Space: it’s the final frontier for black midi, a band for whom the sonic pile-up, the noisy pile-on, the clattering math-metal-jazz freak-out was their brilliant stock-in-trade. It made the London outfit the most (only?) exciting guitar-adjacent group of the last four years. OK, apart from Squid. And Black Country, New Road. And [your favourite here].
black midi’s tense, intense, claustrophobic 2019 debut Schlagenheim brought a party-spoiling rumpus to that year’s Mercury Music Prize shortlist, and also a bracing final-day start to that summer’s Glastonbury, where the teenagers played the boiling, fetid William’s Green tent at the godly hour of 11am Sunday.
Having been there, I can attest that I’m still picking damp grass out of my boots, and that black midi can create fierce, maniacal magic even with aberrant amps and packed-in pedals.
“That was really good,” remembers marvellously-named guitarist and vocalist Geordie Greep. He’s a soft-spoken 21-year-old who talks while barely moving his lips, dresses offstage like Tony Soprano’s accountant (ie, suited-and-booted ’90s sharp), and can sing like a man possessed by a menagerie of personalities. Like the band, he contains multitudes.
“But sometimes there is a feeling where it’s too much,” he continues, remembering the buzz around their debut album, “or you want to take it down a peg, or you’re playing too many shows. But at the end of the day, if anyone’s coming out to see your band, it’s amazing.”
“There were a couple of ridiculous ones on that summer run,” adds bassist/synth player/vocalist Cameron Picton (21, normcore, red nail polish, also church-mouse quiet). “We played La Route Du Rock [festival in Brittany] where we were the late-night act after Tame Impala. So 7000 people just turned around and watched us. We’d barely played to 1000 people before. That was completely unexpected.”
Not long before that, this group of friends who met at the BRIT School in Croydon, South London “were just playing to the same people in London all the time. Then the word-of-mouth spread in London. Then we did the bmbmbm single and KEXP video,” Picton says. He’s referring, respectively, to their June 2018 debut single, released on Dan Carey’s Speedy Wunderground label, and a five-song set filmed in Reykjavik in November 2019 for the Seattle radio station of the same name.
The comments under the YT footage (1,122,495 views and counting) give you some idea of what went down that night at the Kex Hostel.
It all added to the energy around black midi, and all could have made for an even more jam-packed second album. As noted by drummer Morgan Simpson, a lively 22-year-old from Hertfordshire last seen round here performing for THE FACE with Pa Salieu, “on Schlangenheim, where there was sonically zero space, it was all claustrophobic and very intense, direct energy”. From the band’s beginnings, it was natural for them all to play “in a lead way.
“But this time round the spectrum has been opened up and widened,” Simpson continues.
The band and I are gathered round afternoon half pints, fighting to be heard over market-stall day-drinkers and bin lorries, outside a Notting Hill pub. This is the West London neighbourhood of their label, Rough Trade, storied arbiters of quality recorded music for 43 years. We’re discussing how black midi have opened up, and occasionally even slowed down, on their second album, Cavalcade.
“You can actually hear far more things. Now you can pick out certain parts in the record – ‘oh, that’s a piano!’ – whereas on the first the mix was… not mooshy,” says this drummer’s drummer, wrinkling his brow. “But it was hard to pick things out. So, yeah, that was a very important thing this time round, to just have more clarity.”
This, then, is the eight-songs-wide, full-fathom-deep second record from black midi. Yes, it’s still, fantastically, a record to scare the neighbours – it opens with John L, in which mild-mannered Greep incredible hulks into an Irish-accented incantatory shaman, and loses its shit completely on Dethroned.
But now there’s also space, pace, quiet, light. There’s quasi-acoustic balladry – albeit of an eerie, horror-movie-theme persuasion – in Diamond Stuff, written and sung by Picton. On Marlene Dietrich there’s the foregrounding of melody. Will black midi kill us for suggesting there’s a pop song lurking in there?
“Absolutely,” replies Greep (phew). “You put those bits in there, and the hard-hitting, brutal moments are much more effective. There’s no tension without release. It was just something we wanted to do, really. It’s just good fun.”
“It’s a good showcase of our original mission statement: anything goes,” says Picton. “As long as it’s good, it’s worth doing. On the first record, the sound was a lot more cohesive. Whereas this time there’s just an explosion of different stuff.”
