Love is the Answer
The night before we meet, Savages singer Jehnny Beth, on stage at the Dome in North London, takes an unexpected step.
During a furiously loud passage of early single Hit Me, she removes her shoes, approaches the stage’s edge, and then – after dangling a foot precariously over crowd members’ heads – continues walking. Suddenly fans pack tight together, reaching up to clasp her shins. Together, they bear her forward until she’s suspended mid-crowd, in silhouette. Then, instead of resuming vocals, Beth thrusts both fists skyward, like a triumphant gladiator. As the band thunders ahead, we watch her lips quiver, her fists tremble, her shadowy features flicker with ecstasy. She looks like a captive animal returned to the wild, electrified with power and lust.
The next evening, on the mezzanine of an East London studio strewn with Vice back issues, Beth and guitarist Gemma Thompson perch on tiny wooden chairs painted yellow and pink, like discards from a lifesize doll’s house. They’re here to discuss the new Savages album Adore Life, and they’ve dressed for the occasion – as they do for every occasion – in head-to-toe black. When I join them, Thompson is warming her hands with a peppermint brew. Beth sips “ninja tea”, better known as boiled water. “For my voice,” she explains, smiling.
When I last interviewed the pair, around the release of debut LP Silence Yourself, they had the Savages press routine down pat. Thompson, a former long-distance runner and aviation student, exuded a deliberate patience, filling her bandmate’s gaps with brief, measured summaries. Beth, who at one point recalled aspiring to become the Ziggy Stardust of French jazz, and later denounced modern indie as a “phoney institution”, blazed through screeds on social, sexual and psychological emancipation. Her eloquent fervour was as much part of Savages as their music. In the manifesto that accompanied Silence Yourself, the band demanded we take on our oppressors and eradicate their tools of distraction from our tiny, disappointing lives. So intoxicating was the rhetoric that nobody bothered to identify those oppressors, or wonder what exactly they’d distracted us from. For Savages, rallying our fury was imperative; how to use it, they’d consider at a later date.
That date is 22 January, when the London four-piece will release Adore Life. To herald it, they’ve devised a new, somewhat less incendiary interview style. Asked, at various points, if the band has redirected its cause, suffered in the industry, or affected her own wellbeing, Beth issues gentle denials while peering out of honest, sprung-wide eyes, as if inviting me to climb in and search for the answer myself. Thompson, for her part, is now using casual PRisms like “natural progression” and “learning process”.
Where the debut’s manifesto waxed philosophical (“Perhaps having deconstructed everything,” it read, “we should be thinking about putting everything back together”) its follow-up looks for practical solutions. That record dealt with concepts – empowerment, distraction, sexual submissiveness; on the follow-up, social ills get personal remedies. How to conquer distraction, they propose, is a question of individual composure. Love, in many shades, is the answer. On Evil, about the French conservatives who fought same-sex marriage, love as liberal compassion is the answer; on I Need Something New, love via emancipatory fucking in corridors is the answer. On The Answer, the band’s all-pistons-firing comeback single, “love is the answer” is repeated as a mantra, and that statement is at once pithier, more vulnerable and bolder than anything on the debut.
If Adore Life distills Silence Yourself’s statement, it also refines Savages as a concept. The band, which existed in Thompson’s imagination long before it had a second member, is as much an idea as a body of work. Staying true to that vision, Thompson says, is crucial. “When I was first in London, there was this dark energy that was on the verge of being violent,” she remembers of mid oughts bands like Selfish Cunt, who helmed a cesspit of musical anarchy in the capital. “You needed these violent bursts that would push people into questioning what they were doing, and what was the point of things.”
Adore Life began to crystallise in late 2013, when Beth, worn down by work and drink, had just scrapped part of a tour and subsequently quit booze. Around Christmas that year, she stumbled upon a passage of Jazz Cleopatra, the biography of pre-civil rights black cabaret dancer Josephine Baker. It read, “She was a revelation of possibilities in human nature they hadn’t suspected. The animal inside of every human being wasn’t dark, tormented, savage. It was good natured, lively, sexy rather than sensual, above all, funny.” The message, Beth understood, was that greatness could be born of affection.
For a band of dark, tormented savages at low ebb, that idea might’ve threatened their very core. Instead, they returned with renewed intensity. In May, they released the single Fuckers, an instant, exuberant live staple; it now closes their sets, then slams the door shut. “We can fight until we’re dead/Don’t let them walk upon your head/ And we can drive away from town/Don’t let the fuckers get you down,” goes one verse, preceding a cathartic scree that suggests, whoever the titular fuckers are, or whatever they’re fucking, they’d be ill-advised to persist. Perhaps to prove a point, Savages’ next move would be the most brilliant, and least business-savvy, of their existence.
