The women of Savages share their rock star work ethic
L-R: Ayşe Hassan (bass), Fay Milton (drums), Gemma Thompson (guitar), Jehnny Beth (vocalist)
We still live in a world where you can go to a major music festival and over 75% of the people on stage will be dudes. So to see four women not giving a fuck on stage and playing their hearts out and screaming along with the audience is pretty radical. Such is the case with Savages, the UK rock group whose first album Silence Yourself electrified rock fans and critics alike with scorched-earth anthems like “She Will.”
The band’s sophomore album, Adore Life, drops today, and it’s a live wire — a beautifully dark, but never full-on despairing, record that seethes emotion out of every quaver in singer Jehnny Beth’s voice, backed up by three thrilling instrumentalists. In advance of the record’s release, HelloGiggles spoke to bassist Ayşe Hassan and drummer Fay Milton about how to perform such intense music, the journey to getting a record label, and what this crazy artistic ride is really like:
HelloGiggles (HG): The reviews for your second album Adore Life have been coming in, and they’ve been super positive. For this record, you’ve even played a late night gig in America.
When you were going into the recording process, did you know that it was going to be hyped up and received at this level? Could you have at all prepared for that?
Ayşe Hassan (AH): I don’t think you can! I don’t think you ever know. What we did going in was, we made the record we wanted to make. We didn’t have a formula; we went into a room together and started writing. What you create in that moment is what becomes the record.
Fay Milton (FM): Last time, we did a record by ourselves, without a label, and in-between finishing the record and putting it out, there were three months where we had to get a record deal. It was so fast — three months really isn’t long enough to prepare everything. This time, we’ve had a lot longer, and we’ve actually made some music videos. We’ve had time to that, to do a lot of interviews, and I feel a lot readier. It’s gonna happen now!
AH: It feels kind of weird! We’d toured with Silence Yourself for a year and a bit before we’d recorded it. Doing it this way around is kind of strange; the only real time we’d played the songs were when we were in New York and finishing out writing on stage, in January of last year. We haven’t played all of the songs that much, which is a different approach.
HG: How often are you rehearsing the songs as recorded?
AH: These songs will continue to be shaped the more we play them live, especially over the course of the next few years. That’s quite an exciting process, because there’s room for experimenting and evolving the songs.
FM: We still rehearse our songs though, our old songs, everything. It’s really enjoyable to play a show when you’re at the top of your game, and if you’re struggling, it just feels really bad! We like to stay abreast.
HG: I saw your band for the first time last summer at LA’s FYF Fest. That set was amazing — when you’re preparing a show of that magnitude, what do you do beforehand to collect your thoughts and get ready?
FM: We all do different things, but definitely an hour before the show is when we’re looking at the clock, we start to do our routines. I do loads of yoga stretches and warm up on drum pads. I used to meditate before the show . . . Yeah, just get our heads in the zone, get ourselves ready.
AH: My approach is a bit more varied, it depends on the type of show.
FM: Sometimes, you’re watching a film on your computer up until ten minutes before the set.
AH: Or I like to be alone and have a bit of space, and then warm up. In a festival environment, it can be overwhelming, the number of people around you. So it’s nice to have a time-out before you go on stage, so you can really focus.
FM: It’s balancing that quiet mind with a really awake body, that’s the perfect place to be.
HG: I once interviewed a performer who ate raw ginger before she went on stage. Do you have any tricks like that?
FM: I just drink some water! I have a cup of tea. It’s an anxiety thing — I used to drink alcohol before a show, or drink loads of caffeine . . . You feel like you have to consume something. But it’s actually a little bit of a trap you can get in, where you’re drinking because you feel like you should drink. None of it’s necessary, you can literally have a glass of water.
HG: Looking at the both of you now, you’re eating and drinking tea, but on stage, you have these battle faces on.
Hassan on stage, FYF Fest 2015
How much of your time on stage are you in your own head, versus interacting and feeding off the audience? Instrument-specific, too.
AH: It’s definitely instrument-specific.
FM: It’s instrument-specific and gig-specific as well. Sometimes you need to concentrate more because of the sound, and certain parameters on stage are making things difficult. I know when I’m concentrating, I look really miserable, but you can’t interact in such a visual way with the audience. But if everything on stage is good and flowing nicely, you can breathe. We have a lot of communication, more and more actually.
AH: There’s an element of us being very focused on stage. You’re gonna come across as serious because you’re intensely listening to each other and you’re in that moment.
FM: If you were to see our press photos, compared to how the live show comes across, there’s a lot more smiling going on in the show. There’s a flow, there’s so much smiling and joy coming from the audience as well. It’s not so austere, really.
HG: The image that you’ve been cultivating really does suggest that. Even the new album’s cover upholds that, with the raised fist.
Do you find that it’s interesting interacting with fans who expect you to be a certain way, and then they meet you and go, “Your name is Savages, but you’re all very nice people”?
