Black Midi Are Making it Up as They Go
In May 2018, the young London post-punk band Black Midi performed a set of improvised music in collaboration with Damo Suzuki, the 69-year-old former vocalist of Can. The sounds they made together, as heard on a limited cassette release recorded at the show and released a few months later, are not entirely unlike those of Suzuki’s old band: tense, minimal, propulsive, with noises of indeterminate origin periodically announcing themselves or receding into the clatter, all of it hurtling forward in one long polyrhythmic spasm.
The Suzuki gig was a milestone in Black Midi’s stupefyingly fast rise through the U.K. underground, toward their current status as the sort of band that gets signed to Rough Trade for their first album and booked on at least one major festival before it even comes out. The quartet had formed only a year before the show, which took place at the Windmill, the same venue in Brixton where they’d booked their very first performance, shortly after graduating high school. Listening to the Suzuki tape while awaiting the release of their debut album Schlagenheim should also serve as proof that the hype, while occasionally excessive, is not misplaced. These four kids were sharing the stage with a true hero of bleeding-edge rock music, whose feral and unpredictable energy has hardly waned since Can’s early-’70s heyday. And somehow, they were keeping up with him.
According to bassist Cameron Picton, that live jam with Suzuki was a source of raw material for several tracks on Schlagenheim. The band would zero in on compelling bits from the tape, then deconstruct and reassemble them until they began to look like songs. (Some tracks were sourced from similarly freeform jams at rehearsals; others were more traditionally composed.) The resulting music still sounds like Can at times, but only a little. As 20-year-olds in the year 2019, the members of Black Midi also appreciate Death Grips, video games, and the sort of vaguely discomfiting low-res internet detritus that may appear in your feed one day and in your nightmare the next.
Sometimes Black Midi will stretch out like they did with Damo, but just as often they treat grooves like browser tabs, jumping freely between them: a lurching hardcore riff slams into a lilting acoustic guitar, a stretch of dubby negative space suddenly sprouts a writhing outgrowth of feedback. They belong to the small fraternity of rock bands, including Can, in which the drums could reasonably be considered the lead instrument. They also seem spiritually aligned with the ‘80s iteration of King Crimson, when the prog godheads experimented with highly virtuosic mutations of new wave and dance music, taking joy in body-moving rhythms, but also in exploding and interrupting them.
Black Midi’s renown grew thanks to an quickly canonized early run of performances at the Windmill, but also thanks to a couple of YouTube videos, in which the band give furious performances in the studios of various tastemaking radio stations. Watching these clips is both thrilling and disorienting. Aside from drummer Morgan Simpson, who is a fireball of energy, they look tentative, and a little gawky, very much like the college-aged young adults they are. But they sound incredible, handling their instruments with carefully attuned abandon, clearly possessing the kind of ensemble telepathy that can only come from years of playing together. Who are these kids, you might think, and how are they playing this crazy music so well together?
The answer has a lot to do with the BRIT School, a highly selective but free-to-attend performing arts academy in London, which all four members attended, where they took advantage of supportive faculty and free rehearsal space, honing their chops for years before making their public debut. The school is funded by the British government, with assistance from the U.K. equivalent of the Recording Academy: the sort of public (and private) investment in culture for culture’s sake that is increasingly difficult to imagine happening in the U.S. The BRIT School’s list of alumni—which includes icons like Amy Winehouse and Adele in addition to the most exciting experimental guitar band to arrive in recent memory—is proof that such an investment is worthwhile.
Spin recently spoke via telephone with Picton and guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin (both of whom are vocalists, along with guitarist Geordie Greep) about the performance with Damo, their BRIT School experience, and the making of Schlagenheim. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SPIN: Parts of “Crow’s Perch,” the single you released in March, reminded me of In a Silent Way-era Miles Davis stuff. You’ve talked a bit about the importance of improvisation to your process, and I wondered if you might walk me through how a song like that comes together. Is that sort of late -‘60s and ‘70s electric jazz something that you’re thinking about actively?
