Interview

Tell Me About It: Savages’ Jehnny Beth discusses a year of meeting her heroes and conducting powerful communal gatherings

At the end of an "exhausting" year Jehnny Beth discusses finding friendship with her alt. music icons, her flourishing radio career and the next steps for her band

There’s a light frost on the steps of Jehnny Beth’s north London home, but inside, the living room fire is roaring. A microphone, laptop and sampler are scattered on the soft carpet. A couple of chairs and an inviting sofa look almost too nice to sit in. There’s a colourful bunch of flowers on the table. It’s a stylish, classic, compact room full of elegant flare. Jehnny clasps a mug of steaming green tea and quietly takes a seat by the front bay window. It’s the morning after Savages’ penultimate show of 2016, and the day before the band perform their “last show in a while” by playing their largest headline show at Brixton Academy.

It’s 10 years since Camille Berthomier left her native France and moved to London with her partner Johnny Hostile (Nicolas Congé). Together they performed with their stage names as John & Jehn and released two albums (2008’s ‘John & Jehn’ and 2010’s ‘Time for the Devil’). In autumn 2011 she formed Savages with a group of friends from different bands – Fay Milton, Gemma Thompson and Ayşe Hussan. Their first show was supporting British Sea Power in Brighton.

When Savages materialised they felt like the real deal. Real in that they had conviction, deal in that, from the outset, they seemed like a band it was clear would be around for a while. Live they were arresting, and in interviews they responded to lines of questioning about their gender, the current health of rock and roll and lifestyle choices (three of the four now choose not to drink alcohol) with the forthrightness they often deserved. Debut LP ‘Silence Yourself’, delivered in May 2013 and subsequently nominated for the Mercury Prize, was an album served with a manifesto. “Savages’ songs aim to remind us that human beings haven’t evolved so much,” it said. “That music can still be straight to the point, efficient and exciting.” Their arrival felt like an exhilarating blast of cold air.

It was just a month’s break before they began working on the follow-up. ‘Adore Life’ came together in front of people’s eyes – literally – during a run of work-in-progress live shows in New York where they used crowd’s reaction to evolve the material. A more positive, harder, heavier album about, of all things, the theme of love emerged.

The band began this year by unveiling those songs at a breakfast-time show at The 100 Club in central London, before playing a gig almost every day through to September. Combative performances at Primavera Sound, Barcelona, in June, where they stole Radiohead’s thunder, and End of the Road in September, performing aptly underneath a bulging apocalyptic-looking black rain-cloud were personal highlights. Their shows, formerly talked about as austere, didactic and almost Joy Division-like in their standoffishness were now tension-filled, brutal communal gatherings, inclusive, escapist and fun. The vision of Jehnny Beth walking across the hands of the audience night after night has become an indelible image of 2016.

Away from those visceral punk shows, Savages’ members have always been active outside of their band. Hassan performs with dual-bass duo Kite Base, Milton has created an informative online video series called Very Important Things, which breaks down some impenetrable topics like Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnerships. They’re all involved in different art forms, all frequent collaborators with other artists.

Since April Jehnny Beth has been making a weekly radio show, the evidence of which is found in the lounge today. It’s been put together in hotel lobbies, dressing rooms, any space she can use. The series, Start Making Sense for Beats 1, viewed collectively, makes up a who’s who of alternative icons and many emerging ones. For it, she’s broadcast conversations with David Byrne, Ian Mackaye, Shirley Manson, Mike Patton, Romy from The xx, Johnny Marr, Karl Hyde, Massive Attack, Henry Rollins and Nancy Whang. People who don’t regularly do interviews.

“It feels strange being on this side [of the mic],” she says settling down, the winter sun streaming into the room. “I haven’t been interviewed for a while.”

“I love the nerdy side of radio”

It’s been a great opportunity for me to discover loads of new music. It’s produced by Johnny Hostile; we’ve worked together on it. An hour each week is quite a lot of work and preparation. I love it. When I do my solo shows, when I don’t have a guest, it’s really about talking about the music. But through it I can meet a lot of great people. I was thankful they agreed to be on the show and that they’re interested in talking with me. I’m not a journalist. I have a special position with artists, I think. Because I’m an artist myself I know what it’s like to write a song – we sometimes make the same mistakes. It’s an easier conversation in a way. I’m interested in ideas and I like the exchange of ideas. It’s not a secret, but I interviewed Brian Eno this week. This is going to come out at the beginning of January. We were only supposed to speak for twenty-five minutes and then it went on and on and on. I was feeling really sorry for the next journalist. His manager was like, ‘we need to move on’ and he was like ‘no this is fun’.