FM: People are indeed sometimes surprised to find out we’re nice. I look at our press shots and think, Wow, we look so miserable! But we’re musicians, we’re not models. We get in front of a camera, but that’s not really . . .
AH: Most of us don’t want to be in front of a camera.
FM: It’s not always the most comfortable place to be yourself, when it’s not the thing that you want to be doing.
HG: It is part of the publicity process though, for better or worse.
AH: I think we’ve kind of embraced it, because it’s part of what we do. For years, we’ve gotten back to knowing what works for us. When we first started, we felt really stressed out about people bringing in makeup artists, like, “Oh, we’re gonna do your hair.” And it’d be like, “I don’t wear that much makeup and I don’t really do my hair.” So if I see a picture of myself with makeup, I’m gonna hate it. It’s not me. But we’ve all gotten better at responding to requests and saying, even if it leads to a “bad” photo, we want to be what we are. That’s what we are as a band. It reflects in most of the things we do.
FM: We’re always plied with photos of women in the media looking so perfect. Someone has to not look perfect! A friend told me the other day that she’s sick of looking at pretty people, so she really likes our “Adore” video because we all, and I especially, look brutal in that.
That whole photoshoot thing is part-dream, part-nightmare. It’s a childhood fantasy of like, “I could be famous and be in photoshoots!” But the reality is that I hate having my photo taken! You get used to it though, and give up caring. When you see a photo of yourself, it’s so easy to be critical though.
AH: Ultimately, we have a sense of humor about it.
HG: Especially for an industry like music, 99% of the time, you shouldn’t be wondering what this person looks like. If that’s the main reason you like them, you know, that’s your choice.
It’s tough to talk about these things without shitting on someone else’s strategies or goals, but it doesn’t work for everyone.
AH: That’s the thing, you have to have choice. If it works for them, it works for them. But getting comfortable with what works for you is really important. It can make you feel like you should be doing something when you don’t have to. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to comply with what people want.
FM: There’s always that conflict in your own mind, where you wanna look nice! But you don’t wanna look nice? You wanna look like how you are.
HG: It’s like that teenage dilemma, where you don’t wear a dress for a family photo and then ten years later, you look back at that photo and wonder why you were scowling, why didn’t you just smile and suck it up. But that’s how you were feeling in the moment, and you can’t look back at things in that way.
Presentation for bands is this whole other thing. But y’all have figured out quite an easy uniform for performing, and that has a lot to do with the fact that you’re instrumentalists and have to take that into consideration.
AH: We’ve chosen something that offers the least distraction, visually. It’s just black, it’s simple — the whole point is to let the music do the talking.
FM: It’s making a statement with our music, not with our clothes. But weirdly, the clothes then become their own statement.
HG: Also, when you begin to accrue a fanbase, fans will pick up on things you do and like, tell you what you’re doing and come up with theories about your behavior and your life. When you’re interacting with fans, do they ever tell you those kinds of things to your face?
FM: I rarely get recognized when I’m off-stage, because apparently I’m a lot smaller than I look on-stage? I look like this big beast, but we’re all small. It kind of freaks me out, that I don’t look like how I am. I also use a miniature child drum kit. No, not really!
HG: For a rock band, do they still call bass and drums a rhythm section?
AH + FM: Yeah!
HG: For laying down rhythm section stuff . . . Ugh, I played in a jazz band, I should know how to talk about this more easily.
FM: What did you play?
HG: I played piano, in a rhythm section for a jazz band, for a while in high school. And then I joined my college marching band.
FM: I did a bit of marching band when I was super-young. I did the cymbals, and they were sooo heavy. And the big bass drum!
HG: England has marching bands?
FM: I mean, they’re not like a massive thing! It’s quite weird!
AH: I did marching as a cadet. There was a band behind us as we were marching down the high street.
FM: Nixie [Ayşe’s nickname], you’re blowing our street cred!
AH: They won’t know what it is! “Marching band is super cool!”
HG: The thing that I always noticed just by being part of that kind of ensemble is that you lay down the beat for everything. When you’re in a band like Savages, where everything is very percussive, how do you establish the timing for kicking off a song?
FM: You just have to listen very carefully, watch each other, be hyperaware. It stops you going into daydreams. I like daydreams, but it’s good to get out of everyday nonsense in your head.
AH: There’s also a lot of eye contact and, because we’ve played together for quite a while now. There’s something that is instinctive — if Fay has a certain movement, I know she’s about to do something and I’m gonna react to that. Awareness is the key though, and knowing the song!
HG: Specifically for Ayşe, when you’re juggling outside projects like Kite Base, how do you find yourself negotiating your time and segmenting your headspace?
AH: Because they’re two very different projects, it’s very easy to separate them in my head. And then because we’re a duo, me and Kendra Frost, it’s actually very easy to write on my own, and on Skype with Kendra. The album we finished a while ago was written on Savages’ second tour, in Mexico; we did it over Skype, and sent each other sounds and bass lines back and forth. The whole point of having that is that it’s an easy thing to do on the road.
