It’s arguably the most prestigious honour in British music, so it’s no wonder that Jehnny Beth seems somewhat bemused by the fact that her band’s scrappy debut album is in the running for the Mercury Prize alongside releases by past winners such as Arctic Monkeys and honest-to-God icons like David Bowie.
“We didn’t start this band to win prizes and to get rewards on that kind of mainstream level,” says the French-born frontwoman of the London-based postpunk quartet Savages, whose Silence Yourself LP has made the Mercury shortlist. “That’s not where we were aiming. That’s not why we write music. We don’t write music to enter any kind of competition or win any prize, so obviously when that happens it’s kind of funny and surprising.
“I don’t think I take it very seriously, although we’re very proud of this album,” continues Beth, who is speaking to the Straight from a tour stop in Columbus, Ohio. “The Mercury Prize is for the album exclusively, so it’s more like a prize for this object. I don’t really take it for myself, in a way. I feel like ‘Oh, yeah, Silence Yourself, well done,’ more than ‘Well done, myself,’ you know?”
Beth is perhaps being a little too modest. Her assured singing and sometimes confrontational lyrics are as responsible for the success of Silence Yourself as is the sound of the band—a spare and taut attack that often detours into firmament-shattering white noise courtesy of guitarist Gemma Thompson, while bassist Ayse Hassan and drummer Fay Milton swing from tense punk pounding (“Shut Up”) to dark-end-of-the-street slow grooves (“Waiting for a Sign”).
Critics have been nearly unanimous in their praise of Silence Yourself. The LP currently boasts a score of 81 on the review-aggregator site Metacritic. Because what Savages delivers is a dark and brooding brand of cathartic art-rock, its music is a direct hit to the pleasure centre of music geeks’ brains. What’s harder to discern is where Beth and company are coming from politically. The band has posted a series of manifestoes on its website that decry modern life while pointing toward art and music as means for young people to liberate themselves from the tyranny of the everyday. A recent Pitchfork feature used words such as uncompromising and strident to describe Savages, but in truth Beth seems to relish ambiguity.
“A song like ‘Husbands’, for example, can sometimes have a different kind of meaning for people,” she says. “I think it was in New York on the last tour—or the tour before, I can’t remember, but this year sometime. We were in New York playing ‘Husbands’ and I remember in the front row there was this gay couple, two men, and they were kissing each other and saying ‘Husbands, husbands’ into each other’s face. It was revealing a meaning to the song that I didn’t really think about originally. So I quite like that.”
On a sonic level, Savages will strike a chord with anyone who lived through the heyday of postpunk or just wishes they had. Beth points out, however, that the group’s intention has never been to echo the urgent agitation of Joy Division, PiL, or Siouxsie and the Banshees.
“We didn’t go in the studio and think, ‘Okay we’re going to do a retro album,’ ” the singer insists. “We were trying to do something on the opposite—very modern to us, and very forward. Or just trying to write good songs and trying to make them sound great. That’s all we were trying to do, really.”