“2016? I don’t really think of things in terms of years”

I don’t try to summarise things that way. I see everything more like a movement more than just every year like it’s something you pile up in a box after it’s done. It’s hard for me to think that way. It’s been full circle because we released ‘Adore Life’ in January and then we were playing all our shows. It’s been a full circle thing. It was great. We’ve toured all around the world – a very extensive tour. If I had to summarise maybe I would say it was exhausting, but not in a bad way. Like, very, very full on.

“We have lost some music heroes”

Whether it’s David Bowie, Alan Vega or Leonard Cohen, It’s hard to imagine a world without them. You never want to imagine a world without them but you’re living through it. I guess… It’s just getting older as well, you know? It feels like it’s a new generation moving up. New things are coming. We’re the last generation that have seen both worlds.

“It’s important for children to be bored”

Now everything is computerised. And I think it’s fine to adopt that, but we’ve come from the analogue side of things. When I see kids in the street with phones it really shocks me sometimes. I feel like, if I’d have had a phone, then I would have had a very different childhood. You know Louis CK’s thing about his children not having phones? I think it’s very clever. It’s a bit like stealing your childhood because when you’re a kid, it’s very important to be bored. To have those moments where you don’t know what to do and you make up your own world. You create new worlds with your mind. Your imagination is running free. Maybe I’m wrong because I don’t have children, I don’t know. When I see that I always think, I wonder what type of people they’re going to turn out to be? Maybe it enhances imagination.

Music sometimes takes that place, in that void and it takes you to an important place. Then you can think of starting a band, you can play music with people. I’m not saying phones are blocking that at all. Maybe it helps, I don’t know. It just looks like an adult thing to be doing for a child.

“We would probably leave more gaps in between tours in the future”

Discipline is important but if you put too much emphasis on discipline you forget the playful aspect of your job – you’re missing the point. If I had to do it again, I think we would chose to do it another way; I think we would probably leave more gaps in between. It was a difficult time because we had to change management all the way through as well. It’s a big thing, and it isn’t. I remember when Savages had to change management at the very beginning there was a whole load of stress about it and journalists kept asking us about it, ‘Why? What happened?’ Who gives a fuck what happened! You know what I mean.

I realise when you go outside of the UK people don’t really put so much emphasis on that. This is just normal, you change your team, it’s fine. Everyone is pretty much replaceable if you think about it. That was heavy work because we had to suddenly do everything ourselves. From a week or two before going on tour in February we had to make all the payments ourselves, manage everything ourselves. It has brought the band really close together, which is really good. We managed. We made some mistakes. Sadly, my regret is that we couldn’t go to Australia because we had… there was misinformation about budgets and things like that and we couldn’t financially make it work so we had to cancel it and I was really sad because our fans there were mad because all the shows were sold out. But it also came at a time when we were doing so much more than just touring that if we’d have gone to Australia then we would have probably collapsed. So, it’s been interesting.

“It’s important that you leave a Savages show feeling something”

It’s funny. I was talking about exactly that with David Byrne in the interview. People think that if you repeat the same things over and over again they get boring but actually if you’re interested in the interpretation and the details of what you’re doing it never gets boring, even if it looks the same to someone who would see it several times. Inside you live it differently. It never feels boring because the surroundings are different; the people are different.

This ‘Adore Life’ tour there’s quite an emphasis on the crowd, it needs a communal sensation, it needs to have this interaction, which is what we wanted to do with this record with the lyrics and everything, we couldn’t be the same band. We wanted to try different things. So, this tour it was really important that people walked out with the feeling of having met someone or something. You do different things to do that. They would change every night. Sometimes it’s full on aggression that people need. You decide what they need. It would be a shame if people walked out the door as if nothing happened. Music does most of the work hopefully, and then your presence.

“When you’re on edge and you don’t really know what you’re doing, you’re better.”

You do better things, then. If you’re unsure you give your full energy your full concentration to that moment. That’s when you can be really good.

“We’re stuck in that cemetery of indie rock music – I never understood why were a part of that”

It was at the beginning of Savages when I really started to think I want mosh pits at the shows. I really want to have a physical reaction from the audience, and it was a whole process of thoughts and things because ‘How do we get that?’ We’re stuck in that cemetery of indie rock music, which I never understood why we’re a part of that. Maybe because we played our first headline show at The Shacklewell Arms, but we had that thing where we were stamped as indie rock whereas I think we’re more verging on metal music and sometimes hardcore. We pushed these influences into our music voluntarily because indie rock music has always felt like a cemetery. It was obvious that in London that scene was dead in terms of interaction.