HG: Another thing that you mentioned earlier, is that you watch stuff in your downtime.
AH: When I’m on tour, I use that time to do stuff I don’t have time to do at home. So I really enjoy writing and working on Kite Base and catching up on things that I wanted to read, to listen to music, to explore movies. So, everything that I don’t have time to do! I actually try not to get into series, because that can take up so much time. The last American bus tour, I was watching Breaking Bad in my bunk. I lost quite a few moments of my life!
FM: You lost some really good moments in your life!
For me on tour, I’m constantly looking for good, gluten-free, vegan food. It’s gonna power the muscles. /flexes/
AH: I think that’s something that’s been a big lesson for us, being on the road and making sure we’re fit and healthy. Playing an hour and 10, 15, 20 minute sets is really intense on your body.
HG: Especially your sets.
AH: Watching Fay drum for that long, non-stop, I just get tired watching her!
FM: I’ve definitely learned to be really good to myself and remember to rest and not get drunk all the time. Very little, actually. You have a much better time ultimately — once you can go out dancing sober, you’ve got everything sorted. It lasts for a while, and then you work toward it again.
HG: For a band called Savages, you seem like you’re not living very hedonistic lives. That goes against, like, the classical image of the “rock star.”
FM: I think that image is old now. It used to be really wild to get really wasted, but I used to get wasted when I was a teenager, so that doesn’t seem wild to me anymore! It’s actually more wild to live life completely and in the raw, and not having to hide behind social norms like having a drink when you’re out or taking drugs if you’re partying. It’s more radical to live life as it is.
AH: To remember things, that’s good!
FM: But to break social norms, that takes a lot of strength, if you’re used to always doing the same things and people expect you to do those things. The music industry is completely saturated with booze, so if you go to a party and you’re not drinking, you’ve gotta stay strong because people find that uncomfortable.
HG: To have reached such a clear artistic consensus for a band, where the evolution is coming through the writing and the songs, versus visual changes or album cycle message changes, is pretty unique. You tend to stay in the same areas of what you’re talking about and what changes is what you’re doing. How do you convey that to other people, critics, fans?
FM: We’re all really strong-minded; we all know what we want, and it’s not always the same thing, so we debate a lot with each other. That’s the vetting process of our ideas, is within the band. We take so long over every decision that once it gets outside of us four, we’ve been through all of the pros and cons and won’t listen to anyone else’s opinion on it. That’s how we’re perceived as this strong, absolute unit.
AH: Which is a good thing, because ultimately what we say represents us as a band and as people. We have a voice, so we have to be responsible for that voice. It’s important to do things that you can stand on.
HG: Especially when each member of the band has their own social presence, are answering interviews on their own. In that kind of position, do you all operate on trust that you know what you can or can’t say about the band?
FM: At this point, we’ve all given up on what we can or can’t say. We just say what we think. When we first joined together, I was definitely trying to be more careful, to make sure you’re not representing people in the wrong way. But we know each other so well now, and we know our project so well. We’re living and breathing it every day.
HG: Going back to the album, the way you interact is very direct and that appears in the album over and over again. There’s nothing that is glossed over, and that it makes it sometimes very hard to listen to. Not in a bad way — but when you listen to something that’s very raw in sentiment, it’s easy to emotionally connect with.
When you’re working on something on that, what do you do to take a break out of that head space? How do you get yourself away from the album, even as you’re constantly working to perform it and promote it?
FM: Honestly, staring mindlessly at Facebook. Absolutely zero brain, zero emotion, zero anything important, and just scrolling through in this numb zone. And then you’re like, ah okay, time to get back to the music. But that’s not a good way to get away from it.
AH: There is another thing, and [Fay] is gonna agree: Exercise. Whenever I run, and I do Crossfit as well, I don’t think about anything at all. It’s intense, so I can zone out. With yoga and stuff as well.
FM: Yeah, yoga. Meditation. Sport, running, swimming, dancing, listening to other music, hanging out with friends. Most of my friends aren’t really involved in music; they’ll come to our shows, and they’re interested in the band, but they’re not THAT interested in the band or asking questions. That’s a really good way to be completely away from it.
It’s good to be able to step away and also come back. Something I’ve learned while writing this album is actually instead of stepping away into too many things, is to prioritize your projects. Not stepping away too much, staying intense and involved, and not letting too many things distract me, keeps me there. It’s different for all of us though. [Ayşe], I don’t know how you made two albums. I do film on the side, but I couldn’t do that.
HG: How many tours have you done so far?
AH: I couldn’t actually answer that!
FM: I’m not sure, individual tour . . . We haven’t really toured for almost two years.
AH: I actually don’t look at it like that. For me, there’s always something to do in relation to the band, even if you’re not actually together. Even when you’re on holiday, there’s something to be discussed. The touring is part of 110 other things you have to do on the way. Which is brilliant, because it’s intense, but we’ve all found ways of dealing with that intensity, otherwise you’d go mad.
Buy Adore Life here; stream the album below: