Is it true that the most radical guitar album of the year was made by four youngsters from London who just graduated from the BRIT School? You can find it out this week at the Beursschouwburg.
BRIT School alumni generally don’t shy away from the spotlight – Adele, Amy Winehouse, anybody? But that is precisely what the young guys in Black Midi did after graduating from the renowned music school in London. The nerdy guitar slingers built a reputation as an “it” band at the hip underground club The Windmill, but until recently they barely gave any interviews, would only occasionally put the odd song online, and never joined the Instagram story craze. All that only fed the hype even more, of course.
There was no conscious strategy, it was just a question of priorities, singer Geordie Greep, guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin, drummer Morgan Simpson, and bassist Cameron Picton explained. Their album debut Schlagenheim didn’t win the Mercury Prize, but proved that the Black Midi hype – unheard-of for a guitar band today – was not unfounded. Their music is impetuous, but also so new and radical that it makes rock ‘n’ roll sound fresh again. During their live shows, moreover, Black Midi play with the attitude of radical jazz cats, using plenty of improvisations to keep their creations lively – not to say unrecognisable. It makes them all the more exciting.
Earlier this year, somebody on the Red Hand Files website asked Nick Cave to take the pulse of rock ‘n’ roll, and Dr. Cave’s alarming conclusion was that it is...dying.
Morgan Simpson: Gosh, yes. Well, Nick Cave undoubtedly has very intelligent things to say about that. But rock is such a broad concept. It isn’t either black or white.
Cameron Picton: That’s funny. There has always been this intense debate about who invented rock ‘n’ roll. Be we can be the ones to bury it! (Laughs)
Backbiters say that hip hop is much more radical than rock music nowadays.
Simpson: Hip hop has always been radical, rappers have always wanted to create new things. But you see ups and downs there too.
Picton: What I like about hip hop is the way that it influences pop music. The sound of the trap beats, the Auto-Tune. Auto-Tune has existed for a while, but it has only been taken seriously since rappers started using it frequently. It is only a matter of time before we start using Auto-Tune too. (Laughs)
The medieval font in your artwork has already that hip-hop feel.
Picton: That was intentional. Everyone is using gothic fonts like that now. The difference is that ours is a cheap free font: Lucida Blackletter. It looks awful, but it is so bad that it’s good.
“They sound like everything and nothing I have ever heard,” somebody commented on the infamous YouTube video of your performance at Kex Hostel in Reykjavik during Iceland Airwaves 2018.
Picton: That’s a big compliment. Thank you.
Does it feel like you are doing something new?
Picton: I would say: no. Pretty much all the ground that can be covered in music, apart from electronic music, has generally been covered.
Simpson: I don’t think anything is ever really original. It is a combination of influences that we blend together in a certain way that no other artist has done before. From the church bands I joined at the age of five to Geordie’s love for Talking Heads and krautrock, and Cameron’s fling with Danny Brown.
Who did you rip off?
Simpson: Initially, noise pioneers like Swans and Boredoms. That was before Cameron joined the band. Geordie, Matt, and I made droney, twenty-minute tracks. Epic! Cameron was the last piece of the puzzle. He added the groove.
One thing that keeps your music raw and fresh is the way you play your songs live: with a jazz attitude.
Simpson: The songs provide a structure, but we want as much freedom as possible within that framework. I think I have the most freedom.
Picton: The songs on the record are only snapshots of what they can be. When you go to see a band, you don’t just want to hear the album, do you? You hope to experience a different energy, a different vibe, that makes you understand the songs in a different way.
On your press photos, you are presented as computer-generated avatars. There is one of you in medieval outfits with cooling towers in the background.
Picton: We like to play with contrasts like that, depicting ourselves in situations that are impossible for us, or that are simply nonsensical. Like surgeons in the jungle, dressed in boxing outfits in a castle, as astronauts… And always in a really low poly version to poke fun at it.
“I spent all my cash by the time I got to Schlagenheim,” we hear in “Western”. Where is Schlagenheim?
Picton: Geordie came up with that word. It’s an imaginary place. He loves Sergio Leone’s westerns. So now you know why he wears those wacky cowboy hats onstage.
Black Midi: 10/10, 20.00, Beursschouwburg