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Sonic Savage: Gemma Thompson

Savages guitarist Gemma Thompson plays a 1966 Fender Duo-Sonic II. “It’s a very simple guitar, but you can throw it around—you can do anything to it—and it’s very light. I know exactly when it’s going to start feeding back, at what point, what exact sound, and it’s a very intuitive instrument.” Photo by TIM

London-based punk quartet Savages shaped the material for their sophomore album, Adore Life, during an intimate club residency of live gigs in New York.

The word “savage” has many meanings. It could refer to an untamed animal, a fierce human with a wild or uncivilized demeanor, or perhaps it could be used to describe something turbulent and unforgiving. The Savages embody all of these things through the bleeding, raw, primal unadulterated power of their loud, in-your-face music.

But extreme volume and guttural riffage are only part of the story. Savages revel in contrasts. At their core, the band feeds off dynamics, drama, melody, and careful songwriting. Their music is challenging, but it isn’t difficult listening. And therein lies their appeal—in a touch of irony, they’re charged beasts who have civilized things to say about life’s finer mysteries and disturbances, through a confrontational approach.

The group’s 6-string noisemaster is Gemma Thompson, whose playing is an aural assault—unbridled, uninhibited, and drenched in fuzz and tasteful delays. She layers colors and textures, and flirts with sonic abandon. But she never slips into chaos—at least not unintentionally. Prior to Savages, Thompson was the guitarist for John and Jehn—Savages vocalist Jehnny Beth’s duo with (Savages producer) Johnny Hostile—when they decided to change gears. The band’s lineup took shape in early 2012 with the addition of drummer Fay Milton and bassist Ayşe Hassan. Thompson and Hassan had worked together before as well, which was helpful. “We’ve been playing together for about seven years or so,” Thompson says of Hassan. “The way I play and the way she plays have always been very much together. It’s echoed in how we’ve learned and how we’ve grown with our instruments.”

When Savages released their first album, Silence Yourself (2013), the alternative music world went bananas. The band’s ferocity and intense live performances—not to mention the mojo Thompson conjured up via her vintage Duo-Sonic, stompboxes, and assorted amps—landed them spots at myriad festivals and a lengthy world tour.

Post-tour, in early 2015, Savages went to New York for a three-week residency. They brought ideas, riffs, concepts, and song fragments, but no completed material. The music was fleshed out and completed live, in front of intimate audiences at NYC clubs. Savages played their new material each night, reshaped and rehearsed the songs the next day, and then test-drove the reincarnations during the next gig before a different audience. The result is Adore Life, their sophomore release featuring a mature yet-still-growing band, tight songwriting, and a varied palette of fat tones and feedback.

Premier Guitar spoke with Thompson about her unusual start as a guitarist, the band’s unique songwriting process, her trademark 1966 Fender Duo-Sonic II, the crank-ability of vintage Gibson hollowbodies, effects verses amps, and how you sometimes just need to hold a TV remote control over your pickups.

“It occurred to me that you have to become your own person to have your own sound, to go through everything to get to that point.”

When did you start playing the guitar?
I was living in a house full of musicians—instruments everywhere—and I was studying fine arts. My friends were all musicians and I would follow them out, take photographs of them, and paint their backdrops for them. I was trying to make a soundtrack for a performance thing I was working on. I borrowed some instruments and started making noises, basically, until one of my musician friends said, “Please, would you join my band as a noise guitarist?” And I did. I eventually started learning a bit more melody and rhythm, with the noise.

That is an unorthodox introduction to guitar playing.
I didn’t exactly start from a technical point of view. I literally would see how much noise I could get out of the instrument. I originally started playing a friend’s Strat. I did a lot of dive-bombing with a Big Muff pedal and just tried to make as much noise as feasible.

When did you start learning how to play chords and leads?
I tried to dive right into the more complicated things—like learning Radiohead parts and things like that. I tried to find the hardest things I could find, sit for six hours, and try to learn a very tiny thing. I got pretty good at sitting there for six hours just trying to learn one tiny detail.

One of the first things I really wanted to play was the line from the Birthday Party song, “Happy Birthday.” I was trying to learn how to play Rowland S. Howard’s guitar line by listening—I think it is in 3/4 or something, very odd little line. I couldn’t get the same energy or intensity or the way he was playing it. I realized then that to play like him, you had to go through everything he went through and be him. It occurred to me that you have to become your own person to have your own sound, to go through everything to get to that point. That kind of guitar playing you couldn’t just mimic and learn; you had to be that person to play it. That inspired me a lot to try and find my own thing. Rowland S. Howard has always been a big hero of mine.

