Working with knotted melodies and complex compositions, black midi develops a sonic assemblage loosely focused on building things up and tearing them down. Each album transforms the band's sound while maintaining their gifted musical skills at the fore through performances both technically masterful and ambitiously zany. Now on their third record, Hellfire, black midi no longer have anything to prove, and they can dig into the singular trail they've blazed with confidence.
Written by Sara Nuta
On a breezy May afternoon, the band members of black midi sit around a table on the rooftop of NEMO, the mammoth green structure and science museum in Amsterdam. There’s vocalist and guitarist Geordie Greep (23), bassist Cameron Picton (23), and drummer Morgan Simpson (23). The museum–known for its playful, immersive exhibits–is a fitting location to chat with the experimental trio ahead of their infernal and endlessly thrilling third album, Hellfire.
Designed by architect Renzo Piano, the rooftop is made to feel like an elevated town square, and with enough wind, it feels like sitting on a terrace among the clouds. From this vantage point, the docked boats bobbing in the distance appear like little LEGO ships, and the city splays out like a Sims creation. We’re surrounded by cascading cement steps, oblique fountains trickling water, and children running about; yet, the ostensibly chaotic elements, much like a black midi song, converge harmoniously.
When black midi splashed onto the scene in 2018, there were many questions. They made a name for themselves with their riotous live shows around the South London circuit, playing at Brixton’s famous Windmill venue; they were labeled the “best band in London” before publishing any music online. The band’s early sound reeled through the post-punk discord of The Fall, prog associations of King Crimson, and virtuosic jazz of Miles Davis–but rather than sounding anachronistic, black midi brought these elements to life with teenage verve.
With no social media presence at the time, black midi’s cultural capital was based on word-of-mouth buzz. That is until video clips on YouTube of their live shows began to gain traction online. Later, the video of their mythologizing KEXP performance would springboard them to the attention of millions. In 2018, black midi premiered their first single, ‘bmbmbm’, a sprawling, exploration of avant-noise rock, and a year later, their debut album Schlagenheim was released on famous UK label, Rough Trade Records.
The buzz was warranted. After being heralded as one of Britain's most exciting new bands, black midi made good on this promise by amping up the drama and shaking up the time signatures. Last year, the band zagged into a new direction on their sophomore release, Cavalcade. It was a searing collection of songs that ventured further into amorphous free-jazz machinations and knotted classical compositions replete with bruising melodies and heady references to Marlene Dietrich and sinister cult leaders. Where Schlagenheim ripped through post-punk and math-rock, Cavalcade felt like a band learning to embrace adventure by proxy of jazzier forms. Hellfire falls somewhere in between, or perhaps on an entirely different astral plane.
Tidying up their noise rock experimentations, the band's third LP doesn't sprawl as much as it combusts into flames. Maximalism doesn't begin to cut it. Listeners are lurched to a rock opera universe, both grim and grandiose. Hellfire chronicles the lives of "morally suspect characters" from a first-person perspective and grapples with intersecting themes of "pain, loss, and anguish," as detailed in their press release. "If Cavalcade was a drama, Hellfire is like an epic action film," said Geordie Greep in a statement.
In a time when artists are vocalizing discontent with how their labels are pressuring them to create TikToks, black midi is a refreshing, vital reminder that a band, given the room to realize their ambitious visions, will always be able to cut through the noise. On artistic autonomy, Cameron Picton says, “the record label has never told us what to do with music,” and drummer Morgan Simpson adds, “it’s crazy how that’s not actually that common.”
