Rages with a Satisfying Crunch: An Interview with Taken by Savages

taken-by-savagesJoseph Ziemba of Taken By Savages

Taken by Savages are a group that I stumbled across by accident one day, unaware of the history behind Annie Choi and Joseph Ziemba’s musical partnership. Choi is a celebrated writer with a couple excellent books under her belt, and Ziemba is an indie rock vet who also happens to run the cult film site Bleeding Skull and is a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse. But together they are Taken by Savages, a take-no-shit duo with a stripped down sound who happened to recently put out an album we here at Ovrld love.

Ovrld: It seems like 2012 was a pretty busy year for both of you, with the two of you not only recording an album but also moving across the country, albeit to separate locations. 2013 seemed relatively quiet for you by comparison, but this year you’ve released Taken by Savages’ debut. How did Taken by Savages come about?

Annie Choi: Joe and I met through mutual friends in LA about four years ago. Joe was living there at the time, and I was visiting from New York. We started talking about Burial Ground, an Italian trash-horror film from 1981, one of our favorites [You can actually watch the full movie here, if you’re so inclined. -ed]. We hit it off and started talking about music. At some point, Joe started sending me some songs he was working on and we basically swapped tracks back and forth.

Joseph Ziemba: That’s all true. Then, after about six months and ten songs, we discovered that there was more to the relationship than just playing music. One of the first things we did together was take a road trip from Chicago to LA. That’s when the concept and sound of the band solidified — all those hours of talking and the general excitement of being on the road. The first set of songs was basically Annie on synths and me on drums, guitar, bass, and vocals. And it was cleaner, more power-poppy. I asked her if she’d be interested in singing leads and she said, “Absolutely not. Over my dead body.”

AC: We certainly love classic exploitation horror–Joe has built an entire career around it–so the name came out of that. But there’s no connection between the name and Austin vs L.A. vs New York. Taken By Savages was actually a variation on a rejected name of an old band I had exactly a hundred and thirteen years ago.

Ovrld: Taken by Savages has a gritty, raw sound that recalls early Enon to me and I noticed your Bandcamp page has “90s alternative rock” and “grunge” for tags. Was their a conscious effort from the start to work in influences from scenes like Touch ‘n’ Go and Merge? Do you feel like that era of indie is making a comeback in general?

JZ: We grew up in the 1990s, so that influence is inherent. Its always been there in my music, but I’ve always consciously fought it. With this band, I just wanted to let things happen naturally and have fun. I didn’t filter out the 90s influences, like I usually do. I just didn’t care. So it wasn’t really a conscious decision, but more of a realization that we should do what comes naturally and not worry about it. And what comes naturally is a Rat pedal and big drums.

AC: I do think that era is making a comeback, meaning bands from that era are coming back and touring as if it’s 1993 again– The Breeders, Pixies, Neutral Milk Hotel, Dismemberment Plan, and a bunch of others. And there are some new bands that definitely have a 90s flavor. Wait, what do the 90s taste like?

Ovrld: The set-up of Taken by Savages is different from most projects you’ve been in, Joseph, with you on drums and backing vocals and Annie on lead vocals as well as bass and synth. After spending so much time front and center, were you anxious to step back a bit? How do the two of you divide songwriting duties?

JZ: It felt so good to step back. So good! Actually, I had no intention of ever being in another band again. But in the back of my mind, I fantasized about playing drums in a band. Drums were my first instrument and to this day, I get more enjoyment out of playing them than anything else. The band was completely different when it started, but it naturally gravitated towards a bass/drums set-up.

AC: The songs are 100% collaborative. We come up with riffs or song fragments apart, then finish them together. Occasionally, Joe will demo a full song and we’ll make changes and riff on it.

JZ:  I wrote most of the lyrics on the album, with some input from Annie. But for the next one, we’re pretty much writing all of the lyrics together, or splitting them up equally.

Ovrld: Annie, I’ve been a fan of Acoustic gear for a while, and I loved your Amazon review of the 260 MKII you bought (and the Guitar Center takedown within it). You’ve got a great tone on the recordings you have up and I was curious to hear what else you use in your set-up, particularly that overdriven sound on “Hawaiian Thigh.”

AC: Our whole set-up is pretty lean and efficient. Joe’s not playing on some 12-piece kit with chimes and a gong, and I certainly don’t have a giant board with 15 pedals that I use for one second on one song. We want to keep things as simple as possible. On “Hawaiian Thigh,” we ran the bass through a Rat pedal into the Acoustic amp. We also layered another track with the bass running through a Vox amp with the distortion turned up. I think Guitar Center would call the sound “a scorching boost of heavy D that rages with a satisfying crunch, not unlike a bag of Doritos Extreme.”

