Savages' Jehnny Beth: John Cassavetes is one of my biggest influences
Photo By Erik Hess
Savages are currently in the process of kicking -- some would even go so far as to say saving -- rock 'n' roll's ass. The London-based post-punk quartet steamrolled the music world with a blistering initial live EP, I Am Here, before building on that promise with their fierce debut LP, Silence Yourself, which was recently named to the shortlist for the UK's coveted Mercury Music Prize.
Ahead of Savages' highly anticipated show at First Avenue tonight, Gimme Noise was able to chat with frontwoman Jehnny Beth from her London flat while the band were preparing for their current U.S. tour. Beth, who is from France originally, proved to be quite affable as we spoke about the origins of Savages, the record label she founded with Johnny Hostile, and how John Cassavetes influences her as an artist.
Gimme Noise: Some fans in the States are still in the process of familiarizing themselves with Savages. How did the band come together initially, and what were the early days like for you?
Jehnny Beth: It was initially the idea of Gemma Thompson, our guitarist. She had been touring with Johnny Hostile and I in our project called John & Jehn, and we had been playing together for two years or something. She had mentioned to us that she wanted to start a group with Ayse Hassan, the bassist in Savages, who she had played with before in a few other projects. She was coming up with different demos and trying out different kinds of people, and it didn't really work out. And so she initially wanted John to sing, but he was very busy producing other records and didn't really have the time. So, I proposed if she wanted to try out with me, so that's how I joined. And that was September or August of 2011, I think.
We tried things with just the three of us, and we started writing songs and everything just seemed to match. She called the band Savages, so before I joined the band they were already called Savages, and I thought it was a really good name, and the references where she was coming from with that name were kind of matching what I wanted to write about at that time. Then, we needed a drummer, so through a friend of a friend we met Fay [Milton] like that, and she was the last to join.
You started your own record label, Pop Noire, and released Savages debut single as well as the I Am Here EP -- What was that creative process like for you?
That was really important to me to have freedom from the start, and try and work with people that I really trusted. I had an experience in the past where I had learned that it was more appropriate for me to be a little bit careful with how the business was going to get introduced into a new project I was going to do, because I had problems in the past with that kind of relationships. So, when Johnny and I started the label, it wasn't initially for Savages, but when I started Savages it just made sense to release things ourselves.
We had propositions for Savages very early on, to sign deals and stuff, but I always thought it would have been a mistake to sign very early. I wanted us to have the freedom of being able to release things ourselves, and I think it's always a better experience that way. It's like a better learning process, in a way, because you do everything yourself.
I remember when the first single came out [the double A-side "Flying To Berlin/Husbands"], all the pre-orders we had -- we sold so many, it was incredible, the demand -- we didn't expect that at all. And so, I was packing everything in my house and we were doing everything ourselves. That was really interesting, because it's always nice to not only have the actual object in your hands, but you actually post it to the people who bought it. It's an amazing feeling.
Did you change your approach at all for the full-length, knowing that you had more space to make a more fully realized artistic statement with your album?
It was an interesting process, because when we started I was writing some manifestos on the side, much more by necessity because I didn't want anybody else to write a press release, I wanted us to be understood as best that we could. I knew that there were ways I could do that, through writing some text on the side and trying to create a world of our own.
With the album, of course there was more space to explore that, but also exploring more melodies of the band. Gemma was able, in the studio, to work on doing some sound installations, and create some different atmospheres. She loves to go to the abstract side of music, so she was exploring those sides. And for me, it was writing for the Silence Yourself subtitle, I call it, and trying to come up with the names and the emotions, and all of that was a lot of work. But I think we did a good step, because we did the live EP in the middle, and we were trying to capture our sound as it was live, and we didn't feel ready to go in the studio at that point.
We only went in the studio three months later. It just didn't feel right to record straight away, because we knew what we were like live but we didn't know how we were going to sound in the studio. It was a good way to process these ideas, by just recording ourselves live, so we did that. And it was a good learning process, it was a good step for us to learn what we wanted, in terms of the album.