You go to a hip-hop show and everyone’s arms are in the air. Why is that? Probably because they’re not really trying to push that, I don’t know. Maybe shoe-gazing killed that all for us [laughs]. Somehow it’s ok to go to a show, see a band, drink a beer and walk home and that’s it – I don’t understand that. That makes me feel sad. It’s sad for live music. And it’s so much effort to go on tour, to go on stage, to repeat this thing. It needs to be for something. If it’s for nothing I’d rather stay at home and write more music.

“Savages is like a machine we need to feed in order to move on”

For the band to keep going and be inspiring you need to have people who are able to propose new ideas to each other in a safe environment. Sometimes in order to be able to do that it’s important to understand what kind of person you are outside of this group of people. It’s like an art project. It sounds pretentious to say that, but really this is how I see it. It’s just four people writing music together. It’s almost like we’re coming together to do an exhibition or something. Or write a book with four hands.

“I’ve met a lot of my heroes through the radio show”

I think it’s safe to say that you should meet your heroes. We’re all part of a big family and all these people that I’ve talked to have been through the same things as I have. We can talk on the same ground about what we’ve been through. There’s a generosity from all those people, which is why I’ve wanted to speak to them. There are some people I wouldn’t want to speak to who’re equally as successful. The people who I choose… they need to have something to say about what they’re doing. I love when people work with intention. Someone like David Byrne. When someone has created something new as well, which is not the case with every musician, they all want to nurture the next generation. I think that’s why most people I never thought I’d talk to said yes. They want to perpetuate this generosity and give the good. Because all these conversations lead to other friendships and sometimes side conversations about things.

I think creative people can get terribly lost and feel terribly alone, not knowing if what they’re doing is right because sometimes you think you’re on the right path but you never really know. Sometimes you can feel you’re really lost and you don’t know what to do next.

“Johnny Marr is the nicest man you’ll meet”

I’ve met him several times and he’s a fan of Savages and he’s always been around to come and see us play. What I admire in Johnny Marr is that he’s the nicest man in the business. He’s incredible. When I say that it sounds stupid, but it’s so true. I don’t even know how to describe it. Some people in the arts, you know, or in the business in general, sometimes they don’t seem to be present when they’re talking to you or they don’t seem to be listening. Whether it’s just that they’re listening to themselves talking or they’re just absent minded because they’re worried about something else but Johnny Marr never gives you that impression – he’s always present. The first time he meets you he asks you your name, and he remembers it, which I admire, because I’ve got the memory of a fish.

“I don’t feel out of place”

I’m very thankful for the time and the fact that they [radio guests] accept to do it, but at the same time I don’t see it as so odd. In the sense, of, I don’t feel out of my place when I’m sitting across from these people talking about this because I really understand what they’re talking about. It’s not like they’re talking a language I don’t understand. I don’t feel right in my place but I feel fine.

I find it really hard to talk with some people because I don’t understand most of the things they’re talking about – I don’t know why they’re saying these things or what they want from me or whatever, but when I’m in the situation of doing these interviews I never have that feeling. What they see in me, I don’t know? Ian Mackaye, for example, he came to see Savages three or four times in Washington. And he comes backstage. I think he likes what most people probably remember from Savages – the message and the attitude. I think the fact that when we started we were very different from our peers for being able to say no to certain things and maybe reset the rules a little more to fit us instead of fitting a system. I think that’s probably what people like Ian Mackaye appreciate. He’s the king of that. We’re not the queens, but he’s the king of that, and he probably saw this punk attitude. This idea of trying to tell the truth.

“There’s still someone I really want on the show…”

That’s Johnny Rotten. Next season we should do it. For me he’s one of the people who’ve said the truth and keeps saying the truth. I’m really amazed. In this week’s episode I play ‘God Save The Queen’ and – you know when the BBC played it recently at the end of Newsnight – people are still shocked by it! That really amazed me. It’s really incredible. He’s really written the perfect song.

“We’re going to take a break from Savages”

I’m carrying on doing the radio show. That’s been talked about. We’re going for another season from January so that will be a year of Start Making Sense in April. I really enjoy radio; I really love the medium. I’ve always loved radio.

We’re going to take a break from Savages because we haven’t taken a break between the two records at all – we took a month, I remember. Now is a good time for us to break apart and do other projects. I have collaborations I have lined up, really cool stuff, which I can’t talk about now but some are going to be revealed in January. So I think it’s going to be for me, collaborating with new people. I’ve kept writing a lot so I’ve got a lot of songs right now that I don’t know what I’m going to do with yet. They’re for something else, not Savages. Pursuing the collaborations where people have reached out and want to work with me, that’s what’s going to happen. I’m very excited.

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