black midi Rage on as Hellfire Rises

Where were you when you discovered black midi? For me, the London rock trio has always just been there, producing music that is taking new shapes with every tempo shift. Of course, there was that KEXP session in Reykjavik in late 2018, where the band performed five songs (four of which were untitled at the time) that would soon form the skeleton of their debut Schlagenheim the next summer. Then, Anthony Fantano—aka The Needle Drop—included their single “Crow’s Perch” on one of his Weekly Track Roundup videos in 2019. I was hooked, obsessed and getting really stoked on “Talking Heads,” “7-eleven” and bootleg concert videos. Since then, I’ve watched three dudes with berserk musical chops go from mumbling messiahs to experimental demigods in less than four years—a feat normally reserved for pop-star providence, not guys singing about diablerie, cult leaders and cabaret singers. They are Captain Beefheart, if Captain Beefheart wore Timbs at Coachella and had a drummer whose proclivity for doing Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls” at karaoke night parallels the fever dream of dancers in red spandex bodysuits parading across the stage during a rendition of “John L.”

I’ve grown up alongside black midi and perhaps you have, too. That is one of the better pleasures of getting stoked on a contemporary artist you admire: that you can soundtrack your own story with songs made by folks who are still writing theirs. black midi’s catalog, already rich with only two studio LPs, a covers EP and a handful of albumless singles, is one of beaming, unflinching genius. None of these guys are old enough to rent a car in the United States, but they have a command of their craft like few other bands, most of whom are much, much older than them. When you are the same age as your heroes, the world doesn’t seem so big and your dreams feel touchable. You can look past the stars; you can reject angels.

So if you arrive at a Zoom interview with black midi sporting a broken webcam, they will assure you that it’s all good and then eat sandwiches on their side of the call. They’re refreshingly laid-back, but the lads—guitarist Geordie Greep, bassist Cameron Picton and drummer Morgan Simpson—are energized—fresh off a wild two weeks, in which they played sets at Primavera Barcelona and Portugal, Maifeld Derby in Germany, and Best Kept Secret—and have parked themselves on a couch somewhere between the Netherlands and Brixton, soon to play a five-year anniversary show at The Windmill. When I greet them from across the Atlantic, they are gearing up for the release of their best album yet: the apocalyptic, hilarious, theatrical and tender Hellfire, the third installment in a self-projected discography of five-dozen albums.

Black midi may be one of the most exciting bands around, but they still refuse to take themselves too seriously. You could see it in their interview with Fantano, how they interrupted their chat by playing a rendition of ZZ Top’s “Sharp-Dressed Man.” When speaking with them, you can’t just stick to the tunes. Of course, they love talking about all of that and debunking the greatest myths surrounding their songs, but they are just as excited to lean into their own hubris, categorizing themselves as “ballers” and sliding past questions they don’t have interest in. The world they’ve built in just 40 or so songs also contains dreams of deep pockets, a catalog as large as Guided by Voices’ and a jam-until-you-drop attitude. Black midi’s mantra is simple: “Trust no one,” as Simpson deadpans. “That’s true, it’s actually true,” Greep chimes in immediately. Nevertheless, the story of Greep, Picton and Simpson’s genesis—along with now-ex-guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin—is a dead horse beaten mercilessly: The four Londoners met at the BRIT School in the city’s Borough of Croydon, England, and forged one of Europe’s most promising rock outfits of the current millennium.

On June 12, 2017, black midi played their first-ever show at The Windmill, a Brixton pub near the Blenheim Gardens in London. About 15 to 20 people showed out and the band was relegated to opener duties, but, outside of the energy that was first formed there, the set has not endured in the band’s psyche. “I don’t really remember too much about the show itself, other than I lost my backpack at the bus stop,” Picton recalls. “And also this band, Leg Puppy—the band that put the show on—was this hilarious thing with a 45-year-old guy. Many memories of that, but not many memories of the set.” The then-quartet, which included Kwasniewski-Kelvin on guitar, arrived at the show loose, having only rehearsed earlier in the day, with no expectations of how the gig would go, only stoked on promise and adrenaline. “I think we all came onstage feeling pretty excited about what the band could be,” Simpson says.

