“We Need to Fly Into the Energy Zone:” Black Midi’s Epic Math Rock

We caught up with the London-based experimental rock band at the end of their first U.S. tour.

The first descriptor that popped into my head when I saw the music video for the London-based experimental rock band Black Midi’s latest single, “Crow’s Perch,” was “seizure-inducing.” Then I thought, This is 2019, and you can’t just call something “seizure-inducing” because it feels seizure-inducing. But then I scrolled down the YouTube page and saw the “STROBE WARNING.”

Directed and edited by Vilhjálmur Yngvi Hjálmarsson, the video is a natural complement to the song—manic, fitful, and severe. Dozens of seemingly unrelated clips and stills flash and flicker and multiply. By the song’s epic, angular denouement, the video frantically zooms in and out of a colorful, pixelated swirl of digital detritus. The whole thing is violent and chaotic and perfect. By the end, it’s as if the song and video jointly self-destruct.

Onstage at Alphaville back in March, Geordie Geep (vocals/guitar), Cameron Picton (bass/vocals), Matt Kelvin (guitar), and Morgan Simpson (drums) executed their complex, math rock-reminiscent compositions with gripping concentration and precision, not to mention explosive energy. The four friends met as students at the BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology in London, but ground their teeth playing gigs at the Windmill in Brixton. After making a name for themselves in London’s underground scene, they signed to Rough Trade and headed to SXSW.

We caught up with Geordie, Cameron, Matt, and Morgan in March just before the final two dates of their first tour in the United States. Read the interview below, and catch Black Midi at Bowery Ballroom on July 18.

How was SXSW?

Geordie: Very hectic. Seven shows in three days, but it was good.

Did you get to see any sets?

Geordie: We didn’t see many sets, to be honest.

Cameron: It was quite intense.

You were in California before that?

All: Yeah.

How was that?

Cameron: It was really good.

Had any of you ever been?

Geordie: [Cameron and Morgan] had been.

Cameron: Morgan went to LA before. I’ve been to New York before.

That was your first time in California, and the States?

Geordie: For [me and Morgan], yes.

How’s it different than home?

Geordie: Big roads, big cars, big food. Very rich food.

Matt: It’s a lot more colorful.

Geordie: People are chilled out as well. London is quite, quite miserable.

When did you guys meet each other?

Geordie: We went to the same school, the BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology.

Morgan: Full title—shit!

Thank you for the full title!

Geordie: We all did the music course and became friends and bonded and played rock music together. Initially, it was just me, Morgan, and Matt. Once we had a gig, we decided we should get someone to play bass, so we got Cameron—he played the gig. It went better than expected, so we played many more.

Where was that gig?

Geordie: The Windmill in Brixton. It’s a very good venue. Just from playing [there] we got to [start] doing festivals and start supporting people. The next step after that was playing bigger venues. We did a headline show at Electrowerkz and Bloc in London.

Cameron: The Windmill is good, because it’s got a really nice, fat sound system.

We just spoke to Hannah [Rodgers] from Pixx, who was also raving about the Windmill.

Matt: It’s a really good place to play music and make friends. Different bands befriend each other and create relationships and develop before they start playing other venues.

Morgan: [It’s] a space where young people can go and hang out and play music.

How did you guys first get booked there?

Geordie: We sent an email around to every venue in London, and the Windmill was the only one that replied. [Our email was] just like, “We want to play your venue,” basically. The Windmill replied saying “That sounds interesting. You can have a gig here.” So we played that gig, it went well, and we did more.

Has your music changed since then?

Geordie: Yeah. A lot of the songs we do now, we were doing then. We hit the ground running, because we had two years at the BRIT school before that where we were just messing around.

Morgan: The actual songs have still evolved. We’re still open to changing songs.

What’s that process look like?

Cameron: Changing the original songs [involved] trying everything live. The songs when I joined were fully formed, structurally, [but] there’s been a few changes in the way we play them.

Geordie: Natural evolution.

