You know when someone tells you about a new band for the first time, claiming the group sounds like no one you’ve ever heard before? Those people are typically wrong—that is, unless they were telling you about Black Midi.
Are they a noise band? Post-punk? Math rock? Post-hardcore? No one can quite work out what they are or who they sound like. Listeners have suggested everyone from Shellac, Slint and This Heat to The Jesus Lizard and Death Grips, and one YouTube commenter even likened Geordie Greep’s hair-raising voice to The Incredibles’ Edna Mode.
I first heard about this London four-piece last February. I was chatting with Shame frontman Charlie Steen before his show in an Ohio dive bar, and I asked him if there were any cool new bands from London. Steen offered a few names, but the one he was most visibly excited about was Black Midi. A light bulb switched on in my head as I’d heard that name before. Twitter had been gushing for weeks about Black Midi’s shows in London, but I couldn’t find any live footage, studio recordings or even a social media presence.
It wasn’t until last April that a studio performance of a then-untitled song finally surfaced. I watched the video and was hypnotized by their elusive sound and unbelievable musicianship. Any potential doubt I had about the band being overhyped was immediately squashed. A few months later, they released their debut single “bmbmbm,” via producer Dan Carey’s Speedy Wunderground label, and it was perplexing to hear a band of 19 and 20-year-olds with such an experimental palette and distinctive identity. Geordie Greep (vocals, guitar), Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin (vocals, guitar), Cameron Picton (vocals, bass) and Morgan Simpson (drums) sound maniacal, tense, clamorous and simultaneously machine-like and autonomous.
When a Black Midi song blares, it’s like an impossible mountain climb—as soon as you find a ledge to grasp, it’s an electrifying triumph, but once you’ve gripped it, it crumbles off and you’re left hanging above a frightening abyss. With Black Midi, it’s all about the pursuit. You’re on a mission to find a more bewildering moment than the last. Their unconventional time signatures, breakneck guitars, propulsive grooves, Greep’s eccentric vocals and Simpson’s exceptionally agile drumming results in these devious, indeterminate rock squalls that make them so enamoring.
Following a much-hyped run at this year’s South By Southwest, Black Midi are unleashing their debut album, Schlagenheim, via Rough Trade Records on June 21. It’s misshapen, unpredictable, and at times murky, other times freakishly precise. It’s an experimental rock carousel with both a charming craftiness and menacing grandiosity.
Paste had a chat with Geordie Greep when Black Midi were on tour in Paris. We discussed the band’s songwriting process, their slippery sound and the polarizing reactions to their music. Read the Q&A below, which has been edited for clarity and length.
Paste: You guys first met at a London performing arts college called The Brit School. Do you think you would sound different if you were all 100 percent self-taught?
Geordie Greep: Well, we wouldn’t have first met up, but in terms of how we play our instruments, I think we’re all self-taught really anyway. By the time we went to The Brit School we were individually at a good standard. With The Brit School, it was more about playing with other people and doing gigs and stuff. It is what you make of it. If you had no music skill and then went to the Brit School, it wouldn’t change everything. The band developed in a different way just from interacting with each other I suppose. If we hadn’t met each other then we wouldn’t be doing the same thing. Some of us would be further out there and some of us would be completely pop. We definitely found a medium.
You first started making more ambient stuff and then that morphed into something a bit doomier. Can you talk about that shift?
It wasn’t really a conscious thing. It’s just like if you’re going in a certain way for a long time, and you just can’t think of anything else to do in that style, you’ll naturally start doing other things. We’re always listening to different stuff so that will impact the music we’re making. So it was kind of a slow, subtle shift. By the time we were doing shorter songs, it had been a long time coming. It wasn’t like we were suddenly like, “Oh yeah, let’s be a normal band. Let’s make normal songs.” It was just subtly taking away the excess.
Does most of your songwriting come from improvisation in rehearsals?
Musically, yeah. Most of the songs on the album were made through that process of doing really long jams and taking the best bits of those and putting them together. There were a few from the very beginning that were just written out straight.
What’s the longest period you’ve jammed for without stopping?