What does the phrase 'Silence Yourself,' mean to you, as an artist? Obviously, there is nothing silent about the album itself.
I mean, it's all kind of explained in the song's titles, so sometimes I don't really know if I should refer to that. I want to leave it open, as well, I don't want it to be so precise. But it comes from the idea of being distracted, because as an artist you find out that the more you go along, the more voices there are, and the more you are very distracted from the original reasons that you started the project. It's an internal and constant fight to try to preserve the reasons why you started it, and to remind yourself. Because all along the way you keep losing it.
And I think you can apply those things to normal life, as well, because TV is a constant distraction, and drugs are a distraction as well. I think there are a lot of things that distract oneself from oneself. And what we call art today should be something that teaches you something new about yourself, or act like a mirror, so that when you go home you see your family differently or your lover, or whatever. And that was the idea about distractions.
One song, for example, "I Am Here," was based on this idea that was developed by Henri Michaux, a French writer who was quite experimental in his ways. He had a friend who was very ill, and he wanted to write a poem or a text that would cure her, the aim of the writing would be to actually heal someone. And he found out that while he was trying to do that, along the way, while he was writing, a lot of things were distracting him from the original intention he had as he was addressing his friend. And he was struggling, and he was doing all he could to try to write something that would not get distracted, and that would be the most straightforward thing and would not change. But to still keep on writing. And I thought that was an interesting process, and very hard as well. So, that's how I wrote "I Am Here." I wanted to write something that would not be diverted, not compromised, that would not bend.
You used an excerpt from the John Cassavetes film 'Opening Night,' to start the album. Do you draw inspiration from other art forms continually while you write?
Oh yeah, absolutely. And I think Cassavetes is one of the biggest influences I could ever have. His filmmaking, the way he managed his career, and the way he handles each of the subjects of his films, speak to me a lot, and they have for years. I really admire the fact that he always remained independent, that he never compromised his art, and I know how difficult that is. So I really admire that about him, because that was very brave. And I also admire the fact that he always worked with the same people -- I love the idea of a troupe, because I come a bit from a background in theatre, and I have always admired people who were all about one particular idea, and I think Cassavetes is very much like that.
The U.K. press really seemed to take to the band straight away -- was it a challenge for you to deal with all of that attention while the band was still growing and coalescing as a group?
Yes, it was. Yeah, of course. We managed really well, I think. But it's not always been that easy, especially when we started, to try to keep the decisions between ourselves and keep it really artistic. We are fighting for it, and we'll get there eventually. We are hard to bend, and we are doing our best, I'd say.
You're returning to the States here for another lengthy tour -- is it a challenge to the band to change things up or expand the live show since you are still just touring a 38-minute debut album?
Yes, we're still working on some new ideas that we wanted to bring into this new tour. And, as support, we've chosen to take with us Duke Garwood, who plays clarinet on "Marshal Dear," and he's an extraordinary avant-garde musician who just released an album with Mark Lanegan called Black Pudding.
Yeah, that's an amazing record -- I love that one.
Oh, I love that record so much. I'm glad you like it -- it's one of my favorite albums of the year.
Can you talk Duke into bringing Mark along with him for this tour?
[Laughs] No, I don't think so. Duke is planing on touring Europe with Mark in support of the Black Pudding album. He's someone that Johnny and I have known for years, and he's always been this kind of unknown amazing guitarist playing gigs in London. I've seen him play with like three people in the room, me and John included, so we've always been massive fans of his work. He's just finished recording his own album, and me and John have been a bit involved in that recording, and Mark Lanegan has done mixing as well, I think. The album sounds amazing, it's really incredible, and he is going to tour that album in September so he and Johnny are going to be on stage together.
And, that means we can play "Marshal Dear," so we can extend a little bit of that side of us, hopefully for the best. And we've been working on some new ideas as well, around both the music and the light show.
Savages play First Avenue tonight along with Duke Garwood. Tickets are available here.
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