The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

A Quietus Interview

Boom Boom Pow: Black Midi Interviewed
John Doran , May 20th, 2019 08:14

Ahead of their appearance at Sea Change Festival this weekend, John Doran speaks to Geordie Greep and Cameron Picton of Black Midi and asks, what exactly does it take for a challenging band to make a genuine go of it in 2019? Avatars created by Anthrox Studio. Band portrait by Dan Kendall. (Warning: the 'Crows Perch' video contains flashing images)

Black Midi kick off an extensive world tour at Sea Change Festival this weekend

Let’s step inside the church of what’s happening right now.

Tucked away on an industrial estate just off Seven Sisters Road, part way between Manor House tube and Stamford Hill overground stands New River Studios. This former furniture factory, was converted into a series of practice spaces, recording facilities, a small live venue and a cafe bar a few years ago. It has rapidly become a social focal point for the people who live in the Harringay Warehouse District.

Originally this industrial estate used to be the UK’s centre for piano production among other things; but those workshops have all long since closed; they're now mainly home to artists and musicians, those wanting to take advantage of cheap ‘work-live’ spaces boshed up in large warehouses between cheap stud walls. Although if you talk to some of the many musicians who live on this estate they’ll let you know that it’s not the ideal solution to the capital's ever increasing rents it once appeared to be. This fringe zone has perhaps fallen victim to its own success. There is one major landlord and they are dividing the warehouse spaces up into smaller and smaller units, while steadily increasing rents as more and more folk of an artistic bent are moving into the area, to have one last crack at making it in London before it becomes financially impossible for those without independent means.

And while these musicians and artists are busy working out what making it even amounts to in 2019, they have somewhere to hang out and drink beer, eat pizza and watch movies, not to mention, practice, record music and play gigs. There is a definite underground, DIY, outsider, New Weird Britain, call it what you will, vibe to New River Studios. Harringay Warehouse District once hummed with the industry of craftsmen making pianos in the Challen, Boyd, Barrett & Robinson and Eavestaff factories but these days you’re more likely to see someone applying contact mics to the soundboard from a violently deconstructed piano, treated with screwdrivers and cheap metal cutlery before processing the signal via a tableful of electronic devices to a select audience, all of whom are probably musicians themselves.

Tonight, it should be said, is a subtly different affair. Something experimental is about to happen. But it’s more muscular than usual. More visible. And there’s a slightly bigger and different crowd to witness it.

Black Midi are playing a ‘secret gig’ to celebrate the announcement of their (really very excellent) debut album Schlagenheim, which comes out on Rough Trade on June 21. The venue isn’t Black Midi’s usual haunt I am happy to hazard a guess. I would also lay money that most of the Rough Trade staff who are out in force tonight to support their signings don’t come here that often either. And there are plenty of them. Geoff Travis, the don who started the redoubtable indie 41 years ago is here. Ex-Elastica guitarist and A&R Paul Jones is here. Current Cornershop guitarist and in house publicist Ben Ayres is here. Here a Rough Trade bod, there a Rough Trade bod, everywhere a Rough Trade bod. Someone, somewhere, has taken quite the gamble on Black Midi. A rumour is flying around town that the band have scored a low six figure publishing deal which is, let’s say, a robust amount of money, for such a relatively challenging and very young band in 2019.

In the hot, box-like live room of New River Studios, the band’s gear has been set up on a large, centrally positioned rug on the floor, with amps pointing inwards. Everyone crowds round. Potted plants are positioned here and there, perhaps to give the space a homely vibe. Cells over lights suffuse the space in an orange glow. Geordie Greep is first to ease his way through the throng to the centre of the room wearing the kind of stetson that’s adopted by English bands after their first exposure to SXSW in Austin, Texas and a long Jacques Tati Mac. It is an item of clothing that remains on and resolutely buttoned to the top for the entire evening, despite the oppressive heat in the room. His guitar is already emitting a pealing bell-like chorus that lands somewhere between Seefeel and early Slowdive, when he picks it up. He settles into a chair and starts expanding upon this unexpectedly shoegaze-y start to proceedings.

