Dystopian post-punk: Savages want to shut you up.
An all-girl four piece from London, Savages make darkly intense music in the vein of post-punk. Rising to prominence in 2012 through the power of their live performances, they have maintained an intriguing mystique. Typically all black-clad, they are rarely captured in colour, an aesthetic which suits the dichotomy of desolation and redemption in their music. A mission statement posted online in February 2013 declares that “SAVAGES’ SONGS AIM TO REMIND US THAT HUMAN BEINGS HAVEN’T EVOLVED SO MUCH”.
In slight trepidation of their aforementioned intensity I sat down to talk to lead singer Jehnny Beth about the vision behind the band, maintaining control at all times and finding inspiration in gay poetry. Guitarist Gemma Thompson originally came up with the name ‘Savages’ whilst reading dystopian novels: “Philip K Dick, JG Ballard, Kobo Abe… I think she had the desire to try and find a sonic representation of these ideas about devolution, the human being and the contemporary world”. In conveying a feeling, an air to the music, the name is key. “It’s important to us, it even came before the band was formed. It evolves around the idea that savagery is in everyone but only a few of us find the need to use it”.
Jehnny talks about the band addressing dystopian mores: “the voice of the individual lost in the cacophony of the world.” Their debut album, ‘Silence Yourself’, addresses this loss of voice and asks the listener to fully appreciate the depth of the band’s sound. It is a testament to these early ideals that ‘Silence Yourself’ sounds like an exercise in devolution, with Jehnny’s howling vocals piercing through angry guitar noise: on album opener “Shut Up” she announces that she is a ‘bullet to the sun’. Dystopian indeed.
A lot of comparisons have been made between Savages and their post-punk predecessors. The Guardian described hearing their debut single ‘Husbands’ as “mak[ing] us dream of what it must have been like to have been around to hear, in real time, the debut releases by Public Image Ltd, Magazine, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division”. It can be problematic for new bands in establishing themselves and their own sound under the weight of such revered comparisons. I ask Jenny how she feels about being seen as so indebted to the past; “I think it is ok to relate with certain artistic currents of the past, but not necessarily just music.” The complexity and depth of Savages music draws from their multi-faceted nature of taking inspiration: “all we discover from how these or other people have been doing things can be a potential inspiration, but it is the process that is interesting. A conversation comparing bands in terms of genre or style doesn’t really fit into our frame of thinking.”
Savages first performance was on January 6, 2012, supporting British Sea Power. Set up by Jehnny’s boyfriend and sometime band collaborator Johnny Hostile, the show was a great success and interest grew rapidly, with the band becoming renowned for the power of their live sets. In August last year, at Beacons festival, I met an elderly man who travelled the length and breadth of the country to see every night of their tour; such is their hypnotic effect. I’m interested to know why they chose to delay between live performances and releasing material (Their first single “Husbands” was released in May). Jehnny explains, “we wrote our songs with the intention of the performance, we didn’t find the need to think about recording at the time. Also we didn’t feel ready, no matter how much people were insisting on the idea, it just seemed stupid to rush ourselves into it. As usual, we just waited for the music to tell us what to do. When we felt the songs were ready, we started organizing the recording”.
Their first single “Husbands” was released on Jehnny’s own label, Pop Noire. One of the elements which adds to the razor-sharpness in Savages music and performances is their control over every aspect of the band. As Jehnny explains, “there was a huge disagreement at the beginning with the people who worked for us about the fact that they wanted Savages to sign to a record label and I wanted to release the Savages records on Pop Noire. I started my label pretty much at the same time as we started forming the band. I’d had previously bad experiences with the music industry and didn’t feel the need at all to sell Savages to anyone after 6 months of existence.” Her stoicism in the face of the corporate music industry brings to mind the rebelliousness of their previously mentioned musical influences. “I was also determined to keep working with the same people I had been working with for years, and develop the artistic direction of the project with Pop Noire. Unfortunately I had to separate myself from the people who disagreed with me, I just couldn’t do it any other way”.
Artistic integrity is clearly integral to the band’s success. I am amused by Johnny Hostile’s description of them as “a cure to the kingdom of indie-rock boredom”, but it seems more than apt. Jehnny says that deciding to keep Savages on Pop Noire in those early days “brought me a whole new understanding about our generation. Outside of the traditional I became really aware of how controlled we are and how much the elder generation is dangerous to us and manipulated by their fear. I think it is a shame that young artists making guitar music have lost the desire to do things independently. Most young musicians I see are badly surrounded and their art suffers from that money-making environment. Savages was a sort of declaration of independence for me and I’m glad if that can inspire people too.”
Looking at photos of the band, on their album cover and in previous interviews, it becomes clear that Savages meticulously control every aspect of their art. I have read previously that they are influenced by Dali’s surrealism and Monk. Guitarist Gemma Thompson, an alumni of Goldsmiths university, is in charge of the band’s artwork. “She works really hard on every detail of the artwork with Pop Noire designer Antoine Carlier”, Jehnny tells me. Drummer Fay Milton also has a creative background, having worked in film production and direction for years before joining Savages. “We control everything related to image and video making. It demands a lot of work but we couldn’t do it any other way really.”
As well as drawing influence from art Jehnny uses poetry as inspiration for Savages, but “I need to read a lot [of poetry] before finding something that really strikes me. So I am a heavy consumer but I only remember a few of them”. What kind of poetry makes the cut? “I was reading Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon at the time we started. I found that war poetry was always very interesting for its intensity. Then I was searching for erotic poems but wasn’t convinced by anything until I found a series of different gay poetry.” In one of her side-projects HTB (HostileThompsonBeth) Jehnny explores the idea that “the power of words [can] cure or change people’s psyche, with music being the channel”. In Savages too, the music wants to invade your psyche, for better or worse. Artists in every sense of the word, the band create a sound that dares to confront. They may sound enthralled to the past, but be quiet and listen closely: amid the fierce guitars lies a discontent with the world and a cry for change.By Phoebe Rilot