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Jehnny Beth in conversation with Joe Talbot: Grit, pain, love

© Jack Johnstone

Words by:

Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth has a reputation for seriousness. You wouldn’t know that though, on a grey Thursday in a photography studio in Haggerston, her chit chat brightening a room that crackles with occasional laughter. It’s only when she turns to the subject of music that her brow furrows slightly and the room seems to darken at the edges.

‘Serious’ is an uninspiring word: dour, dull, deadening. Beth is anything but. Savages’ 2016 record Adore Life is a splash of water on the face. When she steps on stage with the four-piece, she appears both all-powerful and wilfully vulnerable, a mode of engagement the band acknowledge in a written manifesto that accompanies Adore Life: “It’s about showing weakness to be strong.”

Joe Talbot’s five-piece Bristol punk band Idles share Beth’s desire to find strength in vulnerability. Talbot’s lyrics smash conventional notions of masculinity all the while displaying the blunt rage associated with it (“I’m a real boy, boy and I’ll cry/ I love myself and I want to try”). The band’s sophomore record Joy as an Act of Resistance was a clarion call to anyone with grit in their teeth, tackling issues like social dislocation, austerity and loneliness with the same unwavering stare Beth shows a Savages audience, often with a wry smile tucked somewhere in the back. Meeting for this conversation, the pair extract passion from pain.

Crack: One thing that unites your music is to fight against an oppressive world with love and compassion. Do you feel like people are crying out for that right now?

Jehnny Beth: For me there was a realisation on the second Savages record where I received so much love from the crowd and I felt I had a responsibility to answer that. I decided to write Fuckers. “Don’t let the fuckers get you down” was a phrase a friend gave to me when I felt down, and I thought, I’m going to give it to people as well. I don’t know about you, but when you’re on stage and you receive so much cheering and love…

Joe Talbot: It’s the best feeling in the world. I was crying on stage the other day just because I felt so carried. There’s a point for both Jehnny and myself on stage where you give more than you can contribute as an artist, you just let go and it’s like being caught. It’s like falling backwards and having people catch you, on a scale where you feel elated and part of something bigger than you understand.

With Savages’ music and the school of feeling we came from as a band – post-punk and noir, goth music, like Bauhaus – it’s a dark aesthetic and I think there’s a responsibility to embrace the macabre. The new school of thinking is that you can actually do that with compassion and inclusivity. That’s what’s needed at the moment, a counteraction to the dislocation and isolation which comes from everything happening in this fucking world at the moment.

© Jack Johnstone

“I received so much love from the crowd and I felt I had to answer that”

We’ve got to a point where a developed country with intelligent people in it want to leave the most beautiful, interesting and safe continent on the planet. That’s fucked and that’s because people are made to feel isolated and in danger.

JB: When I went to see Massive Attack on their last tour, Adam Curtis did all of the text. One of the lines towards the end of the show was, “There are no enemies.” I thought that was one of the most powerful lines one could say to an audience at the moment. Even on a personal level, not necessarily global, political… just to think that. You mentioned to me earlier that you were touring in America and the reaction of the audience was the same. It’s really global, that feeling of loneliness. There’s a lot of lonely music out there as well, music that sounds lonely.

JT: With male, machismo-driven rock music there’s the loneliness of “I,” of arrogance. And there’s no need for arrogance at the moment, we’ve got nothing to be arrogant about. It’s not like you either have to be strong, stoic and not show your emotions, or soft, meek, compassionate and loving. The healthiest [way for a person to be] is to allow themselves to be fluid. Today is a new day, I’m a new person all the time. Just allowing yourself to be vulnerable, allowing yourself to be strong. You can be compassionate without being a walkover. You can be a million things.

© Jack Johnstone

JB: I like what you said earlier, that on stage you’re very vulnerable but it’s very safe. I stopped drinking alcohol four and a half years ago and I started crying on stage because I started to feel happiness as well as pain. The alcohol had been stopping the happiness from happening. And when I stopped going on stage with alcohol, I suddenly felt so happy to the [point of] tears, and that’s very vulnerable, but that’s where I learned it: not from life, from the stage.

JT: I think there’s something beautifully vivid about sober performance. It takes a while.

JB: Have you been performing sober?

JT: Yeah. It’s just way more lucid. Alcohol’s a depressant, it suppresses your shit, so as soon as you get past that you are the most amplified version of who you are.

JB: It’s exactly like sex. I think sex without alcohol is much better.

JT: Yeah, not at first though, again.

[they laugh]

© Jack Johnstone

Crack: Does it frustrate you if people criticise post-punk by saying it’s too referential to its past?

JT: It’s dog shit, fuck ’em. Everything’s derivative. You absorb what you love and you celebrate it. Derivative is not a dirty word, it just is to certain people. Post-punk, if you want to see it as a structured language within music, and you talk that language, that dialect, and create something interesting out of it. There’s a million different languages out there and music is infinite. Every now and again someone coins something new, but in between it is loads of different frequencies of similar things that sound beautiful.