MATT KWASNIEWSKI-KELVIN: Basically, we go about jamming for like two hours, or maybe more, depending on how we feel. And we usually just have a tape recorder in the room, and that night, before the next rehearsal, we’ll listen back to the bits we like. And we get those bits, and start to refine them, and stick them together, and that usually makes a song. The earlier songs, a couple songs on the album, they were more written out. But the new stuff is a more collaborative thing. All the less rock-y stuff comes from those jams.
I don’t think that’s something we were really actively thinking about, but we’re all quite excessive listeners. We listen to all sorts of things. I love On the Corner and Get Up With It. But we really just think about what happens when we play together. We’ve been listening to that music together for years and years, so it’s just what came out of us. I don’t think we were going out of our way to make it like that.
The improvisation that you’ve done to arrive at the structure of the songs, does that continue onstage? Do you let the songs take you where they will, or is it more like, once the structure is in place, it’s done?
CAMERON PICTON: Most of the time, we end up choosing a setlist like ten seconds before we go on stage. Sometimes we just call it on the stage. We just call it, whenever we want to jam. Morgan will start a groove, or one of us will start playing a riff, and that’s the signal to start jamming.
KWASNIEWSKI-KELVIN: Or when there’s a technical problem. It covers those awkward silences. We don’t really talk between songs. We try to keep the music going as long as possible, so if someone’s fixing something, it can just start like that. Within the songs themselves, the structure is quite considered, but within the structure, there’s room for improvisation, room for change. Morgan—what he does is never really set. What he plays, you can’t really repeat exactly the same thing twice.
PICTON: It’s kind of anything goes, now. There’s not really any rules at all.
How did the performance with Damo Suzuki come together?
PICTON: At the Windmill—we did quite a lot of gigs that year, from the summer of 2017 to June 2018, we played there really regularly. Tim Curry, the booker, got us in contact with him, and he basically put the show together for us.
KWASNIEWSKI-KELVIN: I was quite nervous.
PICTON: Some of us were quite nervous. He’s a legend.
KWASNIEWSKI-KELVIN: It was terrifying.
PICTON: But once we started playing with him, it got in the zone. We forgot about our emotions and stuff.
KWASNIEWSKI-KELVIN: He made us feel really comfortable. It was really cool.
PICTON: The whole thing was improvised. The only thing he said to us at the beginning was, “I’m gonna do a jump, and then when I land, go into straight noise. And it will go from there.” It was quite an intense experience.
For American readers, we don’t really have institutions like the BRIT School, where you guys met. Could you give a picture of what it’s like going to school in an environment like that? Is band practice part of your curriculum? Are you being encouraged by your professors to pursue the sort of freeform music that you guys ended up making?
PICTON: The school is quite rare, even for the U.K. It’s the only non-fee-paying school of its kind. It’s largely state-run, with some money from the BRIT Trust, which is a trust from the music industry—they run the BRIT Awards, and they get some funding through that. The course that we did is very performance-based, focused on doing a big variety of different kinds of performances, different music. And also giving people the skills to work within music—not within the music industry necessarily, but to make a living doing something with music: being a music therapist, being a music teacher, being a recording engineer, being a producer. They would teach you how to do your tax returns if you’re self-employed, that kind of thing.
And especially in our year, they were very encouraging of people making their own original music. The music that Black Midi was making while I was at school—I wasn’t so involved in the band, just mates with them—it was more ambient, droney, noise. Matt can explain a bit more about how it actually was.
KWASNIEWSKI-KELVIN: Me and Geordie were there for four years, and Cameron and Morgan joined in the third and fourth year. Because all the rehearsal rooms are free, we were able to use them whenever, mainly during lunchtime and after school. Me and Geordie used to go in there after school, and I would play the keyboard, laying out a drone, and Geordie would play all sorts of ambient guitar effects over that. And it became this jammy, improvised, noisy, ambient thing that we just did for fun. And then Morgan came in, and he started jamming with us as well. It’s the perfect place to make mistakes and try stuff out, before you actually go out. That was one of the biggest advantages of it.
Starting from that informal ambient jam session—was there a moment where you thought you might be onto something like what you’re doing now, and it’s time to take it seriously?
