Fay Milton on Savages’ Adore Life
“I’m relatively new to playing the drumkit,” says Savages’ Fay Milton, who came to percussion by way of modern classical music rather than the more common path of playing rock or jazz. “So to keep my own style, I have to balance ignoring too much advice with occasionally and begrudgingly taking some of it in.”
Milton has been deftly processing what she’s heard thus far, if Savages’ new album, Adore Life, is any indication. A rhythmically sprawling but singularly intense collection, the British band’s sophomore album, like its 2013 debut, Silence Yourself, is drawing comparisons to the dark and driving early work of new wave legends like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Echo and the Bunnymen. Like the drummers in those two pillars of British rock—Budgie and Pete de Freitas, respectively—Milton has two main priorities: forward momentum and compositional variety. It’s a winning combination, because it demands our rapt attention in the present but keeps the door open for all sorts of new rhythmic ideas in the future. Modern Drummer caught up with Milton to get to the roots of her playing style and rhythmic choices.
MDL The first track on Adore Life, “The Answer,” really jumps out of the gate. That fast, rolling 12/8 thing, with such an active snare drum, is very effective. Do you recall what your thought process was when you decided on the drum part of that? Was there something specific in the song that you were playing against?
At the time I’d been listening back to a lot of early-’90s jungle, rave-era music, and early XL Records stuff. That’s the music I was really into as a young teenager, and it’s never left me. I was thinking about the drum tracks you get on those records with a lot of very fast, crashy cymbals and snare in constantly changing patterns, all very high-pitched and nasty. So [that track] came together with me trying to put something along those lines over a guitar riff Gemma [Thompson] had, which was in 12/8. It doesn’t really feel like 12/8, though—it’s not really swingy, I don’t think. It’s interesting working rhythmically with Gemma, as she thinks about rhythm in a completely different way to me, so sometimes weird and wonderful things occur like the pattern in this song.
MDL On “Evil” it sounds like you’re playing a two-handed part on the hi-hat and coming down on the snare with your right hand, with the four-on-the-floor bass drum—it’s reminiscent of what Stephen Morris from New Order might do. Then when you go into the half-time section, it adds a nice pause to the energy for a cool effect. Is that kind of arrangement decision likely to come from discussion among the band members, or do they sort of go where you take them?
When we’re writing, I’ll take some days separately to compose drum parts independently and then bring them into the studio when we get together to use as a start of an idea or to add to someone else’s ideas. When I wrote the part to “Evil” it was like that, I was trying to make a drum part where the most minimal of changes could change the groove. In this case it was just the change of opening the hi-hat slightly on some sections. The chorus part followed when we started turning all the parts into a song. I definitely wasn’t thinking of New Order when I wrote that, I never listen to music like that to get ideas for drumming. Nisennenmondai would be a closer reference—they’re an incredible Japanese band who are becoming more and more minimalist. I love the way the drummer [Sayaka Himeno] is both the master and slave of the hi-hat.
MDL What are you playing in the verses on “I Need Something New”? It’s a cool way to approach triplets within a beat.
The drum part to “INSN” is really simple. It’s just one drum after another repeated. There are three drums, so that makes it into groups of three that repeat, but it’s not triplets. I’m being geeky here, but it’s just normal straight 8th notes over a straight kick, it just has a drifting feel as it’s over three drums, so the start point keeps changing. The choruses are the same, but with cymbals instead of toms.
MDL Savages songs are great in terms of never being rhythmically stagnant. The tunes really move dynamically, and you always seem to be at the helm in that way. Are there specific drummers you’ve admired who are particularly good in terms of dynamics?
MDL I love the way that Thor Harris from Swans can go from physically creating a huge noise with gongs and then go right down to delicate notes on the tuned percussion within the same song. I think it’s a great representation of the vast breadth of human nature.
MDL What’s going on in the bass drum on the crash/bass drum buildup sections of “T.I.W.Y.G.”? Are you playing double pedal?
Yep. I bought a double kick pedal and now I’m working out how to use it. I use it in “T.I.W.Y.G.” and “Surrender.” I’m never going to be doing that super fast metal thing—although I love hearing people do that—mainly just for thundery rolls and new rhythms. I like how on a drum machine you can program a kick to play 16ths in crazy patterns that would never come naturally to play. I want to learn to do that.
MDL Were there any differences between the recording of Adore Life and Silence Yourself? Did you go into the new recording with any specific agenda, playing- or sound-wise?
We were very detailed with the sound on Adore Life. For Silence Yourself, I more or less sat down and played. This time we combed over the sounds, often pulling the rhythms completely apart and recording each individual sound separately. It was pretty grueling, but I like a challenge.
MDL What kind of gear did you use in the studio, and how does that compare to what you use live?
In the studio I used all ’70s Ludwig gear. It completely converted me to using vintage gear. Following that, I swapped my regular touring kit for a ’60s Hayman, an old British make. It’s beautiful and was inexpensive. It’s much easier to tune than my last kit, and that’s so important on the road when you have little time—and zero quiet time—to tune.
MDL Do you distinguish between how you play live versus in the studio? Some drummers say that they take a little off their velocity in the studio to avoid choking the sound of the drums.
No, I just whack ’em. [laughs] Actually, I’ve taken some of my velocity off all-round. Lots of people told me I was choking the drums, but I didn’t listen until Clive Deamer, who was drumming with Portishead, told me. I finally gave in and started hitting less hard. It’s much easier to make it through a gig now without dying.
MDL Have you ever been so taken by another drummer’s performance and thought, “I gotta get some of what they’re doing into my playing”?
Absolutely. As I mentioned, Sayaka Himeno, the drummer from Nisenenmondai—her hypnotic hi-hat work is a real inspiration, along with the beautiful fluidity with which Stella Mozgawa from Warpaint plays, and then the beast-like industrial heaviness from Faust’s drummer, Werner Diermaier, too. And loads of others.
MDL What are your plans for 2016, and where would you like to see your own playing go in the future?
Twenty-sixteen is going to be a heavy touring year for Savages. My hope is to also to find time to collaborate with more people and push my drumming to new places. As for the future, I’ve just bought a pickup system for my vibraphone so that I can run it through guitar pedals and an amp, so let’s see where that goes.