By Mindy Abovitz & Kate Ryan | Photos: Bex Wade
Full Name: Fay Milton
Hometown & Lives in: London
Current Band: Savages
Drum Set-up: SJC Custom 12,14,16, 22
Cymbals: UFIP Ride, Meinl Trash Crash, Paiste 2002 Thin Crash
Fav Venues: The Independent San Francisco and The El Rey Theatre in LA
Savages has been a band on the make since well before their explosive 2013 full-length debut with Matador, Silence Yourself. They released their first single in 2012, on frontwoman-powerhouse Jehnny Beth’s Label Pop Noire, to enormously enthusiastic audiences craving a new post-punk dream team. Since then, they’ve been touring non-stop, and this past year saw the band nominated for a Mercury Prize, with Silence Yourself making it to number 19 on the UK Album Charts. They’re an incredible live band, cool and gutsy with propulsive intensity – a tough, locked-in gang of four badass women. We got to interview drummer Fay Milton about her influences, her internal monologue, and what it’s like to be in one of the most exciting bands going.
Tom Tom Magazine: Can you tell me what you think about when you’re drumming?
Fay Milton: Literally what I think about when I’m drumming? Oh, it’s hilarious. It’s like a Woody Allen monologue sometimes. It’s better to not be thinking about anything though. It’s only if I drink too much coffee before a show that the paranoia starts.
What I’m thinking when I’m writing drum parts though, I’m usually trying to combine things that don’t go together. I take inspiration from music that is completely different to Savages’ music and hammer it into a new shape. It doesn’t always work, but it’s the kind of mathematics of it that I like. When I’m making new drum patterns, I like to play along to music with drum machines usually rather than actual drummers. I like how drum-machine based patterns progress, long sections of repetition, then maybe adding a new element one at a time, the stops and drops. I’m constantly looking for the little details that give a drum pattern its energy and spirit. You can find examples from every genre of music.
What made you fall in love with the drums and pursue being a drummer?
I started when I was 8 years old, and it was basically because my best friend Lucy decided to play the drums, so I did too. It’s funny, at that age you can make small decisions based on very little that turn out to be completely life-forming. Me and Lucy loved playing the drums partly because it was a bit ridiculous, we were both really tiny girls and it just seemed so funny to be playing something that was usually the territory of big hairy men. We both learned percussion together from 8 until 18. We were learning the snare drum, xylophone and timpani mainly. Our real hit was a xylophone duet that we used to play together on our matching xylophones called ‘The Two Imps’. It was so cool.
What was your first experience playing with other people? What other kinds of band experiences have you had?
I played in all sorts of groups as a kid, but never a rock band. I played percussion in a wind band and an orchestra too. We played all sorts of music, from Leonard Bernstein to Tchaikovsky to Disney classics. There was about 50-75 young people in the band, and it was amazing to all work together and share the music with each other. I also played in a percussion group, and we would play some super avant garde pieces sometimes, I remember one piece where we set up a dinner table on stage and played wine glasses and spun plates on the floor. I loved that piece. We would have been about 13 at the time, I don’t think the audience of parents at the Bromley Youth Music Centre were really ready for that. I’ve also played in a samba band, and a gamelan orchestra. Playing music with other people is one of the greatest and most soulful ways to pass your time, I think everybody should do it. Not just people who consider themselves to be musicians. The first indie-music-world band I played in was with Adem. I played the vibraphone for him on his ‘Takes’ tour. Then I played in a 2-piece called Psycho Delia vs The Ward with Dee Plume from Robots in Disguise, it was completely riot grrl and crazy fun. That was my first experience playing the drum kit in a band- it was only a few years ago. I also played in a completely mental band called Rex Nemo and the Psychick Selfdefenders. It was kind of Krautrock performance art. When we started Savages, I didn’t have loads of experience playing the drum-kit live so it was a lot of pressure to quite quickly have that level of confidence, but I guess I’d been playing cymbal crashes in the wrong place and dropping drumsticks since I was really young, so I wasn’t afraid to go for it.
Savages cites films as some major influences, as well as music. What other cultural artifacts influence you as a musician?
A lot of my influences come from life and life situations. I think of a situation or feeling that I want to convey and then make some noise inspired by it. It’s quite primal really. Drums are like that. I think it makes more sense to intellectualise a guitar part or a lyric, but drums are based more on feeling movement, spirit and life. I’ll take a lot of influence directly from Jehnny’s lyrics to inspire what I am writing for a particular song, try to find the spirit behind what is being said and then translate that into rhythm.
I’ve read that you grew up listening to a range of things, from UK garage to jungle and drum n bass. What other musical styles do you see yourself playing, or experimenting with in Savages?
As a teenager, I was just into dancing. Being from South London, that meant garage, then drum and bass, but also my real love was disco. At that point my way of finding new music was through pirate radio and what DJs would play in the clubs that I’d go to. When the first time you hear a track is on the dance floor, then I think you use different criteria to decide whether you love it or hate it, when compared to hearing a track for the first time by yourself online for example, or at a live gig, or whilst smoking weed in your mate’s basement. The context in which you hear music is so vital to whether you think it’s awesome or rubbish. For me, it’s always just been about rhythm, about that little detail in the drum track or the vocal that makes people dance. Sometimes you can find the most incredible rhythm and energy in music that, judged by different criteria would seem like trash. When you hear music primarily as sound though, the idea of genre can become irrelevant. Now the main way I discover new music is through watching live shows, so music I’m into now much more relates to that live experience.