Do you write together as a band or do you show up to rehearsal with material you’re working on?
It’s a very collaborative thing. Jehnny writes all the lyrics and she always has a notebook with her—she’s always writing all the time. When we come together to write, we do some instrumental rehearsals where the three of us just play and play and play. I always record everything, every rehearsal. We record everything and we go through it. Sometimes the four of us will be in a room together and we’ll be discussing lyrics and the sounds representing the lyrics. On this record, Adore Life, we introduced more melody. The vocal melody and the guitar melody—their voices together are very important and very considered. But it’s all written very collaboratively—each to their own instruments—but very collaboratively.

So anything could serve as a starting point.
Yeah, that’s the thing. I go through each song and think, “This drum idea is a starting point, or this word here with this sound here is the starting point, or Ayşe’s bass line here is the whole idea of a song.” Take a song like “Surrender,” for instance. Ayşe had the idea of the sound on bass—this really mean but beautiful melodic thing—a sustained, fuzz bass sound. She said, “I want to play with this idea.” So everything grew around that idea. Or “The Answer.” It comes from that guitar riff. You don’t know where the drums begin and end—everything is circular and full on.

That riff is righteous.
[Laughs] Thanks. It was very interesting. For this record we did a three-week residency in New York in January [2015]. We played nine club shows in three different clubs and we had a rehearsal studio at the same time. The idea was that instead of writing the new songs and recording straight away, we took these rough new songs and tried to play as many as possible with the intention of writing in front of the audience, with the audience. For a lot of the songs, the adrenaline of doing that really finished writing them in a way.

When we first tried playing “The Answer” live as a very rough idea, sonically it was quite tricky to get our heads around. You have to almost not rely on the sound. You have to rely on knowing the song physically and mentally. You just watch each other and know the movements, because the sound was very hard in those small clubs to precisely know what was going on. It became a bit of a sonic challenge to work out how we were going to play this intensity live—to know exactly where we were and be very precise.

Thompson prefers vintage gear with a history, and most of hers is from the 1960s. “I feel there’s something ingrained in the character of the instrument from that,” she says. Photo by TIM

How do you differentiate between the studio and live?
For the first record we had a mantra that what you play live is exactly what you play for the record. It was very much a document of our live performance. But for this record we had a lot more freedom. We went to RAK Studios in West London and we had about three-and-a-half weeks in there. It was a very comfortable, very nice studio. Fay had plenty of time on drums, Ayşe had plenty of time on bass, and I had a whole week for the guitar.

I guess that’s always the question: How do you get that same energy into the recording as you do live? Because we found the sounds and had, in effect, written the songs and finished them off live, I think recreating that was a little bit easier in the studio. It was very fun. I had all sorts of vintage Fender Vibrolux amps and Vox AC30s from the ’60s all hooked up, and I was playing with a Fender Jag and the Duo-Sonic. It was just a great time for exploration there.

Tell us about your main guitar, a 1966 Fender Duo-Sonic II.
The guitar fell onto me, if that makes sense. It just happened to become my guitar. I didn’t specifically choose a Duo-Sonic. It’s a very simple guitar, but you can throw it around—you can do anything to it—and it’s very light. I know exactly when it’s going to start feeding back, at what point, what exact sound, and it’s a very intuitive instrument. The record was recorded half with that guitar, half with a hired Jaguar, and a bit with a Gibson hollowbody.

A Gibson hollowbody? I didn’t expect that.
It was a Gibson ES-125 from 1960. It created some really beautiful low-end feedback, which was interesting. An MXR Blue Box on that instrument was quite an interesting sound.

Gemma Thompson’s Gear

1966 Fender Duo-Sonic II
1963 Fender Jaguar
1960 Gibson ES-125

Vox AC30 HW2X with Celestion Blue speakers
Fender Twin Reverb

MXR Distortion +
MXR Blue Box
Crowther Audio Hotcake Fuzz
Maxon OD808 Tube Screamer
Fulltone OCD
Strymon Reverb
Boss DD-20 Giga Delay
Mini Moog MF Drive
Mini Moog MF Delay
Roland RE-20 Space Echo
Boss TU-3 Chromatic Tuner

Strings and Picks
Elixir strings (.011–.049)
Yellow Dunlop .73 mm picks

That’s a very different instrument from your Duo-Sonic.
It is. It’s not one that I could easily translate to the Savages live show. It’s the opposite of the Duo-Sonic.

You use a lot of vintage gear. What do you like about it?
I like to know the instrument has character. I find that really important—that it’s got a history. I feel there’s something ingrained in the character of the instrument from that.