A Mosaic Process
Cavalcade took over 18 months to record, but Hellfire was finished in a few months. Greep locates a metaphor describing the difference between the two journeys: "It's kind of like the second album was the blacksmith making his smithy, making his anvil, getting his tools all ready, and making the technique for perfect sword building,” he says. “By the time of the third album, we had that technique down, so the songs came out quickly." It’s an apt comparison for an album that welds together tangled compositions, sardonic humor, operatic theater, vocals reminiscent of a 50s radio broadcaster—and, out of these swerves, forges new directions at an exhilarating momentum.
black midi is a band that values musicianship and trust. The three met at the acclaimed BRIT School, whose fellow alumni include Amy Winehouse, FKA twigs, and Adele. However, their alma mater shouldn't cloud the conversation around their artistic output. Still, it’s clear that recognition and admiration of one another's unique skill sets were vital for the record to come together. "The main thing that we don't do now that we did in the first album is all sit together in a room and debate how the song should be structured," says Greep, "because that leads to nowhere; you'll just get into arguments.”
When asked what they were listening to around the recording time, each gave me an answer more different than the previous.
"I was listening to Stevie Wonder,” says Simpson. “I was going through his earlier stuff all the way to Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants and Hotter Than July. In my opinion, a lot of the greatest shit, no matter how many times you listen to it, you're always hearing or finding something new about it."
Picton: "I was listening to loads of Flamenco music, particularly Enrique Morente. Then John Renbourne as well, the Live In Kyoto 1978 album. During the recording of the album, I don't think it had much impact on the record at all, but I was listening to lots of Pet Shop Boys."
Greep: "A lot of Wagner, to be honest. I went to see Sigfried, Wagner's opera, and I got really into Wagnerian opera after that, just the grand scope of it and the idea of seeing a show and having a grand theatrical thing became more and more important.”
A few misconceptions are floating around about the extent to which improvisation plays a role in the band's composition process. I ask if they want to set the record straight. "The improvisation has kind of disappeared at this point," says Greep. "The myth is that Schlagenheim took as long to write as it does to listen to. People think it's literally like we just sat down and played, and that's the album." Picton adds: "When we did this version of the press trip in 2019, in ten interviews, at least three would be like: ‘Oh, so you improvised the whole record, it's really impressive’. It's like, no?" Simpson muses: "I think maybe a lot of that previously came from our live shows and how we used to jam a fair bit in between songs and tried to make jams part of the set. But we do that less so now because it doesn't really lead us anywhere." Greep describes their process of workshopping riffs together as a kind of “organized jamming.” Simpson laughs, “jamming, we're a jam band! Grateful Dead part 2, you get me!”
Ready Player One: Inside the black midi universe
black midi are no stranger to constructing their universes, whether sonically, visually, or lyrically. Each album's knack for storytelling feels more sharply honed, drawn from a tradition of literary references. Hellfire veers through the animated villainy of scumbags and scallywags, from the Flamenco-tinged hero's journey of ‘Eat Men Eat’ to the thunderous scorcher of a boxing match on ‘Sugar/Tzu’ to the dark cabaret theatrics of ‘27 Questions’. Like an open-world concept video game, the album sweeps through landscapes and characters – a nefarious mining company in the desert, a soldier looking for love in the wrong places, and a mischievous actor with a few tricks up his sleeve. I wonder what the inspiration was behind these morally bankrupt characters. “The audience gets to vicariously live out these murderous acts,” says Greep. “All the best characters have a kind of anti-hero streak. In a movie with a good villain, you end up rooting for the villain.”
black midi's characters are both recognizable and anonymous, morally depraved and heroic, villainous and empathetic. Gustaf Holtenas, the artist behind the videos for ‘Slow’ and ‘Welcome to Hell’, uses AI to create an animated, faceless style that extends the black midi world through his music videos' surreal aesthetic. Holtenas, in an interview, described portraying the song's protagonist as "an entitled martyr of an incel." The album artwork created by David Rudnick, similarly uses AI to generate a mingling of uncanny textures that contribute to this sense of the distinct black midi spirit.
