Savages: Post-Punk's Chilliest Band Finds Love Amid the Noise - Rolling Stone
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Savages: Post-Punk’s Chilliest Band Finds Love Amid the Noise

With new album ‘Adore Life,’ they get nasty with affairs of the heart

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Savages discuss their new album 'Adore Life' and how they fused love with noise to further their musical mission

The whole cast of Game of Thrones came to our studio when we were recording,” Savages vocalist Jehnny Beth recalls. “They were doing a musical adaptation of the ‘Red Wedding’ with Coldplay next door to us. So we would have this vibrating, enormous, distorted bass sound coming from our studio, and then Jon Snow would walk by down the corridor.” She laughs. “It was very surreal.”

But Beth and Savages bassist Ayse Hassan had no trouble making goblet-rattling racket of their own while recording Adore Life, the post-punks’ second LP. “It was very loud and hyper-real,” the bassist says. “I was in the bathroom and I could hear the most amazing noises coming from above me.” She, herself, had attempted to make her instrument sound “ferocious,” “dirty,” “disgusting” and “harsh” – four words she uses within 10 seconds of each other to describe her contribution to new song “Surrender” – in an attempt to create something “uncomfortable,” something to contrast to Beth’s new interest in lyrics about love and love-inspired anxiety. Eventually, they arrived at détente.

Adore Life, which follows up the Anglo-Franco group’s cutting 2013 breakthrough LP Silence Yourself, finds Beth’s ruminations about love pitted against a swirl of harsh, hard-rocking rhythms and swooshing, atmospheric guitar. The album overall doesn’t come off as gritty as Hassan’s adjectives – and it’s a far cry from the Black Sabbath comparisons they made last year – but her and her bandmates’ audial bloodlust provides a thoughtful counterpoint to the singer’s vulnerability at every turn. It’s a different kind of Savages record because the band is different; they’re closer to one another and more aware of their feelings. It’s a new state of mind that led them to change the intention of the band.

When Savages formed in 2011 – with a lineup rounded out by drummer Fay Milton and guitarist Gemma Thompson, who came up with the group’s name and mission to write music worthy of it – Beth was adamant that she would not write songs about love. She had so many things she wanted to say about personal censorship, false ideas of success and finding one’s voice. But then something changed. “When we were touring for the last album, I felt things shift between me and the audience, I was receiving so much love and it made me want to react to the people,” she says of why she refocused, speaking thoughtfully and carefully choosing her words. “I wanted to break the fourth wall.”

The shift in perspective initially made things difficult for the band, which originally went in a ballad-y direction before aborting. They soon realized they needed to make a sound as big as the record’s central theme and test-drove several Adore Life songs during a 19-day stint at rotating clubs in New York City before heading to the studio. One thing they learned: “We definitely didn’t want to do a quiet record,” she says.

“We felt in order to be able to talk about love, we needed to be able to contrast it with something that would oppose it,” says Hassan, whose enthusiasm in the way she speaks sharpens her seriousness. “If there were beautiful lyrics, we wanted it to be contradicted by having a really nasty bass line or sharp guitar noise. This record is about the contrast, the lights and the darks of life, of love, of everything. For Savages to write about that kind of topic, we needed something that would fit in with Savages.”

Savages Band; press 2015

Love songs to Savages are a different beast than, say, the silly love songs of Paul McCartney. Beth sings frankly about disappointment, anticipation, self-doubt, anxiety. “I know you could sleep with me, and we’d still be friends or I know I’ll go insane,” she howls on feedback-y lead single “The Answer.” On the dance-punk cut “Sad Person,” she opines, “Love is a disease, the strongest addiction I know.” And on the tumultuous “When in Love,” she questions, “Is it love or is it boredom that took me up to your bedroom?” On a Savages record, love is intense and unnerving .

“I’ve written about love before,” says the singer, who was born Camille Berthomier and grew up in the midsized French city Poitiers before departing to London, where she’s lived for nine years. Prior to Savages, she sang in a new-wavey group, John and Jehn, with her boyfriend and made several records, one of which remains unreleased but would have shown a different side of her. “The whole thing is an erotic record,” she says. “I really explored the whole world of erotica and sexuality and love, but we had problems with the record label and it never came out. When we started Savages, I had moved on.”

Her revised outlook in recent years is a result of self-reevaluation. “When I look back at yesterday or the week before or the year before, I always look at myself and think, ‘Oh my God, I was kind of an idiot then,'” she says with a laugh. “You can only be the best you can be each day, and the idea of change is important.”

