Going down the rabbit hole with Black Midi
black midi guide me through four circles of hell – five, if you count the eerie, freshly-developed area of Battersea, and six, if you count their third album, Hellfire.
Reality, in all its greyscale predictability, leaves the band cold. They prefer to meet on a more disturbing frontier, and so there we are: myself, vocalist and guitarist Geordie Greep, bassist Cameron Picton and drummer, Morgan Simpson, standing back to back on the scorched earth, armed with an arsenal of semi-automatic rifles, emptying a shower of bullets into the onslaught of the mangled, walking dead.
It all feels sickeningly vivid, and with enough exposure, you start to no longer feel the VR headset that has put you there; the anchor of logic keeping you tethered to the fact that it’s not real, just a game, becomes unmoored. But black midi aren’t afraid to be cast adrift in the depths of their own imaginations – in fact, this is exactly the kind of pandemonium which they proudly design.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the trio emerged in 2018 already fully formed, lolloping out like gangly teenagers onto the stages of South London pubs, dives and sweatboxes, their faces hiding in the shadows of their cowboy hats. “Best band in London” declared post-punk purveyors, Shame, demanding people make the pilgrimage to see this “disturbingly brilliant” and “mighty” new group.
Without a single track online, and only threadbare details of the band’s origins available, the legend of black midi was born from word-of-mouth and the strength of scarcity. Any video, any performance – no matter how absurd the hour or location may have been – were like bones hungrily picked apart for any scrap of meat. A 2018 headline in NME asked, “What’s the deal with Black Midi: the “best band in London” nobody knows a thing about?”
Any band, under the glare of this much hype, would be forgiven for breaking a sweat – but fortunately for black midi, they had the talent to shoulder the burden. The release of their now-fabled KEXP performance in 2019 was case-in-point of why the group were the object of our fascination. Their music is a kind of physically dislocating poetry, a dizzying maelstrom of technical and textual incongruities: the bass sounds like getaway car scraping a guardrail, sparks flying, and the drums thunder like detonated explosives. No element of the music is safe, and there are no clear beginnings or ends, like a serpent eating its own tail.
As Pitchfork observed in their review of black midi’s Mercury-nominated debut record, Schlagenheim: “Two things are immediately apparent while watching: Everyone in black midi looks approximately eight years old and their drummer is an absolute legend.” Just like every element of the group, stood side-by-side, they make no sense.
Greep, always sharply turned out in well-pressed shirts and trousers, carries a strangely aristocratic air of an avant-garde writer from a bygone era. But it’s his voice, with its unplaceable accent derived from both everywhere and nowhere, which leaves an impression. Before the microphone, he lets his syllables trickle like molasses off a spoon, contorting words into uncanny shapes and blitzing them together into unlikely cocktails, all delivered with a kind of theatrical grandeur.
Picton, the band’s bassist and sometimes-vocalist, is more reserved (as bassists are wont to be) and offers his perspective quietly, with a tendency to let his thoughts taper off before finishing them. His command over his instrument, however, is conducted with an almost surgical precision, pushing its capabilities to its furthest extremes, and somehow further still. Perhaps it should come as a surprise that he tops the leader boards with every game we play, whether that be archery, drumming or combat aircraft - but really, it doesn’t.
And Simpson, their intimidatingly skilled drummer who won so many of their fans over, grins generously with the optimism of someone who never compromises on fun. When you watch him perform, his face is caught in a freefall of euphoria, executing his parts at a faultless, ungodly speed. Together, they form a musical swiss army knife that lets them tear apart the songs themselves, and maybe take down whoever’s listening, as well.
But when you strip a band like black midi from performance, from the live settings that served as the breeding ground for their sound, what do you have left? Hellfire. The two years of lockdown, Greep tells me, “were the best two years for the band.” It afforded them the time to take care, to pay attention to detail and chip away at the marble for as long as they wished, which their frenzied momentum post-Schlagenheim and relentless global touring threatened to make into a luxury rarely afforded.
The seeds were sown for their second record, Cavalcade, in the months preceding March 2020. Even at this point, the band were cultivating a new direction, a new dynamic. For that reason, Cavalcade and Hellfire are blood brothers, a second act for the same spectacle with an entirely fresh, operatic flair. “With indefinite time off, we basically shifted the whole dynamic of how we were coming up with the music and the cuts,” Greep elaborates. “It also kind of pushed us forward, going further down the rabbit hole.”
They worked on songs alone and then, together, in sporadic rehearsal sessions, would shape and elevate those ideas. “With the first album, it felt like you could add sections on, sort of ad infinitum – it could just go on forever,” says Picton. “Working alone, you could be much more ambitious with songs,” Greep adds. “You can have proper, very complex chord progressions and sequences, and take the time to work things out a lot more. It’s a whole thing when you’re arguing over where each chord change ends up or getting lost and not having general cohesion. You can also be a lot more decisive: it’s easy to say, ‘Right, that’s the song’ – whereas when you’re all working together, there’s often a tendency to almost upstage each other.”
