In times of political chaos, a wave of young post-punk bands from Great Britain swallows the world. One of the wave’s spearheads are called black midi, an idiosyncratic foursome who actually do something different from their contemporaries. Until recently, only one song from the Londoners could be listened to on Soundcloud. Now black midi are launching their debut album Schlagenheim, but the band members have already set their sights on unexplored terrain.
Written by: Dirk Baart
Photos: Dan Kendall
It has everything to do with the way black midi make music. They achieved their breakthrough in a way that is by no means the standard in 2019. black midi didn't win souls with a streaming hit that suddenly had to be performed on stage. On the contrary: over the last two years, the band played shows ceaselessly and manifested themselves as a must see. A black midi show seemed to flirt with the impossible: how did such young guys manage to play such inimitable and experimental music? On Dutch soil, black midi successively impressed - with growing persuasiveness - at Utrecht’s Le Guess Who?, showcase festival Eurosonic Noorderslag and Amsterdam's S105; major shows at Lowlands and in Amsterdam’s Melkweg have now been announced.
Add to that the fact that the lion's share of black midi's material comes not so much from focused writing sessions, but from endless improvisations, and it seemed a real possibility that black midi would wait for years to record its music. Sure, there was that single on Soundcloud and ‘Speedway’, a three minute, repetitive track released along with several remixes as a 15 minute video collage. But an album? No, that didn't seem right for a band that values its unpredictability so much.
However, that idea turned out to be mainly inspired by the justified yet somewhat exaggerated hype around black midi's shows, the hype that, thanks to the British music press, had already come about well before the band members themselves had figured out what exactly their band should be. "We didn't want to be mysterious at all, you know: it was always our idea to make a record quickly," says Morgan Simpson. The twenty-year-old drummer, who simply plays next to the guitarists during shows, as opposed to behind them, and causes a stir with his lightning-fast parts, is in Amsterdam with bassist Cameron Picton (19) to talk about Schlagenheim, without a doubt one of the most challenging debut albums of this century. “We now had the chance to make a record,” Picton adds. “So why put it off then? We were happy with the songs we had and didn't want to hold back our material for too long. We just want to do new things all the time and move in different directions. Releasing these songs gives us the opportunity to do that again.”
Schlagenheim is partly a successful attempt to translate the live excesses of black midi into a cohesive album, but for at least as large part the record is completely separate from the live shows of the Londoners. Each composition has really become a song, all improvisations have been brought together into – albeit enormously capricious – tracks with a head and a tail. Centerpiece 'Western', for example, which builds up from nothing to everything and ends with nothing again. Or the largely restrained closing track 'Ducter', which still explodes at the end. “A lot can happen in a 45-minute jam session,” Simpson laughs. “When we're doing that, it really feels like we're transporting ourselves to another place. Afterwards we listen to everything we’ve recorded and slowly but surely start sculpting. Sometimes someone finds one part of a session bold and another finds another part. It's not that we just fit those pieces together; usually they are so far apart that it’s not possible at all. But if we edit them a bit here and there, they can often form the basis for a new song.”
The drummer – crowned Young Drummer of the Year in 2014 – touches on the greatest achievement that black midi pulls off at Schlagenheim: from an innumerable amount of styles and sources of inspiration, the youngsters manage to form a coherent piece that sounds unmistakably like themselves. Of course black midi, with the hard-hitting riffs of '953' and 'bmbmbm' (say: 'boom boom boom', after the sound of that song) are reminiscent of bands like Bloc Party, The Fall and King Crimson. "Basically we are a rock band, we can't change that," Picton says. After that, however, Simpson immediately praises Miles Davis, whose fusion records are currently being spun on the tour bus. “He had a certain vision that his fellow musicians were really not always open to, but he always dared to change his style - from traditional swing and bebop to his electronic period. I find it incredibly inspiring that in a career spanning forty, fifty years you can continue to be so creative.”
Picton, in turn, is addicted to Danny Brown, the extravagant rapper who particularly influenced the singing styles that can be heard on Schlagenheim. “I love how he experiments with different voices in his songs. Most of Atrocity Exhibition has no features, but when I listen to that record I often had to double check. I look at my phone and it turns out to be Danny himself. I also wanted to sing in different ways. Or even scream. Not necessarily because I'm mad, but because it's cool to figure out how to do it. I still don't quite know, but that's okay."
Different voices can be heard on Schlagenheim anyway. Usually the listener is addressed by the nasal tones courtesy of frontman Geordie Greep, who deals in barely intelligible talk vocals, but can also get a tad psychotic. But Picton and guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin also take some vocal duties. “Whoever sings the song also writes the lyrics,” Picton explains. “That's why, for example, there is singing in Polish in 'Years Ago'. Matt has some family there so he's trying to learn that language. I myself just sing whatever comes to mind when we play the song for the first time. Then I will look further after that.” Would Simpson want to sing too? “Sure, totally down.”
Just to indicate: in the world of black midi there are no rules, no structures that music must comply with. The band prove everyone wrong who thinks that a music academy can only produce smooth pop stars. See, black midi originated at the prestigious BRIT School, which can also count Adele and Amy Winehouse among its alumni. There, the foursome – initially an ambient project – not only benefited from free education and accessible rehearsal rooms, but above all from the proximity of their classmates and teachers. “Everyone in our year was open to anything,” Picton says. “In addition, we have never considered ourselves very experimental: what we do is not necessarily newer than what a big pop star does, rather different from what is currently popular or what rock bands have done right before us.”
Of course Simpson and Picton feel a certain kinship with bands such as Shame, Squid or Black Country, New Road, and the duo speaks with enthusiasm about Dan Carey, the Schlagenheim producer who, as head of the famed Speedy Wunderground label, proved to have a nose for musical revelations. But there are fond memories especially of that one teacher who immersed the band members in heavy electronic music. Or the other one, who introduced the band to percussion styles from Pakistan and the surrounding area. “Many teachers are musicians themselves, so they enrich the curriculum with their own experiences,” Simpson explains. “That has had a big impact on us.”
From the academy, black midi moved to The Windmill, a pub in London's Brixton where booker Tim Perry promoted the band's first shows. Eventually the foursome would play a set with Damo Suzuki of the legendary Can, but for the band The Windmill was mainly a place to try out things, where things could fail. That attitude can be heard in every song on Schlagenheim. black midi leave room for chance in their music. They approach their music as if it were a sport or a video game, where the frameworks are only there to shape the game and you can just start over if something goes wrong.
It's no surprise, then, that the band named one of their singles after 'Crow's Perch', a location in their favorite game series The Witcher. Kwasniewski-Kelvin made the video collage of 'Speedway' with fragments from his favorite games and the band name refers to a genre that regularly serves as a soundtrack in Japanese video games. It is therefore only logical that, in addition to 'normal' press photos, the band has also created portraits in which the band members are depicted as characters from a game. “We wanted to put ourselves in places we couldn't go in real life,” Picton clarifies, who is quick to add that he also really liked the last two Hitman games. “And we wanted to create a contrast between where we are and the outfit we wear. So you see us, for example, in medieval costumes in front of a nuclear power plant, or in boxing outfits in a medieval castle. A lot more fanciful than a bored photo in front of an apartment building, don't you think?"
black midi will play at Valkhof Festival on 14 July and at Lowlands in August. The band will perform in the Melkweg on September 18. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.