Savages: Still Curious

Music Features
Savages: Still Curious

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it breathed new life into Jehnny Beth.

The auteur—nee French film actress Camille Berthomier—doggedly has followed her muse down several dark, ominous alleys, starting with John & Jehn, the Jacques Brel/Serge Gainsbourg-influenced musical duo she formed with her boyfriend Johnny Hostile (born Nicolas Conge), then leading to the couple’s own Paris imprint, Pop Noire, and finally blossoming into the deadly nightshade that is Savages, the all-girl goth-punk quartet she assembled in 2011 with former John & Jehn backing guitarist Gemma Thompson. The band’s dissonant 2013 debut, Silence Yourself, landed in the UK Top 20 and was shortlisted for a Mercury Prize, and this week Savages return with the more diverse sophomore set Adore Life, which finds this singer/guitarist pushing her craft even further.

In a recent interview with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, rock icon Iggy Pop posited that curiosity was his main driving force, both in life and art. Bourdain agreed wholeheartedly—it was the same compulsion that kept him traveling the world year after year, sampling exotic cuisines and cultures. Jenny Beth believes that she was cut from the same inquisitive cloth, and her time in Savages has clarified this assumption. “One of the things I’ve discovered about my personality is I love solving problems, and I love to have something to think about,” she explains. “So if you give me a problem, I’ll think about all the solutions and all the ways I can solve it. So maybe that’s what drives my curiosity—the idea of having an intellectual challenge, or something to experiment with so I can look at the boundaries of thinking.”

Expanding the folkier John & Jehn sound with Thompson—plus bassist Ayse Hassan and drummer Fay Milton—was just such a conundrum. But Beth solved it with Silence, on shadowy juggernauts like “Husbands,” “Hit Me” and “Shut Up,” which incorporates snippets of film dialogue from one of her favorite directors, John Cassavetes; Essentially, Thompson plays inventive Will Sergeant to her charismatic Ian McCulloch, adding droning tones, textures, and filigrees to Beth’s feral Siouxsie Sioux caterwaul/croon for an assault that was simultaneously post-punk retro, refreshingly novel and truly all their own. Again, the frontwoman says, all thanks to curiosity. And not just her own.

“That’s something that we all have in common in the band—the idea that we’re always challenging everything, and that’s what bonds us together,” Beth asserts. “We all have that quality, in the sense of, for example, when we’re writing a song, we’re all going to want to know at some point what the song is about. Like, What is this? What’s the message? What’s the meaning, what’s the intention? The song isn’t just a metaphor for something—it has to be resolved as an idea, as a question. There simply has to be a meaning for things.” And that’s exactly how the group approached Adore Life.

The bluesy, gelatinous processional “Adore,” for instance, finds Beth thoughtfully intoning, “I understand the urgency of life…Is it human to ask for more?” then pausing before a bass-buttressed bridge of a mantra-chanted “I adore life…I adore life.” Its genesis began in San Francisco, when the singer—fresh from a huge shopping spree at the legendary City Lights Books—wandered into a smaller bookstore, where she stumbled upon a feminist-literature section and the tome Crime Against Nature by Minnie Bruce Pratt, an author who left her husband and family after unexpectedly falling in love with a woman. “It was a really old-timey shop with a really tiny poetry section, which makes it easy sometimes. But again,” she stresses. “You have to be curious.”

For Christmas two years ago, Thompson gifted her bandmate with a Josephine Baker biography. Some folks might force a smile, mutter “Gee, thanks,” and promptly shelve a book about a jazz diva who found fame and fortune in flapper-era Paris. “But I always read every book Gemma gives me,” Beth declares. “Because there’s a sign of intention behind it. And I do that for her, as well. If I read a book and I think of her, I usually order it online and send it to her. I love doing that. There’s a lot of things in books that you can tell each other, tell your friends. And if somebofdy had an epiphany—or a new understanding of themselves—while writing the book, there’s always an opportunity for the reader themselves to have the same realization. In your mind, you might see a door that you didn’t see before. You just have to be curious enough to open the door.”

As the quartet’s notoriety grew—especially in America, where constant touring had raised its profile—it parlayed the popularity into adventurous new outlets. Savages teamed for a 37-minute collaboration with Japanese group Bo Ningen, Words to the Blind, that blended poetry and music. Beth and company performed alongside one of their favorite duos, Suicide, at London’s Barbican Centre, and covered that band’s classic “Dream Baby Dream,” accompanied by Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie. “That was the weirdest thing ever,” she recalls of the lengthy event, dubbed Station to Station: A 30-Day Happening. “There was a Suicide show, but there were all these different things happening, and Henry Rollins came and performed with them. It was total mayhem, complete chaos, because nobody knew what was happening, and when we did the cover of ‘Dream Baby Dream,’ there were so many people singing at the same time, and I didn’t know who they were.” Savages also released “Dream” (ironically, covered by Bruce Springsteen almost simultaneously on his recent High Hopes album; “He’s been playing it for many years, so he actually did it before us, but I love his version,” Beth says) as the B-side of a stand-alone single, a live recording of a new 10-minute epic dubbed “Fuckers” that set the stage for the following full-length.

