Savages – Interview – 2016

Anyone who has seen Savages live and up close, will have witnessed a band that perfectly encapsulates the often misused cliché 'greater than the sum of their parts’. Not only in what the band members individually contribute to the overall sound, but how purposefully and meaningfully they carry our their tasks. On their own, they are individually Ay?e Hassan (bass), Fay Milton (drums), Gemma Thompson (guitar), and Jehnny Beth (lyrics, vocals). Together they are Savages, one of the most remarkable 'indie' bands to have emerged in recent years, a proper band in that they are very tight as a unit, work very hard for each other, and take what they do very seriously.

“I remember the day she (Gemma) came to my house and she said 'I have finally found the name for the band. It will be Savages',” says Jehnny, “and that straight away resonated. There is so much imagery, so much metaphors that you can play with that band name.”

“It came from a quote,” says Gemma. “’Savagery is within us all’.” Partly inspired by the Lord of the Flies novel, which is about a group of young boys stuck on an uninhabited island who try to govern themselves, it also refers to the dialectical relationship between beauty and destruction. The name is an apt metaphor for the tendency of human nature to resort to savagery in order to pursue individual goals. But, of course, this is a primal version of humans, that has to be subdued and subordinated for the common good. “Sometimes you have to dig it out and use it,” says Gemma. “It's this idea of looking inside yourself. It’s about control as well, trying to control the physicality, the volume and the space. It's (as much) about control as it is about primal instinct.”


“That name existed before the band,” offers Fay. “That was her concept of a post-apocalyptic return to savagery!”

And boy did it sound like it on their first album Silence Yourself, a fiery, angry, intense record that spoke of youthful aggression as much as it did about any ideas of apocalyptic scenarios. But, their sound came about more by accident than design, according to Fay, “Before I joined there wasn't Savages music. We all started writing at the same time. There was a couple of melodies and basslines, but nothing in a particular style or genre. I think the sound of what we're doing, is putting together what each of us is interested in. We found our way together, and made things a lot simpler.”

Jehnny Beth (real name Camille Berthomier) was already known in indie circles via her collaboration with then boyfriend Nicolas Congé (aka Johnny Hostile). Going under the name John and Jehn they got their music together when they moved to London, recording a self-titled lo-fi indie rock album. Their second album, Time for the Devil, saw them tour Europe, and on the UK leg they roped in Gemma Thompson on guitar. John and Jehn decided soon after to call it a day as a band, but they still have their studio, and Johnny is Savages producer. Furthermore, Jehnny’s background in music, film and production helped to shape the sound and image of Savages, one that has actually been very carefully constructed, giving the band a brilliant focal point beyond just the music.

“I wasn't quite sure what everyone was trying to do," laughs Fay, recalling the first time they stepped into a rehearsal room. "I wasn’t sure what was going on, but we did it. I remember the first rehearsal and the second rehearsal were completely different. The first was very strange, all getting together. We're all very different characters from each other, quite an oddball bag of people in a room. From the second rehearsal, we all had ideas from the first one, and things started to flow very quickly, and really well, and really musically, and the band became a band.

“The first rehearsal with anyone is weird. You're really opening yourself up to people. It's more intimate than just meeting people for the first time. It's like being naked with people for the first time. Everyone has to put something out there. It's really weird sharing that intimacy with people, but it is something you have to do if you're a musician, get past that initial anxiety of baring all, baring your soul, and just do it.”


The band were very focussed from day one, according to Gemma, while Jehnny said, much to the point; “We realised that we had to communicate. I give you that space… speak then, and speak well.”

Looking to fine tune their sound and look via the live stage before they attempted to release anything, the band felt good from the very moment they set foot on stage, which was supporting Brighton’s own British Sea Power. “I remember it very well,” says Fay. “I hadn't played any proper gigs before that in a band setting. So, I was terrified. But as soon as we started playing I had never heard that sound before, that massive sound you get on stage. It was amazing, I love it, the room was packed, and everyone was into it. We came off the stage super happy.”

Legend has it that British Sea Power contacted Savages on the very day of the their Krankenhaus club residency here in Brighton, on 6 January 2012. “I knew about Savages but I hadn’t heard them before. It seemed like it was a bit secret,” recalled British Sea Power vocalist Yan. “People seemed really responsive to them that night, and they seemed more or less fully formed.” For his part, Johnny Hostile said; “I realised how good they were in a second. We always wanted a good band as a cure to the kingdom of indie-rock boredom.”

It soon became very clear that here was a band that were going to do it their way. By the summer of 2012 they had sacked their management and press agent, and there were rumours that the band were ’difficult’. “ They can tell young bands that if they don’t do this interview or photo-shoot then they’re not gonna sell records. They made this new generation very polite and fearful,” opined Jehnny back in 2014.

Their hugely anticipated debut album, Silence Yourself, was released to much acclaim in 2013. With just minimal overdubs and additional production, it pretty much captured the raw energy of the band, one who combined a searching intellect with a visceral sound. For instance the album track Shut Up features a sample from John Cassavetes’ arthouse classic Opening Night, while the specially made video for the track features an opening monologue by Jehnny – ‘The world used to be silent. Now it has too many voices, and the noise is a constant distraction….’ before the blazing song opens up, Beth singing; ‘And if you tell me to shut up, I would tell you to shut it.’

