As we’ve written in the past, Savages are four London women whose punctuated attack on every song is every bit as vicious and thrilling as their name implies. Gemma Thompson plays guitar like she’s the runaway teenage daughter of The Edge. Yes, she learned a lot from her old man, but she’s still rebelling against him with the way she draws abrasive and occasionally atonal sounds out of the instrument. Singer Jehnny Beth has an unmistakably angry howl, as she flails about like every convulsion is choreographed to the beats of drummer Fay Milton, who just wails on her kit. Holding down all the chaos is bassist Ayse Hassan, who closes her eyes and lets the beat coarse through her.
The band’s recently released album, “Silence Yourself” feels a tightly coiled musical manifesto of sexual politics and a dystopian future. While the band were en route to the States, we petitioned Jehnny Beth for an email interview. We decided to leave her British spelling as is. We should also note that we don’t feel too badly about appropriating what we’ve already written about Savages as the intro, because we saw that Jehnny Beth repeated a little bit from her blog within the context of this interview.
METRO: There’s a lot about your approach that invokes fear, and a lot of it seems to be a fear of where humanity is heading. (One of the first lines a listener will hear on your debut album is that “The world’s a dead, sorry hole”) At what point did you realize this sort of unsettling feeling would be a thematic element to what Savages are all about?
JEHNNY BETH: Fear is one of the main characteristics of human behaviour. You can explain a lot of things when you understand how much fear controls in lots of different ways what people think and how they behave. If someone is angry, it is probably because he/she is scared. Learning how to control fear is one first step towards emancipation. When we started Savages, Gemma and I were talking about trying to find a sonic representation of dystopian ideas about humanity and its environment. The idea that we were not evolved so much and music could still keep its primal function and touch the core within us, and remind us what the essential. That’s why each of the songs were written within the idea of a performance. We were thinking of the physical element of the sound, what emotions it was creating etc.
Were there any songs that you’ve written together in your history as a band, that you’ve had to postpone when you’ll share them or had to ditch entirely, because they don’t fit this type of esthetic?
Of course, there are lots of things we end up not using. You have to commit to follow what the music tells you. In some ways, it is about working with intuition. Sometimes your unconscious knows better. You have to let the music decide. A song already exists before you write it, our job is to find it. It is a magical process but a very practical one too. I see songwriting as a puzzle. The best tool is Time. If you allow time in the process, you will always find the solution. And sometimes the solution is to move on and write a new song.
I’ve read that you have said your writing process is one that is more of stripping away than adding things. So what does a Savages song sound like when it’s first brought into the rehearsal room?
There’s never been a set way in which we write a song. There are usually too many ideas for just one song, so we select the best one and forget about the rest. We see it as a Darwinist process. If an idea is not strong enough, it will not survive.
The all-caps prose on the cover of the album is very powerful and also seems to relate to this same sort of unsettling feeling and seems to speak about where technology is taking us and sapping away our humanity. First of all, would you agree with that statement? And secondly, did those words ever land in any rough drafts of songs as lyrics or were they always a separate mission statement of sorts? Is this part of the notion of stripping away?
I wouldn’t say it is about technology in particular. It is more about a general sentiment of self-dispersion, which I think is common to everyone and that I experience myself too. I think it would be wrong and reductive to direct this text towards one single particular meaning. It was my intention to keep it poetic and open so people can make it their own. These ideas came from different angles. I was reading a lot of Henry Michaux. His intention was to write a poem that would have power. He thought of words as an effective source of power. An action-poem. Completely generous, words to remodel and ill a person into the shape of health. An act of HEALING, not of love, desire, or pity. Constantly and rigorously avoiding those temptations of love, desire, pity. A poem devoted to the person :
“We are terribly mixed, dispersed. Enormous, surprising are the obstacles we encounter even if all we can do is make a poem with a direction, a poem we would like to be truly beneficent. Effective.
A thought, a thought-feeling generates other thoughts, impulses, sometimes actions and a short-lived general transformation. But, without a certain extreme – extreme concentration – there is no direct, massive, permanent, magical action of that thought on the thinker. Intensity, intensity, intensity in unity, is absolutely indispensable”
You have posted other effective all-caps announcements, particularly the one outside your shows, discouraging people from tweeting, photographing etc. while you’re performing. Are you seeing less phone glow from the crowd since posting this?
Yes, since we’ve put the signs up, I barely see any iPhones in the crowd during the performances. I think people are dying for these kind of things to stop from happening, but it’s easier to do it as a group than on your own. It instantly changed the gigs! People started dancing, we have moshpits now. It’s not like we are telling anyone off for not respecting the rules. These are no rules, they are only guidance.
Though I know it’s a lyric in the song, “Marshal Dear,” the phrase “Silence Yourself” seems like an interesting album title, when related to this concept of suggesting that people keep their phones in their pockets. Was that connection intentional?
It was a joke, we wrote ‘silence your phones’ as a end of the text on the signs just as a funny reference to our album title. So nothing serious here…
What was the worst instance you’ve ever experienced of people not actually paying attention to what was going on up onstage because their noses were in their phones?
There weren’t any. It is not the end of the world. It’s just so much better without it and we know it. … We use phones, laptops, digital stuff everyday. We just think that a rock’n’roll gig is not the place to use them. You shouldn’t allow anything to alter your primal experience of music. I mean, when you go to see a film, would you take a picture of the screen? It’s just common sense. And again, if people are dying to take a picture during the gig, nobody is gonna stop them. Everyone is responsible for their own pleasure. Only you know what is good for yourself.