Meaning that each instrument has a personality?
I always think that. There’s a beautiful clip on YouTube of Leonard Cohen [Editor’s Note: Cohen was honored with a “Princess of Asturias” award by Spain in 2011 and traveled there to accept the award.]. In his speech, he thanked Spain for the trees and the wood that created his flamenco guitar. That idea is so beautiful. He goes to a country and thanks the wood that created his instrument because that’s the sound that comes through everything.

I like to think about the wood, where it’s from, and who has had it. The guitar is such a great instrument in that you can play all of it in any way. It’s all stereophonic. And this idea that it’s come from the trees and from the earth—it’s kind of a silly thing but also really grounding in a way. It’s really a kind of primal thing.

Talk about your approach to pedals.
I try not to use too much in terms of effects. Obviously, I use quite a bit of distortion, reverb, and delay, but I’m always trying to focus more on the manipulation of the guitar and the amp. The pedals are just a tool to manipulate that a bit more. I try to see it like that rather than what effects I can put on to make a sound.

Effects do change the way you play, but you’re saying you use them to enhance your basic sound. You’re not just pressing buttons to see what happens?
No. I mean, I do all sorts of experimenting with different things. But I think finding the right guitar, the right way to play that guitar, and the right amp should be most of the work, really. The effects are just a way to work that way of playing. Obviously, from speaking with other musicians—guitarists I really admire—or seeing what other people do, the best thing I’ve learned is that you experiment and you make your own way to do things. There is no right or wrong in what you’re doing; you should just do whatever suits you.

You don’t use loops, but for a few of the songs on the album, like “I Need Something New,” “When in Love,” and “Mechanics,” are you just using delays to create those layers?
Yeah, that’s right. In “Mechanics” I have a loop of a drone sound that I’m layering up. But in terms of loops in Savages, I try not to do that. I’m a real believer in just playing what you need to play right there. I use the [Boss] DD-20 delay and that kind of sound-on-sound process, and I use the [Roland] Space Echo as well for tap-tempo delays and stuff. But I don’t really use loops.

Do you find it difficult to recreate those sounds every night live? Do you keep it loose?
No, I manage to recreate everything, although it’s nice to experiment. If you’re feeling it, go a little bit further. I recently bought the Jag. I’m enjoying having the whammy bar to play with. I’m still working out the different sounds on that instrument. It’s just a lot of fun. But there’s always room for more manipulation.

On “When in Love,” I couldn’t tell if that was slide or feedback.
I think there is slide on that. It got to the point in certain parts of the songs where I was making cascades of noise and I had a chair full of tools just to manipulate the guitar. I probably threw a bit of that on there.

Did you have any other cool tools?
I had things like pliers and whatnot. A TV remote control is sometimes interesting. You can get very strange sounds from that.

YouTube It

Savages perform several tracks from their intense debut album, 2013’s Silence Yourself. The band’s powerful fury and sense of urgency crescendos at the 9-minute mark during “She Will.”

In Stereo

Gemma Thompson uses cool guitars and stompboxes to create her tone, but relies on amps—a Vox AC30 and a Fender Twin—to do most of the heavy lifting.

“I have a Vox AC30 HW2X,” she says. “It’s the handwired reissue with the Celestion Blue alnico speakers. It’s the closest modern Vox AC30 I’ve found to the original sound of the ’60s ones.” She would prefer a vintage amp, but touring makes that difficult. “I don’t carry spare parts like valves [tubes] and stuff yet, so I have to make sure I’m self-sufficient in terms of my amps working—as much as I would love a vintage Vox AC30 and a vintage Twin Silverface.” Her Twin is a new model as well.

Thompson tours with her own amps—she doesn’t rely on the dodgy gear clubs might provide. “I’m very particular about the Vox AC30. I’ve tried a lot of them and experimented with what’s the best modern version of the old one. It’s gotten to the point where I’m very particular about what speakers are in it.” She cranks her Vox to get her tone and usually runs her Twin clean. She runs her amps in stereo and has a custom stereo kill switch for when things get hairy. “I couldn’t find a kill switch that had two inputs in and two out that was stereo so I had one built,” she says. “I have two amps onstage in stereo with stereo reverb. The switch kills everything dead.”

Once her basic sound is intact, she adds a number of pedals to enhance her tone. Her pedalboard is simple, consisting of a few fuzz boxes and delays, with her most basic building block being an MXR Distortion +. “My pedalboard is generally based around the idea of having the MXR Distortion +, a couple of other fuzz pedals, the Boss DD-20, a nice reverb, and then going to stereo amps.” She acknowledges the Distortion + isn’t everyone’s favorite pedal, but it works for her. “I think it reacts very particular to different pickups. It’s a very colorful-sounding distortion and I think it’s very sensitive to different guitars. You probably either love it or hate it I guess.”