Review: Savages by name, but not nature

Post-punk band known for blistering live gigs are guided by a meditative ethic that prizes silence as much as noise

Savages, whose first album has had rave reviews, didn't intend to be an all-female band. Photo / Supplied
Savages, whose first album has had rave reviews, didn't intend to be an all-female band. Photo / Supplied

Savages have built their formidable reputation on what might best be described as a full-frontal musical assault: incendiary live performances and uncompromising aesthetic values. But in an art centre vege cafe, an oasis of calm among Islington's traffic-choked streets, one half of the band exudes a more relaxed air. Jehnny Beth, the singer who left her native France to pursue music, offers glimpses of impish humour, while guitarist Gemma Thompson studiously answers questions.

On debut album Silence Yourself, released last month with a 4.5 star review in TimeOut, the all-girl group reshape the brittle clang of late 70s post-punk, while capturing that era's sense of disquiet and aggression. It comes with a distinct visual identity marked by stark monochrome imagery and uniform black attire.

Thompson studied fine art, having dropped out of a degree in aviation technology. "We couldn't really question much. You have to accept everything you're told," Thompson explains, to a delighted giggle from Beth.

They met when Thompson played with the duo John & Jehn that Beth had formed with boyfriend Johnny Hostile. The guitarist had already chosen the name Savages for a putative group she had started with bassist Ayse Hassan, and as the Gallic pair found themselves distracted by production duties and running their fledging label Pop Noire, Beth was keen to join. "It was never intended to be all-female," Thompson explains.

Once drummer Faye Milton added her head-down precision in October 2011, Savages became a taut unit that made an immediate impact when they began gigging early the next year. With that has come a reputation for being difficult, within the music industry and among journalists, though clearly the group operate to more exacting standards than most.

On listening to Beth's panicked yelp on debut single Husbands, you note the obvious similarity to Siouxsie and the Banshees, yet the singer and Thompson have shared more esoteric tastes. The Goldsmiths graduate was into notorious art collective Coum Transmissions, while Beth was inspired by their musical offshoot Psychic TV.

It all leads to a group identity that sees Savages apply the same level of detail to videos, band shots and live performances. "We approach how we write music the same way we face every other thing around the band," Thompson says. "It's not like we write music and everything else is left to chance." From that arises the notice they display at gigs, saying "Lets make the evening special, silence your phones", something Beth believes has added to audience enjoyment.

"Since we put up the signs, there has been an increase in mosh pits," she explains. "It had become a sort of pollution; you look at the crowd and in key moments when it gets really intense an army of phones goes up."

"It's a relief for people, they don't have to worry about recording," Thompson adds.

Silence is a fascination for the band. "Silence is where music comes from originally," Beth says, describing the vital lesson from an inspirational music teacher. "Before you do any sound you have to listen to the silence ... Everything is already there before you say it."

There is space in their music and respect for contrasting movements, but the idea goes much deeper than that. They rail against the information overload and lack of concentration in 21st-century life. "There are too many distractions," Thompson agrees. "It's the idea that you should focus on something that's there."

Who: Savages, all female post-punk band

Debut album: Silence Yourself, out now

- NZ Herald

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