What the band has turned into since that 2017 show is, you might say, “constructed chaos.” Greep’s “goblin mode” vocals pair with Simpson’s weapons-grade percussion, and Picton’s occasional mic takeovers establish a miles-deep artistry that isn’t a bag of tricks, but a well-oiled machine. Their songs balloon with medleys of music theory. You’re as likely to hear a samba lick as you are a synth pulse; a buried woodwind as likely as piano notes slapped on unusual time signatures. Greep, Picton and Simpson have heard all the genre questions before, and don’t pay attention to it much, just as they shrug off the insinuation that their motley sonics pigeonhole them as heavily improvisational. “I think there was this idea in people’s heads when we came to record the first record that it took us the same amount of time to write the actual song itself that it did to record it,” Simpson says. “That just was never true. I think, for a couple of years, during sets, we would improvise in certain ways, but we did hit a brick wall, because the boundaries are too confined to actually have any productive jamming experience in a live set.” Even the band’s Wikipedia page for Schlagenheim suggests it was improvised. Someone should change that.

Black midi are beyond classification—meanwhile, the idea of music “evading genre” has become a hot topic among rock journalists online, as they argue over what indie music is “supposed to do.” It’s meant to defy the constricting barriers of a typical, patterned approach to songwriting, black midi’s sound screams. Simpson, the band’s vital ballast, leads the charge of the always-morphing, energetic prowess fans are gifted with at live shows—but the band traces it all the way back to their album recordings. “Dynamically, there’s far more possibility for how extreme you can be in the studio, because you have a controlled environment,” Simpson explains. “You have the ability to capture a sound and explore the space you’re in. I think we’re really into that kind of thing.” The band describe their onstage presence as a “rage mode,” fueled by adrenaline and constricted set times. Their studio mentality, however, is one of intense precision, violent curiosity, and enough time to explore and experiment.

Since that first gig at the Windmill, which threw the lads into a residency there, and landed them a record deal and a Mercury Prize nomination, black midi’s performance style has evolved far beyond just adding more pieces to their stage show. Yes, they’ve got horns going and have plumped up the tunes with extra guitars, but the energy has ascended beyond comprehension. “The first time we started, we would just get onstage, play the songs and not really say anything to the audience and get off,” Picton says. “Now, it’s way more of a considered performance. Musically, we’ve grown and gotten older and tried to have more variety, just trying to consciously make the music as exciting to play and perform as we can whenever possible.”

Hellfire—a vignette-driven smorgasbord of war campaigns, brothel escapades, dying stage performers and Satanism—is what Greep wanted to call the first album, and what Picton dreamed the second album should be titled. Luckily, it’s aptly named in 2022, as it documents the POVs of morally suspect protagonists who could, as Greep puts it, exist in a Charles Dickens novel, the Bible or a contemporary news headline. “It’s creating something that’s not necessarily hindered by a trend of time,” he says. “Even [‘Sugar/Tzu’], the one that’s set in the future, that’s less of a science-fiction future than it is a hypothetical, years-mean-nothing future where it’s an alternate, magical realist world. The whole idea is to not have anything too tied by its aesthetic, superficial thing. Rather than a song, it’s a story [about] the characters themselves.” Shifting to first-person storytelling from the third-person viewpoints of Cavalcade, the band spit out a buffet of swashbuckling and satanic degenerates with shit morals and a penchant for long-winded monologues. “If it’s in first person, if you’re singing from your own life, it can make [the song] a bit more emotional or a bit more direct,” Greep notes. “You can lean into the performance aspect a little bit more.”

That performative, theatrical display Greep speaks of turns up in Hellfire’s closing track, “27 Questions,” when he assumes the perspective of an audience member watching a near-death geriatric named Freddie Frost recite his last will and testament onstage. The band deluges the second half of the song with a cabaret melody fit for Broadway before raging into a grisly breakdown, in which the audience watches Freddie’s body blow up “to the size of a hot air balloon” and turn “red as all hellfire” and “loud as Satan’s siren.”

Part of the inspiration for Hellfire came by way of The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror VI,” in which Homer is banished to hell after selling his soul for a Lard Lad donut. The Simpsons to black midi pipeline doesn’t end there, as the band claim they have plans to record their own rendition of the show’s theme song in the near future. “Matt Groening’s pretty keen on us for the 45th season, or whatever,” Picton says. Though the show is “only” in its 33rd season, black midi are as humble as ever and ready to, tastefully, sell out to cable television, hoping to score a big payday in the process. “We’re trying to be ballers out here,” Simpson says.

