Inside the buzz of Black Midi
Think of the Brit School, and balladry is surely the soundtrack. The Croydon creative hub is famed for its alumni: a who’s who of supermarket shelf-filling big hitters like Adele, Amy Winehouse and Leona Lewis; a major label A&R’s Christmas bonus in waiting.
Any big-shots sniffing around the school last summer, though, may have been in for a surprise. Holed up in a practise room, four fresh-faced, soon-to-be graduates were fine-tuning their industrial noise rock, each warped jam session yielding evermore twisted, experimental wares. X Factor fodder this was not.
Fast forward to 2019, and the group are on every hype-chaser’s hitlist. Under the name Black Midi, they’ve been talked about in not-so-hushed tones as one of the country’s most exciting new bands. An indefinable group, pushing guitar music into strange, hypnotic territory. Not that the four of them care much for the hyperbole – today they’re far more concerned about my bowling skills.
“If you’re setting out to be a thing, you’re already pigeonholing yourself”
© Yis Kid
I meet the group in Lewisham’s MFA Bowl, expecting, as it’s their requested meeting spot, something of a challenge. (Sports become an unexpected theme, as the band also suggest a fencing club for the location of our shoot.) As it turns out, they’re far better at playing music than they are bowling. It takes us 10 minutes to get started, because all of the balls are too heavy for them to pick up. Softly-spoken bassist Cameron Picton, meanwhile, has “the same style of play for every sport,” deadpans drummer Morgan Simpson. “Yep – caveman,” smirks singer and guitarist Geordie Greep, as Cameron launches another ball skyward, it landing on the lane with an almighty thwack. The frustration from the band when Crack Magazine top the scoreboard three times is almost enough to derail the whole afternoon.
It almost seems incongruous that this ragtag, calamitous bunch (completed by guitarist Matt Kelvin) could be producing some of the UK’s most cerebral new music. Their sound calls to mind everything from Battles, to Anna Meredith and This Heat. As it turns out, though, Black Midi’s music might not be as meticulously constructed as it may sound. “It’s weird,” says Geordie. “It’s not like we were like, ‘Ooh, we all like this crazy music’. It’s just that we were friends, innit,” he shrugs, as if any group of schoolkids would come up with these sounds on a whim. “We didn’t set out to make this music; it’s just the music that came out,” agrees Cameron.
Initially starting life as “two-hour ambient jams” between Geordie and Matt, the band recruited Morgan behind the kit in their final year at Brit School. A school show was part of a world music assignment that saw them take on Neu!’s krautrock jam Hero. “We must have taken up about half the show,” recalls Matt, “because we made it 15 minutes long. I wasn’t even playing guitar in that one, just smashing a cymbal,” he shrugs.
From there, things freewheeled. Geordie sent emails around to “every venue [he] could think of” in search of a gig. He only one got reply: The Windmill in Brixton. At that point, they realised they needed a bassist. “We only had one rehearsal with Cameron on that day,” Geordie remembers of that first show, in June last year. “But hey, it went alright!” After that, the group began playing at The Windmill with increasing regularity, tightening the screws of that live show and building a word-of-mouth following in lieu of any recorded tracks or social media presence. Months later, an NTS Radio session unexpectedly popped up on YouTube, gathering views like wildfire, crowds clamouring for scraps of information on a band by then dubbed by fellow Londoners Shame as ‘the best band in London’.
If it all seemed mysterious, that wasn’t the intention. “People cottoned on quite quickly and we didn’t have much money,” shrugs Cameron of those quiet early months, not even a demo to their name. “And we really were just starting out, as well,” picks up Morgan. “Every little thing is a bonus. We’re not getting ahead of ourselves at all. It’s just one thing at a time.” From there, they were snapped up by producer Dan Carey, a man with a knack for drawing the wonderful out of British indie’s weirdest offerings. “He came up to us after a show and was like, ‘I want to record that one – boom, boom, boom’,” recalls Geordie. That then-nameless track subsequently took on an onomatopoeic description, the lolloping, blues-meets-a-helium-balloon of bmbmbm becoming Black Midi’s debut single.
Now, the group are back in with Carey, working on a debut album. Sessions are going “really well,” Geordie says, reticent to offer up much more. There have been setbacks along the way – a big-time London show at Electrowerkz was nearly derailed by an exploding amp, he explains – but given their ever-mutating state, they’ve learnt from every bump in the road. It lends that debut an unknowable edge. It’s a first-work that could take Black Midi’s sound anywhere.
“If you’re setting out to be a thing, you’re already pigeonholing yourself,” shrugs Morgan. It’s a totally open approach to creativity which feels core to Black Midi’s being. Every show they play finds them morphing further still; no two sets are ever the same. It’s that – more than hype, mystery, or any other buzzword – that makes Black Midi such a beguiling prospect. “We don’t want to be the same in two months, or four months or six months,” says Morgan, looking to the future, before pulling out a word surely no-one would use to describe his band: “We don’t want to get… complacent.”
Photography: Yis Kid