Blackhaine: Motion sickness
To call Tom Heyes’ work cinematic is almost an understatement. Born in Preston, the 26-year-old escaped into movies as a teenager, and his dialect-dipped wordplay illuminates an HD picture of a cloudy panorama – specifically England’s north-west – that’s been culturally opaque for far too long. His moniker, Blackhaine, is a portmanteau of “black”, to represent the self-destructive emotional spiral of northern poverty, and “haine”, swiped from French director Mathieu Kassovitz’s influential La Haine. “La haine attire la haine,” Hubert Koundé’s drug dealing boxer says in the 1995 film. It means “hatred breeds hatred” and addresses the kind of violence and poverty that scars social landscapes for generations.
“Walk on syringes like tightropes/ Veins wide and her eyes closed,” Heyes screams over blown-out distortion on the title track from his latest EP, And Salford Falls Apart. “Girl I’m giro broke/ Each tower block drills in the earth and sighs.” There’s no shortage of gritty realism in the UK’s cultural canon, but Heyes’ approach is remarkably fresh, lashing the visceral, disaffected body horror of Alan Clarke’s Scum and the brutalist dystopia of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange to the kill-your-darlings surrealism of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return without so much as a pause for breath. Heyes writes stories to raze them from his soul, and he writhes and contorts his imposing form as if puppeteered by the mystic forces that have wormed beneath British history for centuries.
The EP’s cover is an uneasy, strip-lit photograph of an NHS hospital bed surrounded by off-white boxes and wires. A green LCD display reads ‘Heyes, Thomas’. “That’s real,” he admits. “I was in there and I was like, ‘I’ll take a picture of that.’” Heyes touches on some of the subjects surrounding that hospital visit on the record, albeit obliquely, but doesn’t go into specifics when we speak. “It was definitely a close shave, but we’re rockin’ and rollin’ right now.” The photograph suggests the lengths to which Heyes is willing to go to broadcast his experiences, and while raw honesty rarely goes hand-in-hand with fame, in the last couple of years his star has risen significantly. He connected with Space Afrika on their critically lauded Honest Labour album, released two EPs, and collaborated with visual artist Richie Culver on the soundtrack to DID U CUM YET / I’M NOT GONNA CUM. As a choreographer, he’s worked with Mykki Blanco and Flohio, and was even tapped to assist Kanye West on the DONDA listening events in Chicago.
Decked out in a plain black cap and black tee, his wiry body cuts a formidable silhouette, even over Zoom. His voice, familiar from his idiosyncratic lyrics, betrays his Lancashire upbringing. These days he lives on an estate in Weaste, a desolate suburb of Salford, Greater Manchester. “There’s no shops here. There’s no shops.” He tails off, considering the gravity for a second. “It’s fucking mad, really” In the early 2000s, Manchester was mired in a musical identity crisis. Nursing a cultural comedown induced by the Madchester era’s pill-fuelled hedonism and the neoliberal nihilism of Britpop, revellers needed coaxing from a tightly-wound safety net. It wasn’t as if artists weren’t experimenting, but interest was thin on the ground. The Stone Roses jangled away in the background, endlessly.
“I DON’T REALLY KNOW WHY I WROTE, I JUST DID. I WAS TRYING TO STOP MYSELF FROM DOING SOMETHING, OR JUST TRYNA KEEP SOMETHING AT BAY”
In 2021, things are very different: Manchester’s creative ecosystem is exploratory and self-supporting, and the city is yet again forcing the world to take notice. There’s a palpable electricity that hangs in the air around creative hubs like Soup and The White Hotel, Heyes’ spiritual home in the city. These assembly points provide crucial meat space in an era where entire lives are often played out online; now, freewheeling artists are spurred to cross boundaries, fuse concepts and take risks while still commanding a healthy following. Against this backdrop, Heyes and his collaborators like Space Afrika, Iceboy Violet and Croww are encouraged to meld together trip-hop, industrial noise, ambient, shoegaze and drill with playful sincerity. It points towards a post-Brexit future that’s bigger than borders, banking and Boris.