JB: It’s really nice to say it like that, like jazz is a language. We’re talking about bands here, and bands are full of constraints.

JT: For Well Done, I was like, ‘I want to write a grime song’ and it came out sounding like us.

JB: Some of the greatest songs were written like that. I heard that Stagger Lee was written referencing hip-hop. When I wrote Fuckers for Savages it was [inspired by] LCD Soundsystem. It doesn’t sound like it at all, but it’s Savages, it’s not going to sound like LCD Soundsystem.

“As a post-punk band, there's a responsibility to embrace the macabre. The new school of thinking is that you can actually do that with compassion and inclusivity”

JT: Yeah that’s interesting. On the [upcoming] third album, there’s this pounding techno thing. It won’t sound like a techno song outwardly, but to us it’s a techno song.

Crack: Do you think it’s more valuable and more interesting to talk about masculinity in relation to Idles than it would be to talk about femininity in relation to Savages?

JB: We keep talking about the liberation of women and feminism, which I got really harassed to talk about [in] the early [days of] Savages, as if I was meant to speak for all women in the world when I didn’t really understand myself what I had to say about that… I didn’t really read anything about feminism at that time, I wasn’t very eloquent about it. But men need liberation as much as women and you can’t liberate women without liberating men. It needs to go hand in hand, and that’s why I was interested in Idles for that reason, because it was offering that new perspective, and that for me is very modern.

JT: The plurality of Savages’ performance: you can see masculinity in the strength if you want to see that or you could see that as femininity in strength. I see strength, I don’t see female or male strength, I see a strength in performance and power behind the music.

JB: Why should strength be associated to masculinity?

JT: Exactly. Hopefully my daughter’s generation will have a lot more of an understanding that femininity is allowed to be whatever the fuck [women] want it to be, not what I decide as a man, and vice versa. I get to decide what masculinity is. It’s tender and strong. It might confuse people now, but it won’t.

JB: I have a lot of hope for the generation [to come].

JT: Fuck yeah. They’re a lot more intelligent than I am.

JB: When I grew up, ’cause I grew up as a bisexual, having desire for male and female, and I still do today, I had no role model, no one around me who told me you can be bisexual, that’s a thing. And that was an issue for me for a long time, and still is sometimes a struggle: if I like both, what am I? Do I have to choose? A lot of anxiety came from that.

JT: Especially if you don’t have representation in the world that’s projected to you. ‘Cause I’m bisexual as well. You’re not represented, but I’m a man so it’s very easy.

JB: Don’t downplay a man’s struggle. I think it exists.

© Jack Johnstone

JT: Absolutely, I just mean for me personally. I’ve never struggled with it because I think I’m represented all the time in a lot of other ways. The white male voice is spoken and projected more than anyone else. That’s what you get when you’re a kid, if you’re a white middle-class boy.

JB: You’re raised to believe the world is yours.

JT: So I’ve always felt like I’ve been represented even if I kind of haven’t.

Crack: In the age of the internet, people are not only dislocated on a social level but also in terms of being a bit ironic and self-aware. Do you think crowds are quite difficult to get going sometimes because of that?

JB: If I go back to the beginning of Savages and the London scene at the time, I think the only band that would get me excited was Bo Ningen because they were actually throwing guitars at the roof. There were no bands out there that I felt were actually taking the stage seriously enough. They looked like they were going on stage to be seen by agents and management, to be signed. So my first idea was to go on stage and stare people in the eyes and get something out of it, otherwise I don’t want to do this.

I think it’s changed though, because that was six or seven years ago. I can’t remember, but it was part of indie rock: the cemetery of rock music. Everything died. We knew it was a dead end. I worked really hard at getting moshpits going. Johnny Hostile was on the side of stage and he was part of this whole hardcore culture. He took me to a Converge gig when we met. I’d never been in a moshpit and I had a panic attack. I ended up working really hard on trying to get people to be involved. When the word started to get around and we toured America, suddenly there were mosh pits at every show from the first song. That was a victory to me. I thought, ‘Whatever this is, it’s better than nothing. It’s better than the emptiness.’

JT: That period in between when you guys came around and maybe the Strokes’ third album, there were just loads of really good looking London bands that didn’t give a shit. They were bored on stage. Fucking coathangers everywhere.

JB: I agree.

JT: They didn’t fucking feel anything. We’re in a world of austerity, and people going to their fucking jobs getting paid fuck all. Give ’em something more. The new school of hard-working bands [started making music] that meant something to themselves, not necessarily outwardly. People started caring again and you can’t hide that. It wasn’t cool and it was harder to write about, but now everyone’s paying attention.

Photography: Jack Johnstone
Grooming: Paige Whiting

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