Words and Photography by Paul Boyling
Black Midi, not only one of the most talked about South London bands, but probably the most aloof and secretive. Their gigs are tight-lipped, straightforward affairs; the band just arrive on stage without prior announcement, blast out their sound, then leave without any fan interaction. The buzz around the band is difficult to ignore, as constant a word-of-mouth follows them wherever they go, and are held in the same regard as other “South London Sound” bands as The Fat White Family, HMLTD, Goat Girl, and Shame – who themselves referred to Black Midi as “disturbingly brilliant” and “the best band in London”.
Not much was known about them, until an official profile in the music industry bible, Music Week, followed by a slightly more in-depth article that surfaced last year. Despite this, the band are still very private. Known for being a “resident band” at The Windmill in Brixton, as it was the venue that gave them their first gig, and they’ve been loyal frequenters since. They live by an “anti-promotion” code; with very little output on social media (except to announce upcoming tour dates) and without any official press releases to speak of, especially bizarre considering they are overseen and managed by Rough Trade. I suppose the lack of “online hype” helps maintains an iconoclastic tight ship; where scarcity plays to their advantage, keeping focus on the morsels that do eventually surface. Or rather, they’re a shy bunch that have “skilfully veiled their awkwardness.”
The origins of the band’s name are not openly discussed, but it may be in reference to the obscure musical genre of the same name; it’s dark undertones and complex layered compositions can be found within the band’s own output. However, to simplistically summarise their sound as just “alternative” or “experimental” rock is detrimental to how complex Black Midi‘s music really is. The interwoven mix of grunge, maths rock, shoegaze, jazz, indie, art rock, post-punk and electronica can be heard throughout all of their songs – a nuanced avant-garde sound as it were, and is a spectacle when witnessed live. Plus, you can only buy their music in person. On vinyl. However, you can listen to one of the band’s most recognisable songs, ‘bmbmbm’ (Speedy Wunderground), and ‘Ducter’ online. An untitled recording from Flesh & Bones Studio later surfaced by NTS Radio, in addition to another track, from NTS Live, identified as ‘Of Rivia’. Third party live footage also helps illustrate the band’s unique appeal, especially South London documentarian Lou Smith’s meticulous recordings of Black Midi at The Windmill (but you can also find plenty of decent live fan-recordings from across Europe as well.)
Check out Black Midi‘s KEXP session here:
When attending Bloc – an old-warehouse-turned-venue hidden amongst the brickwork labyrinth that is Hackney Wick – the room was packed, another sold-out show of the sold-out tour. During their set, the room fell silent, you could only hear the band’s exuberant sound with only the occasional cheer during the lulls. Either side of me, fans were swaying to and fro, with the odd one or two headbangers; seemed more like being in the thralls of an easy listening jazz session than a mosh pit.
Still, what is impressive is lead vocalist and guitarist Georgie Greep’s frenetic energy and unique vocal performance; warped, half-spoken and barely audible; but equally piercing and demonic. Often operating as another layer of the band’s compositions than necessarily a front-man centre point; another calculated cog in the Black Midi machine. With him and Matt Kelvin’s razor-sharp rhythm section maintaining a steady rate of movement while retaining immediacy and intimacy, alongside Morgan Simpson’s mostly improvised drumming to keep up the band’s ruthless stomping sound. The band is quite stationary onstage, until Greep does the occasional sway or frantic gyrations towards his amp along with the rest of the band during the heaviest and most schizophrenic of musical moments during their set. Ending the set with ‘bmbmbm’, built to a powerful crescendo that deafens you and them immediately halts to abrupt silence and darkness, leaving you shaken in all the right ways.
All in all, Black Midi is truly a band that you have to experience in person; no matter how finely made the record, it can’t possibly match the sound of their live performances.