It also proved far to be a far more efficient method. When they were bringing Schlagenheim to life, they had to wade through the tedium of democratically voting over every section or riff in a song – to finally commit to a tune would take weeks, if not months. “After we finished Schlagenheim, it took basically a year for us to do two songs, compared to this record, where it took six months for us to do fifteen,” says Picton. “There weren’t any songs where we did the whole thing together,” Greep observes – and as a result, Hellfire is a mosaic made from distinctly personal shards of ambition and experience. “If the pandemic didn’t happen, as morbid as it is – because it was obviously a global tragedy – then we wouldn’t have done these two albums. So, to be honest, from a really selfish, creative point of view, it was great.”
But more than anything, it served to reinforce their trust in each other as musicians. “It’s the reason we’re a band in the first place,” Greep says. “We take what each other does or thinks as valuable. So if someone brings in a song they’ve written and they feel strongly for it, you actually go with them and let them direct until it gets to a point where it’s presentable.” Their individual tastes are so scattered that within black midi, and their appreciation of music is so academic, that you wouldn’t be wrong if you heard flashes of Igor Stravinsky alongside North African flamenco fusion – and a thousand other sounds besides.
black midi’s gift for storytelling and world-building comes to the fore more than ever with Hellfire, and in many ways, it’s the closest thing to theatre a recent record in its realm has come. Lavished with dramatic monologues from a cast of “scumbags”, each song is a short story in an ever-expanding anthology: there is a soldier’s dishonourable discharge; a deadly wrestling match; a man’s blood is turned to wine and gulped down – and there is a love story.
It’s as much a literary achievement as it is a musical one. To write his lyrics like short stories, Greep tells me, has always been the intention, to wrap something up quickly with a beginning, middle and end: “I think it’s a really admirable genre because you can’t really waste a sentence. It’s quite amazing, really, how you can construct a whole, believable, tangible world in just ten pages.”
He has spoken extensively before about his love of literature, citing Nabakov’s Pale Fire, and the works of John Cheever and Richard Yates, as having shaped his own distinct voice as a lyricist. “[Yates] is one of those writers who is commonly thought to be quite depressing,” he tells me, “too emotionally devastating, or whatever, but really, it’s just really, really funny.”
This sense of not knowing whether to laugh or be appalled is central to black midi’s lyrics. “I’ve always liked the idea of doing something that’s quite perverse on the surface, quite horrible, but then trying to write that in a more poetic, or, on the surface, beautiful way,” says Greep, pointing out the lyrics to “The Defence” that is a vignette of a brothel, where humour and well-crafted poetry distracts from the barely-concealed depravity. “Cameron’s songs,” he tells me, “are a bit more straight up.”
As with each record in their discography so far, Picton brings a track or two to the table where he steps into the light as a vocalist and lyricist, which are often some of the band’s finest moments. His mind wanders as Greep speaks, picking at the blades of grass and we sit in the real world for a moment, and nonchalantly offers: “Yeah, well ‘Still’ is just basically a breakup song, so that’s a nice little draw. And then ‘Eat Men Eat’ is about these guys getting killed, turned into wine, but there’s a love story in the middle holding it all together. They both have the light and the dark, even though a break-up is not really as serious as mass murder.” Simpson jokes, “Maybe in the heat of battle.”
I ask why the majority of the characters in Hellfire are so morally flawed: anti-heroes at best, and outright villains at worst. “It’s just very entertaining,” shrugs Greep, “it creates great opportunity for a kind of humour and pathos, or whatever. A lot of the best characters, the characters you really like, when you really look at them, they’re quite horrible people – or are quite flawed.”
He then adds, “Basically, every song that I’m doing starts off as a real thought or situation or emotion, that is then just grossly exaggerated. Much of it are things I’ve thought or experienced, but just exaggerated to the nth degree to make it more interesting or funny.” The track which supposedly holds the least distorted reflection of Greep is “27 Questions”. I ask him, if we take the time to unravel the tricks and distractions, will we find him underneath it all? “Potentially, potentially,” he smirks. I push a little further, and ask if “27 Questions” is the most personal track on the record from his perspective, and he offers no more: “Maybe so, maybe so.”
black midi have a fanbase with almost cult-like devotion, who love nothing more than to dissect the clues and red herrings the band throw their way online. This wider universe of intersecting narratives that spans across all three of their albums is, in part, a way of keeping them occupied, Picton tells me. “It gives you a little cheat sheet, or a bank for future songs,” Greep explains. “When you make a song vaguely relate to one you’ve already written, it creates the illusion or more depth. It makes it all seem a lot bigger than what it actually is.”
