Savages' Jehnny Beth on their fearless debut

Technology may make us feel safe but it could be lost in the blink of an eye. Are you ready to turn Savage? Jehnny Beth lays out a very particular manifesto

Feature by Simon Jay Catling | 29 Apr 2013

If you believe that true stylistic originality in music currently lies dormant or, worse, deceased, then to find real resonance you look to the qualities of those behind its creation: their message, their ethos, the decisions made as to why they’ve reached to the past to further the present. That Savages are currently one of the brightest burgeoning acts on this island isn’t down to any great sonic furthering on their part – it’s well established that there’s no great leap between the electrifying crackle of their sniping dissonance and the post-punk groups of the late 70s and early 80s. They themselves wrote, 'Savages is not trying to give you something you didn’t have already,' in a statement accompanying the breath-stealing thrill of debut LP Silence Yourself – it’s down to the convictions of the individuals behind it.

The four-piece treat this band as manifesto; they’re artists beyond writers, using the word just so they don’t have to write ‘band’ again. The lean, sinewy tissue of their music serves a function beyond mere sound. Their public presentation is derived from an intense methodology; where the tight, self-straightjacketed post-punk of the 80s was a reaction to the rockist excesses of the 70s, Savages’ interpretation is a reaction to our internet-aided existence of all-access, all-choice, all-influence. By actively devolving and stripping away the surplus elements of their own music they’re making a societal response; it’s not a paean to cultural fashion, it’s a howl against our own cultural bloat. Savages realise that to go forward you first have to go back, because all new paths must start at the beginning.

If you caught Savages’ initial shows last year and found tracks like City’s Full and Husbands already fully-mobilised in leaving you punch-drunk from the startling coordination of their attack, then it was because the intentions of the band had been forged before they’d played a note. “The name was the starting point really; it was there before the band was even formed,” explains singer Jehnny Beth. “Gemma [Thompson, guitarist] had been talking to me about wanting to start a particular group for months, and she came up with the name Savages. The discussions we had were about presenting these ideas, about creating a tension from trying not to pretend that we are technologically advanced, that savagery is still in every one of us and that it’s still capable of coming to the surface; how technology can give us the impression that we’re in total control of everything, but how this can be lost in the blink of an eye. Gemma really wanted a sonic representation of this dystopia, of these ideas of human devolution.”

“Guitar music has been adrift in a way. Bands are the same, and to be in one with a direction is kind of an old school thing, almost like it was gone” – Jehnny Beth

The Savages we know, the ones that went from playing their first gig with British Sea Power in January last year to a full summer festival schedule, TV appearances and, latterly, Coachella, were already racing along on wheels put in motion far in advance of their first, striking perforation. “Before we even practised,” confirms Jehnny. “It’s important that you set yourselves goals and directions, because it’s very easy to be distracted otherwise – and you know, we play and jam, but for what? What’s the idea? What do you want to say?”

Silence Yourself’s message reveals itself in crystalline fashion in the spoken word intro for the video of lead-off track Shut Up. ‘The world used to be silent / Now it has too many voices and the noise is a constant distraction,’ Beth says at its opening. ‘They multiply, intensify / They will divert your attention to what’s convenient / And forget to tell you about yourself.’

Thus the knowing simplicity of the record counteracts that complexity; its chief elements are constant. The restless grooves of Ayse Hassan's bass and tom-heavy bullishness of Fay Milton’s drumming provide the muscular backdrop to Thompson’s guttural guitar and Beth’s tight, staccato-syllabled lyrics, reflecting the tautness of what’s around her. They are controlled, placed on rails that provide a route through the 11 tracks even as the dynamics and tempo alter.

“When we started the band I was reading Nietzsche and one thing that I got really into was the idea that, from when you start writing, you try not to lose what made you first begin, even as you continue further; the first spark is the purest and you should try to keep hold of that and not get distracted along the path,” explains Jehnny of the band’s desire to create this singular aesthetic. “But it demands a lot of concentration! The actual process of it is hard because your brain is not trained to be so simple, and as a human you naturally want to be seen as this complex personality – indeed you are a complex animal.”

The group’s desire for control is replicated in their working setup, surrounding themselves with people they know and trust. Jehnny now knows the industry rigmarole, having experienced it with her partner as John & Jehn, and it’s from those early experiences of inevitably naïve compromise that they regathered their thoughts to found record label Pop Noire – which put out Savages' two previous releases to date, 7” Husbands/Flying To Berlin and a live EP – and ultimately streamlined the singer’s thinking towards joining a music project that sought to exist with minimal interference beyond those who could help elevate them for the right reasons. “I wish I’d had someone to tell me how to do this the first time round,” she sighs, “but then we all do. I remember an interview with Billy Corgan, for instance, and he was saying exactly the same thing. But of course there never is, and now I have a power because I have knowledge from these past mistakes.”

Last year, in the initial flush of their hype, they told The Quietus that their songs improved once they’d started taking the choruses out of them. It’s a process of reduction that Jehnny also applies to her own lyrics, initially writing a lot of text, then editing and extracting the essential from it, contorting it sharply to match the punchiness of the music. Track titles, meanwhile, are devices for repetitious use with mantra-like effect – would-be open-ended phrases become her own through their whirling revolutions. She comments: “It’s important, I think, because the meaning evolves and changes, each repetition captures you in a different kind of way, you put yourself in a little trance; live, it transfers to your body and makes it a little more mechanical…” 

The lyrical delivery often comes from a place of gums-bared aggression (‘are you coming for the fight?’); sometimes it’ll subvert conventional semantics, like those associated with love and affection, to dark environs (‘hit me, I think I’m ready tonight, hit me with your lips’). Elsewhere there’s a general sense that she’s standing on the cusp of something unknown (on Waiting For A Sign, the words ‘are you ready to face the future?’). The latter suggests that the intention behind this sound, even as it revisits past sonic ghosts, is to simultaneously attempt to reject it. It’s an internal monologue that afflicts all artists: when the sheer size of bygone creative material is so vast and the future contains no perimeter, how is it possible to resist the familiarity of the past? Otherwise a record bristling with a haughty confidence, it’s in these incidences where Silence Yourself illuminates the insecurities of the band, even as they’re thunderously delivered.

What’s exciting about Savages is that they’re a band who choose to be one because they recognise that it gives them a chance of having a voice. “That’s never really departed from music,” muses Jehnny, “it’s just guitar music has been adrift in a way. Bands are the same, and to be in one with a direction is kind of an old school thing, almost like it was gone.”

Savages, though, have a voice, a method, an outline. To go back to the spoken word of Shut Up, when Jehnny coldly intones ‘You are distracted. You are available / You want flattery. Always looking to where it’s at / You want to take part in everything and everything to be a part of you / Your head is spinning fast at the end of your spine until you have no face at all,’ it could be an attack on every band whose sound is akin to a Spotify-clicked six degrees of separation. Wider than that, it could be an attack on every person who buys into the social media culture of each individual being a brand, adapting and speaking to their marketing requirements and not to who their being ultimately is. No, Savages are not pointing to the future yet. What they’re doing is holding a mirror up to the present, and doing so with such irresistible assertiveness that it’s impossible to avoid its glare.

Playing SWG3, Glasgow, on 2 May.

Playing Art Academy, Liverpool, on 5 May – part of Sound City

Silence Yourself is released via Matador on 6 May