Interview: Savages’ Fay Milton discusses sophomore Adore Life

savages

I wasn't there.

I wasn't there in 1977. I wasn't there when punk tore a fresh hole in the stratosphere. I wasn't there when The Clash landed, or the Sex Pistols. But we're going back even further than that. True to the postmodern spirit that brought so much of this narrative to the fore, post-punk was always, as Simon Reynolds pointed out, "Less of a genre of music than a space of possibility." That space was never chronological: Television, Talking Heads, Suicide, and several others were creating post-punk music long before punk broke. I wasn't there either.

When Silence Yourself arrived, I was there. The marriage between post-punk's avant garde, bass heavy riffs  and punk's unrelinquished desire for melodic populism hadn't really been found since Bloc Party's debut in 2004 (if we're being generous), and certainly not perfected since the Manics put out The Holy Bible 10 years prior. There were no manifestos left in rock music, it seemed. No more heroes. Savages had a manifesto. They ran it on the cover of their debut album.

"Shut Up" remains the most exciting piece of guitar music created in the 21st century. Like Tarantino, it didn't borrow from those existing tropes; it stole. It was Magazine's "Because You're Frightened" frisked and shaken for everything it had, and it was still utterly loveable, because, frankly, no one else had the balls to do it.

Three years on, Savages remain a glorious anachronism. Fay Milton, drummer for the London four-piece, is in ebullient form when I speak to her. The band are notoriously careful about what is (and, more often it seems, what is not) disseminated to journalists; every step of their journey is meticulously planned, with lead singer Jehnny Beth casting a cautious tone across many of the band's interactions with the press. I ask Fay what she's been listening to recently: "Um... my last played song was "Nutz On Ya Chin" by Eazy-E."

We both laugh. I feel like this might be a blessedly uncautious interview.

If it goes that way, it's a relief for both parties. Any band that dares to put themselves forward as something other than blog-filler faces a double-bind that transcends rock interviews, and for Savages, it moves into the dichotomous media relationship that any group of intelligent young women face: angry young woman vs. harlot provocateur. At its basest point, you could reduce it to the phenomenon of 'resting bitch face': the notion that an unsmiling woman represents something approaching a threat. One interviewer - and remember, we're talking within the timeframe of Savages' five-year existence - commented how surprising it was that the band were able to craft such "angry" music as an all-female line-up.

It's a word that follows the band around, despite the lyrical exuberance of new album Adore Life. "I think it's because women aren't supposed to look serious in the media," Milton tells me. "When you see a picture of women looking serious, we're obviously angry. As women, we're supposed to be apologetic, and giggling, and approachable. And we're not. But it doesn't mean we're angry. On this record, the lyrics are about love. They're very optimistic, very empowering, I think. I can say this because I didn't write them - Jehnny wrote them. They're sexy at times, but not angry."

Still, it seems easy for music journalists to bracket them that way. Not that they give a shit: "I think it's just a very shallow reading of what we are," she tells me. It's hard to disagree.

Rock music still has an uncomfortable relationship with angry women, and perhaps with anger in general. The critical darlings of modern times have been formed of softer stuff: England's London Grammar, James Blake, The XX; America's Lana Del Rey, Washed Out, Mac DeMarco. In Britain, at least, we live in a stretch of Conservative government unparalleled in both its ferocity and tenacity for 30 years, and yet remained hamstrung to the soft sponge of floppy-haired men with guitars. Did Savages set out to destroy all of that?

"I definitely think there was an era of music that we've come out of, that we rejected from the start. It's funny, a friend of mine calls it 'pre-financial crash music'." She tactfully won't name names, but expounds on the term: "There's shoegaze on one hand, and then there's twee on the other, this very tearful indie. On a personal level I don't reject those people, but I think what we're doing, playing something heavier and darker and less flippant, is a personal reaction each of us have had to that kind of music. We were trying to find other people who approached music with the same kind of energy."

In spite of most media outlets' attempts to pigeonhole the band as moody misanthropes, it seems to have missed the point entirely. "It's not like, 'Let's be serious about this,'" she says. "But also, let's not pretend that we're not serious about this. Let's not do twee, let's not do shoegaze. Let's do something loud and bright."

