Cover feature: Savages are the answer

Savages are the answer

Surrendering to love on ‘Adore Life’, Savages have grown into one of the most vital bands around.

Savages don’t mess about. The first, carefully chosen glimpse of the band’s new record arrived as ‘The Answer’ - the very definition of a confident statement by title alone. Agitated razor blade guitars collide headlong with drums that pound the living shit out of everything in sight, with no relent. Sheer mechanical brawn smacks into the heart headlong, on the teetering edge of obliterating everything. In their second album ‘Adore Life’ Savages also unearth something less towering, that is subject to poor decisions, and vulnerability amid the onslaught of white noise. Savages write music that is completely human. They seem to provide an answer or remedy to the chaotic, tangled-up web of life. There’s nobody else around quite like this.

The band rock up in their customary all-black uniforms, cutting the formidable sort of picture you’d expect. When Jehnny Beth and Gemma Thompson order a cuppa, they make it seem swiftly efficient. Wrong-footings aren’t shot down in flames, but receive a far more cutting reply; the air of being mildly unimpressed. Frighteningly ambitious, and willing to give every ounce of their being to this magical beast that they’ve created together, Savages have more than earned their right to be imposing, and they are imposing. Truly scary, though? Nah.

Today, drummer Fay Milton is busy sparring with her granola bar wrapper. “Morning!” she exclaims chirpily, neglecting to notice that the clock has already chimed midday. “I don’t know what I’m saying,” she laughs, “a bunch of words. Let’s talk about food?” she eventually suggests.

“It’s not even that early,” concedes her band mate, bassist Ayşe Hassan.

Fay’s granola-based crisis surely marks out one of very few instances where Savages have been unsure of exactly what to say. Upon forming, the band set out with intense focus; eyes keenly trained on a single objective. ‘Silence Yourself’ was a debut concerned with insular hyper-concentration. Its end goal - amid everyone else outside their bubble trying to pull the new band in different directions - was total artistic freedom.

“If you are focused, you are harder to reach. If you are distracted, you are available,” declared the part-poem-part-manifesto printed on the debut’s cover. With the barriers up, and all outside interferers violently opposed, ‘Silence Yourself’ - by name, and nature - was a bolshy, confrontational first record. Intentionally so. “You have to fight a bit for your own space,” states Jehnny Beth. “I think every band that starts has to do it. It’s your first totem.”

The band certainly fought for space and control over the dialogue, and then some. They were unwilling to be shaped against their wills. As the first rave reviews began to come out, Jehnny Beth calmly took a biro to every press clipping that referred to Savages as an “all-female band” - quietly taking down the empty categorisation, and marking it out as irrelevant. When their debut was nominated for the Mercury Prize, Savages didn’t just zip up and sip the complimentary champers. Though they were grateful for the wider acclaim, they also openly debated what the nomination symbolises, and how it lines up with what they want to achieve as a band. That’s Savages, all over.

“I don’t want to carry any flags, I’m just doing my thing,” Jehnny Beth once told DIY over the phone, speaking from a bustling Italian restaurant shortly after that Mercury nod in 2013. “I will just carry my own armour,” she stated, gleefully, “and do my own shit!”

“I think we were very guarded on the first record,” admits Fay in a similar vein, today. “You have to establish yourself in the way you want.” Ayşe’s on the same page, too, though she insists that much of their debut’s confrontation was less to do with anger, and more concerned with survival. “‘Silence Yourself’ was about us having focus,” she explains. “We needed to protect ourselves as a band from everything; to learn how to be a band together. To keep what we had together, as a band.”

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“We were trying to make a record that was quite psychotic and nuanced.”

Jehnny Beth

Savages quickly garnered a fearsome reputation; for their volatile live show, their seriousness, their artistic intensity, and their complete intolerance for dealing with other people’s nonsense. It also landed them with a name for being, to put it bluntly, scary.

“I think scary’s ok,” says a decidedly not-scary Jehnny Beth today, leaning across the table with an arched eyebrow and comedy shrug. “I like scary. Why not?”

“I think, as a woman as well, if you’re being serious, you’re scary,” adds Fay. “Ooo!” she exclaims, providing a pantomime villain noise for extra effect. “When you know what you want, you cut to the chase,” grins Ayşe. “You say it.”

“It’s an intensity,” expands guitarist Gemma Thompson. “Sometimes you have to just play. You can’t think of anything at all, past that point. That puts you in an intense place. That’s what you’re after,” she concludes. “That’s what you’re trying to find. It’s the reason that we do this.”

Standing tall and balanced precariously on the metal barriers of live shows, like a ship’s steely-eyed figurehead at the helm of the good ship Savage, it’s no real surprise that Jehnny Beth in particular revels in a confrontational strain of theatricality.

“The stage is a place of freedom,” she grins. “You can be anything.”