Black midi have long juggled various archetypal sounds—jazz, math rock, noise, funk, post-rock, whatever the fuck—but on Hellfire, the band find themselves in new sonic territory, as they tackle outlaw country chords and implement an emotional pedal steel—courtesy of B.J. Cole, a prolific session guitarist who famously played pedal steel on Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”—on “Still” and “The Defence.” On the latter, Simpson double-tracks his drums for only the second time on record, and Greep sings about brothels atop a cluster of accordion, flute, salt shaker, grand piano and synthesizer that, somehow, make for a genius melody. Greep is quick to note that the track’s alchemy is akin to that of Willie Nelson’s “Bandera,” a soft, piano-and-harmonica rag on Red Headed Stranger. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a funny kind of coincidence. Let’s hope there’s no suing involved. It’s a lesser-known song, so we’ll be fine. And it’s a very common chord sequence, anyways,” Greep adds, chuckling behind a smirk.

One of Hellfire’s most compelling threads is Picton’s growth as a singer. His vocal palette complements Greep’s, as they both can hit the yelling notes with memorable flair, but it’s the softer moments, the waltzing cadences that highlight Picton’s grandeur. Previously, the bassist shone on “Slow,” “Near DT, MI” and the band’s queered-out cover of Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” but it’s here where he writes, and performs, his best material yet. On “Eat Men Eat,” which he wrote on a train in Scotland, he applies unfettered imagination to the suffering of acid reflux, as a militaristic Mine Captain taints his men’s meals and tells them he’ll be “Camped out in your chests / Burning.” The song’s main character screeches out the thesis of what listening to Hellfire is like: “I love you, but I can feel my chest bubbling!” His vocals interchange between a tender monotone and a shard of glass, a progression he used to fiddle with before he met Greep and Simpson. “On Cavalcade, I actually sing, which is not really a thing I do on Schlagenheim,” Picton says. “It’s subtle, but I wanted to make the actual singing much more prominent and way more melodic than it is on any of the records before. So it was rediscovering that [style of singing], which I really enjoyed when I was younger but eschewed […] for something else when we were starting out the band.”

Black midi’s storytelling is very much the musical equivalent of late nights spent going down Wikipedia rabbit holes. They spend so much time recreating genres they love, but doing it in their own style, and Picton’s homage to flamenco on Hellfire is an earnest interpretation. “I definitely cannot sing flamenco,” he says. “I didn’t have the upbringing that your classic musician has, so I just wanted to bring my own thing to this genre that I really appreciate and respect and love.”

On “Still,” Picton sings lead in his most emotional, tender outing yet, traversing a place that sometimes gets overlooked in black midi’s catalog of twisted folktales and gut-churning linguistics: a love song. His sweet contributions parallel Greep’s in affection, but not subject. (“There’s a tender flipside to every song,” Picton notes.) On a record as narratively gruesome as Hellfire, “Still” is a detour of gentleness, especially as Picton sings, “I know a song / That gives / Everything that you need.” Greep recognizes that truth and notes that love takes many shapes, championing Picton’s contributions as necessary in the wide, complex territory black midi has fashioned for themselves. “The [love songs] I’ve written, whenever it is, it’s in a horrible way,” Greep says. “It’s not a wholesome romance. The main thing is it’s a whole emotion that is at the epicenter of life, isn’t it? So it’s naive to completely ignore it. That’s not to say we’re going too soft.”

Softness, however, has crept into the band’s live sets, as they’ve begun noticing fans kissing and holding each other during the quieter moments, like “The Defence.” The audiences’ reactions have made an impact on the trio, as they start plotting future projects and pinpointing what environments they want to build for their longtime fans and new listeners alike. “The idea is to keep going in that direction and have more of those engaging, accessible moments,” Greep notes.