Yet many characters have detailed personas, like the actor Freddie Frost who shocks audiences in the album's closer, or the legend of Private Tristan Bongo, a soldier whose shell-shocked journey is intercepted by an angry captain in the band's first single, ‘Welcome to Hell’. The song opens with the whistling of a bomb being dropped and then a snarl: ‘Listen,’ commands Greep; his voice picks up speed as it darts through funk, a doomy orchestral buildup, and brief moments of melodic stillness. ‘To die for your country does not win a war, to kill for your country is what wins a war.’ Greep explains the inspiration behind the couplet: “I actually paraphrased it from a speech by General Patton. The whole song takes place in a far-off conflict in a coastal town, with nightlife, lots of gallivanting soldiers, and the person speaking is a senior officer berating a junior one about his lack of involvement in this kind of merriment. So he's lecturing this guy, getting progressively irate and eventually dismissing him. The one point where we switch from this perspective is where you go to the soldier's memory of the speech he saw when training. So this is kind of this General Patton character saying: this is how it's going to be in the war. It's conveniently italicized, so you know it's a different scene."
On ‘Eat Men Eat’, Picton stages a portrait of love and revenge accompanied by lush instrumentation in his most dramatic vocal performance to date. Picton fleshes out the story from Cavalcade’s ‘Diamond Stuff’, but this time, creating a surrealist neo-western account of lovers escaping a mine that harvests bile in exchange for ruby red wine. He also sings on ‘Still’, a melodic standout and respite to take in the album's breathless pace. Its bittersweetness reminds of the charmingly goofy Beatles song ‘Rocky Racoon’, in which Paul McCartney does his best impression of a cowboy in the pastiche of a folk song. The western-sounding instrumentation of the pedal steel on ‘Still’ holds a similar enchanting quality. "It's like when you've had a long-term relationship, and you've loved someone a lot over that period, but it's dead,” explains Picton. “It's done, basically. You don't really know what's gone wrong. It's classic positive breakup song vibes with a little bit of a dig here and there, but it's not without merit, and it's also nice."
Greep and Simpson grew up playing in church bands. I wonder what drew them to the imagery of hellscapes. “The hellfire thing itself is less of an overriding theoretical concept, rather than just a way to group these stories together. The songs came separately, all done in quite a close period, so they almost did all feel like one song. It wasn't a case of starting from hell first and then doing songs about hell. It was more a thing of doing these stories with these extreme scenarios and quite funny but dark happenings between characters,” says Greep. I wonder if any of them consider themselves spiritual, and Simpson thoughtfully explains how his upbringing involved the church, and his parents were pastors at one point. “I think throughout my family and all the way back to Jamaica, church life has always been a big part of my life. I think you just get to an age where you have to question. A lot of spaces within that world don't allow questions, and to me that defeats the point of life. If you don't have any questions then you're wandering around aimlessly. I'd say I can relate to spirituality in a lot of ways.”
“We all go through hell every day,” says Picton. “This morning, going through hell. If your razor’s broken and you're trying to shave, I'm in hell. If you haven't had enough sleep, or if you wake up at the wrong point of your sleep schedule, or wake up late and lose your stuff in a hotel room, I'm in hell. Go to a party, and there's a weird couple there, welcome to hell.”
By No Stretch Of The Imagination
For a band with such cerebral storytelling tactics, they toe the line between taking things seriously and letting people know that it’s just not that deep. Across YouTube comment sections and Reddit threads, you’ll find myriad interpretations unraveling the web of characters throughout the band’s discography. I ask the band whether they think people might over-intellectualize their music. "Probably," says Greep. "The main driving force for making the lyrics much easier to digest this time is because when you do more abstract and opaque things, I've found it's infinite how dumb people can think of an explanation for them.”
Simpson jokes: "Like, what are you on?"
"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," says Greep. "This time, I just tried to make it clear as day. I don't know if I succeeded."
