Fierce Creatures: Savages interview

The post-punk foursome tell us why they refuse to be silenced with their ferocious debut

Music Feature
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Taken from the May Issue of Dazed & Confused:

It’s a Monday night in the first flush of spring, and Jehnny Beth of Savages is dressed for a funeral. She peacocks on to the stage of London venue The Lexington like a chic star of Weimar theatre, in shirt sleeves and heels and carrying a whisky tumbler, joking with the crowd and laughing along when some wag suggests they play frenetic anti-marriage diatribe “Husbands” at a wedding. But when she starts singing, something happens. As she delivers her kerosene melodic vocals, Beth treads the floor like a bull ready to charge at a red cape, while her arms windmill in sharp geometry. To her right, Gemma Thompson acknowledges the precise blasts of noise coming from her teal Fender with only a slight furrowing of the brow, while bassist Ayse Hassan bounces on the balls of her feet and Fay Milton’s cheerleader-high ponytail helicopters in the background as she pummels the drums. Beth’s eyes widen as she sings, apparently seeing the apocalypse in the reflections of the bottle bar to the rear of the venue.

Tonight’s gig is to commemorate the passing of independent music newspaper The Stool Pigeon, which folded earlier this year, and in the middle of their blistering set the band pause. “We are here to mourn,” the French-born singer says between sips of her scotch, smiling a lipsticked smile, “but also to celebrate a new beginning.” They launch into “Flying to Berlin”.

Savages are an antidote to the polite, earnest guitar rock that would like you to put your lighters up, if you don’t mind terribly. At their recent sold-out show at Camden’s Electric Ballroom there were no niceties. As they walked onstage drenched in police-siren-blue lighting, Beth greeted the crowd with, “You’re fucking ready, right?”, halted the show because there was no drum monitor (“fucking lazy”, she spat), and repeatedly struck herself in the face during “Hit Me”. It was mildly terrifying and completely brilliant.

It’s a pleasant surprise when Dazed is summoned to meet Thompson and Beth one Sunday morning in Dalston. Thompson sips a latte in the corner of the Japanese cafe, having arrived early to catch up on some reading. She had a late night, and awoke to a bedroom in chaotic disarray. “I woke up surrounded by a mess of paper,” she groans. The deadline for their album artwork is looming, and the former art student can’t let it lie. Beth arrives bundled up in a voluminous khaki parka and orders a pot of Yame Genmaicha, a specialist blend of green tea. We’re here to talk about their debut album, Silence Yourself, which translates the ferocity of their live shows into 11 taut songs that draw from punk, metal and No Wave and punch with unyielding riffs and the blackest screams. They’re keen to hear my thoughts, and Beth has one particular word in mind. “Agitated?”

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Well, yes. Silence Yourself is the uncompromising listen you’d expect from a band prone to provocation. It’s been that way since January 6, 2012, when Beth’s boyfriend and band collaborator Johnny Hostile received a call asking Savages to support British Sea Power in Brighton that evening. “I knew about Savages but I hadn’t heard them before – it seemed like it was a bit secret,” recalls British Sea Power vocalist Yan. “People seemed really responsive to them that night, and they seemed more or less fully formed.” “I realised how good they were in a second,” remembers Johnny Hostile. “We always wanted a good band as a cure to the kingdom of indie-rock boredom.”

In a time where no band launch is complete without a viral campaign or fashion week in-store, Savages’ arresting stage presence and deft, unfussy musicianship was a trick that no boardroom executive could have come up with. “Moneymakers” began to swarm around the band like flies to nutrient-rich manure, an experience that the band do not remember fondly. “You know this idea of the music industry having a crisis?” Beth demands with blazing eyes. “It’s perfect for the moneymakers. They can tell young bands that if they don’t do this interview or photoshoot then they’re not gonna sell records. They made this new generation very polite and fearful.”

