Heavenly, the UK indie pop group that defined the look and sound of the subgenre known as twee, can settle quickly into the kind of irrepressible repartee that comes easily to people who have been in each other’s lives for the better part of three decades. Almost instantly, the quartet’s easygoing banter on a recent Zoom call becomes spotted with gentle chiding, inside jokes and shared memories about the band’s formation in the late ’80s.
“I was humming along to something in the kitchen of the flat that we lived in, in Brixton,” singer/keyboardist Cathy Rogers remembers. “I can’t even remember if it was as direct as [singer/guitarist Amelia Fletcher] saying ‘Be in the band’ or more like ‘It would be nice to have some humming or some la-la-las.’”
“Do you remember what you were cooking?” bassist Rob Pursey asks. “We were obsessed at the time with this little book written by an Indian housewife, which told you how to crack the curry secret. We were on the verge of discovering it and then Amelia started talking about bands.”
The four Brits, rounded out by guitarist Peter Momtchiloff, have been spending a lot of time mulling over their collective past. Not only in search of fodder for the liner notes in an ongoing series of reissues of Heavenly’s four studio albums (Heavenly vs. Satan was released in November through Fletcher and Pursey’s label, Skep Wax), but also as the group looks to play their first concerts in 26 years in May.
News of the group’s reunion, if only for a pair of gigs, has sent the global network of indie pop fans buzzing since it was announced in September. But the excitement has been tempered a touch due to the absence of founding drummer, and Amelia’s younger brother, Matthew Fletcher. His death by suicide at age 25 was the reason for Heavenly’s dissolution in 1996, soon after the release of their final album, Operation Heavenly.
“I think we all thought we wouldn’t do any music ever again after he died,” Amelia says. “He was so intrinsic to Heavenly. He was my brother. He was our friend. We thought ‘We had a good run. We don’t need to do this anymore.’”
The sadness of Matthew’s death and Heavenly’s subsequent split was even harder to accept considering how the band seemed poised for a huge breakthrough with Operation Heavenly, an album that added big Britpop guitars to their frothy sound. The album truly felt like the culmination of the rapid ascent the quintet had enjoyed since the release of their first singles in 1990.
At that time, the members of Heavenly, save Rogers, were still dusting off the ashes of their former project, Talulah Gosh — a spikier, but no less tuneful, ensemble beloved of influential BBC DJ John Peel. Amelia determined that “No one really wanted to hear indie music” and instead tried her hand at cutting a dance single. “Only I was uniquely bad at making dance music,” she laughs. The other members of Talulah Gosh — Matthew Fletcher, Momtchiloff, and Pursey — decided to start a new group together. “They started doing gigs,” Amelia says, “and I was jealous and I wanted a band too! Hence, Heavenly was born.”
For all the jangle and sugar sweet elements of the band’s undeniably catchy music, there was a caustic quality to Heavenly. Their name was chosen in hopes of irritating the misogynistic U.K. music press of the time. “The main criterion was that it would be one of those sort of effeminate words that journalists would almost struggle to even say,” Pursey says.
Though Heavenly and their pop compatriots had their champions in major British news rags, the group was too often dismissed by primarily male writers. “It’s still the same feeble, determinedly underachieving twittery that made the Gosh such a fine argument for the reintroduction of conscription,” one critic said of an early gig. Such comments only strengthened the band’s resolve to continue, finding strength in numbers among the artists also signed to revered indie label Sarah Records and their fans across the Atlantic, like Candace Pedersen, who helped release their albums through K Records.
Through the latter imprint, the members of Heavenly also made deep connections with the riot grrl scene, which inspired Amelia to write material that moved beyond the starry-eyed love songs and cable knit breakup laments found on Heavenly vs. Satan and 1992’s Le Jardin de Heavenly. In came a more jagged, jaded edge as well as boldly pro-choice anthems like “Sperm Meets Egg, So What?” from the band’s third album The Decline and Fall of Heavenly and the daring “Hearts and Crosses.” Released first on a 7” single in 1993, the song features the skipping rhythm and ‘60s keyboard chime of pure pop, but the lyrics track the fate of a young woman whose giddy love affair turns into sexual assault.
By the time the band looked to make what would be its final album, Britpop became a phenomenon. As music fans and record collectors, Heavenly couldn’t help but be influenced by it. Brash guitars and big choruses found their way into Operation Heavenly, a record that by all rights should have been carried along by the wave generated by Blur and Oasis. Heavenly never got the chance.
“My brother died just before that album came out,” Amelia says. “So we might have benefited from it, but we never did.”
For a year, the surviving members didn’t see much point in making music, but they began to feel the itch again. Eventually, they reconvened with a new drummer and new material, recording and performing as Marine Research. But by the start of the new millennium, other pursuits started pulling them away from being full-time musicians.
Since then, Fletcher and Pursey have cycled through groups like Tender Trap, Sportique and their current pursuits in the Catenary Wires and Swansea Sound. Momtchiloff makes music with his partner Jessica Griffin’s long-standing project, the Would-Be-Goods. Only Rogers seemed to have left music behind. (“I’m slightly shocked that you haven’t heard about my time in an Italian rural choir,” Rogers quips.)
The four have remained close in the ensuing years, but getting the band back together always seemed unlikely due to the absence of Matthew. “It would have been really hard, if we had tried to, for anybody else to sit in that place,” Pursey says. “But we’re lucky because [Ian Button from the Catenary Wires] is the first drummer I met and played with where I thought, ‘Actually, this could work.’ There’s something about his personality that makes it okay.”
Another element that made a reunion probable is the members of Heavenly knowing that it’s likely a short-lived affair. That (and a successful first rehearsal) helped remove a lot of the pressure that might otherwise have bogged them down and ended things again.
“I think it’s probably a bit like going back to your family home when you’re an adult,” Rogers says. “As soon as you go back there, you’re just back there. Playing again felt like it always did, and it was really nice.”
“You might, for a while, get a bit up yourself and think, ‘Oh this is surely a bit undignified to, in middle age, start doing what you did in your youth,’” Momtchiloff says. “Then you realize you don’t have much dignity anyway, so you haven’t got much to lose.”