With sounds ranging from jazzy piano solos to classic folk string energy, folk rock band Friendly Savages creates music that is inviting, yet tinged with an intriguing peculiarity.
Composed of John McDonald, Josh Coulter, Malcolm White, and Michael Summers, this Austin-based group writes music that is steeped in the city’s art and culture. But though there are traditional folk elements in their music, it is clear that Friendly Savages are dedicated to the integrity of their own style as they work together to craft a unique sound.
Getting to chat with these guys was a delightful experience, and we hope you will enjoy the insights they offer about songwriting, creativity, and just enjoying life together as friends.
Ethan Weitz: Give us a little bit of background about you guys. How did you get started?
John McDonald: Our origin story is kind of random. We all met in Austin at different points. It was never like “Let’s create a band!” It was more like “We all play these instruments, we all live close by, and we all really enjoy playing.” Then Malcolm, who is the songwriter for the group, had a pantheon of fully written songs and partly written songs and just threw them on the table. So we got to play with those, and that was kind of when we came into our own and realized, “Holy cow, these are really good songs! Maybe we should play these for people.” And then it was like, “Maybe we should make a band name, too.”
Josh Coulter: Yeah, and what is so funny about our origin story is that it felt kind of like this organic growth—we’re just friends who are playing music together. We really did never intentionally set out to do this. It feels like it is propelling itself.
Emily Cardé: What gave you guys the idea for the name Friendly Savages?
Malcolm White: No one knows! It was a fun process: we got together and spit out probably like 100 different ideas in just one big brainstorming session. We eventually narrowed it down to two: The Company Boys or Friendly Savages. It felt like we were almost deciding what the ethos of the band was going to be as we were picking between those two names. Are we going to be a suspenders-wearing, cut-and-dry folk band, or something a little rowdier and looser? And we ended up going with Friendly Savages, because we wanted to be a little bit rambunctious and free to define ourselves however we wanted to.
Michael Summers: Another thing that we loved about the name—and I don’t want to overstate it and make it seem like it’s this big dramatic thing with a big meaning behind it—but we liked the paradoxical aspect of it being friendly and savage. It brings together all our different musical styles and backgrounds at once.
Emily: So who are some of your biggest musical and stylistic influences?
Malcolm: Some people that we’ve taken really explicit musical queues from are Sufjan Stevens and Wilco—drawing on some of the ways that they structure songs. And then lyrically, probably Bruce Springsteen and some of the Texas country and folk singer-songwriters.
Josh Ritter is another one, both musically and lyrically—he’s really good at creating songs that have meanings on a lot of different levels. You can engage with him at a surface level and you don’t feel lost by it, but there’s also a complexity and meaning if you want to dig deep. That’s a really cool and engaging way to make music and to structure lyrics, and we’ve learned a lot from that.
We also try to have a lot of internal rhyme and sound and rhythm with our lyrics, so there are some rappers that have definitely inspired us.
Ethan: What would you guys say is the most meaningful part of being musicians?
Michael: A lot of the conversations we’ve had over the last couple of years have been about how we want experiences to be a high value for us as a band. We want to say yes to things that we want to say yes to, say no to things we want to say no to, and not feel a lot of the pressures that can come with that. Lots of full-time musicians don’t really have the liberty to turn something down because they are just trying to feed their family, pay bills, whatever it might be. But since we have other jobs besides making music, we’ve felt a lot of freedom in being able to go after things that seem really fun. We work really hard, but we examine every opportunity that comes in front of us—do we really want it? So that’s been a really life-giving thing for all of us.
That aside, we have been able to do some really awesome things like playing at venues that we’ve always wanted to play at, or traveling and touring in other states, or getting to play alongside bands that we really enjoy listening to ourselves. We try to take a step back and appreciate it, because it’s a dream for so many people.
Our fan base has really expanded beyond just our friends and family. It isn’t just all of our parents and girlfriends in the room anymore. These are people who found us online or heard about us from friends. It’s just cool to be at that place.
Josh: Getting to do this together means a lot to us. We kind of became friends around this, and our relationships with each other mean a lot more than kind of whatever success the band has. So it’s been a blast to get to this ride together.
It’s also really satisfying that we get to make something creatively meaningful and leave that behind as a sort of legacy. We get to make the music that we want—the music that comes to us and comes from us—instead of attempting to make something for someone else’s purposes. So that’s really valuable to us.
Ethan: On the flipside of that, what have been some of the hardest things about making music?
Josh: I’d say one of the hardest things is the challenge of being sort of bi-vocational. We would love to give more time to our music. In the same way that having other jobs gives us the freedom to create what we want, having other jobs also gives us less time to create what we want. So that’s a constant tension in the art that we make.
Malcolm: Another thing is: we all love performing and paying shows, but when you’re on tour, actually playing a show is maybe only 10 percent of your day. There is a lot of a grind to it, and when we’re taking time off and vacation to go into the grind, that can be tiring and challenging.
From the songwriting side of it, I think one of the most fun things is also one of the bigger challenges: you build a lot from nothing. It’s really rewarding when you’re finishing an album and you can just enjoy the new creation. But when you’re on the front side of it, it can be a little overwhelming to think about—like “Man, there’s a lot to create here.”
Emily: One of my favorite songs of yours, ‘The Escape,’ is a fascinating narrative song. You don’t really encounter songs like that every day. What is the backstory for that song?
