Fay Milton talks about a personal kind of politics and how Savages’ second album Adore Life is a force for change
Savages won’t tell you how to feel – they just want you to feel something. “People are smart. People don’t want to be told what to think,” drummer Fay Milton states, very firmly, when The Skinny calls her on a frosty January afternoon. “We can make our own minds up about what we believe in…. But you can create an atmosphere for positive change, and music is a part of that.”
The London four-piece own an inimitable voice. When Savages – Milton, alongside bandmates Jehnny Beth, Gemma Thompson and Ayse Hassan – choose to speak up, know that it’s because they have something urgent to say. After the success of wall-shaking, fire-starting first album Silence Yourself (2013), the band took several years on the road, scrutinising the reactions of their audiences, before heading back to the studio with new tracks in tow. In fifteen all-too-short days (“We were flying by the seat of our pants”), Savages recorded their sophomore album, Adore Life.
“Right now there’s definitely a movement of believing in what’s simply, obviously, just” – Fay Milton
Moving at high speed between icy, impassive post-punk and the spit and sweat of a truly incendiary punk band, Savages aren’t strangers to being described as radical. But while Silence Yourself was built upon cool, glacial fury, Adore Life takes a different tack. A call to arms in the truest sense, the record is founded upon a firm belief in the power of positivity. “It’s about being strong enough to change who you want to be,” confirms Milton.
Released in late January, Adore Life is an album of love songs – but in a far from conventional sense. Forget air-brushed ballads or cynical deconstructions of heartbreak, Adore Life offers an incisive, honest and brutally intimate perspective. On semi-title track Adore, Beth’s lyrics explore the complexities of desire and identity, demanding you to ask, “is it human to ask for more? Is it human to adore life?” In stripped-back, eloquent form Savages shine an intimidatingly bright light on the all-too-human tendency towards restrictive, prescriptive guilt: what do we think we deserve?
Questioning how sexuality can inform identity on Mechanics – “I was never told about my sex,” and half-warning, half-admitting “this is what you’lll get when you mess with love” on single ‘T.I.W.Y.G.’, the album feels part character study, part confession. Milton admits that the band are preoccupied with trying to answer life’s hardest questions, but not always in such serious tones; “You know, there’s this really great love life column… I found it because it’s called Savage Love, by a guy called Dan Savage. It’s amazing! I’d love to do a Savages version. We’d call it Savages Love, obviously. Love and sex and relationship advice…”
But, really, it’s shocking how radical a simple statement – “I adore life” – can sound; not a twee, throwaway statement, but in direct admittance and acceptance of human nature’s deepest, stickiest secrets. It’s no small task to write a visceral, brutalist album that demands love rather than revenge, empathy rather than aggression, and Savages avoid cliché by staring these questions straight in the eyeball.
Savages’ attack has sharpened, and this focus was imprinted in their recording strategy. “Always, when we record, we start with a version that we all play together. Last time we used a lot of those original versions… but this time, we’d go over each instrument. Individually. You can really expand the sound, and do things that you can’t do when you’re recording live,” Milton explains. This meticulous process allowed the band to insert truly theatrical touches. At the start of T.I.W.Y.G. there’s a tiny screech, a precisely placed ear-splitting yelp, just before the band plunge into the meat of the track. It sounds totally alien… but Milton laughs, “That’s bass feedback! Only Ayse Hassan can make that noise. We took an extra week recording this time too, so we got more time to look into those details. But still, I’m often envious of other bands who can record at the same time that they’re writing. It’s not really possible with Savages. We’re too loud.”
Milton details the physically punishing implications of writing a record that packs so much sonic weight. “Try not to smoke!” she warns. “No-one becomes a drummer for an easy ride… but we all stay really fit. Yoga and stuff. And running. It’s a full time job, staying fit enough to actually do the job.” To steal the tone of a lifestyle mag, if you want to emulate Savages’ energy, Milton recommends porridge – “you’ve got to put cinnamon and turmeric in it. Make it spicy.”
Once you’ve heard the record, or better still, seen the band in live action, you’ll understand the need for such strict routine. A Savages show is intense, and so is their schedule. The group have just announced a staggering list of shows; touring Europe and the US over a four-month period, they’ll be dropping in on Glasgow at the tail end of February. Moreover, their records are built on adrenaline and conviction, designed to raise your blood pressure – Savages want to move you, emotionally and physically. “We all really enjoy listening to live music, bassy music… So I guess through our taste, it’s in-built in our own music. Especially with Ayse really destroying the bass on songs like Surrender and er… well most of them, really. It’s definitely in our live shows; we make sure that the sound is really good, so people can really feel it as well as hear it.” Milton continues: “Maybe it’s a power thing? To want to get on stage and really move someone? But having the power to do that is something that really draws you back to performing… it drives you on.”
There is definitely power-play at work. Savages have a degree of control over their performances which is almost chilling; the power to tip a show almost over the brink of chaos, and just as suddenly pull it back. “Yeah, there’s something really freaky about it!” Milton enthuses, seemingly delighted. “I really like pushing that kind of… psychotic edge.” It’s transfixing – on record and off – and suits the tension which the record is built upon. “Do we want to scare everyone?” she laughs. “Yeah, of course we do.” But she’s just as quick to remind us that positivity is the key to the record, “despite it being very wild in its sound.”
Any attempt to conflate music and politics usually results in crossing dangerous, muddy ground. However, given Savages’ insistence on releasing a statement to accompany their records, crammed with manifesto-like rhetoric, it is ground which must be trodden. Unsurprisingly, Milton has firm views: this is no party-political record. “Politics is a really tricky word,” she begins, “because usually if you think of politics, you think of specific issues. For some people the word is a great thing, to others it’s a kneejerk reaction. Even within our band, there are very different reactions. For me… there’s a really great quote from Ai Weiwei, which is: ‘Everything is art. Everything is politics.’ I see things in that kind of sense.”
As in, art offers a specific perspective on life – which is why it will always be political? “Yeah, I think so. It’s a really strange time at the moment. We know about so many things that a few years ago we wouldn’t have known about. We’re all following different news stories from around the world every day. It’s very… it’s really difficult. You pick one cause, and then you have to justify why you haven’t supported something else. So in a sense, it’s difficult to be overtly political.” She pauses. “But you can have your stance, and you can be who you are by standing up and showing that kind of outlook – that can be a positive way of taking a political stance. Because, you know, if you start criticising the world you’re never going to stop.”
Through thorough Twitter-based investigation, The Skinny discovers that Fay met Jeremy Corbyn last November. With Corbyn’s call for positive, stripped-back politics often dismissed as radically, unrealistically utopian, is there any link between this mentality and Savages’ own call for positivity? “You know, that’s the best compliment… to have the album likened, or the band likened, to Corbyn.”
“You can never tell until later down the line how movements start and spread, but right now there’s definitely a movement of believing in what’s simply, obviously, just. There’s belief that people shouldn’t be treated differently, or judged, on sexual orientation or gender. In the face of mass confusion there is a small but steady movement growing, of positive thought and solidarity. I think that art always reflects its time. It would be nice to look back and think that we were a part of something… We’ll watch and wait.” Take heed, naysayers, of this band’s open-hearted, calculated push for positivity; this is what you’ll get if you mess with Savages.
Written for The Skinny, Feb 2016
PR photo by Colin Lane