When you’re compared to other bands, most of the names dropped are from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s. Were bands like Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees and early U2 and Gang of Four truly influential to you or do you cringe when you read those names as reference points.
I don’t cringe I just think there’s so much more to it. We played Amsterdam ‘melkweg’ a few months ago. Johnny Hostile opened for us. At the end of his set, before we came onstage, Johnny said “I wanna see a moshpit for these girls, fuck sake.” And so they did. People were great, crowd surfing, jumping up and down. I love that he said that. I love that he sees that angle in our music instead of the usual Joy Division/Siouxsie comparison we get all the time. So much more inspiring. Also, it seems to me that people are going for it naturally. Johnny said ‘moshpit’ and it worked with the crowd.
Talk to me briefly about the manifestos you write on your site. How do these typically come about? I imagine you all discussing what is important to you in the rehearsal space as much as you actually play music together. Or are these from long conversations on the road? Or going out together after practice?
A year ago, we released ‘Husbands’ and ‘Flying to Berlin’ on my label Pop Noire. I didn’t want to send a press release to journalists. I didn’t want our press agent to write anything about us either. So I decided I was going to write a short text which became a sort of ‘manifesto’ for the band. It described our music and our intentions behind it. Then it became natural to accompany each release with a text. Trying to describe our intentions in the most accurate way with the smallest amount of words possible. It became rather playful for me. I was reading Milan Kundera and things like the Surrealists manifesto — it was essential to express something else than music and address people with our few discoveries. As we evolved they evolved with us too. I wrote the ‘I Am Here’ manifesto at a time when I was becoming more and more aware that young artists have difficulties to find and express their own voice. And I wanted to understand why. I discovered the hard reality of a conflict between generations, in the business we work in and especially in ‘guitar’ music, there is less money nowadays and young artists with great talent are pressured to compromise before they’re even born. I think this crisis has given us a lot of power and it’s time to take it. But when you are young and you’ve never given any serious thoughts about the business side of things (all you wanted to do is play music and write songs) you become the perfect target. You are constantly threatened with your decisions — if you don’t do this you won’t get that, if you say this you will upset this person, and so on… So in the end, you are working FOR the business, like an employee. And all this eventually has a direct effect on your art. I have sometimes the feeling that writing Manifestos can be perceived as too ‘serious.’ For me, it’s just that I find it difficult to work without purpose. I constantly ask myself ‘why I am doing this’? or ‘what am I trying to achieve here?’… simply because otherwise I get bored. I find myself far more excited when I enter a rehearsal studio after I’ve set myself a set of goals which I try to achieve, which doesn’t necessarily mean I am going to succeed by any means. This is not school, you don’t have to please anyone but yourself, you don’t have to be a good student. However, you are your own teacher, you need to document your evolution, you have to learn new tricks, you have to evolve. I see manifestos like a sort of documentation of what we are now and what we are trying to achieve. Like placing stones on a path to remember the way we chose to travel.
These have all been pretty serious questions. But I caught your set at CMJ last fall and you do seem like affable people. What makes you laugh? What takes you out of the darker moods that seem to be a large part of “Silence Yourself”?
We love what we do, we love music. We don’t take ourselves seriously but we take music seriously. We believe it has a greater purpose than most people use it for these days, but that doesn’t mean you have to kill the fun. We are down to earth but we won’t take any bullshit. We like people with common sense. I always say ‘be a cunt to the cunts, be good to the people you love’, not the opposite.
What do you mostly listen to while on the road? Or what are you listening to lately?
Duke Garwood, Swans, Nina Simone, the Monks, Fauré, Marianne Faithful, La femme.
I’m always interested in learning about bands’ experiences on bills with acts who are nothing like them. Can you share an anecdote about an incongruous pairing?
We played at Meltdown festival curated by Yoko Ono in London few weeks ago. She came to see our soundcheck and walked onstage to say hi. 15 minutes before our show she asked to have her picture taken with us. We accepted. She told us that she thought our gig shouldn’t have been presented as an Iggy and the Stooges support. After she saw our soundcheck she said she knew that it should have been presented as a proper Savages show. I appreciated that she said that. I have never enjoyed the idea of supporting anyone, rare are the occasions when it’s actually worth it, it is never the same pleasure as playing your own shows. She comes from a generation who really understands what an artist is supposed to be and supposed to represent. It felt like meeting a member of our own family, like a sister. I carried Yoko’s words with me to the stage. We played our last song ‘fuckers’ for 15 minutes. It went on and on and on and on… to a point the audience started to react, they stood up and started clapping and shouting when I bowed at them while the girls carried on the noise. Backstage, the stage manager was going crazy, he started yelling at Johnny Hostile and Andy (tour manager) because we were going over time. I was feeling totally immersed into Gemma’s guitar sound and was really enjoying it. Something magic happens when you use repetition in music, there is a point where you think ‘this is too long’ and a point after which says ‘this could go on forever.’ When I finally went to the mic to sing the last words, the stage manager walked onstage next to the drums and yelled at Fay to stop. I didn’t see any of that, it was all happening behind me. She didn’t stop at all. People went crazy at that point. I could hear Yoko’s words resonate in my head.