Camille Berthomier had high expectations for her new band. “I wanted to do something compact and solid, something almost indestructible,” she says via Skype, describing Savages’ origins. “It’s like building your own armor; you can go through any walls.” It’s easy to grasp what Berthomier, aka Jehnny Beth, means when you hear the London quartet’s debut 7-inch, “Flying to Berlin.” The single’s B-side, “Husbands,” is masterful—at once a resurrection of and an improvement on classic post-punk. The ingredients are familiar: fast four-on-the-floor kick drum, a throbbing bassline, ghostly guitar atmospherics and breathless, unpolished vocals. But when the band begins echoing Berthomier’s horror-flick narrative (I woke up and saw/ The face of a guy/ I don’t know who he was/ He had no eyes) with blaring yet melodic noise, you understand what makes Savages special, and why that name is so fitting. Their urgency, and the concise way they harness it, feels new, even if their platform doesn’t.
Before they were a band, Savages existed as a fully formed concept in the mind of guitarist Gemma Thompson. Since 2010, she’d been playing in John & Jehn—the art-pop duo started by the French-born Berthomier and her partner Nicolas Congé—and the following year, she dreamed up a new project, inspired by what she described in an interview with Pitchfork as “an apocalyptic vision of everyone tearing each other apart.” Berthomier, then immersed in the music of Black Sabbath and the work of World War I–era poets like Siegfried Sassoon, knew instantly she wanted to be a part of the group. “[The name] evoked the idea that human beings haven’t evolved that much, that there’s something behind everything that’s deeply violent,” she says. Savages launched in October of 2011, completed by bassist Ayşe Hassan and drummer Fay Milton. The band debuted onstage this January, and the British press promptly swooned, sparking near-viral overseas interest. Exquisitely gothy YouTube clips fueled the buzz. In one, the shorthaired Berthomier offers a timid disclaimer: “[This is] a new song. We don’t even know how it goes, so we’ve got to figure it out with you.” As soon as Hassan and Milton kick into a punk-funk bounce, all tentativeness recedes. Berthomier gestures like a wizard. Onstage they occasionally appear despondent and and Berthomier is fine with that. “I want the audience to feel included, but that doesn’t mean to be smiling, dancing, bringing happiness,” she says. “I think happiness, the feeling of being content in your life, can be kind of dangerous or dark or weird. It’s not necessarily what people imagine.”
Berthomier credits their all-female make-up for her young group’s rare chemistry. “I’ve always been attracted to girls, and I’ve always been attracted by their creative side as well,” Berthomier says. “When I was a teenager, I would spot people in the corridor just because of their great looks and I’d say, ‘Would you like to start a band with me?’ Between girls there’s an easygoing, sensual, straightforward communication that you don’t have with men. We almost don’t need to speak.” At the same time, the singer name-checks canonical male rock icons—Zeppelin, the MC5, Tom Petty, Slayer—whom she analyzes with scholarly attention. “I really like the fact that in The Who, every line of vocals is supported and accentuated by the drums,” she says. “That’s good because it helps to put egos out. It’s all about the final result.”
Stream: Savages, “Flying to Berlin” 7-inch