“The whole Manchester thing’s getting a bit sticky at the moment,” Heyes half-jokes. “I think our days are numbered. It’s our fault for being good at what we do, for a year. And then it just snowballed.” He’s exaggerating, of course – the city’s contemporary wave has been building momentum for some time. But Heyes is right to be suspicious of the attention. Artists, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, have been the gentrification process’ canary in the mine for decades, lifting the value of discarded areas before being trampled on. Factory Records’ beloved Haçienda, one of the first British clubs to play house music, was demolished in 2002 and turned into luxury flats. Heyes’ relationship to the city’s popular mythology is complex; he cites “all the Manchester bands” as foundational but his clubbing experiences were more regionally specific. “The whole Factory thing, it’s like fucking hell. ‘Cause there weren’t any of this when I was young. It was donk where I were, that’s what it was.” He pauses. “But you wouldn’t buy a car off ‘em, they weren’t really guys like that.”
Donk evolved in the late-2000s, a scrappy fusion of breakneck dance music and banter-heavy MCing that centred the escapist needs of a progressively alienated northern working class. It was reviled by the music press and misunderstood by elites: in 2008, The Guardian’s music blog wrote, “For the good of humanity I would encourage you to actively prevent people from buying it”. Vice, meanwhile, described donk as “simultaneously the most terrifying and hilarious dance music genre to ever come out of the UK”. For Heyes, it was formative – an education in sound, aesthetic and movement that guided his artistic development. In an era decimated by Tory austerity after the economic downturn, donk was a movement that a generation of ravers could not only engage with, but call their own. “Everyone had their bit and it was pretty full-on. It was really intense, but it was euphoric as well,” he looks to his feet, reminiscing. “Just a soundtrack, man.” From here, Heyes accidentally stumbled across a web of other sounds using early filesharing software like Limewire. “If you search for ‘Bounce Anthems’ which is a donk thing, then you get to New Orleans bounce,” he explains. “And you start hearing the New Orleans stuff, and Three 6 Mafia and all that. A happy coincidence.”
“I ALWAYS COME BACK TO THE IDEA OF NUMBNESS, OR DOING ALL THESE DRUGS TO TRY AND FEEL SOMETHING OR TO TRY AND GIVE YOURSELF SOME KIND OF DRAMA. SOMETIMES I’M LIKE, ‘DOES IT COME FROM A PLACE OF PRIVILEGE?’”
Heyes’ dancing bloomed in tandem after a friend handed him a book on Butoh, the Japanese form of theatre in which performers use slow movement and extreme bodily distortion to tell elaborate, wordless narratives. He linked this with the expressive, epileptic gestures of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, and “seeing the Spice heads in Manchester Piccadilly”. Spice, also known as mamba or K2, is a synthetic cannabinoid that was cheap and legal in the UK before it was outlawed in 2016. For a few years, the centre of Manchester was populated by beleaguered houseless addicts who would appear locked in contortion, as the drug eliminated anxiety by coaxing users into a near comatose state. They were known colloquially as ‘Spice zombies’, and it was impossible to walk through the city without noticing their frozen poses; in 2017, the charity Lifeshare claimed that 95 percent of Manchester’s unhoused community were taking the drug.
Like many kids from economically deprived neighbourhoods, Heyes isn’t a stranger to addiction, and his portrayal of the struggle between lachrymose boredom and narcotic escapism is as chillingly accurate as it is emotionally sensitive. His debut EP, Armour, released last year, was written at a time when his daily life was scarred by habitual drug and alcohol abuse. “I always come back to the idea of numbness, or doing all these drugs to try and feel something, or to try and give yourself some kind of drama,” he says. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Does it come from a place of privilege?’ It’s privilege because there’s fuck all to do, but is that really a privilege? It’s a spiral.” That spiral guided his pen. “It was just to stop me from going crazy, to be honest. I don’t really know why I wrote, I just did. I was trying to stop myself from doing something, or just tryna keep something at bay. I thought I’d just write it down.”