Bo Ningen, the longhaired Japanese psych-rock band, were among the contemporary inspirations for Thompson to form Savages in 2011. On Words to the Blind, a 37-minute “battle” piece, they became collaborators. Performed eye-to-eye on a U-shaped stage for the project’s two performances, the shows saw the bands erect shattering, competing sonic monoliths. Drums flailed, basslines panicked and guitars duelled, thudded, slammed, screeched, pirouetted, warbled and generally conspired to invoke hallucinatory visions of Jupiter being swallowed by the sun. During the intro, before the storm hits, Jehnny Beth whispers an eerily apposite monologue in French. In the speech, taken from the 1981 play Am Ziel by Austrian iconoclast Thomas Bernhard, a grandmother chastises a young playwright and his generation for skirting rebellious ideas. But her righteous stance, so scornful of our wilting political urgency, has a catch. “She’s nostalgic, as well, about her own past,” Beth explains. It’s an interesting point: is it rebellious, or just reactionary, to reject the here-and-now by reviving the revolutionary ideals of your recent ancestors?
"We’re not really prepared for death, but we all know it happens. It’s nice to take it on" - Fay Milton
Speaking in 2013 to the New Statesman, cult filmmaker Adam Curtis made the greatest challenge yet to Savages’ indie-rock supremacy, in an interview concerning “static culture”. The BBC archivist, famed for documentaries like Century of the Self, which weaves culture-spanning subplots into spectacular narrative arcs, condemned the band not as dilettantes or poseurs – their live shows, he conceded, are “extremely powerful” – but, with their post-punk indebted sound, a symptom of a generation lacking utopian vision. Simon Reynolds, the venerable journalist, approvingly blogged the New Statesman piece, likening Curtis’ static culture theory to themes explored in his book Retromania. Authentically rebellious music, they argued, requires innovation: a new sonic vision representing a radical shift towards a better world.
At an aesthetic level, Curtis’ gripe was that Savages lacked romance. “Post-punk was specifically anti-romantic at its time because it was very much of the mood of the early 80s, of industrial collapse, a collapse on the left,” he said. “What people are yearning for now is some kind of romantic visions of something beyond our present condition, and that would be good music.”
But Adore Life, if you’ll allow yourself to submit to its visceral impact, is good music. Perhaps not the jolting, shock-of-the-new overhaul Savages’ critics want, but something considered and volatile and affecting. “You create a thing because you need it,” says Beth. “On this record, it was a sense of warmth. A sense of communication, a sense of urgency, of wanting to feel alive. Very intensely. It’s a feeling you have when you’re grateful for what you have.”
Though it’s never directly addressed, the spectre of death looms large on Adore Life. In Paris this year, while recording vocals for the record, the band would sometimes visit the nearby Père Lachaise Cemetery, home to Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde and Edith Piaf, among others. “I always feel really happy in a cemetery,” drummer Fay Milton tells me, sitting on the yellow seat next to bassist Ayse Hassan, after Thompson and Beth wander downstairs. “Because although you’re not really surrounded by death – what’s in the grave isn’t death, that’s just remains – you have all the headstones, which are like little biographies, and you can go and imagine what each life was. It’s a kind of a happy sadness.”
"On this record, we created a sense of warmth. A sense of communication, a sense of urgency, of wanting to feel alive" - Jehnny Beth
“I find a lot of humour in death,” adds Hassan, whose morbid attraction of choice at Père Lachaise was the Wizard of Oz dog, Toto. “In Mexico we played Day of the Dead festival, and I really liked the fact you celebrate the memory and the life of someone. Make a loss that’s sad or tragic into something positive. In the UK, there’s a set way of mourning, and it tends to be quite dark and sad.” “Formulaic,” concurs Milton. “We’re not really prepared for death. We all know it happens, but we all pretend it’s not going to happen. It’s quite nice to take it on.”
Adore Life, then: A modern fuck-you to death, fear, cowardice? The blueprint for an inverted punk orthodoxy, in which our mortality is harnessed, not spat upon? Beth, who dedicated early renditions of album highlight Adore to Charlie Hebdo, and, tragically, lost acquaintances of her own in the Bataclan terror attack, sees the concept of death in broader strokes. “Without invoking death, you can find moments in your life where you really need to change,” she reasons. “As you grow up, you jump into different selves. And there’s a metamorphosis, leading you to realise how important it is. That’s what adoring life is.”
“Adore Life is a statement of your own,” she concludes, with a quiet smile. “That, in itself, raises a question: ‘do you adore life?’ And that’s enough.”
Photography: Tom Johnson
Photography Assistant: Jackson Bowley
Styling: Charlotte James
Styling Assistants: Barbora Komarkova and Rita Sarpong
Adore Life is released 22 January via Matador