JZ: We also experimented with recording Rat bass straight into the mixer. And layering several bass tracks playing the same thing through different sources.

Ovrld: The production on the singles you have up is great, what was the recording process like for the debut? Was it self recorded while you were both still in LA?

AC: Actually, Joe was in LA and I was in NY. We wrote a lot of the songs via Skype and e-mail, sending tracks back and forth. I visited often and we did a lot of recording together too, but a significant chunk of the album was done in different cities. Joe recorded parts in his kitchen and in a friend’s garage. I recorded in my kitchen too, which was also my bedroom and my living room (my last apartment was about 200 square feet).

JZ: I think a lot of the production came out of a sense of urgency. Meaning, “My friend Dan’s going to be home from work soon, and I only have thirty more minutes to record drums in his garage!” So I basically did the best with what I had when I started mixing. I also embraced my Tascam 4-track cassette for this album. I used it sparingly for Beaujolais and hadn’t used it so heavily since the Wolfie days. For Taken By Savages, almost all of the drums were recorded on 4-track. It felt good to have that constraint again. I was forced to not fuck around with drum tracks for fourteen hours, like I’d done with The Like Young. It was freeing.


Ovrld: Taken By Savages’ sound seems like it would be especially powerful live, do the two of you have plans to do shows once the album is out? Or does the long distance nature of the group make that impossible at the moment?

AC: We’d love to do shows, but it’s hard logistics-wise. It requires us to buy two of everything. Gear for recording in NY (sorry, neighbors) and gear in Austin. And we’re slowly doing that. But we don’t have a typical practice schedule either. A live show would be super fun though.

JZ: I agree. I’d like to play live when/if things slow down with work and Bleeding Skull. I was set against playing live for a long time because of how The Like Young ended. I couldn’t get over it and felt like any attempt to play live would be sabotaged. But that feeling has passed. I’d love to play live with Annie, so we’ll make it happen at some point. We practice when we can and it’s always fun.

Annie-Choi-2Annie Choi of Taken By Savages

Ovrld: What are your impressions of the Austin scene in general so far, Joseph? What’s New York’s take on us, Annie?

AC: New York loves Austin! I think it’s easy to hate LA (Traffic! Smog! Gwyneth Paltrow!) or SF (Vegan, gluten-free saltines! “Burners”! Dudes in Google Glasses!) or Portland (Precious coffee that takes fifteen minutes to “cup”!). But, it’s pretty hard to hate Austin, aside from the whole “it’s in Texas” thing. Austin has a whole bunch of stuff that New York will never be able to recreate (Breakfast tacos! Barbeque! High quality of life!) and Austin’s not trying to be something it’s not. I think New Yorkers respect that. Austin’s good livin’.

JZ: All true! I really like living in Austin. I miss the weather and general atmosphere of LA, but Austin allows me to do many things that I never dreamed were possible when I was living in other cities. In terms of music in Austin, I’m completely and hopelessly out-of-the-loop. I haven’t even been to a show yet. Every time I get excited about a show I want to see . . . it happened yesterday. I spend a lot of time in movie theaters.

Ovrld: I actually came to your music kind of backwards, Joseph, first discovering Beaujolais’ Cymbals through the Austin tag on Bandcamp which led to me being so impressed I worked my way through your discography and realized there was a lot of history there. But given the intimate nature of Beaujolais’ music, it felt appropriate to discover your songs this way, through a collection of demos assembled over half a decade. When you released Cymbals, did you intend it as an introduction to Beaujolais or did you believe it would be of more interest to long time fans? Is it a goodbye of sorts to the Beaujolais moniker now that you’re doing Taken By Savages with Annie?

JZ: Thanks! I’m glad that you liked Cymbals! My only goal with that was to release more music that was up to my standards and have fun doing it. I’m very hard on myself, but I felt that there was some good stuff left over from those albums. Digging through all that material, sequencing, and mastering it made me happy. It was nice to revisit some of the outtakes–particularly from Love At Thirty— without feeling awful, which had been the case in the past.

As for Beaujolais, I don’t think I’ll ever say goodbye. As Annie says, “It’s always there when you need it.” I’ve recorded some 4-track stuff over the past year, but I’m not sure it’ll ever be released. Sometimes, it’s just nice to take a break from the world and waste away a Saturday night with my 4-track. Doesn’t matter what happens to the results after that night is over.

Ovrld: After Beaujolais’ debut Love at Thirty, your music moved in more of a synth heavy indie electro direction, with your previous EP Adults Only placing synths and drum machines squarely front and center and its predecessor Moeurs obviously paving the way for that after the more stately Admirations. What made you decide to make synths such a dominant part of Beaujolais’ sound? Was it partially driven by a desire to differentiate Beaujolais even more from your previous band the Like Young? And how has it been to return to a more aggressive sound with Taken by Savages?

