This Is Not A Love Song (well, actually it is….):
Savages Find Something to be Said About Slowing Down the World
The night of Savages’ only Atlanta performance to date remains seared into my memory. Which is unfortunate, because I wasn’t at the show. Arriving on a delayed flight back into Atlanta I immediately texted Stomp and Stammer publisher Jeff Clark to ask if I still had time to speed over to Vinyl, only to learn their set had just ended. A few minutes later, I received a second text. “I’m sorry, but it was one of the best things I’ve seen in years.”
Online videos amply confirm Savages’ live prowess – my personal favorite is their 2013 American TV debut on Jimmy Fallon. When I caught up with guitarist Gemma Thompson the band was in Los Angeles, preparing for a performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live as well as the initial burst of UK touring to follow the release of its sophomore LP Adore Life. For a band that’s not afraid to sweat the details, Thompson’s not interested in analyzing why they come across so well on TV. “It’s very interesting to summon up that energy for one or two songs – it’s very different from playing a show. I don’t know how – whatever we do, I don’t want to question it.”
Though inextricably linked to British post-punk, Savages have frequently turned to the States quite a bit for inspiration. Turns out vocalist Jehnny Beth and her partner Johnny Hostile had been visiting LA since Christmas, and it was just as easy for the rest of the quartet to head west to rehearse. “And it’s warmer here,” Thompson adds matter-of-factly.
In early 2015, Savages looked to New York to ignite the creative process behind the material that became Adore Life. “We had started writing together in a cramped London space in late 2014,” Thompson explains, “and found ourselves writing really quietly.” Anyone familiar with Savages’ ferocious 2013 debut Silence Yourself knows that “quiet” is not an adjective commonly associated with the band. “So we said ‘this isn’t going to work, we’ve got to get out of here.’ We sat around a table and devised a plan to come to New York with the sketches we had and work them out in front of an audience.”
Why New York? “We were a bit sick of London at that point, plus it’s really interesting when you take creative energy and put it in a different location. They have a similar energy too – if you can live in London you can live in New York.”
So Savages headed to New York City, booked a rehearsal space, and scheduled nine shows over a 19-day stretch – rotating across the same three clubs on a weekly basis. By day they’d hunker down for a “really intense writing session in the rehearsal space,” assessing tapes of the performances and making adjustments to the in-process songs. “Some of them were more together than others. It wasn’t until you played them live with volume that you got a sense of how it really was going to work.” After the residency, Savages returned home and headed straight into the studio.
“The first week it was kind of an intrepid approach, softly putting the new ideas alongside the old material. Then each show got a little more confident. I remember the first week thinking ‘is this really the right thing that we’ve done, showing people the failure in the process?’” Based on both fan reaction and the eventual album, however, it was a risk worth taking. “I met a few people who came to every single show, some that came to one each week.”
The approach is similar in spirit to PJ Harvey’s recent performance piece, selling tickets to observe her unfiltered studio process from behind one-way glass (the result of which, The Hope Six Demolition Project, will be unveiled in mid-April). “We went to see one of those sessions at Somerset House” as a group, Thompson enthuses, recalling their view of the latter part of the exercise and the overdubbing of vocal choruses. “We were already thinking about a different process but a similar approach. It was fascinating to watch, especially with a hero of ours.”
Coincidentally, Adore Life brings to mind for me the sophomore outings for two landmark British post-punk bands, Harvey’s Rid of Me and Wire’s Chairs Missing. All three bands are dark, guitar-driven, equal parts visceral and cerebral. But it’s not a similarity in sounds that catches my ear, rather their shared trajectories. All three build on the energy of stunning debuts, retaining it when appropriate (Savages’ new “The Answer” is at least as blistering as anything on Silence Yourself) but finding ways to slow the tempo for more pensive moments while actually heightening the intensity.
A case in point is “Adore,” the title track and clear centerpiece of the new album. It’s the quietest track the band has done – a direction hinted at by the debut’s closer “Marshall Dear” – without being at all serene, vocalist Jehnny Beth repeatedly asking the philosophical question “Is it human to adore life?” In the buildup to album #2 Jehnny – “someone who always has a notebook with her” according to Thompson – “started writing lyrics about love and didn’t know how they would fit in with Savages.” The answer is unequivocally “perfectly well.” While Adore Life is a collection of love songs in the literal sense, they are explorations of emotion rather than displays of doe-eyed sentimentality. Jehnny Beth’s protagonists are questioning, conflicted, vulnerable without capitulating. Or as she declares just after the title track, there’s “something to be said about slowing down the world.”
