"We don’t have the luxury of time here. It’s better to have values than just hide away."
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In the side room of a modest community centre-cum-café in East London, Fay Milton is a little flustered. “It’s been…” she struggles to find the words. Hectic? “Yeah, that’s one way of putting it.”
To be fair, she’s got a lot going on at the moment. Best known as the drummer of post-punk band Savages, one might expect Milton to have had a quieter period since the group went on hiatus following the touring cycle for their last record, 2016’s Adore Life. Apparently not. In the intervening years, she’s embarked upon new project 180dB with Savages bassist Ayse Hassan, toured internationally as a session drummer, and formed Music Declares Emergency, which is what I’m here to talk to her about.
“Basically, for me, everyone I’ve met who’s involved in the climate movement has had this moment where the penny drops and you realise how fucked we are,” she says, frankly. “I had that when I read This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. It’s like eating the apple from the tree of knowledge – you can’t go back once you’ve read it, and you’ve got to do something about it.” So she did.
“At that point [in 2016], I was really deep in touring with Savages and I didn’t have much of an outlet,” she recalls. “I was going to parties and telling people the world is going to end, and it just felt like no-one cared. It was really frustrating. At that time my response to it was to make some videos about it, and I interviewed some really interesting people – Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine, some people from NASA – but that felt like all I could do at that time. I tried to speak to people about making our touring a bit greener, but it didn’t seem to be as much of an issue for people at that point.” She’s visibly frustrated by the memory.
Fortunately, it was to become a more salient issue soon enough. In late 2018, a group of climate activists launched a new initiative, called Extinction Rebellion (XR), and Milton made sure that she was involved from its early days.
“It just felt like suddenly there was something that was hitting the nail on the head, and all these people were coming out of the woodwork who’d been thinking the same thing,” she says, and it was as a result of the Big Bang of XR that the founding elements of Music Declares Emergency began to coalesce – albeit with a literal ocean between them at first.
“I’d been working closely with XR on putting together the first Rebellion action. The week that it happened [the first long-term ‘occupation’ in April 2019], I had to go and play Coachella in California. It’s a fantasy land, in the middle of the desert but full of grass that’s watered all the time, it’s incredibly commercial and artificial… it’s a great festival but it’s a distillation of the fantasy world humans live in – like, this isn’t reality. And I was seeing all these images from my Whatsapp groups of what was happening in London, and it looked like fucking Woodstock, like I wanna be there.”
Yet at Coachella – arguably a bastardised, cash-soused descendent of the original, iconic Woodstock – nobody seemed to particularly care. This didn’t make any sense to Milton as she watched the actions unfold at home.
“It just felt like music needed to be part of this, because what was happening felt like festivals when I first went to them, with this real spirit of community and coming together. And if music’s ignoring what’s going on then music’s getting out of date and needs to change. Music represents society and if it’s moving into this fantasy world, that’s not cool.
“Anyway, I got back and it was the last day of the Rebellion, and there was this citizen’s assembly in Marble Arch. I just bawled my eyes out crying because it was so emotional.”
That night, invigorated by what she’d seen, she resolved to start a music-specific climate initiative, and began laying the foundations for Music Declares Emergency.