In response, Beth wrote the fiery album opener “Shut Up”, which twists this patronising rhetoric for her own gain – “I’m cold and I’m stubborn... like a bullet to the sun”. It has been said that Savages are the sum of their influences, but the subject of the rabid, novelty-driven music industry makes for a thoroughly modern anthem. By June 1, Savages had sacked their management and press agent and embarked on a “toilet tour” of the UK.

Those that threaten their gang receive short shrift, and the band’s wariness of outsiders has gained them a reputation that would politely be described as “difficult”. Last year, their ex-press-agent said his time working with them was “joyless”, and one journalist recently declared that the band was the rudest they had ever interviewed. It sits in odd relief to their gossipy conversations today about Tilda Swinton (“I’m obsessed!” declares Thompson) and cult flicks like Ghost World, though there’s a palpable feeling that they could flip at any time.

There is something powerful about being a gang of four girls. It gave me more freedom in some way

Beth knows what people think of her. That she’s arrogant, that she’s a control freak, that’s she’s obnoxious. “You can’t imagine the things I’ve had to hear,” she says sadly but without remorse. “‘Control freak’ was probably the nicest. I was told that I would never do anything with this project because it was impossible to work with me.” Is Jehnny Beth a rock’n’roll hero or a pain in the arse? The small-framed girl with darting eyes is possibly a bit of both. “You have to be at your best with her all the time because she won’t take any bullshit,” says Johnny Hostile, who has known Beth for nearly ten years. “I took the challenge, and since then it’s a day-to-day competition in every aspect of our common life.”  

Silence Yourself is not so much about finding a voice as a refusal to be quietened, perhaps best summed up in “I Am Here”, a song title that the band print on items for purchase at their shows. Beth bristles at the idea that their self-affirming swagger has anything to do with the band’s collective gender, though. “Not at all,” she rebuffs, suddenly challenging, with a cold stare. “I would hope not, because I enjoy when female singers sing with a twisted thing where it could be a man’s point of view.” However, she admits that the inflection of a song like “Husbands” could change if the band gained a male member. “There is something quite powerful about being a gang of four girls, and it probably gave me more freedom in some way.”

One of the most exciting parts of their live show is “She Will”, a furious song about gender inequality which cascades into a four-way noise assault with squealing guitar, throbbing bass and Beth’s shout of “she will, she will, she will, she will, she will”. Milton bashes her cymbal with such teeth-gritting determination that you think she’s about to either keel over or ignite. As in the barren stage of a Samuel Beckett play, everything hangs on the paucity of ornamentation. Thompson says the band was “very focused” from day one. “We really started reducing what we had,” she says, speaking with warm passion and a no-nonsense air. “What eventually became the thing for Savages is to get across a whole scene with one stroke of the paintbrush.” “We realised that we had to communicate,” says Beth. “I give you that space – speak then, and speak well.” In our information age, less is more.

Thompson selected the name Savages in reference to the dialectical relationship between beauty and destruction. In fact, she’s just discovered another layer of meaning to it in her weighty history of modern art and music. “I’m reading a chapter on destruction and what comes out of it,” she says. “In the 50s, the ideal woman was a ‘bombshell’, which came from (nuclear testing site) Bikini Atoll. It’s really fucked up, but ultimate destruction and ‘sex sells’ are so connected.” The name was the initial honeytrap for Beth, who heard of Thompson’s nascent project with Hassan, a Brockley-based bassist who had played in a number of punk bands. (Thompson had played guitar for John & Jehn, Beth’s previous band, a collaboration with Hostile.) Milton left a career in video production to join in October 2011.

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Later that week in New Cross, Savages have just finished their final rehearsal before South by Southwest. Beth talks of her faith in hypnosis as a cure for the fear of flying – it’s remarkable, given her onstage hubris now, but she has suffered with a fear of singing in the past, and sought help with a Paris-based specialist in Ericksonian hypnosis. She again turned to the discipline when the prospect of recording their highly anticipated debut album loomed.

