“This is a very C.A.L.M breakfast,” hoots Savages’ vocalist Jehnny Beth as Johnny Hostile, her creative collaborator and long-term partner, wanders into the room peeling a banana. The pair have sat down for (virtual) breakfast in their Paris flat to discuss their new project C.A.L.M. Beth’s quite right; it sets the tone nicely.
Created as a collaboration, the new book Crimes Against Love Memories is a project of two halves. Beth’s collection of lusty short stories explore sex and desire, accompanied by Hostile’s erotic photography (the duo have kindly shared some exclusive images from the NSFW publication with NME).
Her stories are both throughly debauched and artfully surreal, Hostile’s photos drawn from a similarly playful world. The photobook’s most transgressive moments – there are shots showing urination, exhibitionism and various kinks – are interspersed with lighter moments: models decked out in leather harnesses making cups of tea and bare bums poking slightly absurdly through curtains. None of the people pictured in C.A.L.M have modelled before – instead, they’re friends and people that the couple met in Paris and LA.
Sharing work of this nature (and select aspects of their open relationship) felt slightly weird at first, they agree. “There’s a certain conformity that comes with the idea of the couple and monogamy,” Beth points out. “We should have called the book Crimes Against Lame Monogamy,” Hostile retorts. Banana devoured, they settle in for a chat about the project.
When did the idea of C.A.L.M first come about?
Johnny: “To start with photography was a recreational activity for me and not really an artistic activity. I’d never done photography before. I was just experimenting in my own little world, taking pictures and I wasn’t sure about having a book or showing the photographs. I thought it would kill the fun. Like everything I do creatively I struggle with releasing the work. In showing it, some of the fun can be taken away.”
Jehnny: “I was talking about doing a book, but I didn’t really know what I was going to do exactly. I’d been working with the designer Tom Hingston, who did the cover of my [recent solo] album ‘To Love Is To Live’. He asked if we wanted to be part of his Window Series exhibition in London. He invited different artists like [Massive Attack collaborator] Nick Knight to show work, and that’s when we first thought about showcasing the photographs.
“Johnny thought more about the concept, and that’s when the word C.A.L.M came in. At first it was called the Crimes Against Love Manifesto – I wrote a C.A.L.M manifesto – and now that’s part of a short story called ‘Drips’.”
You seem to like a good manifesto, Jehnny – you also write them to accompany your work in Savages. Why are they so important in solidifying what you want to achieve?
Jehnny: “I think they’re really helpful when you work with other people. A manifesto is a way to group people around an idea, and once it’s written it starts to be real, and a bit more concrete. One of my biggest pleasures is to write a manifesto and share it with the other artists I’m working with: whether that’s Savages, or Johnny. It’s a sort of agreement, and it becomes something you share. It makes you feel part of a club or exclusive gang.”
You don’t show any faces in the C.A.L.M photographs, Johnny. How come?
Johnny: That’s very intentional for several reasons. The first one is to protect the person in a world of selfies and facial recognition software. I hate that; I’m really against that kind of shit. Also, none of these people are professional models. They’re friends, or people we just met. The deal I have with them is that I won’t show their face, or tattoos in some cases.
I didn’t want to have anything to disturb us. The sessions were never serious. Laughing, drinking tea, no alcohol, no drugs. It’s a healthy, safe environment.”
Are the photos staged or directed in any way, or is it spontaneous?
Johnny: “The models did whatever they wanted. I’m just documenting things that are happening and trying my best to make good pictures.”
Jehnny: “Sometimes people did things for the first time. Because of the anonymity and the relaxed atmosphere, I think they felt free to open up.”
There are shots of ashtrays, the view from the window, people looking out from the balcony. Why did you want to include those everyday images?
Johnny: “I was quite influenced by [German-Australian photographer] Helmut Newton – casual spaces, hacked with sexuality. Perverting reality. That’s what I love about the shots of people smoking a cigarette on the balcony, dressed up. It’s just about showing people living like that and not doing anything sexual. Just being empowered eating their breakfast.”
Jehnny: “Yeah, we’re fully naked under this [table off-camera]. That was a joke. We’re not naked. Sorry.”
Do you think some of the images are pornographic?
Jehnny. “Yeah. I mean, there’s female ejaculation, full genitalia. But I don’t think it’s a bad word, just a genre.”
Johnny: “For some people, pornography has a bad definition. I don’t really care. Some of the short stories could be seen as pornographic too; they’re quite graphic. What do you think about that?”
Jehnny: [Laughs] About my pornography? Well, I don’t think of pornography as a bad word. When I use it, I mean it in the good sense – just to describe what a thing is. In the short stories I consciously wanted to flow between genres. I was searching for erotic poetry, years previously to this, when I was writing for Savages. I was on a quest to look for things around [the band’s 2016 album] ‘Adore Life’ – I wanted to know what was out there, and who talks about love and sexuality. I read a lot of gay poetry: it’s so poetic – and then suddenly a throbbing cock!”
In Savages you wrote a lot about sexuality, but in a way that felt detached from intimacy. Your solo album feels warmer in the way it talks about desire, and the same is true of C.A.L.M. Have you noticed that shift?
Jehnny: “Yes. When you’ve been thinking collectively in a band for five or six years… trying to keep an identity in a group takes a lot of effort. And so I discharged myself from that. It was a happy burden, I was happy to carry it, but I had some work to do on a personal level, and I felt a bit lost. I think my work is a reflection of that, naturally: you’re not writing for four people any more.
“In Savages, I was always conscious that what I was saying needed to speak to the people I was playing with. Savages is a great band live because of that group strength. Working outside of that constraint – and when I say constraint, it’s not a negative word – I was perhaps more inclined to be more personal, I suppose.”
During the deepest depths of lockdown, Jehnny, you held weekly readings from the short stories you had written. Did you enjoy becoming the pandemic’s main source for erotic fiction?
Jehnny: “The readings were a highlight for me! It’s funny – I would’ve hated to do that sort of thing normally, but because of corona-virus and lockdown it became something that I looked forward to every week. Afterwards, I realised that you feel much better. You’ve exchanged something with people: you feel less alone, less in confinement.
Do you each have a favourite photograph from C.A.LM?
Jehnny: “There’s a recurrent theme of buildings with characters naked at the windows: whether it’s in Paris or LA. They’re very distant, and for me it’s a way to see them in a different dimension. I like that change of perspective. I always look up in Paris at the buildings to see if I can see naked people at the window.”
Johnny: “The last picture in the whole book is of an ashtray. It has the phrase Act Natural printed on it. We stayed at this place in LA for two months taking photographs, and this ashtray was there all the time – I think it’s a great accident.”
And, Jehnny, how about the short stories?
Jehnny: “‘Story of the Hole’ because it’s just very disgusting. It was fun to imagine someone crawling in piss in order to be able to see penises, and to try and find the right words for that. When you’re writing you can push elements of reality and make them bigger. I don’t ever think about protecting my reader. If I have a character in a toilet and she has to crawl down to see through a hole, I’m naturally going to think: piss, shit, smells, mops of hair. It’s quite disgusting.”
Johnny: “Please, I’m having breakfast.”
‘C.A.L.M.: Crimes Against Love Memories’ is published by White Rabbit in two formats: a limited edition book of photographs by Johnny Hostile; and a book of stories by Jehnny Beth. Signed special editions are available from RoughTrade.com