Urban Outfitters Year End List:
Top 50 Albums of 2013
Per one of their many manifestos, European band Savages' goal is to "always discover better ways of living and experiencing music." And through their uncompromising debut Silence Yourself, they have helped us do just that. We chatted with guitarist Gemma Thompson, at the tail end of the band's world tour, about exploring violence and pleasure, following their own path, and her advice to young musicians.
Interview by Hazel Cills
Hi Gemma, congratulations on making our best album of 2013 with Silence Yourself. Where are you right now?
We're on tour in Germany. We have a few more dates around Europe and then we're off for about three weeks.
Any particularly memorable moments that have happened on tour so far?
When we were on tour in America for five and a half weeks we would meet so many girls who were in their own bands or in band camps learning how to play their instruments. It was really cool to meet them, these young girls who were so excited to meet us afterwards.
What have been some of your favorite albums of the year?
I've been listening a lot to the new Darkside record that just came out. I've also been listening to the new Anika and the new Jon Hopkins album as well. Those are all great.
In your own words, what was Savages trying to express with Silence Yourself?
We treated the album very much as a document to our live shows. We wrote everything to be played live, focusing on the physical actions and the emotion played through an instrument. This album was really an experimental document for us to capture the energy of performance. The energy from the way that we play is a cathartic experience, a kind of exorcism with repetition. We were interested in this idea that music can really change you or make you think in a slightly different way.
Your performances are clearly important to you, and in your manifestos you speak of "noise as a constant distraction." As an artist, is this stance reactionary?
It's trying to find the focus of what you're doing. We take from personal experience and put it into the music we make. Jehn has always been writing manifestos at every point of the way: These statements of intent and action. That started when we had to do the first press release for our first single. We didn't want anyone else to write it or anyone else to describe us. We wanted to set it up as a very simple thing: Music that's played loud and fast, music that can really get to you with the core of its sound. This simple idea grew from our experiences with people who tried to take us down paths we didn't want to go to. For example, I was talking to other young musicians that were being led certain ways without a choice. There is a sort of fear in the music industry that's put into young musicians that says, "If you want to play music, you'll have to do this," but it ends up distracting people. You see that in modern life anyway, with people being distracted and not really doing what they want to do. It's just trying to become immersed in something and attached to forming a focus on what you want to do.
Your band has a reputation for being unwavering in your aesthetic focus and musical control, which I think is admirable.
When we started Savages, we had all been in different bands and had different experiences. So when we came together, we were very concentrated on what it was going to be and how we wanted to play. It was a very DIY ethic. In the beginning it was just the four of us starting to write. When we do things like artwork and T-shirts, those simple but important things, we would all learn to do it ourselves and find people we respect to work with us. That's why we had Jehn's label Pop Noire. We recorded the album on Pop Noire and then we talked to Matador, but it was very much after the fact. It's come up that way naturally and we try to keep it going back to where the music wants to go.
As the founder of the band, what was the initial vision you had for Savages? Or did it fall into place once all the members came together?
It fell very much in place when Jehn sent me an email. I had been doing bits of recordings, and originally I was going to ask Johnny Hostile, who produced the record, to sing with me in Savages. I'd go to their house and play bits I had been doing on a drum machine, and then I got an email from Jehn saying, "I have these lyrics and I know what sound you have in mind…I think they'll work very well together." Just the bare bones idea was the sound of the music that started to take form. We needed those words. How we write, the sound is a catalyst for the words. A song will grow out of an idea of one sound or a word.
"And always think about the people you made the music with, no matter how many other people get involved in what you do."
I feel like there are a lot of songs on Silence Yourself ("Hit Me"; "Husbands") that deal with deconstructing normal conceptions of sexuality. Was that exploration deliberate or did it just come naturally through the songwriting?
It was very deliberate. The album is a lot of exploring violence and pleasure in different places and trying to understand yourself more through that. It's about not having to conform to convention or what your elders did before you or what they told you was the norm. It's about self-discovery, really.
Savages' music always draws comparisons to other bands, but you seem to be more influenced by literature and cinema. Did you draw inspiration from all over for the album?
Yeah, it can be a lazy thing to compare us straight to other music. Obviously there are certain sounds that are similar and the form that we're using is very simple. But it's this idea that you can use minimalist expression to get one little idea through the exact instruments in your hands. Our influences do stem a lot from performance and film. Jehn's background is in theatre, and I'm very inspired by Japanese filmmakers and literature. When we started together we never actually spoke about musical influences. We'd always be talking about a poet like Robert Graves or an inspiration from a book or a film we'd just seen.
What advice would you give to young bands starting out?
It's a very easy yet difficult thing to say, but don't compromise what you originally [got into] playing music for, your original intent behind that decision. And always think about the people you made the music with, no matter how many other people get involved in what you do.
What's next for Savages?
At the moment we're still trying to work on a couple of different things. Next year we're trying to recreate a performance we did with this Japanese, London-based noise band, Bo Ningen, called Words To The Blind. We wrote a piece of music together based on Dada--simultaneous poetry in the same place together. Both bands were set up with the audience in the center and we're hoping to repeat that next year. In some larger venues we've also commissioned some dance pieces for our tracks that sort of map the space the audience will enter into. We're really interested in doing that and working with the venues to change the space people enter into and what they first experience before the band goes on. It's about transforming the space for a performance that's not just a gig.
Listen to our Best of 2013 Playlist!