Savages and Bo Ningen’s sonic poetry project

Ahead of launching their collaborative album, lead singers Jehnny Beth and Taigen Kawabe talk politics, poetry and enforced photography

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Savages + Bo Ningen by Simona Mizzoni WEB
Savages and Bo Ningen’s collaborative album Words To The Blind will be released on November 17Photography by Simona Mizzoni

Jehnny Beth, French front-woman of Savages, four female post-punkers whose debut (Silence Yourself) launched them into 2013’s zeitgeist. Taigen Kawabe, frenzied front-man for experimental acid-punk four-piece Bo Ningen, a band born in Japan but formed on the London live scene.

We meet the pair in a pub in East London. Beth, wearing a trademark all-black outfit and a distinctive silver skull-ring on her finger, is preparing to see Patti Smith perform punk poetry at Union Chapel, on the anniversary of Lou Reed’s death. Considering we’re meeting to discuss Savages and Bo Ningen’s simultaneous sonic poetry project Words To The Blind, her plans seem almost impossibly appropriate. Meanwhile, Kawabe is dressed for comfort – having come straight from the airport.

They’re in town to perform Words To The Blind, an avant-garde gig featuring both bands playing at once. For fans who don’t make it to the show, they’ve created an album capturing the experience. We’ve got the exclusive stream of the album, and the low-down on how it was crafted.

What inspired the project?

Jehnny Beth: During the recording of Savages’ first album, we went to see Bo Ningen play at Cafe Oto, and I think I sang a song with you…

Taigen Kawabe: Yeah, yeah.

Jehnny Beth: It was a great gig, and we felt we should collaborate together. At the same time, Savages guitarist Gemma Thompson was reading a book about Dadaists, about simultaneous poetry that they used to perform at Cabaret Voltaire in Switzerland. So that seemed to fit, and we started discussing how to proceed - how to take the concept of simultaneous poetry and turn it into sonic simultaneous poetry, but keeping the idea of humanity and the world, and the idea of a solitary human voice versus the chaos of the world.

Taigen Kawabe: We did one rehearsal together as two whole bands, and it really worked out. With Bo Ningen and Savages we couldn’t imagine what was going to happen, but the sound was massive. It did mix, even in our first rehearsal.

You’ve performed the piece once, last year - what was that experience like?

Taigen Kawabe: How many rehearsals did we have before the first show? Two? 

Jehnny Beth: We wrote the piece in two days, yeah. And then that was it, we went to perform it.

Taigen Kawabe: It was half improvised, so I felt free in the performance. Everything was recorded, so we could listen a few times and it sounds different to what we hear when we play, and different to what we’re doing now. So I think it will be a different experience for the audience as well. Even people who went to that first concert will notice changes. And we liked that experience of the audience being in-between two bands, so we created a space in the vinyl recording too.

Jehnny Beth: The right and left channels. 

Taigen Kawabe: Bo Ningen on the left side, Savages on the right.

Jehnny Beth: We did a normal mix, then Johnny Hostile decided to really emphasise the stereo to recreate the space – because it’s a live recording – to recreate the impression of the experience as much as possible. It’s very much a performance project – this idea of a U shape stage, the idea that the audience can walk inside that U shape, so they can be very close and between Savages and Bo Ningen – and, believe me, there are times when you don’t want to be between Savages and Bo Ningen during that piece (laughs). There’s this moment we call “the battle,” with Savages on one side being really loud and Bo Ningen being silent, then vice versa. It’s almost like grindcore, it’s absolutely extreme.

Taigen Kawabe: There’s nothing similar to what we’re doing, sound-wise or performance-wise. It’s 37-minutes long, so it’s too short for a film, but it could be a short-film. It’s got so many dynamics, so some people experience it like a short-film. Or it could be an experimental orchestra piece, or opera, or grindcore, or rock. There’s so many different layers, so many objects insides – I want listeners to feel free to categorise it as anything. The next performance is going to be totally different as well…

Jehnny Beth: Not totally different. A little bit different.

The Dada movement was anti-art, and very political – what’s the biggest social issue for you at the moment?

Taigen Kawabe: Bo Ningen are into surrealism and Dada. We always want to make a surreal space when we perform a show, to make it a special experience. When we go to concerts as an audience and the band hasn’t made a space, it makes us upset.

Jehnny Beth: It’s what attracted me to Bo Ningen in the first place. I started going to see them before we created Savages, I was going to their shows often and filming them for my own private archive.

Taigen Kawabe: (raises eyebrows) Oh?

Jehnny Beth: Not like that (they laugh). Well, maybe. Anyway, I was amazed. At the time I was fed up of the London scene, the shoegazing thing. No-one was looking anyone in the eyes, there were no raised-guitars – it was tame. Bo Ningen were creating a space that was completely surreal, so you saw something where you didn’t understand what was happening. Visually and musically it triggers your inside-craziness and you feel lost and scared – and guitar music should be scary. It was an inspiration.

The last time we spoke to you Jehnny, we discussed the fact you grew up in theatres – do you feel comfortable in a theatrical environment?

Jehnny Beth: Oh yeah, absolutely. I feel like I know it. This is what theatre’s about, it’s recreating something that’s improvised. You have your lines, but you don’t know what each night’s going to be like. You repeat that and you evolve your character. And there’s a dimension of that in this.

Taigen Kawabe: Yeah, definitely. Each performance has to be different, which makes it exciting for us too. Playing the show is part of our reality, it’s part of our daily life. It’s halfway between real and surreal, because this surreal space is part of our work. We float between reality and the surreal, and I want to audience to experience that as well. I like performers that represent real-life – hip hop or grime or whatever – but the live space is really extreme, I like the borderline between real and surreal. 

What’s been the most satisfying element of the project for you? 

Jehnny Beth: To be able to have an idea and make it happen.

Taigen Kawabe: Normally it takes time to recognise how good the performance was. But with this, I could tell straight away that the performance and audience were perfect. I’m happy with the result, and happy with the recording as well.

Savages and Bo Ningen will perform Words To The Blind at Oval Space courtesy of The Barbican on November 19. Words To The Blind is released on November 17.

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