“Hunger pains inside my stomach/ Had to fantasise,“he foams on Death in June. He’s not a fan of the band but he liked the way the words sounded, and was born in June. “Red and blues all in my stomach/ But I’m back alive.”Heyes’ story of addiction is political in that it wipes a layer of muck from Britain’s obscured picture of poverty, but it sits outside of colour coded, left-right binaries. Gut empty and gnawing, he gorges himself on prescription drugs, necking blue and red pills simultaneously. Constantly reminded of reality’s pain, he’s forced to consume to tolerate it – the trap is being perpetually stuck between worlds. When he wrote these lyrics, he was permanently hungover, working security at train stations in the northwest. After being reprimanded for failing to condemn sex workers who used the bathrooms of Manchester’s Victoria station to fix their hair and make-up (“I don’t give a fuck”), he was sent to Leyland, 25 miles from the city. This gave him time to think and create a parallel world with words. “What I did was go Leyland in the morning, have four hours off, and do another four hours,” he explains. “So you’re not gonna go home in four hours, have your tea and come back ‘cause there’s no point. So I’m just gonna sit down for four hours aren’t I, and do my shit there. It was a good few months of that.”
He shelved these scribbled poems and had almost forgotten about them until producer Rainy Miller, who grew up with Heyes in Preston, got in touch to collaborate. Heyes sent Miller acapellas, and Miller wrote around them, illustrating the stories with high contrast beats and textures. Armour was a damp, northern take on UK drill, and its follow-up submerges itself further in Heyes’ universe, with dislocated words and phrases echoing over haunted ‘ardkore interludes and gloomy ambient textures crafted by Croww and Miller. This time around Heyes wanted more control and envisioned the new EP as a fully choreographed short film as well as music, grafting together his different disciplines. “It’ll probably never come out,” he shrugs. “But we was working with soundtracking and that sorta stuff.” Even without the visuals, the end result is a subversive noir opera, where the most visceral moments are buried in the least likely places.
Opening track Saddleworth is almost beatless but seethes with rage: “Behind the lockers in the washroom/ Razor in my throat numb/ Saliva in the mixture.” An ominous bassline fizzes like a malfunctioning CCTV display as Heyes recounts memories of an Oldham encounter. “I was really angry and I wanted to make a noise record,” he says. “The most violent lyrics I’d say are on the more ambient tracks.” Heyes murmurs of drug deals gone wrong, endless motorway journeys from Salford to Blackpool, and the suffocating reality of poverty and addiction. “In this hotel room/ Screaming out when my body twist in pain,” he cries on lead single Hotel, recalling a violent confrontation that left him bloodied and broken. But it also mirrors his extreme artistic process: Heyes sculpted his unique choreography alone in his bedroom, forcing his body into shapes that tested his limits. “I made myself fuckin’ bleed, fuckin’ fainted thousands of times,” he recalls. “It’s getting more violent now. But it’s a different kind of violence than it was before, ‘cause before it was really just to see what I could do. But now there’s a utility behind it.”
It was worth the strain. After a string of high-profile choreography projects and time spent working with Puerto Rican multidisciplinary artist and dancer Kianí del Valle, Heyes was well prepared when Kanye West’s team got in touch earlier this year. The world was still in lockdown at that point so Heyes had to improvise from a distance. “We rented an old church in Gorton for two weeks and I put two laptops in there,” he says. “Me and my friend. And we just did it. It’s this translation of intent, and I definitely learned a lot.” From here, Heyes gets to be more choosy about what he does – he wants to work slower and “assess every angle”. He’s learning more about production and is preparing himself for a few projects that can’t be mentioned just yet. Most importantly, though, Heyes is anticipating finally being able to perform and bring his unique sound and movement to real crowds. “It’s kinda weird having essentially made a career in lockdown,”he reflects. “When it ends now it’s like, oh you’ve gotta do gigs and that’s a whole ‘nother job innit. There are a lot of people who like my music, but when they see me live that’s when they’re really like, ‘Fucking hell.’”
Despite developing his art alone, the human relationship between Heyes and his audience is pivotal to his craft. He is motivated by the physicality of live performance and becomes animated as he casts his mind into the future. Heyes wants to travel and experience the widerworld as a touring artist; he speaks passionately of visiting New York (“I wanna see what them Irish lot are like”) and Europe. But there’s unfinished business at home, too – the northwest is never too far from his mind. “I think a lot of local lads don’t really get it – it’s like Joy Division. Their music was really whatever, but you listen to the live recordings and that’s really the band: the angry guys.”
And Salford Falls Apart is out 19 November via HEAD II