“We knew from the beginning that each of these songs was part of a whole” this time around, says Thompson. “Love as a catalyst for change or growth – or the dark side, what you’re gaining or losing. The lyrics are entirely Jehnny’s, but when we write together we talk through what they mean to each of us. We’re always talking about what we’re reading, giving each other books.”
The band bristles at any references to predecessors, however. My mentions of Rid of Me and Wire are greeted with polite “hmm”s followed by a brusque “When we came together for this band we wanted to create something that was missing.” The only band to which Thompson seems comfortable drawing a parallel is Swans, who have pursued a similar balance of severity and human emotion. I’m smart enough not to bring up Siouxsie and the Banshees, even if the comparison applies to the timbre of Jehnny Beth’s voice rather than any broader musical similarity.
“I need something new,” Jehnny Beth intones on the first song written for Adore Life, one that took shape in direct audience view. “We began playing that one at the end of the last tour,” Thompson explains. “Jehnny had this kind of monologue she started doing between songs, and after a couple of shows we started joining in. But the New York residency was the first time we played any of these as actual songs.”
Although for many Jehnny Beth represents the face of Savages, which isn’t surprising for a lyricist and front person – particularly one with such a commanding stage presence – the initial concept for Savages was Thompson’s. Gemma and Jehnny have known each other for about seven years, back to when the latter was teamed with Johnny Hostile in the duo John and Jehn – a band that was the couple’s ticket out of their native France (the pair also founded the Pop Noire record label). “Actually it was Johnny who found me,” Thompson recalls. “I met them both at Rough Trade East, he was after a female noise guitarist for some reason and I don’t think there were many of us around at the time.” Thompson toured with the duo for a couple of years – prior to which her stage experience consisted of “playing every dive in London.”
Thompson has known bassist Ayse Hassan even longer, the two having played in bands together before. “We lived around the corner from one another when I first moved to London,” explains Thompson, who grew up shuttling among British military bases. “She used to hold house parties. Before I got there I thought it was the official music festival of that region of South London. Then I met her and discovered it was just this oddball girl having musicians playing in every room of this little house.” Eventually Jehnny approached Gemma with some lyrics that she thought meshed with the project Thompson had been talking about. Thompson reached out to Hassan, and Savages were born. Drummer Fay Milton was last to join, found “through friends of friends – it’s kind of a mystery, really,” Thompson claims.
Hassan carries a lot more weight than most bassists, given the guitar style of Thompson – who rarely plays chords, or even traditional leads, opting instead for an omnipresent buzz and washes of ominous sound. This leaves plenty of space for the rhythm section, space that Hassan and Milton fill vigorously. Savages truly come across as a band of equals. “We are very much a gang, and everything is conferred between us. Each of us are very different people, with varied influences. If you spoke to each of us individually I’m sure you’d come away thinking ‘how the hell does this work?’” When I ask if that extends to a mix of introverts and extroverts, Thompson slyly responds that “you can probably guess” who’s the most extroverted.
Johnny Hostile has weathered his share of Svengali innuendo, given his role as producer and the lone male in Savages’ inner circle. Thompson seems wholly unperturbed by the dynamic, and says the band objectively considered offers from “name” outside producers to work on the second album. “We were very open-minded about looking into other people. We really thought about it – we really researched the whole role of a producer and what process we needed. And because we’d written everything so fully, and we weren’t going to go too far from the sounds we play live, we wanted someone who understood us more as people and how we approach our instruments, rather than someone looking to reorganize and compose something. Johnny has that, plus you can talk to him in very abstract terms about a sound and he’ll search for it. So it was like OK, we have everything we need.”
The recording process was starkly different for the two albums, with Silence Yourself essentially a live in the studio exercise. “The first record was more of a document – we went in the studio with the mantra that what you play live was what you played on this record.” By contrast, for Adore Life “every musician had their own time on their own instrument. And it was really nice because we had the freedom to try whatever ideas we liked – to be more melodic, or go for a heavier sound. I think over the two years of touring we became better musicians, got to know each other a lot more, trust where we’d take our parts. Silence Yourself is very much the definition of us as a gang, about the strife we were going through at the time, pulling together and saying who we were.”
Savages certainly haven’t chosen to silence themselves, touring for the better part of two years following their debut album and capitalizing on their station to participate in events like the Station to Station art installation at London’s Barbican center and issuing a wild freeform collaboration with heavy-psych Londoners Bo Ningen. They’re just the sort of heady, ambitious moves you’d hope to see from a top-shelf art-punk band. Just don’t try to connect them to other icons who may have forged a similar path before.
Photo by Colin Lane.