The song’s anthemic refrain says it all: “Don’t let the fuckers get you down,” Beth repeatedly snarls, and she means it. The title alone made her smile to herself, she says, and it felt even better to test it out on Savages concert audiences, which had grown hungry for new material. “It was a very simple, direct message, and it was made for a crowd that gave it a great reception,” she says. “It was a way for us to solve the problem of ‘How are we going to get back?’ At one point, I was thinking, ‘Am I giving enough for what I’ve received? Am I being helpful, or really changing anything?’ We weren’t just going onstage, and that was it—we wanted something to happen, and we wanted to feel free. And to feel free is actually quite scary, but to experience that feeling together really changes people, and it feels really good. But,” she adds, “for something like that to happen, you need to put that in a song, really talk about what surrounds you. And ‘Fuckers’ was a way for us to do that.”

Before Adore Life sessions began, the group road-tested other new songs during a New York residency last January, over nine shows booked at various venues. Offered some of the top producers in the business, Beth instead chose to keep it in the family and offered Hostile the job. The original intention was to pen the loudest songs possible, but low ceilings in the first studio they selected muffled the assault, and they had to switch locations. This led to both quieter tracks, like “Adore,” “Slowing Down the World,” and the operatic “Mechanics” (in which Thompson’s glittery guitar hangs suspended yet stirring over Beth’s conversational murmur, like freshly awakened bats in a cave), as well as the jarring pummelers like the machine-gunning “The Answer,” a Joy Division-rhythmic “Evil” and “Sad Person,” and “I Need Something New,” which could sit well on a vintage Echo and the Bunnymen effort like Porcupine. And there are moments of fanged, venomous intensity, a la “T.I.W.Y.G.,” which hurtles at an almost supersonic full guitar/bass/drums tilt, while Beth barracuda-snaps “This is what you get when you mess with love…this is what you get when you mess with love.” At that point, nine cuts into the 10-track disc, the Savages sound is simply etched in definitive stone.

All of this is complemented by the fact that Beth—as any artist worth their salt would—respects music equally with poetry, dance, cinema, literature, painting, all of the more creative endeavors in life. “And when you’re writing, or making music, you’re part of this…this…well, the image I have in my mind is of this massive, really round ball, rolling down the hill and catching new things all the time,” she says. “But they’re all in the same movement, all part of the same pot, and things kind of melt with other and link together.” Other genres that influenced Adore Life? Put on the spot, Beth can’t remember any more of them. “There are so many,” she sighs. “But also, there will be a different answer from the four of us, individually, and that’s what I like—the four of us all have very different backgrounds, and we rarely listen to the same music at the same time. Some of us will go to museums in every city we visit, and I wouldn’t necessarily do that, not at this moment in my life. But then the others always come back and tell what they’ve seen, and we talk about it.”

Naturally, any discussion of art appreciation, creativity and curiosity will inevitably lead to David Bowie—as does this one, which took place only a few days before the release of his cutting-edge Blackstar album and his untimely death two days later. Talk turns to how the rocker once rented an entire English movie theater, just so he could show Tony Scott, who was directing him in the film The Hunger at the time, a print he had flown in of Jean Cocteau’s surrealist masterpiece Beauty and the Beast. Scott couldn’t figure out how to capture the diaphanous, flowing curtains he’d envisioned for the movie, but once he saw how Cocteau had perfected, he promptly adapted the look for himself. And Bowie was delighted—his artistic instinct, once again, had been perfectly on point.

“Bowie’s a really good representation of this concept,” says Beth, who actually was recruited to sing Thin White Duke songs at the opening of the Bowie Is exhibit in Paris recently. “He’s such a patchwork of ideas, things he’s found here and there, and he loves his culture, be it photography, music or dance. So he’s a great stealer, but in a good way. Which is really what pop culture is all about. And that’s what I enjoy about hip hop—how they quote each other and use lines from another guy. There are no boundaries or restrictions in that—it’s like, ‘I’m going to steal your line and use it.’ I love this kind of culture that’s informing each other, and not shying away from it, not trying to say ‘I’m original.’ No, you’re part of the same culture, the same world. You’re talking about the same things, you’re looking at the same view out the window, and you walk the same streets.”

Ultimately, what’s changed Beth the most in Savages is meeting its ardent followers around the world, feeling the affection billowing up from the crowd at every gig. “I think you’d have to be totally blind or stupid to not be touched by that,” she says. “It really had a profound effect on me. But also, touring together as a band and getting to know each other better, and having this realization that you’re doing this together—I’ve learned to really value what you have.” And being grateful is a great way to go through life, she’s decided.

“Because what’s great about music and what Savages is doing is, it definitely makes you understand how to be a better person,” Beth summarizes. “And using that knowledge, you’re able to give it back, as well. And if people can feel the same way, or find out a little bit more about themselves in the process? Then I feel like I’ve done my job. But for my part, I’m still curious, I’m still learning, and I want to keep on learning. And music and writing is what helps me do that.”

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