On life, death and love, Savages offer no easy answers: "To keep the ambiguity and the tension has been an intention"

Salon talks to vocalist Jehnny Beth about the new album "Adore Life" and why the band insists on accessible venues

By Annie Zaleski
Published January 21, 2016 11:59PM (EST)
Savages (Colin Lane)
Savages (Colin Lane)

In 2013, the post-punk group Savages emerged from London with a fully formed debut LP, "Silence Yourself," whose forceful feminist bent was a revelation. The quartet—vocalist/lyricist Jehnny Beth, guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayse Hassan and drummer Fay Milton—used scabrous guitars, a foundation-shaking rhythm section and Beth's precise, majestic howls as conduits for lyrics that embraced desire, spoke out in favor of contradictions and imperfections, and eschewed conventions. 

Savages' second album, "Adore Life," is no less uncompromising, but it is more methodical, its aggression sculpted into blasts of noise and turbulence. There are many reasons for this evolution, although Beth cites the recording process—each band member recorded her individual part separately—and the mixing job done by Anders Trentemøller as two of the main ones. Standouts include the bruised death-disco of "Surrender," the snarling, Patti Smith-caliber punk "T.I.W.Y.G." and the moody "Mechanics," a song steeped in cinematic atmosphere and Beth's measured, confident declarations of sexual power and self-confidence: "When I take a man/At my command/My love will stand/The test of time."

Yet lyrically, "Adore Life" poses no easy answers—"Is it a demon or an angel holding us when in love?" the song "When In Love" ponders at one point—but produces plenty of questions, which Beth views as a sign that Savages have hit on unique ways to address "subject matters like love or death, or the idea of living life in general," she says. "To keep the ambiguity and the tension has been an intention."

Beth called Salon from Paris, where she discussed the impact of a live audience on the evolution of Savages' music, working with Anders Trentemøller, and finding new ways to reconcile their complex themes and music on "Adore Life."

When you were writing the songs on "Adore Life," were there any particular inspirations or influences from which you were drawing?

Inspirations—yes, of course, there were so many. [Laughs.] It’s funny how it works, because sometimes things that are not necessarily coming from music can influence you, in different ways. The first thing I would say was coming from the crowd, our crowd, our audience. When we went on tour for "Silence Yourself," and we toured all around the world, [the] attitude of our audience [changed]—the shows became warmer and warmer. And we would receive so much affection, so much love from our crowd, that it was impossible to ignore. [Laughs.] That definitely changed us. It had an impact on the band, and that somehow was the trigger for the second record. It made us more aware of our responsibility, in a way. Once you have people listening to you, you want to give back. So I'd say that was the first influence on writing the second record.

Then it makes so much sense why you had a New York residency in early 2015, to work on the songs you had written and see the reaction you would get. How did that further shape everything?

The natural habitat for Savages is onstage. There’s something that we still can’t explain that makes us click together. We’ve all worked on new songs with the observation of a crowd. Three months after we formed, we played our first show and had an audience from then on. You can see very early versions of "Shut Up" online [that] are very different from how the song ends up to be, because we've never been shy about… We know that trying a song live is going to help shape it, because the urgency that you feel at that point helps you make decisions.

The adrenaline that you feel as well, it fuels the sound, and pronounces the shape of the song, and the intention. Every song has a different meaning and a different mood, and it’s important to see how that meaning and mood echoes or interacts with the context of a club show, for example, like we did in New York. You know when you watch a film on your own? And then you watch it again with a friend? Some passages might feel different—you would have a different perspective because there’s someone else in the room, watching with you. It’s like that almost.

How complexity informs all of our experiences, and it’s never an either/or proposition or a black and white proposition—that's what stood out to me when reading the mission statement and lyrics for "Adore Life." There are a lot of lyrical questions on the record as well. It was very provocative, and there's a lot to dig into. Was that an intentional thing? How did that kind of evolve? 

If you don’t mind me asking, in what way did you think it was provocative?

When you hear a record and the artist is asking questions, rather than sort of giving you the obvious, "Here’s how things are," as a listener, it makes me start to question things. The line in "Adore," "Is it human to adore life?" that really stopped me. It’s so poignant, but yet it’s weighed down by guilt at the same time. There’s a lot of depth and nuance when you have a record that has a lot of questions to it.

It’s interesting [to hear] you saying that. I’ve been traveling to different countries to meet journalists and talk about the record. It’s been an intense, interesting, tiring experience, all at the same time. There was one journalist, particularly, who sat down—and I was doing an interview with Ayse Hassan, the bassist—and he sat down and said, “I heard the new record, but I don’t have any questions for you.” And we were like, “OK…” He said, “I don’t have any questions, I only have wonder.”


Yeah, there was silence in the room. [Laughs.] What I’ve noticed is that the record raises questions, and it has somehow, from what I’ve gathered from the past few weeks, because it’s the first time I hear what people think about the record… The record, it’s almost like people almost want to shake it to see if they could have more meaning out of it. And, in a way, when I met these people, when I met the journalists, every time they would leave the room, I felt they left with more inspirational ideas rather than answers. It's a great surprise. I agree with you, it has this kind of questioning nature, which I’m glad for.

