Four-woman band Savages makes the kind of music that brings a listener to attention. Usually dressed in all-black, the group’s members have spent five years developing their post-punk sound and streamlined visual aesthetic for gigs, which include fog, severe backlit lighting, plus a no-phones policy. This highwire act of beats and lyrics, simultaneously severe and sublime, demands a spirited live performance.
Driving their primal rhythms is drummer and south London native Fay Milton, who spoke with Women in the World from Los Angeles last week before the release of the group’s sophomore album, Adore Life, on Matador. She insists “it’s not all deadly serious with Savages,” despite the band’s austere aesthetic that often dominates how they are described. That’s one reason they included canned laughter on their new record: to indicate that sonic severity no indication of private character. There’s much light to be experienced as well.
“I think the fans get it,” Milton said, “that you don’t have to be a particularly dark person to reflect the darkness in the world around you.” Adore Life reflects the temporal balance between dark and light in a handful of epic love songs that explore the universal, extreme reaches of the heart with lyrics like, “If you don’t love me/ You don’t love anybody,” repeated with such frequency that it pounds into the psyche.
Their creative mission is laid out in the lyrics of their anthems, written by French-born vocalist Jehnny Beth, and in manifestos from the band like that released with Adore Life. “It’s about claiming your right to think unacceptable thoughts,” it reads. “It’s about boredom and the things we do to drive it away. It’s about being on your own so you can be with people. It’s about knowing what it means to be human and what it might mean one day.” The “it” here means the music, but also about instinct and survival — the band is trying to help fans. Adore Life opens with “The Answer,” which offers love as the ultimate solution (that is, of course, before Beth croons “I’ll go insane,” again and again).
The album’s Minnie Bruce Pratt-inspired title track, “Adore,” repeatedly asks, “Is it human to adore life?” (to which Beth replies, “I adore life”). Their own vulnerability is mirrored in their audiences, illuminated during performances so Savages can make out the faces of the first few rows. “We’re just trying to connect with everyone we can see in that crowd,” Milton said, citing a recent interaction with a fan — a “really young guy, maybe just 15 years old” — in Ireland who sported dyed green hair and was rocking makeup. “He was singing along with every single song,” she recalled, detailing his kinetic energy. The pair linked up online and she’s since learned more about him — an interaction that allowed her to see the effect of her art in another person’s life. “It’s important and moving to connect with people who feel vulnerable and find strength through the music,” Milton explained, “and find friendship with us.”
“I’ve always had it in my head that you can never be alone at the Savages gig, because we’re all with you,” she said.
Savages, described as leaderless by Milton, although political by nature, did not set out to be an all-female group: Guitarist Gemma Thompson met bassist Ayse Hassan at a Halloween party and the pair decided to start a band in 2011. (When the band recently conducted a Tumblr Q&A, they advised fans to avoid “how it feels to be girls in a band” questions, adding, “We feel exactly the same as when we were boys anyway!”)
Silence Yourself, their Mercury Prize-nominated debut album, was recorded almost entirely live and released in 2013 as a ferocious response to the antagonism they felt starting out with a management team that refused to see eye-to-eye on the band’s vision, boasting tracks like “Shut Up” (“I’m cold/ and I’m cold/ and I’m cold/ and I’m stubborn”) and “F***ers” (on which Beth demands, “Don’t let the f***ers get you down/ don’t let them take away this song”). Adore Life – songs for which were fleshed out over nine “fundamental” performances in New York last year – allowed the group to dive deeper into their poetics and process, and that thoughtfulness makes the second album a stunner.
“We’re a lot purer than we used to be,” Milton said with a laugh. The purity comes as an extension of what they’ve learned and how they’ve changed along the way — which, for a woman who has been described as Jackson Pollock on the drums, means smoking less and maintaining a level of clarity that allows her to play intensely for an hour and a half every night. Together, across the globe playing international shows like that at Banksy’s dystopian anti-theme park, Dismaland — described by Milton as so “extravagantly, eccentrically miserable” that it brought a sense of joy — the group has learned to balance each other’s characters, as required by the challenging nature of working and touring together in a close environment. “I’ve changed immensely,” said Milton, who doubles as a filmmaker. “I’ve always had that feeling, even before the band, that we never stop changing.”
Adore Life was produced by Beth’s beau, Johnny Hostile, over weeks in which the band incubated together to record their parts individually, a creative change from the first record that challenged the team to still pump out a powerful, live sound. “[It’s a] pre-industrial revolution way of making music in a sense,” Milton said. “We’re not necessarily reaching out to the hottest new producer or the guy who has produced 7,000 albums under his name. We’re a family and friends together, and we work together in that way.” A knack for presentation and drama is clear on stage, where Beth’s moves are commanding, as is the camaraderie among the women making the music, shown in the Savages black-and-white tour diary captured by photographer Tristane Mesquita, aka TIM.
The relentless, brutal volume, crafted so carefully, is what makes their art feel revolutionary. Their relationship with the sound, their audiences, and one another strikes a beautiful balance. If the excitement stops, Milton insists that Savages would “pause, stop, or change” the creative process because “you can’t give an audience a true performance if you’re not believing in what you do.” In a world so sinister, they’ve used noise and word to push back and remained mindful of others — filled with both light and dark — who may want to come along for the ride.
“And we’re happy with what we have,” Milton said.