PICTON: Not until we left. The proper gigs started, and I joined, after we all left. It took six or seven months, until maybe December 2017, for anyone to think, “It’s not unreasonable that we could be releasing a record at some point in the future.” I don’t think anyone was expecting it to do anything. It was just a bit of fun, really. But that’s how a lot of the bands at the Windmill started, having fun with your mates. You have the space, and a guy like Tim Curry giving you these gigs, and a cool network of people.
KWASNIEWSKI-KELVIN: Tim Curry just kept offering us gigs, so we kept doing them, basically. Cameron had only just joined the band, just before that first gig. And he only had about four hours to learn the songs before the gig. We just rehearsed them that day.
PICTON: So you can tell that no one was really taking it seriously at that point. Even the next show, the only rehearsal we did was on the day. We had to re-learn the songs again.
When did it start to come together on a purely musical level? As a listener, hearing some of the singles, or watching the live videos that were floating around, my reaction, and I think other people’s too, was basically, “Who are these guys, and where did they come from?” It seemed like you emerged from nowhere, but obviously that’s not true.
KWASNIEWSKI-KELVIN: That just developed over time. Once we were at the BRIT School, we were playing with loads of other musicians, all the time. That contributed to the ability to improvise, that sort of thing.
PICTON: It took us awhile to realize what we wanted to do, where we wanted to take the band, once there was an audience for it, and people were actually interested. I think that’s one of the reasons it took so long to release music. We were just exploring things, figuring out a consistent way to write songs. The first songs we wrote were more like, “Has anyone got an idea?” and then developing ideas from that.
And then slowly, the improvisation thing came together. Once the Damo Suzuki thing happened, we realized improvisation was something we could easily use to develop more ideas. And if you listen to the recording of the Damo Suzuki show, you can hear that the genesis of a lot of songs comes from that show. A lot of the riffs, if you listen to it, are the same riffs of two or three tracks from the album.
Now that you have a record deal, and there’s touring lined up, and you have people like me who want to talk to you about your music, do you feel the same freedom to explore?
PICTON: Definitely. We recorded the album before we even signed to Rough Trade, so they knew what they were in for. And that’s one of the reasons that we signed with Rough Trade, because they’re the ones who have allowed us to have complete freedom with what we do.
They’re putting what seems like a lot of resources into promoting you guys, which is great but also kind of surprising. It’s not particularly commercial music.
PICTON: For sure. It’s even been a surprise for us, how much backing there is behind the record. I think it shows that they really believe it’s something that has longevity. The band ourselves, I don’t think we’re particularly fussed about the commercial success of the record, as long as we’re able to make another one, and another one after that.
And when it comes to the possibility of touring breaking up our rehearsal schedule, I don’t think that’s the biggest thing in the world anyway, because more and more recently, we’ve just ended up jamming in live sets, and we’ve always recorded it. I don’t think there’s much of a barrier between performing and rehearsing. In our early days, a lot of our material developed live, we figured out what worked and what didn’t. This kind of long touring schedule, as much as it might lead to doing fewer rehearsals in the U.K., we have the opportunity to develop new tracks live.
In your relatively young experience as a band touring all over the world and playing your music for people, how has it felt so far?
KWASNIEWSKI-KELVIN: I think it’s good fun. I love it. It can get a bit homesick, feeling attached to London and all that, if we’re away from home. But when you experience something new for the first time, like going to the States—we were in the States for three weeks, but I never missed London that much, because everything was so new. There weren’t too many long drives involved. When we’ve done stuff that’s new, going to Iceland, things like that—the worst shows, the long drives, being really far away, isn’t so much of a problem.
PICTON: It’s good fun, but it can be quite frustrating sometimes, when you go to certain countries and there’s noise limitations. Especially in France. There’s serious noise limitations there, so it’s hard to portray what we want people to hear. We want to really hit people with it, because we’re a loud band, and sometimes that can be limiting, which is a bit frustrating. But we get around it. We figured out how to make ourselves seem loud while playing under that limit.