Savages: Where the wild things are

It may have an anchor to the past, but Savages are blaringly of today – and Gemma Thompson and Jehn Beth are having an absolute rrriot

Ayse Hassan, Gemma Thompson, Jehnny Beth and Fay Milton of Savages

Ayse Hassan, Gemma Thompson, Jehnny Beth and Fay Milton of Savages


‘I used to stay up late to listen to John Peel as a teenager. I’d sneak into the kitchen, so I wouldn’t wake up my parents, and dance in my socks . . .” laughs Gemma Thompson. Well, you can’t beat Extreme Noise Terror followed by a calypso band. “Exactly! It was so random, but I took it all in because there was nothing like that in my house. I was a teenager in a small town and that was how I discovered things.”

Until this sock-choreography confession, Thompson and Jehn Beth of Savages had been sitting beatifically in a Derry church, where they would later perform in the Other Voices concert. Striking and intense, both are also quietly spoken, and Beth’s accent has the inflexions of her native France. They make up one half of Savages, who when we met, had only released a handful of singles, but who ended up on the BBC Sound of 2013 poll. Comparisons – and there are many – have been obvious and old-school: Joy Division, PiL, various riot grrl bands, but there is something far more distinct about what Savages do. It may have an anchor to the past, but it’s blaringly of today.

“We listen to a lot of different music. I like jazz, as well as listening to Joy Division and Siouxsie Sioux, ” says Beth. “For me, it’s boring to compare music to music . . . there’s so many interesting things that influence it. When we write a song we just try to find a way to write a good song. It’s very simple.”

Again and again when the band are talking about their work, the subject of their gender arises, as though an all-female band is some kind of anomaly, or historically unique. “Our influences are male and female in equal measure,” says Thompson. “It never occurred to me that being female was a reason I should or shouldn’t be playing music. With the No Wave scene in New York, and classical musicians, women were as much a part of it, and accepted. It’s interesting in terms of writing, especially with lyrics.”

How so?

“In the beginning, we thought it might be a thing, but people were more interested in what we were doing live. It surpassed gender. It’s unnecessary.” She pauses and looks at Beth. The pair have a very intuitive connection, with Thompson offering an occasional word in translation when Beth reaches for one.

“I love lyrics written by a man but sung by a woman,” says Beth. “Blondie’s lyrics could be written or sung by a man. I like when you feel an undercurrent. It’s not obvious and it creates tension. Love songs are for men – I would feel very uncomfortable singing a 1950s love song. We tried doing Walking in the Sand and I felt uncomfortable being a woman who is a fool in love.”

The lyrics on their debut album, Silence Yourself , are the antithesis of bubblegum pop heartache. These songs deal with desire, physical boundaries, art and morality. The opening track, Shut Up , begins not with a blistering riff, but with a crackly piece of film dialogue. Gena Rowlands in Opening Night (directed by her husband, John Cassavetes) is a woman caught between mortality and creativity.

“There are women I consider role models who aren’t necessarily from music. Louise Brooks was really important for me, not just her films, but how she lived her life. And Jeanne Moreau – she was a singer too.” Beth has been playing piano since she was a child. She grew up in France, where her ancestral background was agrarian and religious. The desire for change was instigated by her own parents, who went to university, read books and were interested in theatre. The family didn’t have a TV, but aged three, Beth began performing in productions directed by her father. The sense of risk her parents took in striving towards art is one that has influenced her own creative choices. “It’s brave when you decide to be an artist . . . to try to do this. That step is a risk, and it’s scary. It’s something Gemma and I have always had in common. We moved to London in the same year, without knowing each other, but we both had the intention of being in a band.”

Jehn’s partner, Johnny Hostile, aka Nicolas Congé, co-produced the band’s album, but pre-Savages their side project, John and Jehn, wanted a guitarist to tour with them. “There are few female noise guitarists and Gemma was the only guitarist who was actually making noise, instead of being a trained guitarist. We were looking for someone like Glenn Branca, someone abstract.”

While neither initially had a specific idea of what that band might be, they knew what elements would be central. For Thompson it was about controlling how they sounded live, and focusing on the shows. “Each of us had worked up to that point with different experiences, so it became a combination of all that and controlling the intensity. We went headlong into it,” she says.

Hype about them has been building for a year, and they are aware of Internet’s double-edge whereby the feting and lambasting of bands can happen quickly.

“We live in times when we’re all very distracted,” says Beth. “Everyone has an opinion online and artists instantly get a response to what people think about everything they do. It’s tiring. When we started Savages, we were very focused, and when you’re focused, you’re harder to reach.”

For a band whose reputation rested largely on live performances, constructing something as static as an album was a very specific task. Thompson explains: “We tried to do everything live, did a separate mix, and then asked ourselves, ‘how can we keep that energy and fine-tune it?’. The guitar solos were improvised and there are a few surprises on the record. You have to create a scene at the time you’re recording that represents what it is you’re recording, so that when you listen back you remember it, as a creator, not just for listener.”

“We planned to give people something that they’re missing,” summarises Beth, before they both run off to soundcheck on the altar.

yyy Silence Yourself is out now on Matador. Savages play Electric Picnic (August 30th to September 1st)