Savages in conversation with Bo Ningen

18.11.14

Jehnny Beth and Taigen Kawabe are sat side-by-side in a theatre basement having almost finished an intensive days of interviews – and as I set down my dictaphone, I'm very aware of this. Beth, the lead singer with Savages, looks at her psych-rock-inspired Bo Ningen counterpart Kawabe and chuckles, "It’s like repeating yourself," as she articulates how they met and what the London music scene was like those five years back. I mentally strike this off my list of things to transcribe when contextualising their recent conversation about 'Words To The Blind'.

Besides, I’m more interested in the broader context of a release that is a single, 37-minute long live recording of two bands, based in London and made up of expats whose first language isn’t English, playing all at once. 

'Words To The Blind' is inspired by Dadaism and based on intuition, where a post-war global community congregated on neutral Swiss soil to express the chaos and trauma of conflict in their own languages. Artists from around the world would perform their poetry simultaneously, while their diverse thoughts, feelings, and perspectives would clash and collide, merge, and weave into each other in a (probably vain) attempt at making sense of all the violence.

It's almost a hundred years later and, strictly speaking, there hasn't been a World War III. But there’s something apocalyptic about ‘modern’ life and the ongoing economic warfare that’s been dispersed across brutal production networks to sustain it, and it’s affecting people in ways that we can’t even imagine. The bodies of Savages and Bo Ningen feel this, even if their heads are still coming to terms with it. That’s why, when Beth and Kawabe’s languages converge into the global lingua franca of their adopted English home and the intensity of clashing instrumentals flows out into an unsettling calm near the end of 'Words To The Blind', one is acutely aware that this is only a temporary fix.

We are foreigners, we are enemies, speaking our love songs in different languages, bellows Beth earlier in the album, presenting the unique perspective of a person presenting a sound for a world that is perpetually in crisis.

When opposites attract

Taigen Kawabe: "We have so many things in common as a band and as singers – even the different background, and different language."

Jehnny Beth: "I thought it was really funny that Savages and Bo Ningen collaborated together, because it’s like, four girls with short hair, and four guys with long hair."

Taigen Kawabe: "Yeah, it’s kind of the opposite."

Jehnny Beth: "Like a mirror effect, but a distorted mirror effect."

English as a second language

Jehnny Beth: "We discovered, as we were doing these interviews, that we have a different approach when it comes to the words and the meanings [of music], because we come from different backgrounds. For me – in France – music is really directed by the meaning, and by the words. It’s almost like the music is there to be underneath; the voice is in the front row. And in Japanese culture…"

Taigen Kawabe: "…in Japan, it’s kind of different. I mean, for Japanese music it’s like that – but in the modern world, we listen to music from the UK and the US, and they sing in English. In Japan, we don’t really speak English and we don’t really understand English, but we're still listening to chart music from this country and from the US. The first thing you pick up, of course, is the main melody and the singing, but you don’t necessarily understand the lyrics. So sound and rhythm and tone is what you hear, because you don't get the English straight away. You can get the English by checking the lyrics and the translation, but personally, the music is first – even though I’m the singer [in Bo Ningen] and I make the lyrics, sometimes the sound is first, and the lyrics come afterwards.

"It depends which artist, but that’s my personal background of listening to music – it’s sound and sonics first. But now that I’m singing, it’s quite hard to say which is important. I wouldn’t prioritise sound over lyrics, but that’s the difference between the background of Japan and France."

Jehnny Beth: "I think the first time I really wanted to learn English was when I heard a Beatles song, when I was eight [years old]. I definitely thought, 'I need to master that language, I need to know what it’s all about', because the music was so appealing."

Japanese and French in relation to English

Jehnny Beth: "French is closer [to English]. There’s some Latin in French and English. I think with Japanese, it’s a much bigger leap."

Taigen Kawabe: "Yeah, Japanese doesn't really connect. Some scientists say that Japanese and Finnish have some kind of similarity, like the language and everything. We’re so far away, but…"

Jehnny Beth: "Maybe it adds up historically…"

Taigen Kawabe: "When Japan beat Russia, the Finland people were so happy [laughs]. 

"The language is hard for me. I was born in Japan and grew up there – since I was born until I was 18 years old. I still struggle, I even talk to the others in the band in Japanese. It’s a natural thing. The language is really interesting, but it’s still hard. I wouldn’t say it’s ‘hard’ – there should be another word, but I’m not sure – it’s really interesting though. It’s got meaning, but English and Japanese is completely different too; the grammar, and accent, and everything. Our guitarist Yuki [Tsujii] has got a perfect East London accent [laughs]."

Jehnny Beth: "He does, actually."

Taigen Kawabe: "He is really good at mocking anything; even mocking me, or mocking you [to Jehn]."

Jehnny Beth: "That’s true, yeah. He is. He’s a clown."