I wonder if they had an audience in mind at all when writing Hellfire, if they wrote it as a way of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for some hapless Hansel and Gretel to follow. “Not really. Just ourselves,” shrugs Greep. “So we’ve got an audience of three, at least - and it’s 50/50 on the parents.” It seems that the world takes black midi more seriously than they take themselves. “Maybe a certain subsection of people struggle to wrap their heads around that,” says Simpson. “It’s not that common that you get bands who really push themselves on their instruments, but also smile and jump around and are silly on stage. I think that’s one thing maybe people don’t understand. But again, who cares? It boils down to just having fun with what you do.”
Greep adds, “We take the music seriously, but not ourselves. With every song, it’s never a thing of making do with some random shit, though – even if it might read like it’s random shit in the lyrics. Our music is always very thought out. I don’t know if that goes to its credit, or against it.”
As a band who have been met with consistent, rapturous critical applause – especially considering they’re three young men barely in their twenties – surely with each record, there is an almost unfair bar of expectation to clear? “I don’t think you should really care about anything besides what you’re creating,” offers Simpson. “Why spend countless nights not going to sleep over what someone said about your track? In becoming an artist, you’re signing up for people to have an opinion on what you make, so don’t stress about it, don’t worry about it, because you can’t control it.”
Greep chimes in, “We can’t avoid that stuff, you know. Everyone has these kinds of self-doubts, or whatever, but generally, the voice of your head will say, ‘Who cares, man?’” Simpson raises an eyebrow at his phrasing: “The voice of your… head?” For a moment Greep forgets he’s in an interview and relaxes into the bravado he reserves for his friends. “The voice you need, sometimes,” he laughs, trying on one of his many personas, like a mobster drinking at a speakeasy: “Out on the town, you need that voice. You don’t want to end up with an egg on your face…”
There were many misconceptions about black midi when they emerged: an inevitable consequence of a band content to leave blanks. The first is that there was no premeditation to the unusual way the band built their reputation. They didn’t play by the typical rules of engagement, of building an image and a social media following, for the simple reason that it just didn’t naturally to them. Their strengths were getting the best from their instruments and performing together, and so that was the hand they chose to play. Through performing at as little as a 50-cap show at the likes of The Windmill in Brixton, they have put in the legwork and laid strong foundations as performers that many artists who have found fame during the pandemic have lacked.
It can also seem that black midi’s absence of ego in their work is an act of resistance against the state of music today. Picton recalls, “It’s quite funny, because a lot of the time on tour, people would come up to us and be like, ‘It’s so weird, I thought you were all forty-year-old guys.’” But the bottom line is that they, as individuals, aren’t relevant to the purpose of the band at all, and so the idea of doling out their personalities in TikToks would be a waste of their time - and besides, that’s not what their audience is here for. In being steadfastly dedicated to their own mission, they have never once been forced to compromise.
A further bone of contention about the band is BRIT School, a well-known but little-understood performing arts school in South London. With an alumni that boasts Adele, Amy Winehouse and FKA Twigs, its reputation creates the illusion that it’s a school of privilege, where attendance means your career will be handed to you on a silver platter. Many have treated black midi’s association with BRIT School as a stain on their credibility, with some going so far as to suggest they’re industry plants. “People are just very suspicious of anyone under the age of 20 who gets any sort of success in the music industry,” shrugs Picton, “however legitimate or label-pushed it is.”
“First of all, it’s not a private school,” Greep stresses, “it’s free. A lot of people think that in going there, you’re fast-tracked to a major label deal, and you finish the course, and they say, ‘Sign here in blood, here’s your record contract’ – but most of the people there end up doing nothing to do with music.” While the band are reluctant to say that the school had any direct responsibility in their approach to music or the trajectory of their careers, it was still an environment they loved – and without it, we would have no black midi at all. “It’s strange when people talk down on it, as if it’s some evil thing, because it benefits so many people, and it’s one of those things that should be more accessible in the rest of the country,” shares Picton. “But there doesn’t seem to be any real understanding of what it is – and I think there’s probably a reason for that. The government obviously don’t want to fund creatives, they’re focused on STEM. Maybe that’s why people believe schools like BRIT are a bad thing?”
I put to the band the most inflammatory charge of all: are black midi an inaccessible band? “Who cares, really?” answers Greep. “The only reason we’re making music is because it’s music we want to hear. That might come across as self-centred or a bit short-sighted, but whatever, at the end of the day, it’s the same attitude everyone has.” Simpson adds, ‘Generally speaking, after a first few listens, everything becomes accessible when you’ve become more accustomed to it. It’s fine if you don’t want to keep trying, but I think what we believe is some of the greatest music is not accessible at first, but it’s through the process of trying that you find something you really love, and that’s a rewarding feeling.” It’s true what they say, ‘You can shut your eyes, but you can’t shut your ears’ – but you can have a wilfully closed mind.
Do black midi believe in hell? “We’re going to live our lives first, and then found out,” concludes Greep. “It’s just a funny device, isn’t it? It’s more about the overriding themes of despair and desolation that happen to us all at some point – we’ve all felt some kind of hellfire.”
Hellfire is released on 15 July via Rough Trade