Paul Connolly from the Wood Burning Savages takes the call. New music is due. ‘Hand to Mouth’ is a song with anxiety in the top notes and rage in the low frequencies. It’s the first release since the Stability album of 2018, which won awards and detailed the ever-grinding dread of the day.
Back then, they sang of broken mental health, taboid filth and a refugee crisis. In our most hopeful times and when the music carried us, we had supposed that the decline was at base level. Now, the Savages are back with an update. It’s more horrific, like we know. The challenge, for the artist, is to write it up well. To put meaning in the disgust. To work up empathy and look for fixes.
The Wood Burning Savages played the Ulster Sports Club in Belfast last May and were active at Stendhal festival July. New tunes were blazing and righteous. There was a song about Priti Patel and the Home Office (‘Climb the Ladder’), body shaming (‘Lagerfeld’), media poison (‘1,000 Mumbling Virgins’) plus a ballad called ‘Last of the Legacies’ that recalled Dylan in ’66, twisted but undefeated.
Paul Connolly has become an alternative leader and a motivator. He works in music education. He writes well (including a regular Dig With It column) and when you hear him on the radio, there is wit and authority. Time then, to hear more.
‘Hand to Mouth’ has arrived without too much fanfare. Any reason for the sudden arrival?
We’ve been sitting on this one for a while. It’s all part of the bigger plan of things. Being music listeners ourselves, we’re scunnered with, ‘big things coming’, and ‘pre-save links’ and all that sort of stuff. We’d rather just let the song do the talking.
When you wrote ‘Hand to Mouth’, you perhaps didn’t realise what a horrendous zeitgeist it was going to be?
That’s the story of where we’re at at the minute, in terms of songwriting. We didn’t want to write a follow-up to Stability. So if Stability was imagining how much worse it could get, the songs that we have now are about how many of our rights and how many of the things that we took for granted have been eroded and stripped away, and just how downtrodden people are. And across the class divide, how worried people are. Whether that’s working-class people or the ‘squeezed middle’, as they’ve always been called. Lyrically speaking, I’m casting an eye over things and thinking, holy fuck. This is where we’re at right now, where migrants are getting burned out of hotels.
It’s baffling. On the songs we’ve pulled together, which will be revealed in good time as an album, it’s a reflection of all the things I’ve been thinking – on a local level, on a national level and on an international level as well.
It’s been quite a gap since the Stability album. Was that intentional?
To be honest, we had a lot of stuff written. We looked at it and between me and Dan, we thought, ‘is this really reflective of what we want to say?’ And, ‘is this good enough, or are we just sort of chasing something?’ Just to keep people happy, to do the post-punk thing, with the rumbling bass line and something vaguely spoken word. Which seems to be de facto at the minute. We had all this stuff and then we just cleared the decks again.
COVID happened, so that was two years of everybody sitting on their thumbs. We thought, we don’t want put out this stuff just for the sake of putting it out, and not really being happy with it, when we look back on it in a couple of years. So we wrote a lot more. We got Rocky (O’Reilly, producer at Start Together studios) on board. He was enthused and excited. It was good to work with him again. We didn’t want to put something out over COVID for the sheer fact that it was so difficult for bands to make a bit of an impact.
Every musician that I’ve talked to, I’ve asked them, would you do that again? Nine times out of ten people just said, ‘no, I would rather have had a long incubation period and a bit more of a think’. Because everybody’s coming out with an album that has a song on it called ‘Isolation’. You’re trying to be sensitive to what everybody went through, but at the same time, the strength of the Savages is that it’s coming from a different angle. I didn’t want to put out a COVID record. The brace of songs we have now are really reflective of where life’s at, right now.
‘Hand to Mouth’ sounds a bit like the Manic Street Preachers around the time of The Holy Bible. On their songs like ‘Faster’ and ‘Revol’, the mood was claustrophobic. The walls had come in, really close. Does that make sense?
It totally does. It’s funny, because if Dan looked at my record collection and I looked at his record collection, we wouldn’t have a lot of common ground, apart from the Manics. That’s a band that we’ve been compared to a few times. I suppose that’s because of the surgical-ness of the lyrics that I bring, and the production skills that Dan brings, with his love of hard, industrial stuff.
With this music that we have coming, we looked at the strength of the lyrics and said, right, these are the chord sequences but we need the production to be really laser-focussed on evoking a certain emotion. And for ‘Hand to Mouth’, it’s about the claustrophobia of poverty. Being pulled from every angle. People feel, ‘I need to go here and I need to do this’. Even just to get by. I’m really, really proud of the fact that we’ve captured that across this song, and the others that are coming too.
What about the mention of “generation back burner” in the lyric?
We’ve had 13 years of not only Tory rule, but 13 years of cyclical austerity. With periods of recovery in between. Here in Northern Ireland especially, because Stormont has shit the bed twice in quick succession, it’s feels like we’ve been between these periods of drawn-out austerity. You know, people are put into medical comas, so that their body doesn’t shut down on them? We’ve been in a medical coma, because our quality of life hasn’t gotten any better, despite 13 years of promises. So that’s the notion of “generation back burner”.
When I started The Wood burning Savages, I was fresh out of university. I was told that if you work hard, you’ll get A, B and C. You’ll get to where you want to be. And that’s simply not the case. Whether it’s nepotism or whether it’s your class you whether it’s your lack of knowing people – The Tories have really shown us it’s not what you know, it’s not what you aspire to be, it’s who you know and how much money you have.
So we’re all living hand-to-mouth, right now. I don’t think that’s too grand a phrase, at all. I think that hits the nail on the head for everybody right now. They’re normalised food banks and created a gig economy.
As the song says, it’s a party line. A dis-assembly line. It’s like, ‘what can we disconnect this month?’ ‘What can we fuck up?’
You’re totally right. I’m glad you’ve picked up on that line as well. That was having a quick chat with somebody whenever we were at South-by (sxsw in Austin, Texas). I was chatting to somebody who used to work in PR for the Tory party. She said, I washed my hands completely of this. I was like, ‘wow, how did that happen, is it still something you do?’ She said, no, I got out of their because it was all about toeing the party line, leaving your emotions at the door. Being cold and clinical. And the more you do that the more you normalise meeting quotas and getting the likes of Dominic Raab on TV…
The more they look at your obsequiousness, your servility to the party – the more you care about the party, the less you care about people – the Tory party rewards you. It was one of the freakiest conversations I’ve ever had.
It’s dogmatic. It’s about their theory. Like the Liz Truss moment in power. They don’t care about the human cost.
Exactly. Dogmatic is exactly the word. Party before people. It’s not even a patriotism. It’s the hyper-normalisation of a cult. It’s bonkers. So it’s sort of trying to channel that rage that your average person feels. It’s really a song about the stagnation of our quality of life.
So there’s an entire album, waiting to come off the back of the truck?
For now, we’re coming in from the cold. We’re saying, we haven’t gone away. We’re still writing songs. We’re still making music. There is gonna be an album coming.
(More Wood Burning Savages content will feature in Issue 10 of Dig With It, due out later in the spring. The band play the Limelight 2, Belfast on March 25, part of the Imagine festival. Ticket info here.)