He is joined by Cameron Picton on bass (no stetson) and Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin on guitar (stetson). They are clearly listening to one another intently as they manipulate the audio, from hazy narcotic throb to improvised and dynamic avant funk pulse. As soon as a groove is established, then secured, they are joined by Morgan Simpson on drums (no stetson) who immediately starts applying gonzo fills and slamming, blink inducing breaks. Later on Picton informs me that they had three riffs in mind before the set but everything else was achieved seat of the pants style.

There is something very impressive about this hour long jam. Not simply in the assured way this bunch of 19 and 20 year olds take us on a dynamic journey without ever losing sight of what it is they're doing but mainly in the fact that it shows Black Midi don’t really give too much of a fuck when it comes to fulfilling expectations people have of them. They’re notorious for playing short sets which (in my experience) average out at about 25 minutes long. So on the one night that you’d expect them to pretty much knuckle down and speed through the new album in full, especially given that there’s press and guests in, that’s exactly the moment they decide to start laying down some raging new blueprint for future dynamic advances in avant funk, rock fusion and progressive post hardcore. (They tend to get labelled math rock a lot but there’s just something far too wild and sensuous about this music to deserve that fussy term. You get the impression that if Black Midi end up playing a riff that modulates between 5/4 and 7/4, it’s because they think it feels right for that particular bit of music, not because it’s a difficult or impressive thing to do. Their music is a lot more danceable than most math rock I can think of.)

All through the improvised section, it’s clear that Greep is first among equals in the sense that he’s the one singing (an Adrian Belew meets David Thomas meets Zed the gang leader from Police Academy delivery twisted way past breaking point into something close to demented mewling and barking). The band, all facing inwards, eyes darting between themselves, push upwards into an incredible swell of intensity. They hit a groove that has the speed and strength of vintage Prong. They guide us through realms which momentarily spark adrenalised memories of early Swans, The Pop Group, Dennis Coffey, Bill Laswell, Slint and ACR. An hour after Greep picked up his guitar, their improvised opening track comes to a conclusion.

If Rough Trade are bothered by this, they’re doing an extremely good job of hiding it. Geoff Travis dances through the whole set. Ben Ayres laughs and says: “They played the second album in full!” It would be safe to assume that Paul Jones successfully navigated some of the darker tableaux of the decline of Britpop. He also put out an album by The Fall in 2005. This kind of thing gives him the air of being someone it would be potentially unwise to fuck with, but he just chuckles indulgently of the band, saying: “Typical. There’s press in and they decide to do an hour of improv…” But really, he’s clearly having a whale of a time.

So there are a lot of people, working very hard behind the scenes to help push Black Midi - that much is clear - but it’s a logical fallacy to assume this is being done for base reasons or that the band don’t deserve the intense amount of interest that’s currently being focused on them. What’s more interesting than second guessing the authenticity of new bands who make good progress quickly (or the motivations of those who help them) is to ask what their ascension represents. Black Midi aren’t really part of a scene as such but along with the likes of Black Country, New Road, Audiobooks, Crack Cloud, Squid, Scalping, The Comet Is Coming and Housewives among others, there is a clear sign that there are very interesting things going on in the expanse that lies between funk, indie rock, post punk and post rock (not to mention some wilful experimentation, variously in the fields of cosmic jazz, klezmer and prog). This thrilling intimate show coming in the same month that Pete Doherty once more tries to revive his irritable bowel syndrome of a career, shows the smart money is on the bright young players with their dedication to practice, their chops, their vision thing and their lack of obvious careerism. Something is changing in Britain and the excitement over Black Midi; the instantaneous sell out of this year's Supernormal Festival and Mary Anne Hobbs continued move from the periphery to the centre ground of the once mainly conservative BBC 6Music are just some of the augers of further positive change yet to come.

There is barely a pause before Black Midi blast through the whole album. The dynamic shifts and it becomes more of an even handed endeavour. Greep’s tortuous art howl is balanced out vocally by the metallic rage of Kwasniewski-Kelvin and the calm narration of Picton. Simpson adds some vocals but I can’t really make them out - it’s not what you notice about him, if I’m being honest. What really impresses with him is the amount of energy he exerts behind the kit. He’s that rarest of things in the current rock landscape: a lead drummer.

