Savages interview: Don't ask them whether rock is dead or what it is like being an all-female guitar band

Four years ago, Savages were christened rock’s great new hopes. Now they’re back, less angry but just as formidable. Holly Williams met them

Releasing an album of love songs is not the next move anyone expected from Savages. The four-piece burst on to the music scene in 2012, with dark, angry, noisy post-punk; soon winning a reputation for blazingly intense, immersive live shows, the quartet of Ayse Hassan, Fay Milton, Gemma Thompson, Jehnny Beth were as severe as their styling – they dressed all in black – and were duly hailed as the latest saviours of rock’n’roll.

Though god help anyone who asked them whether rock was dead or what it was like being an all-female guitar band. Gender is irrelevant, and guitar music will never die: end of. 

But now they’re back, and shrugging off difficult-second-album clichés with a record called, of all things, Adore Life. Don’t worry, though – it still rocks.

“I had loads of lyrics about love and we wanted to find a way to include that concept in Savages,” explains singer and lyricist Beth.

At first she wasn’t sure they’d work for the band– they all write songs together – but the contrast between their heavy music and these emotionally exposing lyrics turned out to be fruitful. “The music can say something that the text isn’t. So maybe the fragility in the text is balanced with the sound: if you talk about love with a [heavy] bass it has a different meaning than with an acoustic guitar.”

Not that Beth’s take on the workings of the human heart is sentimental. “Love is a disease/the strongest addiction I know” she howls on one track; “This is what you get when you mess with love/a morning in darkness/the eyes of a storm/suffering, straight from the gods,” goes another. 

“You can have love in the lyrics without it being a cliché. It can be like a circulating storm; love in all its forms,” suggests Thompson, who plays guitar. 

Drummer Fay Milton points out that the “warmer, more open,” tone of Adore Life reflects their own changing relationships in the band. “We had a bit of a protective armour around us at the start.

Being in a band’s kind of weird, there’s a lot of bullshit,” she says, nodding to their early, negative experiences with overly controlling management. “But now we’re much stronger, and we’ve got a really strong team around us, we can relax into being more free, more gentle in a way ....” She pauses, and laughs. “Even though you wouldn’t get that if you saw the show, necessarily!” 

Savages’ attitude towards their fans has also thawed: you can expect greater warmth and interaction at their gigs.

“It sounds so cheesy, but we’ve received so much love, we’re trying to embrace that and give something back,” says Ayse Hassan, their bassist.

Milton grinningly recounts how their manager recently put it: “People aren’t scared of us any more, apparently! When we started, we were the gang and you could come and stare at us, like in a zoo. Now it feels like the whole room is in it together.”

The perception of Savages as moody, fearsome women-in-black may yet endure, but as a group they’ve softened; the album’s press release, which reads like a manifesto, includes the line “it’s about showing weakness to be strong”. Which brings up the vexed modern concept of the “strong woman”, which has been regularly attributed to them.

“I find it really … problematic,” says Milton. “Saying ‘they’re strong women’ because we’re playing musical instruments – it’s a bit patronising, isn’t it?

I remember hearing the word ‘empowering’ a lot too [when we started] – ‘do you feel empowered by doing this?’ No – I felt powerful enough before! There’s a presumption of weakness. Whereas everyone is weak and strong. Women are very strong – we have babies ….”

“We don’t have babies,” Hassan interrupts, deadpan.

My interview with the foursome, conducted in a Korean café in east London, is split in half – both literally, and tonally.

Talking to Beth and Thompson together, they’re softly spoken, earnest, with occasional shy laughs; Hassan and Milton, meanwhile, are an impish pair with scattershot chat, and while they laugh a lot, it’s not always with you. They’ve also got no time for predictable questions; I’m ticked off for asking how the group came about (“so boring”). 

A brief summary, then: Thompson, Beth and Hassan got together after playing in other bands in London, and recruited Milton to play drums.

Their first gig, supporting British Sea Power in Brighton, was a happy accident; they hadn’t even finished writing their songs, but it went so well, it launched a turbo-powered ascent. “It was a bit of a life-changing moment,” Milton is willing to concede. 

While the first album essentially replicated their live sound, Adore Life has been more carefully constructed. “We had more time to focus on drilling down into the exact sound we wanted,” explains Hassan. They recorded individual parts as well as playing together, working closely with friend and producer Johnny Hostile – Beth’s partner, who she used to play with as the duo John & Jehn. 

Before recording, Savages went to New York last summer for a three week live residency specifically to try out the new material; I’m mocked by Hassan for terming it “workshopping”.

Fair enough: that sounds like something you’d do with flipcharts, whereas these “workshops” sought the input of frantic, thrashing fans – and many tracks were completely rewritten as a result of the crowds’ instinctive reactions. “There needed to be a sense of excitement and energy put into the songs,” explains Hassan. 

Still, they say, touring can be exhausting. “It’s a very intense, full-on thing to do,” says Hassan. “It’s 90 minutes of playing with such intensity that you feel like you’re going to throw up afterwards.”

Milton compares it to running 15k, every night: “Sometimes I get scared of the pain. When you’re really tired, you think: how the hell is this going to happen? But it always does. [If] You have enough spirulina and ginseng and cacao, you can do anything!”

It might come as a surprise that Savages favours trendy dietary supplements over more traditional rock excesses – but three-quarters of the band don’t even drink.

Milton explains that while Thompson “wouldn’t be right without a red wine in her hand”, Hassan has never drunk and she and Beth quit booze, over time, for a multitude of reasons: “You’re living life in the raw. It means we can party more without feeling hung-over; you can dance so much better when you’re not drunk. We’re just getting crazy high on spirulina,” she laughs. 

I meet the band in early December, the night after they conclude a mini-tour to launch Adore Life.

One gig was particularly emotional – they played in Paris, only weeks after the Bataclan massacre. Beth is French and lives in Paris; she had friends among those killed in the terror attacks at the Eagles of Death Metal concert on 13 November. 

“It was really, really moving,” says Milton. “Everyone was in need of something, a cathartic release, confronting what had happened at the Bataclan in a way – in a positive way.

Also the COP21 climate talks had just started … Paris was suddenly the centre of this very heavy [atmosphere]. We played a cover of Eagles of Death Metal’s ‘I Love You All the Time’ and people were breaking down, I broke down … you realise why music is important.”

Beth seems similarly shaken, yet also focused, determined. And there’s no question of being silenced by such attacks on music venues.

“You have to not think about it too much, and just go and do it. The only thing we can do is play music. You go back to the essentials – what you love doing and how you can be useful by being an artist.” 

All of which takes us back to the album, a perhaps surprisingly hopeful beam in a dark world. “‘Love is the answer’ is one of the main lyrics on the record,” says Milton. “In a very simplistic way, there’s always more love that could be put into the world, and that could be the answer. It’s good to hold on to that idea.”

‘Adore Life’ is released 22 Jan; Savages tour from  18 Feb; more information at savagesband.com

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