[All laugh]

"The language is hard for me. I was born in Japan and grew up there – since I was born until I was 18 years old. I still struggle, I even talk to the others in the band in Japanese. It’s a natural thing." – Taigen Kawabe, Bo Ningen

Working artists as "kids of the crisis"

Jehnny Beth: "Young bands, especially today, when making music, are directed by a generation who is older, who knew times of working in music before the crisis, and who still apply the same sort of attitude towards it. It leads to trying to fit a square into a round thing. It doesn’t really go into it. It’s almost like we think of the past so much, and of the future, but there’s not really much thought about the present anymore. It’s like you’re pressed with past and future, and I think choices should be made considering the present more, but you do this because maybe in a few years time you'll get money from it."

Taigen Kawabe: "Yeah, or maybe wait until our generation grows up and we become the people in control [laughs]."

Jehnny Beth: "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Maybe we’ll be the twats one day."

[All laugh]

"We think of the past so much and of the future, but there’s not really much thought about the present anymore. It’s like you’re pressed with past and future, and I think choices should be made considering the present." – Jehnny Beth, Savages

On the politics of art

Jehnny Beth: "It’s funny talking about 'Words To The Blind' in regard to [politics], but it makes total sense to me to have this kind of level to it – although when we started it, it was more intuitive than anything else.

"I always refer to when we start in Japanese and French at the beginning of the piece. I read from Thomas Bernhard – he’s a playwright, and it’s an extract of one of his characters in one of his plays, called Au But – I don't know what it is called in English [The President and Eve of Retirement]. I chose it instinctively, but now I refer to it because it’s a text about youth and about how the duty of youth is to destroy history – to create a new one – but the character, she’s a mother, she’s a bit older, and she says that she thinks the youth today has lost its strength and lost its power to reduce history to nothing and be rebellious. Obviously, she’s saying that to a young playwright, who writes. Is she right or wrong? It’s interesting."

Taigen Kawabe: "Even after the performance it makes us think of the connection between the sound, and society, and the world and everything, so it’s quite interesting that after [the performance] you pick it up."

Jehnny Beth: "Yeah, you pick up the meanings after doing the work."

Taigen Kawabe: "Even this interview makes me think even more – not only of the performance, but all the connections."

Jehnny Beth: "We don’t realise it, but we’re creating history every time we're doing something: we’re making art, and we’re making history. You don’t think about it when you do it, but we are creating part of history. I don't say 'history' or recapitulation in a pretentious way – I just mean everything is going to be an archive at some point, or memories. So we’re part of something that we don't really… well, we learn it as we go along, really. Hopefully we’re not too late [laughs]."

"We don’t realise it, but we’re creating history every time we're doing something: we’re making art, and we’re making history. I don't say 'history' in a pretentious way – I just mean that everything is going to be an archive at some point, or memories." – Jehnny Beth, Savages

On Moomin and the next generation

Taigen Kawabe: "My dad used to have a license in Japan so that, if some company in Japan wanted to use the [Moomin] character for t-shirts or anything, they'd have to talk to him. That’s why I went to Finland many times."

Jehnny Beth: "And in Finland they had the cartoon? Because I don’t think we had it in France, did we?"

Taigen Kawabe: "Germany made a puppet version like, five or six years ago. Then Finland is going to make one on film. I think British people, if they’re over 30, know it because it was on TV. When I wear the hoodie with the character here…"

Jehnny Beth: "That would look really good. I want to see that!"

[All laugh]

Taigen Kawabe: "I’m sure I've worn that with you."

Jehnny Beth: "No, I never saw you in it, I would have remembered! You should play 'Words To The Blind' in it, instead of in just black."

Taigen Kawabe: "Anyone who mentions [the hoodie] – like, 'oh, Moomin!' – is over 30. I see Moomin in children’s bookshops a lot, because the generation of parents here in this country, now that they’re over 30, they buy it for their children. That’s the reason why you can see a bit more [in this country] now."

Jehnny Beth: "It’s like us and the Dadaist movement [laughs]. Simultaneous, but maybe a hundred years later."

Taigen Kawabe: 'Yeah, it’s happened with psychedelic music, as well, you know. People like to use the word ‘psychedelic’ a lot now."

Jehnny Beth: "Yeah, now the '90s are getting back."

Taigen Kawabe: "It’s quite interesting, because when we grew up, we were into this stuff from the '60s, '70s, '80s. But as you said, you don’t notice when you create history. We grew up in the '90s and early 2000s; I think my juniors from high school are really into '90s hip hop. But we grew up with that time, so we don’t appreciate it as much. We don’t think that is new, but for them it’s really new, like when R&B got into hip hop."

Jehnny Beth: "Yeah, I like the idea that we’re not necessarily in control of what transpires. It goes through us. We’re just part of this great ball of culture that is rolling."

Stolen Recordings released 'Words To The Blind' on November 17th 2014 (buy). Savages & Bo Ningen play 'Words To The Blind' live at Oval Space, London on November 19th 2014 (more information and tickets).