by highlighting an undead Shepherd and Harvey. Of course, there are three other members who do the instrumental heavy lifting — namely, guitarist Henry Flury, bassist Jason Klein and drummer Chrissy Warner — but everything about Babies' aesthetic machine so far revolves around these two women and just how indulgent and wild their act is.
The vocalists' back stories are even more intriguing. Harvey came from Detroit, Shepherd from Salt Lake City. Both ended up in L.A. for entertainment careers, working as models, actresses and singers. Both had jobs with Playboy television and radio and were once part of a punk cover band before breaking off to make "straightforward metal" (as Shepherd calls it) in Butcher Babies. Nowadays, they do the band fulltime.
Even with all the persona changes underway, they have keenly retained their signature face makeup. Harvey has black tears under her eyes inspired by Joseph Michael Linsner's indie comic character Dawn, and Shepherd's solid, horizontal "eye bar" comes from Marilyn Manson, David Bowie and, of course, Wendy O. While performing, Harvey takes on a loosely defined character; Shepherd calls her stage self "an alter ego" and "an outlet for me to express who I am and how crazy I want to be."
"That's the special thing about Heidi and [me], and why we connect so well, and why the audience connects with us so well. We may be pretty girls, but we're not perfect people. We have both had issues growing up. We were outsiders, we were outcasts," Harvey says. "I was a half-black kid growing up in Detroit that loved metal and I got a lot of shit for it. Heidi grew up Mormon, so we take all those things that we felt and we project them on the stage. I think people get that when they come see us."