The band approached recording Hellfire with a preliminary tracklist in hand, a field guide for how the album’s different musical styles would work together over an arc of 10 songs. The full spectrum of black midi’s sound requires connective tissue so the fusion of jazz, cabaret, country and rock blueprints feels cohesive amid all the turns. “[The preliminary tracklist] allowed us to give more space for the transition and general shape of the record, to help each song complement each other, rather than just feeling random or anything like that,” Picton says. “That way, when you have a jarring change, it’s welcomed.” That “meshing of sonics,” as Simpson calls it, is something the band tries to pull off naturally. “We try to hone into that specific world in the most, I wouldn’t say ‘accurate,’ but in the best way possible,” he says.

Greep explains how the songs often start as pastiches while writing and that he, Picton and Simpson will persistently test the boundaries of the melodies they are structuring. “We sit down and just think, ‘Well, what would it sound like if we did a bossa nova song? What would it sound like if we did do a funk song?’ Then, at that point, it really is just playing through the cliches and trying different things. But then, occasionally, I think, ‘Well, they don’t use this chord in that kind of music, so let’s put it in,’” Greep says of the process. Every black midi song is methodical and subversive, as they are taking typical foundations of one genre and fusing it with parts of another. It’s the band’s bread and butter, the root of how they achieve their generational sound. “One of the main methods for creating something original is also the thing of copying or emulating something you can’t do and you’ll never be able to do,” Greep argues. “We can’t play many styles of music to the expert level, so, in failing to sound exactly like the originals, you’ll come up with something original—or you’d hope so.”

Greep, Picton and Simpson are only 22, but have found themselves at a unique crossroads populated by players like The Linda Lindas, Horsegirl and Black Country, New Road: a moment in music journalism where critics have lent kinder ears to younger artists. The band claims they have “a wealth of time,” comparing their hopeful outlook to the hard work of modern pop canon mainstays Rina Sawayama and Charli XCX, who are approaching, or have already eclipsed, the 30-year mark, and have garnered consistent acclaim and avid fandoms that go beyond the beyond. But it doesn’t stop at the next decade for the Londoners, as they look onwards to what their career might look like in 20 years, and what response they and their contemporaries will receive from labels, reviewers and promoters then. “As much as the music industry is now more respectful of young people making music, I hope it’s more respectful of people making music well into their 40s and 50s,” Picton says. “Hopefully that goes both ways, in that the same respect that’s being afforded to younger artists is afforded to older artists, as well.”

The band say they have already mapped out their next record, an ode to Janet Jackson, and have been attempting to locate her producers and, hopefully, land a feature. (The veracity of this is anyone’s guess.) “She’s definitely had an unfair rub of the green in the last 20 or so years,” Picton points out. “And that asshole Timberlake is a prick.” Though the trio have found themselves translating Vladimir Nabokov, Miles Davis and Star Wars on previous LPs, the anchor of their sound on Hellfire can be traced back to one singular figure. “Yeah, Timberlake is not invited,” Simpson says. “But Timbaland, however, on the most serious level, he is fucking cold. When it comes to influences, when you hear these fat beats, Timbaland is the reason for that.”

The trio’s creative vision hasn’t changed since Schlagenheim. From the jump, they’ve always had their eyes forward, rarely glancing back at the rear-view. They started performing tracks off Hellfire in 2021 when venues began opening back up and have been fine-tuning them ever since. They are always writing new stuff, and the band’s even considering a double release in 2023. black midi might sound like they’re in a rush, but rest assured, they are taking their time. “We always want to be looking at the next thing we can do,” Simpson explains, “and doing it in the most efficient way, which is something we’ve been stumbled on since Cavalcade. The mindset has always been the same: to just keep running.”

Black midi have become something much more indescribable than just “a rock band,” an anomaly that only comes around once in a wild, blue moon. “In theory, you’ve got 60 years,” Greep says. “Near about, you hope so. That’s 60 albums. That’s a whole world to get better and better, and let’s hope it does. I mean, not necessarily all together, fucking who knows what’s going to happen in 10 years? For now, we’re just going to make what’s most interesting and ride it until the wheels fall off—and then keep going.” The guys are three kings presiding over an unexplored palace of music; no style or sound is off-limits. As Greep sings in their latest’s lead single, “Welcome to Hell,” “In this land of oysters / You are the world.” On Hellfire and beyond, black midi are not the oyster—they are the whole damn pearl necklace.

Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.