My Back Pages: Gemma Thompson From Savages

The London post-punk band's been making year-end lists with their debut, Silence Yourself. We chatted to their guitarist Gemma ahead of their Laneway Festival tour next year.

‘My Back Pages’ is our new regular feature where cool people highlight a few of their most beloved books and recent reads. This instalment: Gemma Thompson, guitarist for London post-punkers, Savages.  

While Gallic frontwoman Jehnny Beth’s feverish yelp might generally be your first concussion-causing point of impact on a Savages track, the remaining parts of the London post-punk band aren’t exactly your local community club’s weekend skiffle bit players . The band’s intense debut, Silence Yourself — which was was praised by Pitchfork, shortlisted for a Mercury Prize, and is currently popping up on ‘year-end’ lists — also featured confrontational lyrics, some incredibly moody guitar work, and a robotic rhythm section that could made your upper arms sore just from listening. Altogether, it added up to one of the year’s more unique debuts, appealing equally to cerebral tendencies as much as the ones that make you wanna jump around and bash into people.

Ahead of the band’s tour in late January for the Laneway Festival, we had a brief chat with founding member, Gemma Thompson, and pressed the literary-minded guitarist for some book shelf recommendations…

Junkee: There’s a very intense persona surrounding the band, from the sound to the live shows to the press shots and music videos. What inspired this particular aesthetic?
Gemma: Wow, that’s a big question. We use a lot of minimalism and a lot of repetition in what we do, and that’s kinda influenced by Genesis P-Orridge’s Psychic TV, this idea that repetition can become a form of exorcism and that you can learn more about yourself through it. If you repeat a word over and over again, that incantation starts to take on a new meaning. Obviously, when you apply that to the music, it kinda starts to affect everything around you, too. So we started wearing monochrome black and white, just as a way of putting the focus into the music we’re making.

Then, we started thinking about the performance and the space that we’d be in, and how the audience would enter that space and how it would affect the interaction. We’ve been doing different things at different shows: we’ve experimented ‘in the round’, where the audience surrounds us on the same level, and we had contemporary dancers choreograph a piece to ‘Dead Nature‘ as people walk into the venue. We’re trying to push the ideas around the ‘rock band’ format.

What have been some of the more interesting reactions from fans to your various live set-ups?
We started putting up signs about not using mobile phones to film or photograph a show — not ‘cause we’re against photography, but just opposing the idea of distraction — and people really respected that. It comes from the experience of both sides: this feeling in the crowd that you need to document what you’re watching and capturing it while you’re there, versus the feeling on stage that people aren’t completely connected to you.

I always think back to, like, London audiences from the ‘80s, for example. Artists would attempt these wild things, like having a dadaesque interruption to their shows, or the audiences would be real punks and they’d be violent and threatening. Audiences today aren’t like that at all, so you have to challenge them in other ways so they’re not just turning up to a concert and standing through band after band.

Silence Yourself has made quite an impact for a debut album. What were some of the common ideas that first brought the band together?
Well, from the beginning when Savages started, which was at the end of 2011, we’d each been living in different circumstances, had our own bands, lived our own experiences. Jehn’s background is very theatrical, and I’m very much into Japanese film and Japanese architecture… We kinda tried to hone all of that into what we were doing. But, I think musically, the idea was to create a format — bass, guitars, drums, and vocals — that was completely about the  interaction physically between each of us.

What’s it like behind-the-scenes? Somehow, I can’t quite imagine you guys sharing around goofy YouTubes, for example.
(laughs) Well yeah, you can’t be serious all the time. We take what we do seriously and we’re disciplined in how we approach it, but we know how to have a laugh every now and again. It’s a dark sense of humour, but we have one.

My Back Pages

Post Office (1971), by Charles Bukowski


“It was probably the first book both myself and Jehn read when we were teenagers. That gritty, cynical realism… It’s a great introduction to the world when you’re an impressionable teenager. I always compare moments from my childhood to being in a Bukowski novel, like going to the horse races with my dad and trying to get some change off him.”

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), by Kurt Vonnegut


“We just put out a new music video for ‘Marshal Dear’, which is animated and it’s based on a very short scene from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The main character is a WWII veteran, and he believes that he time-travels. He goes into his house, and the TV is playing a film backwards: WWII bombers are flying backwards, picking up all these bombs, landing backwards, and the bombs are taken back to the factories where they’re taken apart. We decided to use this scene as the basis for the animation we made for ‘Marshal Dear’. I read that book many years ago, and I always imagined and remembered that scene.”

Omon Ra (1992), by Victor Pelevin


“This is a fascinating book that I’ve only just started reading, while we were on the plane after our last few shows in Europe. It’s about a boy who flies to the moon, basically, and he walks around with tampons stuffed up his nose. It’s a really weird experience reading about this character flying to the moon in a Russian spaceship, while you’re on the runway and taking off in an aircraft yourself.”

Savages will be touring as part of the Laneway Festival, heading around the country in late January and early February (including a couple of sideshows with Kirin J Callinan). Head to the official website for all further details.