I’m in a stoner metal band, and we’re all women. The most common thing we get from uninitiated male audience members is “I really didn’t expect you to sound like that.” What kinds of reactions do you get as an all-female band? What motivated the four of you to start playing together, and did gender factor into that decision?
I get “You’re a lot smaller than I thought you were,” which is a fair call. To be honest, I don’t generally hear people’s reactions as being related to gender. I get a lot of female drummers coming to speak to me after the show. It’s always so nice to meet them, it’s like we share a secret together.
I got really freaked out once when a woman said to me after the show that I looked like I was ‘crushing mens balls’ or something, I mean that’s just horrible! Playing the drums loud doesn’t mean that you hate men, it just doesn’t equate in any way! There is only love in my heart when I’m playing for everybody! The thing is, people only really come and say nice things after a show and compliments make me feel a bit awkward so I kind of turn off my brain receptors. They could be saying anything for all I know.
When the band formed, it wasn’t intended to be an all-female band, it was Gemma and Ayse, they were looking for a male singer originally, then they hooked up with Jehn. Once it was three females, they thought it made sense to have a female drummer to complete the group, which is when they found me. The whole thing happened quite fast really, we had one trial rehearsal together and then our songs started coming together after that.
Does Savages see itself as a political band? How do you think about the relationship between politics and music?
I think politics and music can go hand in hand, but if you want to make a point, then you really have to commit yourself to it. I think we make a point by existing, but we are not a specifically political band.
What’s the weirdest job you’ve had, in pursuit of rock and roll?
I’ve done a million different jobs. Cleaner, gardener, barmaid, office worker, camera operator, editor, director, but they weren’t in the pursuit of rock and roll. Jobs were to eat, pay rent and buy loads of crap. My pursuit of rock and roll was more based around finding places to practice the drums. I’ve had my drums set up in all sorts of grotty basements and warehouses, playing in a huge dusty room lit only with one candle. I had my drums set up in a dilapidated toilet at one point. I’ve practiced when it’s been freezing cold, damp, dark. That was the pursuit. I’ve actually liked most of my jobs. My main job video directing and producing, I really loved. I was mainly filming live music and working with loads of bands that I loved and it was quite difficult to have to stop completely. I’m filming Bo Ningen playing live in London. It’ll be the first thing I’ve filmed in over 2 years and I’m really looking forward to it. There’s a video I made with Caribou Vibration Ensemble that should be coming out soon. It took me two years to finish the edit because I was touring so much.
Who’ve you been listening to?
Recently, non-stop wall-to-wall Sun Ra. Previous to this obsession in the last few months: Liars, Arthur Russell, Darkside, Black Sabbath, Queens of the Stone Age, John Maus, Nisennenmondai, King Krule, Mount Kimbie, Schlomo, ZZZs, Connan Mockasin, Leonard Bernstein, Julian Casablancas, Beethoven.
Are there any particular pieces of equipment that you always bring to gigs, or do you mostly use backline?
I take the normal stuff to gigs when I’m flying, my cymbals, snare, kick peals and sticks. I use Promark Shira Kashi Oak sticks in 7A, they’re small but really hard so you can whack things really hard and they don’t break. I always have my big red water bottle with me on stage so I don’t waste too many plastic bottles. Refill not landfill, if you know what I mean. I also always have a ball of old moon gels stuck together with bits of dust and hair. It’s really gross. I always think I’ll get round to washing them and I never do. That’s about it really, my set up is pretty simple.
Savages got nominated for the Mercury Prize for your debut album. Was that exciting? Did you receive any backlash from your fans based on its commercialized message?
It was exciting to be nominated for a big award. It was nice to make my family proud and be able to have our album recognised by an award as well known as the Mercury Prize. I hated having to stand in front of a Barclays logo to have my picture taken though. In hindsight I would have just not done that part. With Savages we have managed to avoid being associated with brands that we don’t genuinely endorse, it’s tricky to keep watchful of that constantly. Our fans were happy for us being nominated, they know we’re not about being involved with lots of sponsors, they are good people. My main memory from the ceremony was just being really really hungry. We didn’t get anything to eat for hours. The after party was good though.
You had such a big year last year and such a great start in terms of hype and exposure. Does that make it difficult to write new songs or does it give you the confidence to pump them out?
It’s funny I haven’t heard the word ‘hype’ for a while, but that word was ringing in our ears night and day at one point. I think we’ve kind of cocooned ourselves enough from all of that nonsense. We’re coming out the other side of that whole thing more sane and healthy than we were at the start, so I’m not worried at all about writing. We’re all really looking forward to it. We all love our instruments.
Do you think your band can be seen as Rebels? If so — why?
I’m not sure if we are seen outwardly as rebels, but our most rebellious behaviour has been behind the scenes. It’s more about the things we have not done rather than the things we have. As a new band you’re flashed wads of cash by brands wanting to drain a sip of your young blood. You’re constantly offered exposure in return for your decency. And then people think you’re crazy when you turn down money and exposure.