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Three years ago, London’s Savages materialized seemingly out of nowhere, brandishing vintage post-punk austerity and provocative double entendres. They made superfans out of labelmate Josh Homme and MAGNET, so on the eve of sophomore release Adore Life, we asked the Queens Of The Stone Age shredder to riff with the ladies about prurient interests.
London post-punkers Savages enjoyed staggering buzz for their exacting, artful 2013 debut, Silence Yourself. We’re talking the works: Mercury Prize nomination, breakout Coachella set, universal critical acclaim (MAGNET proudly included). It’s no surprise that Queens Of The Stone Age/Eagles Of Death Metal co-founder Josh Homme—a fount of impeccable taste (and riffs)—was thrilled to interview the quartet (sans enigmatic guitarist Gemma Thompson) about its curiously titled sophomore effort, Adore Life (Matador). Sex, love, repetition, primitivism and emotional tugs of war are all on the table in the ensuing, sprawling exchange.
Josh Homme: Guys, congratulations. This album is wonderful. It’s really cool—when you do a first record, nobody knows who you are. There’s nothing to compare it to, you know, and everyone always talks about that sophomore record being very difficult, but I never felt that way. It’s the comparison record to your first one, the first time you can be compared to your old self. Did you feel any pressure in the way of that for this record?
Jehnny Beth: Well, yeah, I agree. The first record, you don’t even think. You’re just doing what you’re doing. Especially because we started playing the songs from the first record live. We worked all the songs out, and then we were thinking of the recording as a document of that. And I think you’re right, because on the second record, then you are writing songs for a record.
Fay Milton: You’ve got more context. I don’t think we felt more pressure in that classic way of the second record.
Homme: I never felt that pressure either. I know people respond to that differently, but I think it’s this great moment to put up your second tentpole. It’s fun to define yourself and show that your second tentpole is going to go in this location to define your wingspan a little bit. So, I had a question about “The Answer,” which is: Is there anything to do with your first statement of your second record being “The Answer”? Is there anything to calling your first song “The Answer” because the amount of questions that come about from your second record? Or is it just a coincidence?
Beth: It’s half a coincidence. The line in the song is “love is the answer,” and a lot of this record is about love, which was not the subject we wanted with the first record, for various reasons. In a way, maybe this second record is working as a diptych with the first record for giving answers to questions raised on the first one. It’s like the first one is raising problems and the second one is trying to work them out, you know?
Homme: Yeah, I wanted to ask you: Is love, for you, a mental illness? Or is it a maze that one can be trapped in?
Beth: Both. Definitely.
Homme: Is it a treatable mental illness? For you, the pursuit and trying to figure it out, is kind of like holding smoke, which is impossible to do. This album is so about love, but it’s a very slippery fish. You know? Love.
Beth: Love is a slippery thing, yeah.
Ayse Hassan: The record kind of represents all the sections that love can be. It can fuck you up, it can be amazing. I think everyone experiences love in such a different way. Even the love that fucks you up, you can get so much from, and that can really shape you. With this record, especially with the lyrics, it reflects the sections of how love can be on so many levels.
Beth: It’s kind of a psychotic record in the way that it goes through very extreme moods, as well as the opposite. It looks to the future of how love can be one day and the freedom of that.
Homme: I sense that need to almost capture it. There’s almost like a stalking of it, in a certain way—and in other moments, there seems to be these realizations that love is this transitory thing and you can’t put a pin in it and hold it down. There’s a conflict, it seems like. Do you feel conflicted by the love that is in your past, in your present and in your future?
Milton: Yeah, I think so. It can be a real conflict. Love and hate are so close, it’s like laughter and crying. They both contain each other, I think.
Beth: I think in Savages we’ve always been interested in bringing opposites together, sound-wise. Using that element of surprise, like true love sounds quiet or life and death. Bringing extremes together and seeing the collision it creates.
Homme: I agree—the positive friction of the car crash of music, ideas and love. It’s almost searching for the car crash in its extremes. I think that’s why your name is so interesting, because for some people it’s just words that eventually represent their band. I think there is a very savage, primitive element to your band that derives from those extremes. And I have a question: Do you think that English being a second language allows you to play with words and the simplicity of translation as you translate your feelings?
