Fay Milton: Savages’ Queen Beat

Monday, March 21st, 2016

Standing outside a café in Bethnal Green in East London, Fay Milton sips a cup of Redbush tea to ward off the foggy evening’s chill. As the drummer for all-female post-punk quartet Savages, she has had her hands full this week finalizing album art, video storyboarding, and of course, prepping for the European and North American tours behind brand-new album Adore Life. “We’re a very hands-on band,” Milton says. “It’s not like we just do the music and hand off the rest to somebody else.”

Savages are kindred spirits to the clubby funk-punk sound that emerged with Gang Of Four and Joy Division in the ’80s and then reemerged in the 2000s with outfits like LCD Soundsystem, Rapture, and !!! The soaring guitar chimes on “Sad Person” will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. As you’d expect with dance-y punk, Milton has lots of fun with the hi-hat, but there were many more rhythmic opportunities when tracking at London’s illustrious RAK Studio last fall. Take propulsive opener “e Answer,” which feels almost free-jazzy because she’s playing so fast and loose with the time. “What was in my head when I recorded that was the really noisy rhythms you get in jungle,” she explains. “Like drum ’n’ bass before it was called drum ’n’ bass, when it was very raw and kind of Jamaican influenced. I had the same pattern more or less, but was always making slight changes.”

Having cut her teeth in samba, jazz, and orchestral percussion, including a gamelan band, Milton never saw herself doing something as pedestrian as rock drumming. Outside this somewhat academic context, her pre-Savages bands were short-lived experiments with avant-garde and krautrock stuff. Now after three years of being in Savages she’s learned to live a little. “There’s even a couple drum fills on this album,” she cracks. “ere wasn’t anything like that on the first one, so the whole inspiration was completely different this time. I’ve learned to be a lot more spontaneous as opposed to playing with an orchestra, where you’ll sit through eight bars and get to do one cymbal crash.” [laughs]

Touring for three years loosened up her approach considerably. These days she has achieved a balance between formal constraints and pure spontaneity that serves the music well. “I don’t read music anymore but I still think of it like a grid in my head.” Adore Life’s drum parts were tracked separately, which meant a whole day might be spent just on bass drum, the next just on hi-hat, and so on. “at began this excruciating pressure to get everything just right. The first [album] was more or less live, but this time it was taking those prerecorded tracks and painting over them with kick, snare, hat, which was a real challenge.”

If it sounds physically and emotionally draining, you’d be right. “I quite like that, though,” she adds. “I’m not a perfectionist, but I’d rather spend ten hours on something than compromise and have not as good results. Yeah, it was brutal, but it was cool to go through it and come out the other side.” It seems counterintuitive to parse the beats so finely on such a broody, groove-based record, but Milton was after the kind of consistency, clarity, and precision of the underground club beats she grew up loving. “ere were some tracks where I was deliberately trying to play like a machine.”

Yet what makes Adore Life an interesting if unlikely drum album is its diverse beat profile. No, you were not hallucinating the double bass on “Surrender” and the shoe-gazey “T.I.W.Y.G.” “Yes, I did buy a double pedal,” she says, delighted. “At first it seems impossible to manage, but it’s really quite easy once you’ve got it.” Ever the percussionist, Milton even rocks vibraphone on two of the songs (“It’s very low in the mix”) and she’s planning to bring it on the road. “For the European tour I’ve got triggers for it, but I don’t know about North America. But I’ll try to get my way [laughs].

Live production, studio work, business affairs, Savages are a modern band in every sense, but as far as the physical kit goes Milton is something of a Luddite, preferring a vintage Hayman. “It’s much easier to tune the older drums.” It’s a bold move for a one-time SJC artist, but the romantic pull of a storied British brand was too powerful. “Oh, it’s constantly breaking. Our guitar tech is also my drum tech, and he’ll be handy with the screwdriver when they fall apart.”

We see no pretour jitters or lack of preparation in Milton’s demeanor. If anything, she’s poised to crush it on the upcoming tour cycle with those rookie mistakes out of the way. “I think the biggest surprise was that it’s way more fun when you stop drinking. Because when you’re not doing all that partying I could wake up the next morning and not feel like s**t. at took a while to learn, but it’s a trick I have up my sleeve for this time.”

These days it seems clueless to point out a band’s gender, and we almost didn’t for fear of Milton biting our out-of-touch heads off, but we couldn’t help ourselves. What say ye, Fay? “For us it’s a thin line to walk between talking about being a female in music and being labelled as a feminist band,” she offered with a frustrating nonanswer by email a week after our initial phone conversation. “To do that would neither do justice to our music or to all the work of active feminists.”


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