Malcolm: There was a Michael Chabon book called The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and one of the side stories is about Houdini. He had set up this big media event around him trying to break these handcuffs that take an expert with like three different keys to unlock. So they are said to be unbreakable, and Houdini says, “I can do it,” and gets this big crowd around him and all these reporters. They put the handcuffs on, he gets in this hidden area, and it seems like he can’t do it. Fifteen minutes pass—he would have normally been free by now. Thirty minutes pass—he can’t do it, so he asks for his wife to get him a cup of water. His wife goes and brings him a cup of water, and fifteen minutes later he’s free. So the narrator is speculating that his wife may have found him the key and hidden it in the cup of water, and he was then able to unlock himself. The narrator says, even if that is true—is it cheating, is it not, who cares?—it’s really just an extension of being able to unlock things with love.
And I thought that story was brilliant and beautiful and true, and so I went on a two-year quest to write that into a song. I probably wrote like four or five different versions which were all different and all pretty crappy. Finally it all just came together at once with what is now ‘The Escape.’
“In the same way that having other jobs gives us the freedom to create what we want, having other jobs also gives us less time to create what we want. So that’s a constant tension in the art that we make.”
Ethan: Tell me a little bit about your songwriting process. At what point do you know that a song is done?
Josh: One of the fun things we do as part of our process is taking our song ideas and kind of zooming in on them and expanding them and trying to discover what the song is supposed to sound like. Is this going to be a laid-back, in-the-pocket folk groove, or is this a more spastic indie rock song? So we take the same piece and push it different directions and see what sticks.
Malcolm: Usually there’s an “Ooh, yeah” moment where it just feels right and it hits the groove. About half the time when you have those moments, you’ll record it and listen to it a week later and think, “Man, what were we thinking? That’s crap.” But the other half the time it really sits well with you—and that’s what you’re looking for. When it hits you in the stomach and feels good.
Ethan: If you had to pick a favorite Friendly Savages song, which one would it be?
Michael: ‘Her Locket on a Chain’ is probably my favorite.
John: Mine has always been ‘Trouble with Home.’ I still remember the first time Malcolm played it for us; that one really punched me in the gut. And honestly, there’s a new one that we worked on at a recent songwriting retreat that I’m fairly certain is going to become my favorite. It’s shaping up to be a really cool little song.
Josh: Great plug, John. You know how to do PR.
I’d go with ‘Counted Lost,’ just because it encompasses a lot. I really love playing it live—it’s a fun uniting moment for us on stage. It’s got a sing-along-able outro that people really connect with and love to sing along with, and it kind of transitions across a variety of different sounds and feels. To me, that’s one of the things that reflects our name and our band.
Malcolm: ‘Natchez Trace’ is probably my favorite. I like the song a lot—it means a lot to me on a few different levels. For me as a songwriter, it was one of the first songs that I was really proud of and thought might mean something to other people too.
“It’s really rewarding when you’re finishing an album and you can just enjoy the new creation. But when you’re on the front side of it, it can be a little overwhelming to think about—like ‘Man, there’s a lot to create here.’”
Ethan: Looking back over your musical journey, how do you think you’ve grown as musicians and how has your music morphed?
John: Even though we weren’t The Company Boys, we started off more like The Company Boys: a lot of folk bluegrass with a flash in between, a lot of banjos and mandolins. More upbeat, positive, foot-stomping type music. But then we got kind of sick of our instruments and we wanted to change it up. So with East in the Morning we moved over into the alternative rock, indie rock kind of thing. Heavier beats, electric guitars, and synth-type stuff. We loved making that album. It was very different from O, Joshua! but it was equally fun to make.
At the recent songwriting retreat that I mentioned earlier, it felt like we were sort of going back to our roots a little bit. There was a lot of O, Joshua!-esque songs that Malcolm was presenting, and as we played through them and were developing them, that’s the direction they were going. And I’m really excited about that because I love the banjo and mandolin, and I think a lot of Malcolm’s songs really lend themselves naturally to that sort of emotion. You guys agree?
Michael: I agree. O, Joshua! was born out of the way that we got started: jamming with friends with acoustic instruments. So it was born really naturally. It definitely took a folk rock vibe, coming out of Malcolm’s singer-songwriter-type approach to lyrics and the fact that we wrote these in a house playing acoustic instruments. One of the things I really love about that first album is that it kind of captures this wild energy. We actually recorded it on tape instead of digital. It feels like you’re right there with us, in a living room or at a live show—really raw and energetic.
And then, as John was saying, we felt a sort of pull from the indie rock vibe. We felt like we had said what we needed to say with the mandolin and banjo. Our music became a little deeper and the chord progressions became a little more unpredictable—they require engaging and really listening in. We grew as musicians, and we felt like we had new chops and new ways to say things, so we got to explore that for a little bit.
And now we’re kind of answering the question of what do we want to say next? I’m excited to see where we go for the next one.
Emily: When can we expect your next album to come out?
Michael: Great question! In the meantime, we challenged ourselves this summer: Could we do a cool cover of Justin Bieber? So we sent out a little cover of ‘Sorry’ by Justin Bieber. Hopefully it will tide people over.
Malcolm: Really, it’s hard to know when the songs are going to be ready. We’re also trying to figure out if we are going to do an EP or an LP and what kind of process we want to go through for recording it. And also we’ve got to let songs breathe and discover themselves. So it’s hard to put a timeline on it. But we’re excited for what is next.
Photos courtesy of the band.