In part, this exploration was the result of the forced reset that was a global pandemic. Originally, the four founding members (guitarist/vocalist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin is currently on a sabbatical from the band, attending to mental health matters; the band, respectfully, don’t want to speak on his behalf) would jam and improvise songs together.
Coronavirus ruined all that. But Greep points out that, as a threesome, they’d already set sail in a different direction. Six months prior to the first lockdown they’d decided they were going to change things up for album #2: write some songs together in the room, some individually at home.
“And after a while it became: ‘Let’s bring in full songs.’ So by the time coronavirus happened, we were already in that habit. We were very lucky – if the pandemic hadn’t happened and we were still relying on meeting up, it’d have taken a helluva lot longer.”
Meet the band:
Cameron, from Wimbledon, southwest London. First gig: Johnny Marr at Brixton Academy “supported by Childhood”. First experience of buying music: going to a record shop when he was five, looking through the metal section and “being scarred for life by the covers”. First album: “For Christmas, I asked my parents for that Girls Aloud album, Out of Control. Johnny Marr plays harmonica on one of the songs [Love Is the Key]. That’s pretty funny.”
Geordie, from Walthamstow, East London. “I got really properly into music when that game Guitar Hero came out. Take Me Out by Franz Ferdinand was on there, and I thought, ‘that’s a good riff, man,’ and it was something my dad – who’s really into music – didn’t have. But he got me into progressive stuff like Genesis and Pink Floyd. So one of the first gigs I saw was a Genesis tribute band with my dad at Croydon Fairfield Halls. That was pretty good.”
Morgan, from Hertfordshire: “My earliest gig memory was when Russell Gilbrook from [Seventies hard rock vets] Uriah Heep was doing a drum clinic tour. And my dad, who’s a guitarist and a bassist, knew the people who were putting on the event. I was maybe five or six, it was very random, and I went with my dad and granddad – three Black dudes rocking up! We were like, ‘what the hell and where are we?’” Earliest record he remembers listening to: gospel artist Andraé Crouch Live At Carnegie Hall, “my dad’s favourite record”.
All of those disparate influences come to bear on Cavalcade, where the speed-prog of Chondromalacia Patela settles into an indie-jazz groove presided over by Greep, who’s now singing like a choirboy chansonnier before some Actual Headbanging takes the musical reins. It’s like every aspect of Scott Walker’s four-decade career in 290 action-packed seconds.
As the vocalist says, “the idea [moving on] from the last album to this album was to go further in both directions: have the crazy bits be crazier, and also have the more melodic, consonant bits be more accessible, or poppier or whatever. And just to have that wider dynamic. And, yeah, the sense of space, or have some room sometimes.”
Also, be concise. Eight tracks will do it, and if one of them, Hogwash and Balderdash is only two-and-half minutes, so be it. Because black midi years are like dog years – they pack a lot in. Or, as Simpson, says: “It’s all about intent, isn’t it? You don’t want to do a half-arsed version of a 12-minute song and it be OK. Do a five- or six-minute version and make it really, really good.”
“A big thing, too, is that not every song has to be on the album,” Greep pipes up (very quietly). “We could have put certain songs on the album, they’re very good, but we wanted a 40-minute album, so it’s on the next album, or it’s a non-album single. Brevity in general is underrated.”
Has being a three-piece also helped focus them?
“I think naturally when you have one less piece of the puzzle,” Simpson says, “it’s going to make a slight difference. I don’t think it’s exactly day and night, but a tune like Dethroned, that really lent itself to a trio set-up. I think we were really trying to channel…
“The Police!” shouts Greep (very quietly). “We’re a power-trio!”
All that said: Cavalcade ends with a flourish on Ascending Forth, which nudges the 10-minute mark and sounds like Kamasi Washington meets King Crimson. There’s space in spades, but Every Breath You Take it ain’t.
And for their next trick? black midi finished Cavalcade six months ago, so are already four or five completed songs deep into their next record.
“And it’s going even further, man,” they say. “It’s gonna be even more crazy.”
Cavalcade (Rough Trade) is released on 28th May. The same day black midi play two shows at St John-at-Hackney Church, East London. Tickets here