Inspired by a plethora of post punk greats such as Magazine, Wire, Siouxsie and the banshees, PiL, as well as the likes of Genesis P. Porridge and Black Sabbath, Jenny attempted to reduce and simplify her thoughts; “Where words and music collide but truth comes through the chaos.”

“We're always labelled post punk, but it's not something we set out to do,” says Fay. “It's the combination of our tastes and styles put together. Our mindset when we were making the first album, we were feeling more aggressive, more defiant and 'fuck you, world' attitude.

The new album Adore Life is a slight departure from Silence Yourself. Defying many who didn’t quite ‘get’ the band, nor understand their appeal, deciding that Savages would quickly run out of steam and ideas, Adore Life re-affirms their musical cohesiveness, albeit the aggression and anger on their debut, particularly lyrically, has been toned down a notch or two. "If you don't love me, you don't love anybody," sings Beth, on the ferocious album opener The Answer. It’s an album that explores notions of love; self-love, giving and taking it. “Most of all it’s about love, every kind of love. Love is the answer,” says Jehnny. “On this record we were in a different place, and thinking about other things, and I think that comes across,” says Fay. “It's more hopeful, it's warmer, and it's friendlier as well.”


There is a terrific video accompanying The Answer, another beautifully shot, cinematic piece, by their long-time collaborator Giorgio Testi, who has been integral to forming the Savages image; “We've observed our audience all around the world and noticed that something is happening,” says Jehnny. “People want to be pushed to do good, or to be good, or just to feel good. We wanted a very intense video that felt like banging your head against the wall, focusing on our audience: a portrait of our crowd, a homage to music lovers and the good people who are coming to gigs and shouting their lungs out, or just smiling at the back. We were touched by them every night, and wanted to get their message out there: loud guitar music is still alive and still connects people.”

The title track Adore Life is inspired by the American poet Minnie Bruce Pratt. “We were playing San Francisco,” said Jehnny recently on Radio 4, “and I went to a bookshop and picked up her book Crimes Against Nature completely by chance. Her story is she was married and led a very conventional life and had two sons, and one day she decided to leave her family, to lead her life with this woman (Pratt ended up losing custody of her children). Taking that risk made her the person she was supposed to be. It was something I felt really connected with and it was something I wanted to write about. Music, in the band, has brought each of us that self-realisation and personally, from a young age, it was something I always felt very angry about, the idea of watching some adults not be happy, not be themselves, not be the person they are supposed to be, and all that frustration leaking out of them, creating so much damage. I always made a vow not to become sour, to become bitter, even if you have to lose everything. You have to do what you have to do.”

How do they come up with the Savages sound? “It's mix of things,” says Fay. “Sometimes we work together instrumentally and come up with different sections of music with no vocal on. Sometimes Jehnny writes lyrics first. A couple of times, which is a new thing for us, she’s written a melody with lyrics and brought them to us. It can start in any place, and the songs develop over time. Sometimes the starting point isn't even there in the end song. It's a really collaborative process. We worked on the sound more. There is more clarity in the overall sound, I think.

“For us, the lyrics come into the song very early, when we are piecing them together. Everything builds up together. The lyrics inform the music. Whatever the nature of the song is, whatever the lyrics are trying to say, that's what we're trying to express in the music as well. They go absolutely hand in hand, they feed into each other.”

Repetition is a big part of Jenny’s lyrics, locked in at times with the often repetitious nature of the band’s grooves. “It's something we have done since the beginning,” says Jehnny. “The idea that to repeat something is to transform it, and to repeat something is to adopt it. I often find myself walking on the streets and repeating words, until they transform me, and they become the shape of who I am. And I think there's an artistry with it as well, there’s a performance.”


Although they sometimes play down (and sometimes get annoyed about) the fact they are an all-woman band, Jehnny seems to enjoy feeding off the particular female energy they give out, and it has perhaps helped them become very confident, and more emancipated in what they do, their 'art'. “There is something quite powerful about being a gang of four girls, and it probably gave me more freedom in some way,” she says. “Since the beginning when we walked on stage we wanted to be seen as many musicians we respect, such as Portishead or Swans,” Gemma has said, talking about the band’s determination to be taken seriously. “They are workmen on stage, they are working the sound. We wanted that to be the focus, that when we walked on stage we wanted it be about us and our instruments, and the sound.”

The band are currently busily preparing for what will be a hectic year of touring. “I'm in Edinburgh, up here for the week,” says Fay, “getting some fresh air, and trying to get fit and healthy before the tour starts, pumping out bad habits, doing some yoga, really getting the energy up. That's the place you need to be. If you're in a good place, then the shows are really enjoyable. I was intending to just chill out here but there’s been about seven million emails. It's really not glamorous, is it?” she laughs. “There's endless emails about the band, there's endless things to organise when you're touring. It's the secret side to touring that doesn't get shown in the documentaries. Since I’ve been talking to you nine more emails have popped into my inbox. We like to be on top of everything ourselves, like our merch. We do all our designs. That's why we get lots of emails. It's our own choice. We're in control.”
Jeff Hemmings


Adore Life Silence Yourself Words To The Blind