The band recorded Silence Yourself in the winter of 2012 in an unusual London recording studio, reachable only by walking through a frozen fish shop. They worked for three solid weeks on the record with co-producers Johnny Hostile and Rodaidh McDonald, taking just one Monday off. “It was intense,” recalls McDonald, who has also worked with The xx and The Horrors. “On the first day I got them to run through the entire album as if it were a live show, which we recorded as a reference. It was basically about capturing these performances in a way that allowed this. Minimal overdubs and additional production – just perfected raw energy.”

It worked. Silence Yourself is an urgent record that simmers with desire, rich with spleen and yet more melodically generous than “Flying to Berlin”/“Husbands”, the 7” released by Beth and Hostile’s label Pop Noire last year. Natalie Judge is the European head of Matador Records, which emerged victorious in the label war to sign Savages. “They’re a unique group of musicians and their debut will be era-defining,” she enthuses. “I think you have to listen to it loud,” says Beth. “You can’t ignore it.” The band are delighted to be told that the album is well suited to bedroom dancing, too. “Yay!” grins Milton. “That’s awesome.”

Beth’s love of performance started early. Born Camille Berthomier to parents in theatre, she grew up in Poitiers and played the title role in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt as a child. “I was allowed onstage for my parents’ rehearsals, but I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed when the audience were there!” she laughs. She’s not so laissez-faire now, and to ensure a sharp performance the band warm up for an hour before taking the stage. “The discipline is very important,” says Beth. “Psychic TV talk a lot about rituals to connect your physicality with the mental, and before each show I disconnect my brain and make my body very active; I do boxing and sing in the most ridiculous way! That’s why I was not scared at our first show.” At the cafe, she’s lugging a heavily annotated copy of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s 1994 occultist tract Thee Psychick Bible, which she flicks through as Thompson orders more refreshments. “It’s funny,” she says. “When I read this, there are a lot of passages where I write ‘she will’.” Does she think about her lineage to such avant-garde luminaries? Beth smiles. “We’re all family.”

More than just a band, Savages see their work as a broader cultural operation. “To try and do things differently, rather than what you expect,” says Hassan, the quietest member of the band. “In the future we want to think about looking at the whole thing as art,” adds Thompson. “At the moment we’re searching for a London venue, and we’re organising something with Bo Ningen based on a dada idea, where words and music collide but truth comes through the chaos. Like what Wire tried to do with Document and Eyewitness in 1980, for example.
Really challenge people.”

Back at the CBGBs-like backstage bunker of The Lexington, Milton is giving a guided tour of the room’s graffiti. “I don’t know why there are so many vaginas!” she muses with thinly veiled delight, gesturing to a crude fuchsia illustration on the wall that resembles a sea anemone. So this was where you did your pre-stage rituals? “Yeah,” smiles Thompson. Beth is still strutting in her stilettos from tonight’s performance. “Everyone thinks they’re Louboutins!” she laughs, hoiking up the red sole of her charity-shop purchase. Meanwhile the band’s veteran manager, John Best, is telling an anecdote involving a Long Island beach, a host of nude models and a prominent indie-world musician, to Beth’s obvious pleasure. “I’m horny!” she whoops, throwing back her head and cackling. “That’s a great story, I’ve got a hard-on!” Johnny Hostile, Niall Kavanagh of Pop Noire and sound technician Matt Farrar laugh along.

Earlier that week, Beth reflected on the importance of her community. “The moneymakers that surrounded us at the beginning thought it was a problem to have John around. I always thought that I would have my journey alone, but destiny was different. I cannot change my life!” Savages will give anything to protect their freedom, but crack their frosty exterior and there’s a generous furnace beneath. “Genesis P-Orridge said that pleasure is your weapon,” she continued, “that to relax, to enjoy yourself has become radical.” It’s lucky, then, that Savages have made a record that makes you want to dance.

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