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 . 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.
I understand John produced the single. Do you have your own studio space?
J: We have some space in the flat where we live. It’s Prefab Sprout drummer] Neil Conti’s flat, and it’s been owned by musicians since the ‘70s. We recorded some stuff there, and some stuff at XL’s studios, and some in Brighton. The guitar and vocals are recorded in my house. We’ve been talking about releasing some live tracks before the album.
G: Yeah, something in a comfortable setting, where everything sounds great.
There have been a lot of comparisons made with ‘70s guitar music, but to me Savages sounds very contemporary; very much like the sound of living in London today. Is the impact of your environment something that you’ve consciously thought about
J: Lyrically, completely – because it’s like a mirror to the present time. I’m really glad you think that. That’s how I want it to come across. We like to talk about social things. I’m really interested in how people act, how people act in the industry, how bands are.
There’s this constant talk about ‘political’ music at the minute. Do you think there is a lack of bands that are looking at the world around them, at the political or social situation, and writing about it?
J: Everything is political, but not political in terms of ‘politics’.
G: For example The Chapman Family are quite overtly political. That’s one way of doing it. But I suppose you can never not be political.
J: Artists should be in reaction, always. Everything is a reflection of what you want to do and everything you are. There’s an English playwright called Edward Bond. He writes a lot about writing; a lot of theoretical work. There’s this thing he says about actors onstage, that every second you have to make a choice. Do I look people in the eye? Do I dance? You make choices, and that statement has a purpose. It’s about who you are. It’s political, because every big choice you have to make is reflected in what you do.
He did a lot of workshops. His ideas about acting are really interesting. There’s an exercise he gave to actors, where there’s a dead body lying down and you are a soldier, and you have to step across the corpse and then light a cigarette. How do you do this? In close relationship with death like this? What does that say about yourself, and your position in the world? I read a lot of war poetry – Robert Graves, and Siegfried Sassoon. Because it’s about this close relationship with death, and nature, and love, and the essentials of life. And I think that’s connected with Savages too.
Is death a primary preoccupation?
J: Death is interesting. I think about death in a very positive way, in the sense that I feel proud of myself that one day I will be able to do this amazing, scary thing. It’s the biggest thing.
There seems to be quite a violent aspect to the live performance. You sometimes seem in antagonism with the audience.
G: We’ve always felt supported.
J: I think we smile quite a lot! It’s a generous thing.
G: The live performance is the ultimate creation of the songs. It’s the part where it all fits together. Even if it looks violent, it’s actually contentment.