Rising UK Rockers Black Midi Bring the Noise on Debut 'Schlagenheim'
Published Jul 03, 2019"All he said before the gig was, 'I'm going to jump up in the air and when I land, just go into noise and we'll see what happens.'"
These instructions, recounted by Black Midi bassist Cameron Picton, were the sum total of the communication Krautrock godhead Damo Suzuki gave the young members of Black Midi when the group played with him in London. "That was it," says Picton. "He's really quite a quiet guy."
Such lack of direction would throw most bands completely off their game, let alone one made up of four teenage friends. Yet the members of Black Midi — Picton, singer-guitarists Geordie Greep and Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin and drummer Morgan Simpson — not only rose to the occasion, they've seemingly adopted that "advice" as the prime directive for their songwriting.
Since bursting out of South London last June with their debut single "bmbmbm" (pronounced "boom, boom, boom") the quartet have wowed fans with their visceral, improv-heavy live shows, and left music pundits searching for apt descriptors for their heady mix of spiky post-punk, Talking Heads funk, and Touch and Go Records noise.
Listening to the nine tracks on their debut, Schlagenheim, it's easy to understand how the band became the toast of the always fickle UK music press. Recorded by Dan Carey (Hot Chip, Franz Ferdinand), the songs hit like a gut punch; the lock-step of Picton and Simpson anchors a mix of sounds that confound classification. Think noise rockers METZ covering James Brown, and you end up somewhere in the vicinity of the band's instrumental flex.
It's a deeply compelling anchor for perhaps the band's biggest wild card: singer-guitarist Geordie Greep, whose voice can oscillate from a nasal, sing-talk sneer to a tongue-in-cheek Robert Plant wail, all in the same line. "I just thought it was silly to do vocals," Greep told Pitchfork in May. "With almost every guitar band like us, the singer's doing the shouting macho thing. But when we started playing live, I thought, 'There's no point doing something poorly that's been done a million times.'"
Greep raises an important point: by rights, Black Midi should be an anachronism. Four young men with guitars from London is about as tedious a bio as you get. Yet, the band don't identify as a "guitar band," and with only a cursory web presence, they have become an in-demand live act. They've also netted a lucrative publishing deal and attracted a bidding war on the strength of the lone single they had issued.
They eventually signed with venerable UK indie powerhouse Rough Trade and made good on the hype when they made their Stateside debut at this year's South By Southwest. "Everyone was quite receptive to our music," enthuses Kwasniewski-Kelvin. "Maybe even more so than in the UK and Europe."
Quite simply, Black Midi are one of the most exciting and essential bands going. And its members have barely turned 20.
Black Midi were formed while they were all students at the BRIT School of Performing Arts and Technology, a free, but prestigious school in London that counts the Kooks, Adele and Amy Winehouse among its alumni. Their live debut doubled as their final performance at the school. "We were like 'Oh let's just do this for fun and then let's just go and get a job,'" recalls Kwasniewski-Kelvin. "We didn't have any goals for the band," confirms Picton.
Their name comes from an incredibly niche online sub-genre that stacks thousands of digital notes on top of one another to the point of becoming chaotic noise. "We thought it was a good name for a band," Greep told Loud and Quiet in May. "We haven't spent more than five minutes watching a YouTube video on it, but that's where our name comes from."
They soon found a semi-permanent home at the Windmill, a pub in Brixton that's become a hub for a South London scene that includes Goat Girl and Shame, who called the group "the best band in London." "When we first started the thing, I sent emails to every venue in London," Greep told Loud and Quiet. "The Windmill was the only one that replied." Windmill booker Tim Perry took a shine to the group and they were soon a regular fixture. It was Perry who thought to pair the band with Suzuki when the one-time Can frontman played the venue last year. They soon caught the ear of producer Dan Carey, who released "bmbmbm" last June on his own Speedy Wunderground label; copies now sell for over $100 on Discogs.
The Windmill is where Black Midi's legend was built. Watching some of the live videos of the band that have filled the void left by an absence of studio material makes it easy to see why — their musical chemistry is palpable, suggesting a group who've played together twice as long as they have. Drummer Simpson only joined Greep and Kwasniewski-Kelvin in their last year at school, while Picton was recruited just before they made their on-stage debut (they jammed out a 15-minute version of Neu!'s "Hero").
But the members have put in their 10,000 hours. Greep and Simpson cut their teeth in church, and one of the bonuses of attending arts school is access to rehearsal space, no small blessing in a quickly gentrifying, global city like London. This gave members plenty of time to woodshed in private. "The band developed in a different way just from interacting with each other, I suppose," Greep told Paste earlier this month. "If we hadn't met each other, then we wouldn't be doing the same thing."