“When we started, some of us didn’t know each other at all,” Beth says. “We weren’t friends before. We met with the purpose of making music. Touring changed our relationship for the better. We relaxed, and when you’re relaxed you’re able to love better.”

Something both Beth and Hassan arrived at individually was a renewed affection for Nineties-style guitar rock. One of the Savages women’s original unifying goals was an interest in pushing rock’s boundaries (“There wasn’t really anything exciting going on,” the singer recalls), and in the years leading up to making Adore Life, they revisited some groups that inspired them when they were younger.

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For Beth, who was seeking out sounds from “when guitar music was mainstream,” it was albums by Soundgarden, Faith No More, Pearl Jam and Swans. “It’s a real physical experience,” she says of the latter group, “And there’s an interesting dimension in [leader] Michael Gira’s lyrics about love being universal, bigger than us, godlike.” (Her current favorite record is Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. “I really love his lyrics and his intentions,” she says.)

For the bassist, who was looking for aggression and intensity, it was Nine Inch Nails, whose Broken and Fixed EPs fascinated her at age 16 and reinvigorated an interest in noise, something that surfaced in the fuzzy rumble of Adore Life’s “Surrender.” As Thompson plays sparse, bell-like guitar sounds and Milton drums a disco beat, Hassan attempted to contrast Beth’s lyrics about wanting to “get used” with a raunchy, throbbing bass line. “The girls in the control room were like, ‘Aww, that’s nasty,'” the bassist recalls. “I was like, ‘Yep, yep, found the sound. It’s perfect.'” She laughs.

Since releasing Silence Yourself, the women have also had the chance to befriend some of the artists they used to look up to. PJ Harvey has become “a great friend,” according to Hassan, and they’ve crossed paths with Fugazi leader Ian MacKaye on multiple occasions. They also toured with Queens of the Stone Age, whose frontman, Josh Homme, has become an ally of the band.

Beth had even been hanging out with Homme’s other group, Eagles of Death Metal, when they were recording last year’s Zipper Down. While there, she taught that band’s singer, Jesse Hughes, some French to sing on the tune “I Love You All the Time.” “Everything sounds sexier and hornier when you say it in French,” Hughes tells Rolling Stone of why he asked in the first place. “You can be telling someone that you are about to inject them with full-blown AIDS, and if you say it in French, people would be like, ‘Awesome, dude. Killer.'”

Late last year, Homme reached out to Savages in the wake of the terrorist attack on Eagles of Death Metal’s Paris concert and requested that they cover “I Love You All the Time” with the intention of donating his band’s songwriting royalties to Parisian terror victims as part of their Play It Forward campaign. The women decided the best place to do this would be onstage in Paris just weeks after the attack.

“A lot of people were talking about canceling shows after the attack, but it was never a question for us,” Beth says. “Continuing is the only thing you can do when something like that happens. The best thing to do is to go back onstage.

“There were some people who were in the audience who were at the Bataclan,” she continues. “It was very emotional but also very cathartic. There was so much joy in the room. It was one of the best gigs we’ve ever played. You could tell from the audience there was a real desire to feel the life, to enjoy the moment.”

As with Beth’s inspiration to sing about love, playing live continues to be a source of inspiration for the group. When it came to making a video for Adore Life’s anthemic “The Answer” – whose chorus repeats “love is the answer” – they decided the best place to film would be Lisbon, Portugal, where they recruited local fans to swarm them from about 10 in the morning until 10 at night.

Throughout the three-and-a-half-minute clip, the revelers mosh, undulate and charge the band to dizzying effect. “We went there because Portugal is one of the best places in Europe to play,” Beth says. “They were a real audience. It was 10 hours of headbanging. It was pretty exhausting.” She laughs.

The fans were so ardent that they didn’t mind that the band played the song eight or nine times to achieve the video’s many points of view. “We played a few extra songs, just because we felt we should,” Hassan says. “We felt they’d made an effort to spend the day with us, but they were so amazing and worked really hard.”

Now that Savages has found new footing with their fans and with each other, they feel like the group is in a good place. As they tour Europe this winter and North America this spring, they’re ready to see what changes they undergo this time. “Over the last few years, we’ve really learned how to be together,” Hassan says. “It will only get better. If we ever make a third record, I’ll be really excited to see what we come up with.”

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