We’ve always been interested in ways to try to find a contrast with the music in parallel with the message. In our work on writing the record, we’ve always been careful to never lose sight of what the song is saying, and how the music could say stuff the lyrics are not saying, for example. Or how one could complement each other, because some of the lyrics—although, as you've said, they're quite complex—but some of the lyrics are quite hopeful and positive. Although I agree they’re really tainted as well, they're really charged with opposites. If we’re talking about love, we're talking about fear or, you know, abandon and all these things. But sometimes, when you have very hopeful lyrics, how do you make the music display that and make it Savages as well? To keep the ambiguity and the tension has been an intention, so I’m glad that it shows up.

On "Adore Life," everything from the vocals to the individual instruments is so crisp in the mix. Everything is very meticulous—not that the last record wasn’t, but there’s something about the sonics and the timbre of this record that really stood out to me when I listened to it.

Yes, and that was very conscious. We worked with Johnny Hostile again on the production for this record, and this time he was totally on his own as a producer. The nature of the band—we’ve traveled around the world and we’ve learned to work together better, and we’ve learned to trust each other and love each other. Creating that family when you're touring, it really creates strong bonds. Johnny Hostile knows us really well, so he has real insight like nobody else has had into the psychology of the band. The inspiration that each of us has as artists, he has a real understanding of that.

The decision to record separately—the first record was recorded live, everybody in the same room. And this record we did more of the, not traditional, but…We'd record a rough version of the track and where we would record drums separately, bass separately. And there was even a whole week of the recording that was completely dedicated to guitar. And even some days, me, Fay [Milton, drummer] and Ayse would not necessarily turn up on the day of guitar, because we would come the next day and be very surprised, overwhelmed and happy to hear what was done. There was trust and [guitarist Gemma Thompson] could be in the studio with Johnny Hostile and Richard Woodcraft, who was the sound engineer on the record. And just record songs on her guitar, and explore her ideas. And it was a conscious decision for… Johnny had decided to give room for each of us to explore. Everything is very well worked, and you should have time to go deeper into ideas.

And that goes back to the watching movies with yourself vs. watching movies with a crowd thing. It’s interesting to hear you describe it like that: I’ve talked to musicians in the past, about when they do things separately. People always have a different perspective on why things are done individually.

We realised that the band Savages is a sum of four very strong individuals, that each individual is a part of the whole. And that needs expression. [Laughs.] In terms of the technical aspects of things, the first record was really harsh-sounding, it was very abrupt. This one we wanted to have loads of space for the bass, so that we could hear more of what was happening in the low end, and create a wider spectrum. That’s probably why you were saying you can really hear everything.

And Anders Trentemøller mixed it too. Talk about an artist who's ridiculously amazing!

Exactly. Anders, we admire his work, and he was a fan of Savages as well. The idea came because Johnny Hostile and Trentemøller are friends, became friends when they met nearly a year ago. Anders invited Johnny Hostile to support him on his European tour, and they became really close friends. So, when we were thinking of mixers, Johnny instantly suggested Anders, which was—to be honest—a bit of a shock, I'll admit. [Laughs.] In the sense of, "Wow, OK." It seemed a very out of the box [suggestion], something we thought was really out there. But it was the first time Anders mixed somebody else’s record, and it was very modestly approached. He was very open to suggestions and very open-minded to what we wanted to do. The first thing he tried was "I Need Something New."

That song had roots in improvisation, is that correct?

It was a text I started to say onstage, in between songs, and at the time to shake things up a bit. Surprise [the rest of the band]. Because I’d never tell them when I’ll do it, or how I’ll do it. And then, because of the element of surprise, you want to join in, so Gemma started making guitar, and drums came in and then we started improvising on the song live, and then we finished writing it.

Speaking of stage: I was impressed a few months ago when I read this story about how you guys went really out of your way so that a fan at a San Francisco show who used a wheelchair had accessible seats and a view at your show. I have a disability myself, and it meant so much to me to see a band take a stand like that. Venue accessibility is really an issue that people are passionate about in the U.K., but the U.S. is still kind of on an upswing.

When it happened, we didn’t notice because we were onstage. What happened is, our producer, Johnny Hostile, was in the audience and saw this guy leaving the room after two songs. And, after thinking he might not like the show, then he realized, "Oh, of course he’s leaving, because he can’t see." And so he caught up with him in the street, and told him he could find him a really good spot near the stage, so he managed to convince him to come back in and see the show.

I think I wasn't aware of that situation in America, and definitely we'll try to impose that position for the venues we’re going to go to [this] year. I think we're going to be writing a note to promoters and tell them that we wish that they are mindful of creating access for people who have a disability. It just happened to us and we witnessed it. And it was a reaction to that, really. Of course, everybody should be able to go to the show.

And music is such a powerful experience, especially live. Being able to experience that and immerse yourself in it is a gift. And access to all, it seems like a simple thing, but more bands need to take a stand.

We’ll try to live up to it and carry on imposing that rule, as much as we can.

Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Accessibility Adore Life Jehnny Beth Music Post-punk Savages