Savages gets physical with its sound

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times

September 13, 2013 5:46PM

The band name suggests a primitive state. The photos are black and white. The women in the band prefer looking at the floor or at each other than the camera, but when they do look at the lens, they frown.

Savages is not subtle about the music they make: British post-punk that features bulldozer guitars, rubbery bass lines, a minimalist setting, and a singer, Jehnny Beth, who possesses the dynamic range, howling power, and brooding physical stage presence of great singers before her time: Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, and PJ Harvey. The band is on its second U.S. tour in less than a year, including a stop Monday at Metro. This impatient touring schedule also seemingly fits the music: always moving, never resting, and apparently on the prowl.

“From the very beginning, when we were writing in a rehearsal space, the intention was to perform these songs in front of an audience. We wanted songs that would engage a body movement and the idea of the physicality in the music was the prime idea,” Beth said by phone. “That was our first wish. We kind of did it naturally.”

“Silence Yourself” (Matador/Pop Noire), the band’s debut, was released in May following a bidding war in the fall when the band played CMJ, the annual industry showcase. Since then the band has crossed the U.S. twice playing clubs and festivals, including the July Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. “It was on last American tour when we started to break from the routine of the normal set. We started to play around — I was adding some spoken word, saying something written the day before to keep each other surprised,” she says. “We wanted to experiment with the sound and make it very direct rather than having it very abstract. Playing so much has made it more enjoyable.”

Savages, which also includes guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayse Hassan, and drummer Fay Milton, formed only two years ago after Beth, whose real name is Camille Berthomier, emigrated from France to London, where she met Thompson. Beth had been playing in John & Jehn, an art-rock duo with Nicolas Congé, a fellow French native with the stage name of Johnny Hostile who ended up co-producing the Savages debut. “I remember Johnny telling me before I went in there was to make sure I have a great experience and remember that time and enjoy it,” she says. “That way you experience things on a human level physically is always how you need to listen to music again. You need to have a good feeling about it,” he told her.

The music resulting from those sessions has requisite references from the past, including My Bloody Valentine and Siouxsie and the Banshees, but besides moody alienation, the songs also often sound like they’re on the attack, making demands and provoking conventions.

Beth says the musical references remain “very personal to each member,” but were never planned during the recording. “Sometimes you play or your sing something and it reminds you something else that’s in your background.” The one band she would admit being a major influence was The Birthday Party, the darkly romantic Australian post-punk band that launched the career of Nick Cave, among others. “The guitars on their records were definitely a great discovery,” she says.

Lyrically, Beth says she removes her own perspectives and replaces them with voices that may not speak for her directly, but that she finds interesting.

“Everything I’m saying is true. I don’t think anything I’m saying I don’t have a connection with, whether it’s a real experience or something I really bonded with,” she says. “Some of the songs take over the songs that are inside me. I just want to be the channel.”

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