Hmm, maybe three, four hours.
Wow. I’m guessing there’s no talk of time signatures or musical ideas before you start?
No, not really. I don’t think we think of music in the kind of overly technical way or we try not to. We just do what feels right. And when we’re jamming, the ultimate goal is to just be able to not think about anything at all and just let your subconscious play because as soon as you start thinking about it too much, everything you play is rubbish. And it usually takes about 40 minutes to an hour, the first part of the jam, to really get into that kind of zone where you’re not thinking about it at all.
Is it exciting to let your songs be living things that aren’t locked into one version?
The songs don’t really change that much. It’s more just cutting off the fat. I think by the time we got to recording the album we’d already whittled them down so much that that was kind of the final form. But who knows—they might change even more. We do jam quite a bit between songs and in bits of songs, but the structures are pretty set now I’d say.
You’re not the type of band that would want to be pigeonholed, but your music is going to be sold in record stores, so what section you would want to find your record in?
Popular music. I don’t like record stores where they have endless genre variations. If I had a record store, there would be three categories. It would be classical music, popular music and jazz music. So if it was in my record store, it would be in popular music.
How do you balance the accessible with the experimental? How do you make something that people can latch onto while also making something different and interesting?
Yes, that’s very important. We don’t necessarily try and make it experimental and don’t try and make it poppy either. I think if there are any interesting ideas, they will seem slightly offbeat just because of the way it goes. It’s not being experimental for experimental’s sake or poppy for pop music’s sake. It’s just the way it’s worked out really.
Everybody I’ve talked to about your band has had a really intense reaction to your music, whether they loved it, hated it or were confused by it. Everybody seems intrigued regardless. Was that the idea?
I don’t think it’s a bad sign at all. Anything that’s particularly interesting provokes strong reactions usually.
What was it like working with your producer Dan Carey?
The thing about him that works so well for us is that he really knows how to strike while the iron is hot. So, for example, with a lot of producers, you have an idea to record a certain part or something. Maybe even a kind of silly idea and you say, “How about some maracas on this part?” And this producer will talk to you for 10 minutes about why you shouldn’t do this and kind of goad you out of it. And then they’ll say, “You may as well record a take,” but by the time you’re recording a take, you’re so disheartened by the way they’ve shut down your idea that you’re playing it all rubbish and it’s just not working and you say, “You’re right after all. This was a terrible idea.” With Dan Carey, the opposite happens. You say the most crazy idea you can think of and he says, “Cool. Let’s try it out.” Before you can even think of a part, you’re recording it. So you get that really nice tension where it’s not quite right, but it is quite right, and you’re kind of working the part out as you’re recording it. Because of that tension, you get a real energy with him and once it’s recorded, it sounds better than we thought it would.
Is there an ideal way that you would want people to listen to your album? Like on a good sound system?
I think the important thing is just to listen to it all through in one go and not to fragment the tracks up, and just view it as one thing and listen carefully and listen multiple times. I think the best albums are the ones that you don’t like at first, and then you get more and more attached to for some unknown reason. So, if people don’t like it at first, I’d urge them to listen and listen again if something is drawing them to.
Why create such a clear distinction between the album and the live show?
Because I absolutely hate it when you go to a gig, and you’re paying for something that you could get at your house by listening to the album. It’s a waste of money. There’s nothing exciting about that. I don’t think bands should feel obligated to have their album as just a document. That’s great if you want to do that, but, I think there’s something more that can be done with the recording of music, and you should use that to your full advantage. So I think what we’re trying to do is have the advantage of the studio and live be different things and have it where there’s no need to compare the two because they’re so obviously different.
I wouldn’t have expected you guys to play in America less than a year after your first single. Did you expect attention outside of the U.K. or Europe?
No, not at all. It’s all been kind of a bonus from the first gig. I didn’t expect it to go past the first gig. The first gig wasn’t meant to be the establishing of a new band. It was meant to be the ending of a fun project we did at school. We were like, “Now we’ve got a gig, let’s do it and have a fun time.” Everything has been a bonus really. I can’t complain about any of it at all.