They’re trying to keep it on the downlow but they’re clearly elated with the way the set is going. They end on a pulverising version of debut Speedy Wunderground single ‘BmBmBm’. They’re dicking about trying to unseat each other by coming in at slightly odd times on the song’s pulse. Simpson is doling out such as severe punishment to his kit that his drums are stampeding away from him in terror. He keeps on having to stop in order to corral them back into position.

From this position - having just seen them play a blistering live show in a small room - it’s a lot easier to understand why you can’t buy last year's ‘BmBmBm’ 7" for any less than £75 (even though it’s been repressed once already) and why their very recently self-released ‘Speedway’ 12” already goes for anything between £60 and £150 on Discogs. Even the cassette of their performance with Damo Suzuki at Brixton’s Windmill pub venue is now worth £30 apparently. There is understandably something of a long queue to buy copies of their ‘Talking Heads’ 12” after the show. Their hardworking merch guy throws in copies of the ‘Crows Perch’ CDr for free.

“That was fucking magic”, say people as they stumble back out into the North East London night. And one of them is me.

But how did we get to this bizarre juncture? To answer that we need to visit the church of what was happening way back when.

A few weeks before the New River Studios gig, my scheduled interview with Black Midi nearly doesn’t happen at all. They were out the night before and all of them to forget to turn up at the rendezvous - 10am at a spacious pine furniture and Topps Tiles chain pub in Wandsworth. Greep is roused quite easily. He arrives in Jacques Tati Mac, which remains on and resolutely buttoned up for the whole morning. Picton eventually joins us. The other two, I’m advised, won’t be attending. We head round the corner to a practice room owned by Rough Trade where their gear is set up. They’re only just back from their first tour of America but they're already deep in practice for the next tour.

I ask the pair when they last prayed, asking God to intervene in a pressing situation. Picton says something about football before Greep says: “I’ve never prayed because I wasn’t brought up religious but I did do a load of gigs in churches playing gospel music.”

He tells me about growing up in Walthamstow in North East London and how he used to play guitar with an Afro-Caribbean guy a couple of years older than him, who one day offered him a church gig. That one gig became several and he ended up, essentially honing his chops in London gospel churches between the ages of 11 and 18.

He says: “Playing gospel is probably the most educational thing you can do as a musician. It teaches you to think on the spot. You learn all the songs in advance but when you get there they’ll be playing totally different songs. Everyone’s just shouting the numbers [of hymns] across to each other. It’s the best way of learning music really. You can see why all of those musicians are so good really.

“You go in in the morning and you’re playing all day, so the standard is amazing. To give you an example, Morgan has been playing in church since he was a baby. Gospel songs might have standard structures but they have these weird chords and loads of pushes and breaks. They’re quite proggy really. You’ll be playing some song and suddenly realise, ‘This sounds like Genesis man! What’s going on here?’ You can see why people get really into it, it’s amazing.

“The best thing about it [speaking as a musician] is when the pastor starts going to town on a theme, you have to play something, to jam along to him, to make what he’s saying emotional but no one’s telling you what to do, you just have to do it. But among white people, in a secular setting, when you’re learning music in school or whatever, that whole thing is completely unaccounted for, the whole improvisatory aspect of playing music together.”

If this sounds like he’s throwing shade at one particular [institutionally] white, secular school where music is taught, then that’s not the case. The band are all recentish graduates from the BRIT School For Performing Arts And Technology in Croydon, South London, and it’s a facility they all speak positively about. It feels like this school is one of three major institutions that has been important in moulding Black Midi as the powerhouse band they are (with the other two being the venue where they cut their live teeth, The Windmill in Brixton, and various churches in Walthamstow and Letchworth). There seems to be some misconception about what the BRIT School actually is and while selective, it’s actually state run and free at point of use for the students lucky enough to get a place there. The alumni count Adele, Katy B, King Krule, Jessie J and Amy Winehouse among their number, so are Black Midi just another photograph to be hung proudly on the wall in the school’s foyer?

