Savages

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Savages—London’s great new all-girl alterna-Goth quartet—may seem like they simply sprang up overnight with their Siouxsie-and-the-Banshees-exotic debut disc Silence Yourself. But bandleader Jehnny Beth has some history. Lots of curious history. The kind that makes her group even more of a unique, commanding presence on the staid British rock scene.

Born Camille Berthomier in France, the singer never planned on music as a career. “I was supposed to be an actress, really, because my parents were both really into theater, and my dad is a drama teacher and he’s a director,” she explains. “So when I grew up, they were both very active in that. And we were touring, and I was playing in my dad’s plays, and there were always a lot of actors in our house, and theater people and writers. So naturally, I went to drama school.”

Jehnny Beth chuckles at all the tween and teen parts she played under the guise of familial obligation. She can’t even remember them all, but she recalls being the daughter of Louis XVI in one production, a child in Peer Gynt, and a misanthropic youngster in, of course, Moliere’s brilliant The Misanthrope. She even went on to star in feature films, like Sodium Babies and A Travers La Foret, or Through the Forest. “And I had an agent in Paris, but she died of cancer, so that kind of stopped all of the acting for me,” she sighs. “So everything changed when I turned 19, because that’s when I met Johnny, Johnny Hostile, who’s been with me since. And I just decided with him to take a different turn, make music with him, and go to London. So I just dropped everything else for that, really.”

Hostile, nee Nicolas Conge, even produced Silence Yourself, for the couple’s own indie imprint Pop Noire. And it was Hostile who first spotted guitarist Gemma Thompson, who would become crucial to the sepulchral Savages sound. (“He had a guitar crush on her. He really loved the way she was self-trained, was mainly a noise guitarist, and how she was so quiet and charismatic,” Jehnny Beth testifies; Thompson would name the group, as well, and recruit bassist Ayse Hassan.) But in between lay an entirely different project: the Hostile/Beth duo of John & Jehn.

Influenced by smoky French crooners like Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg—plus darker outfits like Joy Division, Gang of Four and The Velvet Underground, John & Jehn issued two albums—2008’s “John & Jehn” and “Time for the Devil” in 2010—and have a third one in the can. “It’s just that we don’t think it’s the right time to release it now,” says Jehnny Beth, who can see nothing but Savages on the horizon for the next year or so. Thompson, in fact, started as the combo’s backup strummer. “But then Gemma came to my house one day, said she had been working on a different project with Ayse, said she wanted the project to be called Savages, and she was very enthusiastic about it all,” she adds. “And I thought that was funny, because I was writing a lot of things that kind of related to that name, in the way she was speaking about it. So I said ‘Well, do you wanna try it with me?’ And she said ‘Yes!’ And then we met the drummer, Fay (Milton) by chance, and it was all set.”

By June of 2012, Savages had released its first single, “Flying to Berlin” b/w “Husbands,” the latter making it onto “Silence,” as well. The album just streeted, and it opens on a chugging “Shut Up,” tumbles into a roiling cauldron of noise called “I Am Here,” then stomps into the decidedly Banshee-ish “City’s Fall” and an otherworldly “Strife.” But Savages isn’t all about bludgeoning. The chiming axework on “She Will” echoes classic Chameleons, even Will Sergeant’s “Porcupine”-era work with Echo and the Bunnymen, and “Marshal Dear” and “Waiting for a Sign” both stand as echoey ballads only occasionally punctuated by muted guitar squeals. All told, the disc is as dark as a raven-haunted grave, yet flickering with ornate shafts of rose-windowed light almost simultaneously. Like all the best Gothic cathedrals.

Unlike John & Jehn, however, Savages don’t claim any musical influences. Inspirations, says Jehnny Beth, were culled from war poems and literature, authors like Robert Graves, the cutting-edge U.K. playwright Edward Bond, and—you guessed it—cinema. “Shut Up” was based on dialogue she loved from director John Cassavetes’ 1977 drama “Opening Night,” which grew into a bigger Savages metaphor. “All of Cassavetes’ films star his wife Gena Rowlands, and always the same team of actors,” she says. “So it was his idea of a family, a group of people doing films on and on, and he would carry on with them even though there was no box office success. And that always impressed the people around him—the fact that he was so driven by what he was doing.

“So there’s a connection with what you do in your life and what you put into your art,” she continues. “In fact, there are really no boundaries between the two, because what you are onstage is what you are in life, as well. And obviously, you choose what you want to show. But you’re still saying something about the world we all live in. So I think there’s also a real power in music to reconnect people to that concept, a power to show new directions, new ways of doing things.”

For example, says the dusky diva, a few weeks ago Savages made its Los Angeles debut, and afterward she received an email from an exhilarated fan. “He’d walked out of the show, but he’d spent all his money on a T-shirt, so he didn’t have any money left to get home,” she relates. “So he walked home. In L.A. Which was quite a long walk. But he said that he suddenly saw L.A. with different eyes, and he’d never seen the city from that perspective before.” So the group had an effect. Much larger than the girls had ever anticipated. And one that was both sonic and visual.

Which brings up one final question. As cliché as it may sound, does Jehnny Beth secretly want to direct her own movies one day? She laughs. “Oh, you read me really well!” she replies. “I would really love to do that. And I’ve already done that, really. But only in my head!”