Interview Savages: ‘I’m Not Ready To Shut Up’

Savages have spent their 2013 trying to make a difference. Frontwoman Jehnny Beth isn’t done yet.

‘The world used to be silent. Now it has too many voices, and the noise is a constant distraction. They multiply, intensify; they will divert your attention to what’s convenient and forget to tell you about yourself.”

These are the first words of the 36 line manifesto printed on the cover of Savages’ debut album. They’re taken from John Cassavetes’ 1977 film ‘Opening Night’ and here they form part of the most focused mission statement of 2013. “Silence yourself,” yells frontwoman Jehnny Beth, but this is not a record about silence, not really. It’s an album about focused impact.

“Our aim [at the beginning] was the first gig that happened at The Shacklewell Arms for the Pop Noire night,” says Jehn. “It kind of shaped our sound because we wanted to make music that would create an impact, maybe a physical impact, very fast, hits very hard, but also very gentle. That was the angle we were taking.

“In the end it becomes minimal, but I wouldn’t say I’m a minimalist writer. I enjoy writing so much that I even write outside of the lyrics, I write on the front cover of the record. I think I’m not ready to shut up.”

Savages have just wrapped up their US tour, and Jehn is on the phone from an Italian restaurant where the band have stopped off for a much-needed refuel. Amusingly, given the words that appear on the front of ‘Silence Yourself’, she apologises for the distraction of background noise. She’s knackered, but still reeling with enthusiasm from their show last night at New York’s Terminal 5.

“It went super well, it was great,” says Jehn. “We had the New York choreographer KK Apple and her troupe of dancers, and she performed for half an hour on a long version of our track ‘Dead Nature’. She did that on the floor amongst the people!” she laughs.

“The reaction ‘This is more than a band.’ was incredible, the people were really curious, taking the time to absorb it – and trying to protect them as well, because there were a lot of people on the floor. It was kind of dangerous! Then when Duke Garwood got on stage he performed a wonderful set, I came on to sing a song with him, ‘Heavy Love’. Johnny Hostile [Jehn’s partner, and ‘Silence Yourself’s co-producer] was playing with him as well. We had a nice moshpit of young boys going crazy.” She laughs again. “A good party.”

Incorporating spoken word pieces into their live shows, as well as dancers, cage constructions, and all sorts of other experiments, Savages take the boundaries of being a band, and break through the walls. “This is more than a band,” agrees Jehn, “it’s more like an art project. We like to involve the people we work with on another level, and we like to hear music being exploited in lots of ways. I think it’s a dream for any musician to do that, so we should feel free to do it.”

“I think we just realised it was extremely exciting to have an idea and make it happen, and then we just went for it every time,” she adds. “It means a lot of work, and,” she laughs, “we lose more money, but it brings more pleasure and happiness. Whatever happens, we’re having a good time and we’ve fulfilled what we’re wanting to do. Otherwise it’s… how do you say? It doesn’t inspire you if you’re just a band on tour doing promotion and selling your records – what is that supposed to be, you know? It’s definitely not the life I want.”

Savages used to be resistant to the idea that they were, as a group of four women, a feminist band by implication. At first, says Jehnny Beth, frankly they were reluctant to talk about the subject at all. It’s easy to understand why. ‘Silence Yourself’ is partially about the experience of being a woman, but it’s largely a record about something far more universal. Sex, desire, violence, freedom, power; these are all things that extend far beyond gender. If this is an album of empowerment, it’s an exciting, androgynous, powerhouse celebration of self-expression knowing no barriers.

“I think it’s a shame that when a woman speaks about women, that we’re automatically being handed the feminist flag,” observes Jehn. “I don’t want to carry any flags, I’m just doing my thing. I will just carry my own armour,” she cackles, “and do my own shit!”

Although she reiterates that Savages was not started with a feminist agenda, Jehn seems happy to engage openly with the subject today. “More and more,” she says, “I feel that because we’ve seen with our own eyes the effect we had on young women after gigs – and how it makes them feel good, empowered – it made us realise we were doing something that we didn’t realise at first. To be honest, I’d say we’re learning on the way, we’re learning as we go along about these concepts. It’s starting to interest us.”

Savages started out ‘I played every shithole that existed.’ with just one recording, the ‘Husbands’ single, and for a long time the only way to see the band was live. Their album was entirely cultivated on the stage. “We didn’t really think about recording things then. We were doing hand-made silkscreen t-shirts before that, because we felt we have to give something to these people!” she laughs. “We didn’t want to rush into recording until we felt the music was ready, until we felt solid, and then we moved to recording live shows. That seemed to be the right way, to understand what kind of sound we had live, and to try and capture that energy.”

‘Silence Yourself’ is an incredibly live sounding album, and that initial process does seem to have captured the raw visceral energy of Savages on the stage. “Mmmhmm,” agrees Jehn, “that was always the aim. There are definitely songs that were recorded live straight to finish, we didn’t change a note. ‘Marshall Dear’ was one of them, there was ‘Hit Me’, ‘No Face’, so yeah.”

Small venues are a cause close to the band, and Jehnny Beth spoke out recently about the need to increase funding. “I arrived in London eight years ago,” she laughs, “and I played every shithole that existed in that town! Then I found a venue called The Luminaire, which was directed by Andy Inglis, who is now Savages’ tour manager. It felt like it was a home for people who cared about music. When The Luminaire died, it felt like something we cared about was dying at the same time.

“In a way, when The Luminaire died, I realised there was nowhere else that has that mentality in London. There’s nowhere like the UK, and it’s a shame. There’s a great music scene, great bands, great audiences, but the small venues are not…” she coughs tactfully, “well, they’re the worst in the world, they’re just the worst! That’s the reality, but we can do something.”

What’s the worst thing Savages have ever seen backstage? “Oh my god!” she exclaims. “Backstage there was a leak on the toilet. There was piss! Dripping into the backstage, and there was a massive pool of piss. That was when we were touring with [Jehn’s previous band] Johnny and Jehn, years ago, and we took a massive pen, and wrote ‘my ass is cleaner than that’ on the wall.” She is beside herself. “It was outrageous! It was insane! There was a massive bouncer, too, you know, who didn’t give a shit about you.”

She composes herself and laughs again. “That gives you a lot of anger, I think. You can’t make that up.”

This is sounding more like the Savages who wrote “so we’ll be cunts to the cunts / and nice to the people we love” in ‘Don’t Let The Fuckers Get You Down’. Indeed, the band were infamously called “terrifying” by Michael Gira of Swans, and elsewhere they’ve been depicted as closed off, and fiercely protective. Gira revised his opinion, calling them “terrific” instead. He’s quite right.

Anger towards puddles of urine aside, Jehnny Beth is focused, thoughtful, and intelligent. Savages have a vision that they will protect to the hilt, but really, they’re everything but angry.

Savages’ debut album ‘Silence Yourself’ is out now via Matador Records / Pop Noire

Taken from the new, free DIY Weekly, available to read online or to download on iPad now.

Tags: Savages, Features

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