Picton says: “I think we’re similar to those artists you just mentioned in the sense that we had the same teachers as them but we probably learned more from the people who work at The Windmill in Brixton. What they teach you at BRIT is about five years out of date anyway, because of how quickly the music industry changes you can never have a completely up to date curriculum.”

One advantage that the school definitely gave them was that of space. In a weird way, they’re an analogue of the Fat White Family, in that they had access to a room in which they could experiment, practice and write without fear of running up huge bills. Admittedly, the Fat Whites had a room above the Queens Head where they could sleep and store their instruments as well as play, courtesy of broad-minded landlord, Simon Tickler, while Black Midi had their school’s practice room. Greep says: “It was a big deal for us. It gives you a few years to make mistakes and do whatever you want really. They have high quality practice rooms which are free to use.”

Picton agrees with him: “We were so lucky to have that. They just let you use them every day after classes end until the school shuts. If you can have two or three rehearsals a week it’s really good for you, not just in terms of becoming tight but learning how to play with other musicians. If you’re in a band and just starting out in London, and you haven’t been as lucky as we were to have a rehearsal space it must be really hard to get going.”

Geordie Greep met Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin at the school in 2013 when they both enrolled in year ten at the age of 14. The pair took advantage of the rehearsal room situation to do long, open-ended ambient jams with the former on guitar and the later on NORD C2D organ. At the age of 16, the pair progressed to sixth form, which is when Picton and Simpson joined BRIT as pupils. The first version of the band that would become Black Midi, had Greep and Kwasniewski-Kelvin on guitars with Simpson and, temporarily, another pupil on drums. The name came from Greep “falling down a YouTube rabbit hole” of videos on Black MIDI, a form of electronic composition that uses Midi files to create music with an unusually high number of notes played in bewilderingly large tonal clusters, with pieces often deploying millions or billions of notes. What the band sounds like has nothing to do with this obscure genre but somehow it’s still an apposite name.

Greep continues with their genesis story: “Four of the songs we play now originate from that time but it wasn’t really going anywhere, it was just like this fun thing to do. Eventually it came to the end of our time at school so I emailed every venue in London in 2017 asking for a gig and the only one that replied was the Windmill in Brixton. A month before the gig we thought we’d better get someone to play bass so we asked Cameron and he was like, ‘Cool.’ Which was a relief. On the day of the gig we had a rehearsal where we showed him the songs.

“We thought we’d do the gig as a one off fun thing and then go and get jobs or whatever. But it went loads better than anyone expected and [venue booker] Tim Perry really liked it. He was like, ‘Do you want to play again next month?’ And we did and that was that.”

The Windmill may initially have been their combined first and final stand but it quickly became their incubator and home away from home. Through it they made some essential connections. As word began spreading about this unique young band, Perry offered them a residency and suggested that Scotti Brains play, realising that they should meet band member, Dan Carey. Greep adds: “That night Dan came up to us and said, we should definitely do something, I like the one that goes, ‘Boom, boom, boom’. Let’s do a version of that [for his Speedy Wunderground singles label].”

So the track that eventually became ‘BmBmBm’ has nothing to do with the Vengaboys or Black Eyed Peas, or even John Lee Hooker for that matter and it has never had anything to do with their name. Greep says: “We didn’t even realise that the Bm could stand for Black Midi. Everyone kept on talking about this track, ‘Black Midi! Black Midi! Black Midi!’ And then the penny dropped. We were like, ‘Oh yeah!’ It’s kind of funny.”

(It’s tempting to read too much into what Black Midi do. I tell the pair that I think it’s really clever how they called their new single ‘Talking Heads’. “It’s a way of pre-diffusing criticism of you playing in a certain style or poking fun at those who would pigeonhole you”, I say authoritatively. “No” says Greep. “When we first wrote this song it sounded like Talking Heads. It was just a placeholder name. And then when it came time to release it we just couldn’t think of anything better.” Slightly miffed I tell them that they should have called the b-side ‘King Crimson’. But here’s the thing, they don’t really sound that much like either band.)

