‘This Crisis Has Given Us Power; It’s Time to Use It’: An Interview with Savages

We speak with the intellectually-minded Jehnny Beth of Savages about gigs and the use of phones, while also discussing Throbbing Gristle, Alan Moore, and Surrealist Manifestos.

Silence Yourself
Matador / Pop Noire

I was honoured to be asked by Jehnny Beth of Mercury Music Prize nominated post-punk band Savages to interview her regarding gigs and the use of phones. Savages have been instrumental in recently altering the behaviour of gig goers. What ensued was a searching conversation which took in Throbbing Gristle, Alan Moore and Surrealist Manifestos…

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In one of your manifestos you write that the use of phones, to film and take pictures at gigs, “prevents us all from immersing ourselves”. How do you think we have got to the point where people have created such a barrier to immersion?

Gemma Thompson: I suppose that whilst technology has increased in the last century quicker than any other time, human instincts are pretty much the same as they’ve always been. It is more difficult to have a direct focus, to concentrate on one thing without distraction. People want to be involved in everything, all of the time.

Do you see gigs as places at which there should be no rules, if people are “fully immersed”? Where is the line?

Jehnny Beth: The audience always feels your intention, for an hour and a half you are responsible for what happens in the room, they’re not going to do do anything out of line with you. So I think it all depends on the performer. It’s instinctive. We are mediators between the music and the people. We are guiding them towards immersion, they will go as far as we go.

From your experience, what influences how people act at gigs?

JB: Everything from the moment they enter the room, what they experience the same day, or the day before… we cannot totally control it. But there is an important role we can play in order to set the right environment for the gig. From the attitude onstage to the way we address the audience, the music we play when people enter and leave the room, the songs we perform, who we choose as support… On two occasions we asked local choreographers in London and New York City to perform a dance piece on a 30min version of our track ‘Dead Nature’ in the middle of the crowd. The idea was to experience the space differently. As people walked in, they were amused and surprised by what they saw.

What capacity do you think musicians have to change these learnt behaviours?

JB: I think we really need to stop thinking so much about money. It always demands more effort and it costs more money to do things differently, and there’s always someone or something to stop you from doing it. The way we have been approaching music is very mercantile and not artistic enough. Musicians have lost their sense of community, everyone is working self efficiently, and most of the times, sadly, we end up having creative conversations with A&Rs and managers only. We forget music is meaningful and alive to people, so there is a responsibility. Too many decisions are made which contradict these two aspects.

I have noticed over the years that conduct at gigs and festivals has become more regimented. Audience members increasingly arrive with a clear sense of how they “should” behave. I wonder if this influence emanates from corporate sponsors, or elsewhere?

JB: I’d say that a lot of it emanates from bands themselves. Band members increasingly arrive with a vague (too vague) sense of how they should behave. Me and Gemma Thompson (guitarist) always say that what happens in the streets should conduct what happens onstage, and what happens onstage should conduct what happens in the crowd. Or at least they should all act like mirrors to each other. If they stop interacting, that’s when we start having a problem.

You mentioned to me in a previous conversation that asking people to not use their phones has allowed them to “relax with the idea of engaging with the music”. Given how primal early punk gigs were, how do you think it has got to the point where there is a need to ask this?

JB: Music and words together have the power to awake people’s consciousness. It is getting harder and harder because, as Alan Moore says, we are entering ‘a culture of steam’. The flow of information is becoming so big and fast that it is impossible to grab anything, including a sense of yourself. We are constantly looking outwards, and there is so little space for introspection. We can easily have access to things that will help us shut down our soul, alcohol, TV, drugs, fear… But the things that are supposed to elevate and emancipate us, are getting more and more out of reach.

You mention in one of your manifestos that “manipulations are meted out to young, intelligent, radical people”. Do you think that the behaviour of audiences at gigs has been consciously regulated, to prevent artists posing a threat to orthodoxy?

JB: I was referring to a personal situation here. After we started Savages it suddenly became apparent to me that young artists (including myself) had difficulties to find and express their own voice, and I wanted to understand why. At the time I wrote the ‘I am Here’ manifesto, I was becoming more and more aware of the conflict between generations. It was impossible to find an understanding. In the business we work in and especially in ‘guitar’ music, it felt we were reaching a point where young artists were censoring themselves and were being manipulated without even realising it. But even the people exercising the manipulation were completely unconscious of this reality.

In one of your events at the Ministry of Sound the crowd were placed around the musician to ‘create total immersion and intimacy’. Did you find this technique useful?

JB: Yes. The idea was to recreate the claustrophobic atmosphere we felt the first time we played in Manchester at a place called the “Führer bunker” where we performed in a wooden cage surrounded by the audience. It was definitely strange and full of tension. At the Ministry of Sound, the audience was placed all around us and we were bathed in a cloud of white smoke. I remember watching Johnny Hostile perform his set before us and getting really nervous. It looked and sounded amazing but we kept thinking “God, we really haven’t made it easy on ourselves, have we?” The show was filmed and broadcasted live. There was a lot camera equipment everywhere, the film crew was very big. In the end it looked more like a TV set than a proper stage, which annoyed me. A lot of aspects about it got out of our control and it freaked us out. I know some members in the audience couldn’t see us very well because of the stage implantation… It was the first time we were doing this kind of thing, but we learnt a lot from it.

When it comes to trying to influence the behaviour of your listeners and audience, how conscious are you of previous attempts by post-punk artists to do so?

JB: Lots of different things came across which influenced us to communicate that way with our audiences. When it came to ask people to restrain themselves from using their phones at gigs to take pictures, we were just using our common sense. I remember having a conversation with the photographer Kevin Cummins who explained to me that when he started taking pictures, it was an honour for a photographer to be invited backstage by a band. Nowadays, bands publish portraits of themselves backstage every day… So times have changed radically, the methods of communication have to change too. Adam Curtis’s documentaries, Genesis P-Orridge ‘Psychic Bible’, the Surrealist manifestos, Alan Moore’s theories about Magic… they were all very inspiring for us — but also classical or experimental music records which would have statements written at the back of their record sleeves. In the hard-chore scene you can find that sort of attitude towards the audience / listeners too where music is perceived as a way of education.

Are there future strategies you think you might use in order to liberate listeners and people at your gigs?

JB: We have been touring for a long time and the repetition makes novelty rarified. We are primarily thinking of new ways for ourselves before we start thinking of the listeners. It is a selfish process at first, we want to liberate ourselves before we pretend to liberate others!

Having reviewed many post-punk manifestos Savages are, in my view, the first band to have successfully altered the behaviour of people at their gigs by using them. Do you think musicians have a duty to be clearer about how their music should be consumed?

JB: Yes, absolutely. I think the musician community should feel confident to establish a conversation with their audience and the business about what they want and what they think should happen for their music. With Internet nowadays, musicians address their audience directly, which I think is great. Now they have the possibility to change the environment of their gigs to exactly what they want. Fans are extremely understanding, if not demanding, of that.

Is there anything you would like to add?

JB: No. Thank you.

Guy Mankowski has written articles and journalism on the subject of post-punk, and is the author of the novels The Intimates and Letters from Yelena. His third novel, How I Left the National Grid, concerns the Manchester post-punk scene of the 1980s.