With every sweat-drenched club show, and every chaos-fuelled festival appearance that followed the band’s debut, that drama only grew more pronounced; more unlike anything else on earth. Gradually the instant magnetism between Savages and their surging crowd led them in a new direction. Their destination? The zest-for-life-filled, connection-seeking ‘Adore Life’.

“Our shows were getting warmer and warmer, and something was happening,” nods Jehnny. “There’s a really good French word I can’t translate,” she says, ”bienveillant.”

Meaning roughly the same thing as benevolent, it’s an accurate word for what Savages have become. For every move their debut made to build up walls, and assemble bunkers, ‘Adore Life’ tears them back down with vengeance.

“I think that comes from us playing together for three years,” Ayşe assesses. “Naturally we’ve grown together as a band, experienced things from the audience. I see a gig as a shared experience of emotion and intensity between the audience and us. It’s that transfer of energy that we’ve become more comfortable with, maybe, in a strange way. We embrace it more rather than being insular.”

“The stage is a place of freedom. You can do anything.”

Jehnny Beth

In that muddied, indefinable way that electronic sparks and lightbulb moments tend to take on a concrete shape, ‘Adore Life’ steadily began to find its own form. Live connection was already firmly on the band’s mind. They watched Michael Gira - one of their heroes, and the man who infamously called Savages “terrifying” before later apologising - perform several years ago at Best Kept Secret festival, with his band Swans. Another handful of jigsaw pieces slotted into the hazy puzzle. After that Swans show Jehnny Beth went away and wrote down a phrase on one of her many online blog posts. “Love was the answer.” That sentence began to set down meaningful root, without Savages even realising at the time.

“That was a key moment in finding a way to talk about love,” agrees Jehnny, looking back on that pivotal Swans show in 2013. “How [Gira] does it, obviously, is very universal, and grandiose, goth-like. That was interesting for us.” Her initial jotting-down - “love was the answer” - would, over time, become the hell-raising second album opener, ‘The Answer’. The wheels were careering into unstoppable motion.

“Gemma came up with that riff, and we decided to make that the song,” Jehnny Beth explains. “That impact, and that sound - like being in the middle of the eye of the storm - made it possible to use this line. It allowed us to say something vulnerable, and naive, in a way.”

Once that idea of carefully tensioned contrast hit like a weighty tonne of feathers, there was no looking back. Savages found themselves writing sprawlingly ambitious music, as loud as it was looming.

“I remember the guitar sound and the bass invading all the corridors. Even to the toilets you could hear them,” observes Jehnny, remembering the band’s three-week stint in RAK studios in London. “Out the front, if the door was open, you could hear squalls of guitar,” says Gemma, looking back. “Down the street!” smirks a delighted Jehnny. “The posh street, the posh people. That was good.”

With these pillars in place, Savages set out with another of their infamous manifestos in mind for album number two. “We try to work with intention,” says Jehnny, who has strong feelings about the subject. “Writing manifestos can be perceived as too ‘serious’,” wrote the frontwoman three years ago. “It became rather playful for me,” she said. “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.”

It’s a sentiment she reiterates today. “A manifesto is a positive statement,” she points out. “It’s something that should feel inspiring once you’ve read it.”

The manifesto for ‘Adore Life’ was focused on several distinct ideas. Firstly, they agree unanimously, the process was about trust. “We could leave each other to it,” says Gemma, “and they would understand everything we needed to achieve.” Throughout the process members of Savages were constantly “popping in and out,” of the picture, with full confidence that they were all picturing the same end result. “Freedom was rule number one,” states Jehnny, “create space for each other in what we’re doing.”

“We wanted to do a record about love,” she continues, moving on to objective number two. “It was instinctive, at first,” she says, referring back to those initial flint-sparks, “and then it became a decision. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it all the way. We’re not going to skip some parts of love, that are maybe more dark, or more shameful, more personal.”

No aspect of love escapes unstudied on ‘Adore Life’. Stealing away from anonymous bedrooms, fucking in corridors, balancing an entire friendship on the risky knife-edge of lust, and surrendering to all-consuming desire, much airtime is given to those gnarled corners of love that spell out danger in hastily scrawled warning letters. As much as Richard Curtis would have you believe otherwise, love doesn’t always end with a brawl for honour in a Greek restaurant, a choreographed snog in a scenic location, or a merrily rolling reel of credits. Love is usually far more messy than that.

“We were trying to make a record that was quite psychotic and nuanced,” Jehnny Beth says. “Love, with all different facets, and the contradictory feelings you can have, when in love.”

‘When In Love’, indeed. Just one prominent example of Savages’ newly-unearthed touch of warmth, that song hits an especially specific, everyday nerve. “I hate your taste in music,” spits Jehnny Beth at one point, her voice bursting with sheer, undiluted venom.

She roars with laughter today at the suggestion that conflicting music taste is a Tinder dater’s worst nightmare. “It’s interesting to say very detailed, trivial things like that, that really get under your skin for some reason,” she reasons, “and to contrast that with a more universal idea.”