JZ: The synth stuff just kind of happened naturally with Beaujolais. It wasn’t a reaction to the past bands. I’d always wanted to make music in that style ever since I first heard hollAnd/Sea-Saw’s Magnetophone in 1995. That album was, and still is, a major influence. The subject matter was more frank than anything I had written in the past and the synths felt like a complement. Returning to a more basic “rock” set-up with Taken By Savages has been a breath of fresh air. I’d forgotten how good it felt to hear a distorted bass through an amp.

AC: The bass/drums set-up makes Taken By Savages really bottom heavy–we like to say the band has a “fat ass.” So sound-wise it feels really different from Beaujolais and The Like Young, but there is still a similar pop sensibility in there. Also, the vocals are way more laid back.

JZ: The Like Young was pretty aggro at times, both in performance and subject matter. That rage in me is gone, so it really changes the tone of the music.

Ovrld: You’ve stated that Adults Only was originally intended as a ten track album, but that after six tracks you felt you’d said everything you needed to say. Two of the tracks that didn’t make the cut but that pop up on Cymbals are “Linens” and “Horns,” which you’ve said are connected, with the latter happening the day after the former. I find it interesting that these songs are narratively connected but didn’t fit in with the statement you wanted to make with Adults Only. I was hoping to hear more about how you determined the six tracks that made it to Adults Only and what your original ten track vision was like.

JZ: The six tracks told a cohesive story that concluded in a happy place. I wanted to end the story that started with Love At Thirty on a positive note. After I finished, it was just like, “That’s it!” and I was done. The remaining four songs delved deeper into that happiness, but they felt redundant. I didn’t feel like finishing them.


Ovrld: You’ve also said that the story started in Love at Thirty ended with Adults Only. Do you mean that in a personal or literal sense? Do you view that process as a metamorphosis of sorts?

JZ: Absolutely. All of the above. In 2007, I hit my lowest point in life. Beaujolais was an attempt to repair myself through music. I knew that era would end eventually because after a certain point, my mental health would improve and things would be good. And that’s what happened. The whole project was basically creative therapy combined with real therapy to get my life where I wanted it to be. It took a lot of work, but there was no other choice.

Ovrld: I’ve got a soft spot for “Linens,” and also for “Our Purple Moment,” a song that is among my favorites of Beaujolais’ and conveniently is also another sonic orphan. I’m impressed that Beaujolais’ outtakes hold up so well, but also by how fully formed your stylistic diversions are. Do you believe that experimentation is crucial to your work, even if it doesn’t always pay off? And do you ever return to any of these experiments, like the aborted “rock” album “Our Purple Moment” was intended for?

JZ: Thank you very much. Glad you’re into those songs! Experimentation is fun. Sometimes, I feel like I don’t experiment enough. But experimentation is what usually leads to things that I like, but should never be heard by the public. I rarely return to aborted projects because they’re either awful or sound too much like another band. If I do go back, it’s just to pick and choose bridges or choruses that I liked, but didn’t work in the context of earlier songs. We raided some unused Beaujolais stuff for early Savages songs. But those songs were, in turn, also ditched. I’m basically saying that returning to old material never pays off. At least for me.

Ovrld: You both appear to be phenomenally busy and recently even published a Bleeding Skull book. How different was the publishing process from recording an album? Do you feel that your production background helped prepare you at all? Does your Drafthouse gig mean we might see your music and film passions colliding some time soon, Joseph?

AC: The writing process in books and music is kind of similar–you do things over and over and change things and improve or expand them. At some point you question something, cut it, or trash a whole section. But the publishing process is really different. With the record, we finished and put it out and we can quickly interact with people as they listen and share. With books, things are just slower. It’s slow to print, slow to distribute, slow to consume. It’s faster for someone to get down with a half-hour record or a two-minute song than a 300 page book.

JZ: Yeah, definitely. The process for each is the same. I approach them the same way in terms of dedication and drive. But books are a more complicated process by nature–there are more cooks in the kitchen and you have less control over the final product. That can be a good thing in the right situation. I don’t see my work at the Drafthouse overlapping with music anytime soon. I actually can’t think of a situation off of the top of my head that would call for it.

Ovrld: Your family had an interesting take on your first novel, Annie, have you played Taken by Savages for them yet? If so, what did they think?

AC: My parents haven’t heard Taken By Savages yet because it’s difficult just getting them the music. They don’t understand the Internet — in fact, my brother has to print webpages for them to read because they don’t know “how to get it on the computer.” However, when they are finally able to listen, I’m not sure they’d like it. It’s probably too “noisy” for my father, who loves Bing Crosby. My mother loves Usher. Taken By Savages does not sound like Usher.

-Morgan Davis