The whispers started about six months ago. There was a band that had arrived fully formed, playing carefully picked dive bars with an uncommon intensity. One member extracted ungodly, squealing noise from her guitar while another stared down the audience, delivering lyrics that took their cue as much from French literature as from the rock n roll canon. They became a universal talking point, seeming to come up in hushed tones within the first few minutes of every conversation you had.
Today, Savages are no longer a secret. Having only recorded a few minutes’ worth of music the quartet have already become oddly galvanising; a band about which there is near-consensus. Even those who are unconvinced by the group’s debut single still seem certain that Savages are, conceptually at least, A Good Thing – a band with the potential to help revitalise the guitar at the moment the instrument finds itself near its lowest ebb.
It is live that this potential is really demonstrated. The band’s members have a rare and obvious connection, communicating onstage through a combination of snarls and smiles, sometimes so firmly ensconced in their own interplay that they appear almost unaware they are being watched. There is a sense of the feral; a feeling that there is a deep well of beautiful violence hidden somewhere beneath singer Jehnny Beth’s spring-loaded gesticulation.
In person, then, Savages surprise. When I meet Beth and guitarist Gemma Thompson in the courtyard of a north London café on one of the warmest days of the year the austere front is gone, replaced by an easy enthusiasm. They arrive separately, and as they greet each other I am immediately struck by the clear intensity of their own relationship – the sort of relationship that can only exist between people who know they are in the middle of something potentially life-changing.
In previous interviews there has been a recurring theme: the idea of a band’s intent. What is Savages’ intent?
Gemma Thompson: Performance-wise it’s this idea of keeping control, of keeping hold of the sound and then unleashing it at certain times.
Jehnny Beth: Part of the intent is for the music and the words to be like actions; to have real power, and a real effect. We forget that music has that power. We’re human beings, we’re evolved, but we’re still very basic. We want to play with that. We want to write songs for live [performance]. We write the songs considering that aspect straight away, and we write songs considering the emotion that they bring.
There seems to be a very strong theatrical element to the live performance. I thought that particularly at the Rich Mix show.
J: Especially that show. It was kind of a Fugazi setting, where everything’s white and everyone’s under the same light. I like that, because you can just concentrate on the music.
G: We always like to consider the space we’re playing in, and make it feel attuned to that.
In what sense?
J: Instinctively. We change the way we’re acting. When we played the Fuhrer Bunker in Manchester we were playing in a cage, and we were watching each other with everyone all around us. That creates an intensity.
I’ve spoken to three or four people who were at that show, and they have all said how extraordinary it was.
J: I had to walk out at one point. Afterwards people went a bit mad. There were people walking over cars. There was a kind of craziness.
It sounds like you started a mini riot on the outskirts of Manchester.
G: It was lucky that it was in the outskirts. There’s nothing much to destroy. It’s already been destroyed.
Your guitar tone seems to be a particularly important element of Savages. Is it something you’ve been working on for a while?
G: When I first started I couldn’t properly play anything. I was literally just working out how to make noises with it. So I tried lots of things, violin bows and all sorts. Then I skipped the whole rhythm guitar part and went straight to Stone Roses and Radiohead, and would sit for like six hours at a time learning little bits. Then I built that up, then simplified it again. There’s the idea of getting all the energy out in one note, in one noise.
J: The first time we heard Gemma was on a YouTube clip, when John and Jehn were looking for a guitarist.
G: That video was from the Good Ship. That was an interesting gig. The venue is in a hole. The band we were supporting were a German industrial band. We hadn’t heard them before, but we thought we were going to have to up everything once again for this German industrial noise band. We did, we upped everything, and it basically sounded like a wall of noise.
J: She was special. Unique.
Is the equipment an important part of that ?
G: Equipment is very important, but again it’s the intent behind the way you play. I have a guitar that I’m completely in love with, and it came about in quite romantic circumstances.
Would you like to talk about them?
G: Well, I have a 1966 Fender Duo-Sonic in Daphne Blue. I was playing a show with John and Jehn in France, in their hometown. We had a few days before this show, and John took me to this guitar shop where he’d bought a lot of his instruments. He knew the guy, and he said he’d lend me this guitar for two days. He didn’t tell me how much it was. So I sat round the fireplace in France for two days before the show just playing this guitar, and I completely fell in love with it. I gave it back, and I came back to the UK. But I couldn’t stop thinking about this guitar.
By then he’d told me the price, and I just thought, no way. But I did everything I could in my power to get hold of this guitar, and I ended up picking it up from a French lorry driver on an industrial estate in east London. He held up all the traffic. I’m in the corner of this industrial park looking out for a specific French lorry, getting some weird looks. But eventually he came, stopped all the traffic coming off this A road, got out of his cab and gave me this guitar and off he went.
J: It’s just called Guitar.
He sounds like the world’s best salesman.
J: He’s amazing. A lot of the gear we have is from him.
G: I was eating porridge for three months afterwards. It’s the most expensive thing I’ve ever bought.