Alongside devoted online fanbases comes with, for lack of a better word, lots of shitposting. I wonder how black midi feels about fandoms adopting meme culture online with their music. “The thing is, I don't know if it's even worth dignifying it with the word 'culture,” says Greep. “Sure, it's funny and stuff, but there have always been people joking at the bar and in friendship groups; it's just never been recorded.” Simpson laughs: “Then memes come along and everyone's like: woah, meme culture!” Greep affirms: “Exactly, and now it's like we need to intellectualize people having a laugh and joking around. Imagine if you heard what people were saying at the bar when Jimi Hendrix played, you'd probably be shocked. There's probably all sorts of jokes going around that've just been lost.”
Comedy plays quite a significant role on the record. “All of my favorite books have a comedic underpinning; favorite movies, everything,” says Greep. “I don't think anything that's truly great can exist without a sense of humor.” The nod to opera and show tunes echoes especially on the album’s dazzling b-side, where the red curtains part for a journey of cabaret-esque songs that spiral into darkness with a wink and a nod. The album’s voracious closer, ‘27 Questions’ ends the Hellfire saga with Greep singing: ‘We all just laughed at the sad old oaf / And laughed all the way home!’
The Mark of Greatness
While they may enjoy poking fun at themselves, one thing this band does take very seriously is musicianship. In aninterview last year, all three members cited Miles Davis' In A Silent Way as a mutual inspiration. Simpson mentioned it was one of the first albums that made him realize how powerful musical maturity is and the merit of being able to play anything but picking and choosing wisely.
For black midi, what marks a great musician?
Simpson reiterates what he meant. “Musicians who have all the technique and ability and understanding of their instrument and the music they're playing in the world, but know when to chuck that out the window.” “I was thinking about this the other day, like how much we may be falsely putting musicians' sound down to the instrument they play. Specifically, if you think of guitarists like Jimi Hendrix and the strat or Angus Young and the SG or James Jameson and the P Bass or Jaco Pastorious and the J Bass,” he rattles off with enthusiasm. “What makes them so great is that their instrument is only a small part of their sound and not vice versa. If you were to hear Jimi Hendrix on the SG, or any of the others on a different instrument, they would still sound like themselves. With some of my favorite musicians like Cameron, Geordie, Kaidi and Seth, who also plays in the band, I can hear them play for five seconds and I know who it is. That's the mark.”
Picton summates, “The sound of their music transcends their instrument.”
Greep says, “The classic line is: a musician that serves the song. Ringo Starr like. The song is more important than its contingent parts. Like Morgan is saying, a truly great musician is not inhibited by the properties of their instrument; a truly great musician plays what they hear in their head and makes the instrument play that sound.”
On Hellfire, it’s evident how black midi were able to transform the tangled universes of their imagination by composition and performance in a way that is completely singular from any other band they may be grouped with. Within a blossoming experimental scene in London, I wonder how the band perceives the ways in which the scene has evolved in their short time of being in it. Picton explains how, like with most things, COVID had a diminishing effect, but that’s not the only problem. “The most interesting music doesn't sound post-punky or anything like that. Or it's actively trying to fuck it off. The big problem with the London music scene is when we first started playing in it, every band sounded like The Fall.” Simpson agrees that a much-needed shakeup is underway: “In the past few years, the lines have become a bit blurred in terms of what type of artist or band can play where. Especially at the Windmill [...] I think the booker realized there were more areas or worlds that he could explore in terms of getting different artists to play there. It needs it, innit. It needs some freshers. It's a pub in Brixton, and you walk in, and you're seeing 23-year-old white guys playing post-punk all the time.”
What’s next for black midi?
“Another album, as soon as possible.”
“New songs, new album. Maybe going to Brazil. We really want to do a Latin American tour.”
“What is next is we fly home tonight, and on the way home, we take the Elizabeth line.”
I pose the question to black midi when working across so many elements, what do they think unifies their songs?
Greep: “Drama, tension, release.”
“Joy,” someone offers. They all agree. It’s gratifying to witness a band like black midi hone their practice, especially one that isn’t always easily reducible to the confines of the contemporary music scenes. In these invigorated songs, black midi master technical proficiency and innovative exploration between a traditional composition process and a sonic palette that’s hellbent on being joyous.