Fay has her own favourite lyric on that same track. “I’m gonna leave you forever, but next time I’m in the neighbourhood I’ll be knocking at your door,” she beams. “You know, when you’re like ‘I’m leaving you!’ but you’re too mad to let it happen? ‘Please take me back!’ I love that. Melodrama, a bit rock opera.”

“I used to love playing that song, when we were first testing it out,” says Ayşe, “I used to look at Fay, and she’d be…” her bandmate fist-pumps exuberantly across the table. “Brackets: punching the air,” Fay quips for the benefit of the dictaphone. “It’s got some vibes in there.”

“We’re not going to skip some parts of love, that are maybe more dark, or more shameful, more personal.”

Jehnny Beth

Despite their frequent - and tongue in cheek - insistence that they’re a “humourless” band, that same playfulness has always been present in Savages’ repertoire. A sharp-tongued lyricist, Jehnny Beth’s dry, dark bend on wit peeked through the deceiving surface rage of debut tracks like ‘Strife’ - a song which asked ”how come I’ve been doing things with you I would never tell my mum?” Those foundations are magnified on ‘Adore Life’. “We did humour!” announces Fay, wryly. “But you know,” reasons Ayşe, being - ironically - entirely serious at this point. ”People did think we were serious.”

While the stomping ‘T.I.W.Y.G’ - which is, according to Fay “intentionally quite mad.” - concludes with boisterous canned laughter, sort-of title track ‘Adore’ veers from goosebumpy sparseness to arm-swinging rock opera territory in a joy-filled skip. That’s not to say that Savages have donned comedy water-pistols. ‘Adore Life’ is also an aggressive, vulnerable, thoughtful, poetic beast of an album, and it’s very much part of the same journey.

“We couldn’t have done it without that first record being there, and that process of touring.” Gemma says. “It gives us the freedom and openness to say more within the context of Savages. We’re strong enough to do that.”

“Perhaps having deconstructed everything we should be thinking about putting everything back together,” concluded the band in ‘Silence Yourself’’s opening statement of intent. In the beginning, Savages set out like careful dissectors, peeling off every spare bit of musical gristle, and leaving behind a bare, minimal skeleton. Now, there’s a hopeful, utopian edge. An answer to the bleak and deconstructed, ‘Adore Life’ does seem like an album concerned with putting everything back together again, too. Space and time are no longer held hostage; eerie, suspended moments of silence ring through ‘Adore’, and improvised pockets building like tumbling boulders of noise. Jehnny Beth ponders this, frowning. “It could be seen like that, actually,” she decides. “Yeah. It could.”

“They inform each other,” she continues. “I wouldn’t say the second record is the answer, because that would mean that this is it…” she says, followed by an uproarious outburst. “That’s it! Done! That’s the answer!” laughs Gemma. “I understand where you’re coming from,” Jehnny picks up. “It’s a really instinctive process. A rise,” finishes Gemma.

“Rise is a good word, actually,” concludes Jehnny. “An instinctive rise.” “It sounds like intellectual porn,” exclaims Gemma suddenly.

As they attempt to regain composure, One Direction’s ‘Drag Me Down’ blares without warning out of the crackly cafe speakers. The pair wince slightly. “I don’t remember your question,” deadpans Jehnny Beth.

Savages’ gathering together today comes shortly after they played their final show of a packed year, in the school hall-type surroundings of Tufnell Park Dome. The band showcased a huge chunk of ‘Adore Life,’ menacing a transfixed room with the thudding bass of ‘Sad Person’ and the waltzing, meandering strut, ‘Slowing Down the World’. The reaction in that room was of the instantly palpable kind. The air hung thick with a rare variety of tingly, goosebumpy energy that can almost be grabbed a-hold of, because it seems so physical, so real.

“I felt it,” says Jehnny Beth, quietly, before grinning widely. “I can’t even imagine how it’s going to be when people know the record! It’s gonna be awesome.”

Lately, the band have been starting their sets with the sparse, isolated warm-up vocals of ‘I Need Something New’ - a song they originally wrote on the stage as “a way to speak to each other.” A search for newness, and a ferocious pursuit of the unexpected, remains Savages’ biggest manifesto point of all. “It’s funny,” starts Jehnny Beth. “I feel sometimes it calms my nerves if I know that something unexpected is going to happen. In a way it’s accepting the chaos. It’s less scary than thinking, ‘I’ve got to do this same thing, exactly the same as yesterday’. That feels scary,” she laughs.

“Make it yours,” offers Gemma, as a tailored alternative to simply making it new. “Make it new for yourself,” agrees Jehnny. “That’s enough.

Savages’ album ‘Adore Life’ is out now via Matador.

Photos: Mike Massaro.
Live Photos: Andrew Benge.
Make up: Martina Luisetti.

Taken from the February 2016 issue of DIY, out now.

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