ARTICLE BY ANDREW MCDONALD | LIVE PHOTOS BY ADAM DE VILLE
These were strong words from a band yet to release an album back in 2012. It’s easy now, with the benefit of hindsight, to point out how accurate and pointed these early Savages manifesto pieces are- yet these were daring words from a band yet to prove themselves. Of course, as anyone even vaguely interested in alternative music will attest to, prove themselves Savages did. Vocalist Jehnny Beth, guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayse Hassan and drummer Fay Milton released one of the most exciting and essential guitar rock records in the last decade with Silence Yourself, and the international press, and punters, paid attention. In the time since its release, the UK quartet has toured Europe, North America, Asia, and just recently down under for 2014’s Laneway Festival.
For all their popularity, the group is decidedly anomalous in the current musical landscape. With so many modern popular bands resting on irony as a crutch, Savages’ serious and no-nonsense approach to music and art exists as a powerful counterpoint. Collide spoke with guitarist Gemma Thompson who says that “It’s about focusing on the sounds, this idea that you’re working on the sound- if that’s seen as a ‘serious’ thing then so be it. You’ve got to have a seriousness to what you’re doing” This seriousness permeates through the band’s music of course, both on the record and live, yet also in their non-musical, aesthetic choices. The band’s sharp, black and white, neo-bauhaus fashion sense and their monochromatic album art both stand against a musical and media landscape of increasingly colourful and needlessly busy noise.
Likewise their music videos- take the clip for Marshall Dear, inspired by a sequence in Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal novel Slaughterhouse 5 where protagonist Billy believes he has become unstuck in time. The video which depicts a WWII style bombing played in reverse, from destruction back to creation. Thompson says of the video “[I] thought it was beautiful how Billy tries to right the process of destruction and how this echoed the true story of the character in the song Marshal Dear” It’s a decidedly non-commercial clip for an even less commercial track, the album’s closer, and is loaded with more meaning and purpose than many other, still great, bands give entire records. The creation of the video simply exists to extend the artistic message of the song, to build on its message and further its meaning. Not that the group isn’t ‘fun’, one needs only to listen to the group’s early live EP I Am Here to hear how much joy the band has in performing, yet the message is always paramount.
OUR GOAL IS TO ALWAYS DISCOVER BETTER WAYS OF LIVING AND EXPERIENCING MUSIC
WE BELIEVE THERE ARE STILL NEW WAYS TO BE FOUND
WE BELIEVE THE USE OF PHONES TO FILM AND TAKE PICTURES DURING A GIG PREVENTS ALL OF US FROM
TOTALLY IMMERSING OURSELVES
ONLY WITH FULL EXPERIENCE WILL THE
WORDS WE SPEAK BE TRUE
LET’S MAKE EACH EVENING SPECIAL
SILENCE YOUR PHONES
This is, of course, but another chapter in the band’s manifesto of ideas, which have been informed by the group’s stridently independent nature, and shaping the group’s dynamic and sound since inception, “As soon we started and put out our first release, we needed to do a press release for it. To do this ourselves, Jen wrote this piece which became a manifesto for ourselves as well as an explanation for what we were doing.”
Though words and other non-musical ideas have always been at the fore of band’s approach, from the obvious touchstones such as John Cassavetes who directed Opening Night from which the band pull their Silence Yourself opening sample, to the more obscure. On composing longer songs or non-traditional music, Gemma Thompson remarks that the “idea of laying out the different sounds you have and building them up; it’s almost like painting.”
The band even began as an attempt to try and articulate a musical equivalent of JG Ballard; the chaotic, apocalyptic generation and dark future- an ever changing landscape of dark and light hues. Thompson also claims Japanese existential writer Kobo Abe is a major inspiration, mentioning The Box Man, an experimental novel about a man choosing to withdraw from the world through living in a cardboard box, as a travel read - “When you’re reading it and you’re travelling around it makes you think about the people in the landscape and consider that you are that person.”
When Savages’ started and claimed in the initial manifesto that ‘Human Beings Haven’t Evolved So Much”, this could easily be a
view attributed to their own sound- which owes a lot to post-punk precursors such as Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division.
Live, Jehnny Beth even recalls an androgynous Ian Curtis - the piercing eyes, stoic stance and no-nonsense yet passionate vocal delivery. Perhaps less obvious though, are the experimental and avant-garde influences the band channel into their sound, making
it stand out from the generic ilk of ‘post-punk revival’ bands.
Thompson has often remarked on the influence New York no wave acts and Einstürzende Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld have had on her own guitar sound, which, unsurprisingly, is created with as much pointed meaning as everything the band does, “The idea behind ‘post-punk’, even simple guitar based music, is about taking apart what you have and putting it back together. This alchemist idea of looking at sound like ‘why have I got these parts here? How can I play them differently?’" This ground up approach to sonic ideas results in some truly brilliant noise- and not just in the obvious beauty of the dirty and crunchy guitar effects throughout the
album. At the band’s Sydney headline concert, they performed a cover Suicide’s classic electro-punk tune Dream Baby Dream -
which has Thompson playing with shoegaze style tones and loops for around 10 minutes. The result is a very physical lushness that unites audience and performer in a way we can safely assume Alan Vega and Martin Rev would approve of. Thompson again, “We try and explore the sounds for what they are, trying to not be held up by all this history - it’s less about ‘learning songs’ and more about playing something that’s a part of your body” In spite of the group’s claims, Savages themselves actually represent a powerful evolution of post-punk and experimental rock sounds.
As brilliant as Silence Yourself is, the band is undoubtedly a live act. “Jen comes from a very theatrical background, her history’s been performance, theatre and acting” Thompson says, and this is very obvious when the band are on stage. Beth’s performance in Sydney starts very stoically- her powerful stance and impassioned delivery betraying her sleight frame entirely. She rarely moves, save for kicks at the audience. Gemma tells us that Jen grew up with the “Theatre of Cruelty” idea, that art could, and should, shatter ideas of false reality through violent spectacle. The band certainly carry this idea over live- be it through violently energetic performances of tunes like Husbands and Hit Me or through the droning rock of new
song Fuckers. Fuckers is a 15-minute-plus dirge from minimalist percussion and spoken word into chaotic noise, and perhaps represents the ultimate union of the group’s aesthetics and message, expressed in a repetition-as-ideal approach to sound. “It’s something we’ve always been interested in,” Gemma says on repetitive nature of the song “It becomes a very meditative thing; it’s so loud it takes on different sounds within itself. It’s all encompassing when you create sounds like that, and at such a volume a physical element comes out of it … it’s using repetition as a form of exorcism to get ideas across” This physical connection between Savages and their audiences is expressed most explicitly in the group’s message to punters about smartphones- printed around venues they play,
Yet withdrawing from the world is seemingly the last thing the band plan on doing. At the Sydney show, the band finish with Fuckers, which concludes with a brutal and beautiful crescendo of noise. The band leave and don’t return - no encore, no nonsense. It all feels so planned and, as they outlined in their first missive, efficient. A strict working ethic permeates through everything the band does, which explains how less than a year after Silence dropped Thompson informs us that the band “Had a few weeks off in December and began writing in January” Do they afford themselves a moment to reflect on where they’ve reached? "We just keep moving forward… We just get on with what we’re trying to do.”
Savages are currently touring, their debut album Silence Yourself is out now and it will be followed by an EP later this year.