Review: Sonic Cinema Presents Autoluminescent with Savages & HTRK Live

“Rowland was one of those rare individuals who was running at a youthful frequency. Even when his body was falling apart, he kept that frequency. The documentary really captured that. He had an ageless spirit”. Jonnine Standish (HTRK)

I’d only just seen Savages the previous week at Kentish Town’s Forum, but when I discovered that they were performing again, at the BFI, I desperately wanted to go. They were set to play at a screening of the film Autoluminescent, about late Australian guitarist Rowland S. Howard, who I’d never heard of. Australian band HTRK were also going to perform, and I knew nothing about them either. Suffice to say, I am now a big fan of all three artists, and have already bought HTRK’s Marry Me Tonight (which Rowland S. Howard produced) and Howard’s own final album, Pop Crimes, on the strength of the song Shut Me Down alone (which features in the film and had me hooked after the first six notes).

Having missed Savages at Primavera earlier in the year and having been stuck in the balcony at Forum, I was very pleased to find my seat at the BFI just three rows from the front. I felt privileged to be so close to the band this time, and in such an intimate setting too. Drummer Fay Milton received most of my attention – she is an incredible drummer, and didn’t appear to have a second’s rest during the entire set. Singer Jehnny Beth paused half way through the set to say “It’s a great honour to be doing this night. We’ve been working on it for a year and a half, so it feels surreal that it’s actually happening”. They ended their set with a cover of Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream, “dedicated to Rowland”.

It was such an exciting night. The film was moving and funny, and I was mesmerised by Rowland S. Howard – beautiful, androgynous, Byronesque. It was upsetting to see him look so ill towards the end of his life – he died in 2009 from liver disease related to drug use. HTRK’s Jonnine Standish, who did a Q&A after the film, and was a close friend, said “drugs restricted him, and ruined his life” and suggested that he would have been much more prolific without them.

The xx’s Romy Madley Croft took the seat next to me during the Savages set, and it makes perfect sense to me that Savages, HTRK and The xx are all fans of each other’s music, as well as of Rowland S. Howard. There is sadness, pain and torment in all of their music, particularly audible in the guitar parts. With Savages and Rowland S. Howard in particular, the guitar can at times be painful to listen to. Douglas Hart (of The Jesus and Mary Chain) said, of Rowland’s guitar style, “when we first heard it, it sounded like it came from outer space”. Jonnine Standish said “I think he was broken-hearted for sure. And therefore vulnerable, and he was sensitive anyway. He had his heart broken so many times”. I also noticed how similar the singing voices of Jonnine Standish and Romy Madley Croft are.

It was a brilliant night – the film, then HTRK, and the anticipation of seeing Savages so close. I learnt so much about a man I’d never heard of, and he obviously meant so much to a lot of people. Standish said “in the last year of his life he was starting to really shine again. He wanted to live so much. It was astounding how much he wanted to live. He had his confidence back”. She tweeted the following day saying “Rowland would have loved last night, thanks @Savagesband and @BFI”.

Watch the Autoluminescent trailer here:

And if you’d like to hear Jonnine Standish and Rowland S. Howard singing together, listen to (I Know) A Girl Called Jonny on Howard’s album Pop Crimes.

Words: Zoë Bryant