In the course of their trajectory as modern day punk ideologues, the band have turned down their fair share of corporate handshakes. I ask Milton if it's something the buoyancy of a Top 20 album allows them to bypass these days.

"Yeah, definitely. We still have to fight all the time just to not do bullshit things. But we can be more strong in what we say no to, because we've proved that we don't have to do those things. You know, we've got this far without putting our song on an advert, or without letting Converse put their logo all over our videos."

If anything, though, it seems that success only yields more opportunities to acquiesce. "There's so many things that we say no to. The easy route would definitely have been to accept it all. And we might be bigger than we are today, or have more money, but at the same time it's not really worth it at the end."

Punk music - and let's not split hairs with sub genres, because Savages are punk as fuck in every way that matters - has always shared an uneasy relationship with the commercial arm it relies on for distribution. Independent releases can work well for bands looking to impress themselves upon the Indietracks lineup, but anyone looking for a big reach in 2016 still needs a big commercial arm.

You can't bypass the industry altogether. Fay Milton is perfectly aware of this, and the potential conflict that arises in biting too hard on the hand that feeds: "I think it's really difficult, the way the music industry's structured now. You're kind of blackmailed into supporting big companies, who then will either support your music or not. You're very cornered into... well, I don't want to say too much..." For a moment, the guard almost falls entirely, and there's a pause. "Ultimately, what we want is for people to come to our shows, to listen to our music, and for us to communicate with as many people as possible. It's really difficult, and I think it's more and more difficult to stay away from those things and still get to a level where you can tour your music."

If Adore Life's lyrical focus of love and positivity seems like a benign step towards Top 40 acceptance, there's nothing in the music to support that theory. Lead single "The Answer" is probably the most chaotic thing the band have ever written, with Milton's brisk drum pattern sprinting to keep up with Gemma Thompson's guitar riffs, while tracks like "Adore" and "Surrender" take a step away from building songs around lead guitar lines altogether. I wonder if the band's shared love of noise titans Swans is becoming a more defined point of reference in their sound.

"Swans were definitely a big influence on this record. It's no secret," Milton tells me. "But for all of us in different ways. Jehnny's really inspired by Michael Gira, for example. I'm really inspired by Thor [Harris]. And then Gemma's just inspired by the huge amount of noise that gets built up... So we're kind of individually influenced by Swans. It's a shared love. Because, other than a handful of bands, we've actually got quite disparate music tastes."

Can she envisage the band putting out a relentless, bruising epic at some point?

"Yeah, it'd be really good to do that. I think we started down that road with "Fuckers", when we wrote that. When we first played that song, we would play the ending for 10-15 minutes, and just make loads of noise. I think everyone found it quite weird, which I liked." Again, there's laughter on the phone, but it seems to come from a place of awkward honesty.

Like all great bands, Savages seem like such an indivisible gang - them against the world, all the way - and yet each one seems strong enough to pitch out on their own. Milton admits to carrying ambitions that "don't fit into the remit of Savages" ("more kind of social and political things"), and primary among these passions is filming and directing, which is what took up the majority of her time prior to Savages. "I did a couple of documentaries back in the day - one with Mystery Jets and one with the Mighty Boosh. I was really young, and I was kind of a punk film-maker. I really didn't know the rules, and I didn't care for the rules." Is it something she'd like to devote more time to pursuing? "I'm starting a film project again now. It's really difficult to find the time to do it actually, but definitely something I want to get into more. So I'm working out the best way to get back into film, to have a voice in that world. Watch this space..."

Perhaps it's no coincidence that their first ever gig was supporting British Sea Power in January 2012. Like few other post-millenial bands, each carried a sense of urgency in their arrival, something that dared to be both viscerally thrilling and intellectually vital at the same time. The Brighton ensemble calmed into an increasingly gentle eddy that continue to lap at the edges of critical adulation. I wasn't really there when those waves crashed either. Savages still look absolutely relentless. I am here.

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3 Responses to “Interview: Savages’ Fay Milton discusses sophomore Adore Life”

  1. Milford Krasinski 12/03/2016 at 7:24 am #

    I think politics and music can go hand in hand, but if you want to make a point, then you really have to commit yourself to it. I think we make a point by existing, but we are not a specifically political band.

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