To me, if anything, the track ‘BmBmBm’ sounds like a 21st Century take on ‘Something’ by the Butthole Surfers; a berserk post punk stomper that sounds good on record but can be absolutely off the hook live. The track is excellent in its own right but there’s something about the audio of an angry woman shouting about Cornflakes which plays in the background that nudges it over into the arena of sheer brilliance.

Picton says: “It’s actually Nikki Grahame, a contestant from Big Brother. I think the producers of the show were doing everything they could to piss her off, to aggravate her, so they were making it too cold and when she was begging [in the diary room] them to turn the heat up, they turned it down even more. The way they treated her was really quite horrible. And then she was complaining about other people eating the cornflakes in the house.

“The audio was just a placeholder. We originally used this recording we had of Matt’s sister complaining about her job. We just had the recording on an iPhone and we’d play it via the pickups on a guitar. We used to do that after reading about Jimi Hendrix doing something similar with a radio.”

Greep takes up the story: “Matt used to work as a ducter on a building site, and his friend was like, ‘You’ve got to get this app.’ And Matt was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, it sounds cool… but I haven’t got any space on my phone.’ But this guy was like, ‘You’ve got to get this app… let me delete some stuff for you.’ He took Matt’s phone off him and started deleting stuff and Matt was like, ‘No! No!’ Then he gave Matt his phone back and the recording was gone. So we lost the audio sample that we used at every gig.”

Skipping over the fact that everyone, musician or not, should have automatic back up to the cloud by now, and there’s no way on earth a 47-year-old Dad should be lecturing shit hot 19-year-old musicians about this necessity, the mishap says a lot about the way accident plays a positive role in the Black Midi process. The band are all inveterate console gamers. They claim games such as Mortal Kombat and Fifa are the only things they argue about. I’m a firm believer in the idea that if you study a musician’s attitude toward their non-musical passion, you’ll often get some clear insights into their process. Later, when talking about gaming Picton says: “You learn a certain amount of fearlessness from playing video games. The idea that if you make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world. You can do it again. It’s a learning experience, which I think musically is a good thing. A lot of the time different bits of songs have come from us making a mistake live and thinking, ‘Oh, that actually sounds cool.’ And then incorporating it next time we play it live.”

As with the band’s name, the audio source of Nikki Grahame doesn’t really have any deeper meaning. It’s just part of the way they feel their way intuitively towards a song until several things click into place, which then becomes a solid platform from which even more improvisation can be built upon. The lyrics to the track (“She moves with a purpose. What a magnificent purpose. Oh such a magnificent purpose. They find different ways to suck themselves off but she does not care at all. She moves with a purpose”) are close to nonsensical as they are. They were once part of a much longer song which Greep cut away at until only these hard, intriguing, imagist words, divorced entirely from their original context remained.

The band clearly clicked with Carey and he went on to produce Schlagenheim. The pair are unequivocally positive about the experience. Eight of the nine tracks were laid down in five days, with each one being captured on “either the second, third or fourth live takes” before “a load of overdubs” according to Picton. They had been playing the songs live so regularly, for so long, that it was just a matter of “getting them down” says Greep.

Like I said, the album’s excellent but I promised the band that I wouldn’t bang on about it too much ahead of its release date. Before it comes out they are away on a world tour starting next week which is so far the best part of 60 dates long and who says more gigs won’t be added. It’s the kind of shit that would put Iron Maiden to shame. What a thrill for a young band to even have the opportunity to work this hard and travel that far. While no one would deny that the campaign behind Black Midi has been organised like a military operation - and it’s only just getting started by the look of it - perhaps this is what it takes in 2019 if you want to secure any kind of longevity for a band who produce genuinely surprising, heavy, infectious and exciting music. Something this behind the scenes muscle has perhaps afforded the band is a quiet sense of optimism. Picton is looking forward to “doing a lot of stuff - not just in the sense of releasing a lot of records but trying out different things like doing film soundtracks for example”. And Greep concludes: “My ambition would be for us to make a new music. That’s the thing isn’t it? For us to have a richer sound. A new sound. That would be the goal.”

Schlagenheim is released on June 21. Black Midi’s world tour starts at Sea Change Festival in Totnes on May 25