Aug. 19 2015 05:11 PM

London post-punks invite their audience into creative process

From left: Jehnny Beth, Ayse Hassan, Fay Milton and Gemma Thompson
Photo by Tom Hines
There's a video of Savages on YouTube, captured during their January residency in New York City, performing a new song called “No” at the Mercury Lounge. It's one of the first times the London group ever played the song, and while the video and sound quality aren't high by any means, it gives a pretty strong indication of the kind of force of nature the band becomes when they step onstage. Bassist Ayse Hassan locks into a groove, as if in a trance, while drummer Fay Milton is a highly controlled tempest, bashing her cymbals with metronomic precision. Guitarist Gemma Thompson maintains a stoic visage, despite wrenching some incredible sounds from her guitar. Singer Jehnny Beth is the most animated of the bunch, clad in a leather jacket and slinking from one end of the stage to the other, her gaze seemingly never averting from the small crowd of faces before her.

Onstage is where Savages belong—it's where the group truly comes alive. You can find countless other videos online of Savages performing, many of them professionally captured and beautifully edited, but one thing is never lost in the translation: the sheer, raw power that the band harnesses. A dynamic like theirs is nigh-impossible to contain.

Live performance is the essence of who Savages are and what they do. In a phone call from a hotel room in Italy between festival performances, Thompson explains that, for a while, it was the only thing that mattered to them.

“The live shows are important, the performance is so important—it's kind of why we do it, in a way,” she says. “When we first came together we only thought about the performance. It probably sounds kind of stupid, but we didn't think about recording anything when we started. We've always thought, how are we going to make this a great show, or where are we going to play, or what are we going to play. It's always been about that, really. If we didn't have the kind of fear about going on the stage, and doing it, or there wasn't this energy and aggression in a way, it probably wouldn't work.”

SAVAGES play August 23 at The Casbah

“No,” the song from the Mercury Lounge video, will be featured on the band's second album, which doesn't yet have a title or a release date. Thompson says they're aiming for early 2016. By all accounts, it's likely to be even more intense than their 2013 debut album Silence Yourself; in a Rolling Stone interview published earlier this year, Beth described the new album as a “beast.” Yet, to some extent, so was their debut, which presented the group's sinister, visceral post-punk sound in a concise, direct-yet-mysterious-package. Its 11 tracks showcased a blend of sleek, accessible darkness in the vein of Joy Division or early records by The Cure. But there's also a muscle to songs like “No Face,” “I Am Here” or the anthemic single “Shut Up” that brings to mind the hook-laden thunder of a band like Queens of the Stone Age. For as much style as Savages bring to their intriguingly shadowy tunes, they back it up with an unstoppable fury.

Documenting the band as a taut, four-person unit was the primary goal for Silence Yourself. When it came time to begin work on the second album, Savages took it upon themselves to leave the material a bit loose. As such, they created a testing ground in the songs' early stages by playing several weeks of shows in New York, across the Atlantic from their own backyard, in order to get a better feel for the material and where it needed to go (they'll most likely play much of the new material when they're in San Diego on Aug. 23). And in the process, they brought their audience into the creative process, giving a window into how their music takes shape, and removing some of that mystery.

“The first record we made and the performances around it, the idea was that if the music is strong, we can have a force field around us,” Thompson says. “We can really protect ourselves with the music. And the music is an armor to us. Now I feel like this record is more open. It's more open to people. It's written with more people there. In that same way it invites the audience to be more open as well—inviting them in and being a bit closer and warmer.”

Thompson admits that turning the live show into a laboratory experiment was more than a little intimidating. But challenging themselves in an unconventional way ultimately allowed the group to find the direction they needed. Similarly to how the four women are able to use the adrenaline of being onstage as a catalyst for creating something powerful, they use a similar kind of energy in writing. As listeners, we hear what comes out of the end of the process—the sound of a confident and empowered band, with a ferocious live presence. But it all begins with a kernel of fear or doubt just within arm's reach.

“There has to be a slight risk to everything,” she says.

“The first week of being in New York and performing new songs, I wasn't sure if we were doing the right thing. I was questioning myself—is this the right thing to do? It is a brave thing to do to put your new material straight out to people, and you know it's not finished?

“But if you don't take those risks you're not going to get further in what you're doing, or learn about yourself as quickly as you do when you have a bit of fear behind it,” she continues. “It's about taking that and turning it into a good, positive…creative energy. Fear or risk can make you do something very quickly. It can also fail as well. Anything you do, you have to be aware that you can fail. And failure is as much as an experience as succeeding in a way. You can learn a lot from that.”

Email or follow him at @1000TimesJeff


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