"It's difficult for a lot of bands to get started without access to free rehearsal space," says Picton. In fact, it's becoming something of a prerequisite for bands coming out of the city. South London peers Shame and Fat White Family were also able to secure free space early on in their careers. "Any band that does has a massive advantage," Kwasniewski-Kelvin agrees. "People will always find a way, but it's getting harder and harder."
The end of school also meant an end to the free ride. But by then, Black Midi were already self-sufficient. They took the 50 quid they earned from their first paid gig and used it to pay for rehearsals for the next one — wash, rinse, repeat. "We did so many shows that we didn't need to rehearse," says Picton. "Then we could save money for more productive rehearsals for writing."
In the face of critical praise and increasing fame, Black Midi's goals remain modest, and surprisingly unchanged from their early shows: play more gigs, write more music. "We just want to release a lot of albums and hope that they do well enough that we can make more," says Picton. "We're always trying to write new stuff," says Kwasniewski-Kelvin, "and we're always trying to experience something different."
Picton estimates the band have already played 100 shows, and by the end of this year, they will have doubled that. Many of those gigs have been in the UK or parts of Europe, allowing the group to keep using London as a home base. But this fall, they head off to Japan, followed by an extensive North American tour that brings them to Canada in November.
Travel, a welcome "by-product" of being in the band, remains "a novelty" for them. "I don't think you really feel like you're that far away from home, because you're just like absorbing yourself in this new experience," says Kwasniewski-Kelvin. Flying into Los Angeles on their way to SXSW was "a massive culture shock. The houses, the way it was organized, the sprawl, the weather. Just the fact it was gonna be four hours to the beach from where we were was just super weird for us." Adds Picton: "The only reference for L.A. for us was Grand Theft Auto V. Actually, seeing that in real life was strange."
Even as they rack up life experience, the young members of Black Midi keep a laser focus on their art. "Once we realized that there was an audience for us, the goals have always been musical," says Picton. "The main thing for us," says Kwasniewski-Kelvin, "is to keep progressing and keep doing something different."
Inspired by their experience playing with Suzuki, they've leaned into their improvisational tendencies. Where early singles, like "bmbmbm" and "Speedway," were "written out" by Greep and Picton, nowadays Black Midi rely on spontaneous jams. "We'll spend like two hours or more just jamming," says Picton. "We'd record it and then in the evening or the next day, pick out the bits we like and started refining them."
Several of the "best bits" from their gig with Suzuki — commemorated on a self-released limited-edition cassette — became songs on the band's debut album, Schlagenheim, which they recorded with Carey in November.
"We find it quite difficult to translate the energy from our live shows onto record," says Picton. Wary of losing some of the raw energy of their early singles, they kept the "spines" of the original recordings before heaping on new sounds to help them fit in with the rest of the material. But they also want the record, and their performances of that material, to be two separate entities; the versions captured on Schlagenheim were purposely enhanced with overdubs of synthesizers, lap steels and banjos: "Instruments we won't be able to play live."
They recorded everything in their arsenal in just five days, whittling it down to a collection that seemed to fit well together. But committing their catalogue to a final form creates expectations; people come to most gigs expecting to hear some approximation of the recorded versions they've fallen in love with. But that doesn't jive with Black Midi's desire to keep pushing things forward. "We're not really into sitting on the same thing for ages," says Kwasniewski-Kelvin. "That's why we do so much improvisation in our shows."
The songs from Schlagenheim are already mutating, the product of happy onstage accidents. For example, the version of skittery track "Speedway" that appears on the record kicks off with the band playing in unison. But after Greep and Kwasniewski-Kelvin broke strings simultaneously and had to restring guitars on the fly, they've opted to keep the slow build drum and bass intro. "We don't want to keep playing the same song the same way forever," says Picton. "If we finish this tour and songs sound the same way at the end as they did at the beginning, I'll be really surprised."
Balancing expectations is becoming more of a concern for the band. But they're confident that if listeners have made it to the point where they're attending the gig, they'll be invested enough to go along for the ride. "Some are going to be disappointed," concedes Picton. "But if people like the record, they'll read interviews and they'll see what we're about and hopefully they'll understand."
It's all part of the musical bubble the band have built around themselves; even their lyrics have very little to do with the world outside. Greep's lyrics tend towards absurdist fiction, rather than the personal, and song titles have more to do with the vibe the band have created than the words coming out of their singer's mouth. "Talking Heads" got its name from the fact that its sparse funk is reminiscent of the New York band, while "bmbmbm" got its title from the rhythmic pulse of its guitar riff.
And don't look to Google translate for help with the record's bizarre title: "It's a non-word," reveals Kwasniewski-Kelvin. Greep made it up as a setting for some of the characters he sings about on the album. "You have to listen to the album to understand what it means."
It's Black Midi's world, and we're just listeners in it.