Beth: Yeah, it is definitely simple sometimes, and the girls remind me of that. [Laughs]
Homme: No, but I love that. Something said simply, like in titles, or how you’re able to do something like “Sad Person.”
Beth: It’s funny because “Sad Person” is a song that doesn’t have the same meaning to me because I’m French, originally. I think someone said to me that being called a sad person was an insult, and I never thought about it as an insult.
Hassan: I remember us explaining to you the concept of a saddo—like you’re sad or a loser, which we were explaining to you about you. [Laughs]
Homme: There’s this beautiful simplicity there that is of great benefit because it’s not mired down, like when translating something through a translator. It gives you the most simple version, and it’s often the most poetic. So, I wonder if you ever realize the benefit, or if you mess with that, knowing that you are the translator machine, you know?
Beth: Definitely. There’s also French expressions that I use, which are in me, which are the metaphors I use in French, which are not used necessarily in the same way in the English language. And I think sometimes I know I’m using metaphors from my original language. And I know these metaphors are kind of on a different level than people who use the English language, but I try not to think about that too much. The rare thing and the very precious thing is that everyone in the band is interested in what we are saying, you know? Although I’m the only lyricist, there is always a discussion in what we are trying to say here, and what the message is. And I think the music for us creates a connection and can say something that the lyrics can’t say. When we started writing the new record, I had lyrics that were very hopeful, very positive, very warm, and with the music, I didn’t know if we would be able to use them, but they still work on top of a distorted guitar.
Homme: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. I can hear how important the lyrical delivery is to everyone in the band. An example would be in “When In Love,” when you say “knocking at the door” and Fay starts knocking at the door on the drums.
Milton: I’m glad you caught that!
Homme: I think there is this importance there with the bass sound on moments like “Surrender” where the sound of your rhythm section is really paying attention and trying the extrapolate what you are saying lyrically. Fay, do you guys want to elaborate on that? Is that an importance for you?
Milton: Completely. Some of it comes simply, like when she says “knocking at the door” and it sounds like knocking, but then there’s another level where it all needs to mean the same thing. By the end of “Evil,” it’s like an exorcism, and when we are playing it live as well, it’s very physical with smashing things out.
Homme: I have that written here, too. [Laughs] As you said, there’s a certain onomatopoeia aspect that is very simple, but I feel like other bands overlook that. It’s important to take advantage of something simple to get your point across. But I also think, as it translates to your record, there are things that you must play live because this record is so much about capturing emotion like a photograph. So, some of these things you must have had to play live to get the arrangement down to capture the rise of the emotion. Is that more important than being like, “We do this four times, and then we go to this part”? Is that a big discussion for you guys?
Milton: Yeah, I think it comes naturally. I think it’s definitely important on a lot of things, like the end of “Evil” and “knocking at your door,” which started to become elements when we were playing the songs live in New York. Those are two examples of things that really came from being a little rhythmic idea or a little bass idea into more of an emotional idea.
Beth: Yeah, I think Fay’s lines ultimately shaped what the songs became on this record, because we needed to put them in that environment to get the aggression and the energy and feed off that between us. There are a lot of songs where, we finished writing them in January in New York, and it would have been a very different record if we had just stayed in the studio and went and recorded straight away. We needed that, and that’s how we started when we recorded the first record. We spend a year and a half just playing songs on the road, and I think it’s essential that we played them live.
Milton: I think when it came to “Mechanics,” we wrote that song a little later on; I remember thinking it didn’t have a drum beat because there wasn’t one—it didn’t exist. We looked for it, and it didn’t. Sometimes a song needs a part, and you look for it and you find it, and sometimes you look and it’s not right. And partly that was because with the emotion of the lyrics, I couldn’t find that on drums. I’m playing the vibraphone on that song at the end. It’s different than when “The Answer” came out and it was, you know, violent. [Laughs]
Homme: I love that, though, because you’re getting to what I was hoping to hear, which was that some things aren’t required to speak of, so that’s why you play. You let the situations and the songs dictate the terms of what you’re doing. You don’t force drums on something that doesn’t have them.
Milton: That’s called a remix. [Laughs]