Morgan: We’ll play a show and someone will be like, “Maybe in the next gig we should [cut] this bit down,” and we try it, and we’re like, “Oh, that actually works better.”

Matt: Sometimes it just happens from mistakes as well. There was a part in one of our songs when both me and Geordie broke strings, so it was just Morgan and Cameron together. We played it like that, and then me and Geordie came in after a while, but then it actually sounded better than the original. That was on the track “Speedway,” which is probably the only track out that we developed more in the studio than live. We didn’t even have lyrics for it when we went into the studio. We were looking for a way to improve it live, so that was a happy accident.

Cameron: Shit like that happens all the time in our sets.

Morgan: We’re still always looking for ways to improve songs. It’s not like, “That’s a song—We’re not touching it again.”

Have you guys been recording recently?

Cameron: We’ve recorded a bunch of stuff, so it’s just a [matter] of collecting it and getting it sorted out.

Am I right that you chose not to self-release much?

Matt: That “Speedway” single is self-released. We released it and then we signed to Rough Trade, so the next thing we release will be on Rough Trade.

Do you know what that next release is going to look like?

Matt: Our next single is coming out in a couple weeks. It’s called “Crow’s Perch.” We recorded it with [producer] Dan Carey [of Speedy Wunderground], who [we’ve worked with] before.

Morgan: He did “Speedway” and “Bmbmbm.

Matt: But all three tracks were recorded at different times.

Did you know these were going to be singles?

All: No, no.

Morgan: We just recorded and didn’t set any goals or pictures in our minds.

Matt: [We want] to put out a CD with some stems and clips and stuff for people to remix.

Are the X’s on your hands from your show last night in Boston?

All: Yeah.

What acts did you perform with?

Geordie: Kal Marks.

Cameron: And Rob Noyes. He was playing guitar last night, but I think he’s a multi-instrumentalist.

Where are you heading next?

Geordie: Two shows here, and then back to London.

Cameron: We’ll get back to our usual.

What’s your usual?

Geordie: Chilling at home, [going] to gigs.

Cameron: The last two months have been our first experience of proper touring.

Morgan: It’ll be nice to have some time to write.

Cameron: We quite like the arrangement where we are based in London and then go away for a couple of days at a time to do a few shows. We have time to jam out or do our own thing for a bit.

Has this been the longest you’ve been outside of London as a band?

All: Yeah.

Geordie: This has been much more pleasant than the European tour though. That tour is long drives every night.

Cameron: 11-hour drives.

Matt: [Los Angeles] actually felt like a holiday.

Geordie: For the amount of days we’re in this country, we haven’t got that many shows.

So what else have you been doing?

Geordie: Chilling out. [Eating] fish tacos.

Morgan: Eating Impossible Burgers.

Matt: We did a lot of bowling in LA.

Geordie: We got cowboy hats.

Did you fly from Texas to Boston?

Morgan: We flew to Philly, and drove from Philly to Boston.

Did you play in Philly, too?

Morgan: Yeah, in the PhilaMOCA.

Cameron: It’s like an old mausoleum. It’s a really cool venue.

Morgan: This really cool death metal band called Horrendous supported. They were flipping sick.

What makes a good live show for you guys?

Geordie: Good sound. Being able to hear everything. Loud. Not too crazy crowd. It’s mainly just about the sound. If you can hear what you want to hear, and it sounds good, and it’s sounding the way you want it to sound—there’s nothing better. And of course there is [an] element of chance. Some nights just go really well.

Cameron: Strings break all the time and stuff like that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad show. A lot of [our] best shows have been where something disastrous has happened.

Morgan: For me, shows are what you make of them. It’s part of being a musician. There’s always going to be fuck ups—it’s how you deal with [them].

What’s next for Black Midi?

Geordie: We’re doing some festivals and stuff like that.

Cameron: We want to start switching it up a bit in terms of what we do—vary the live thing, make it an interesting experience.

How so?

Geordie: Just make it sick. New seas are being sailed. We’re going to go to the new land, and it’s going to be tremendous. It’s going to be screaming, you know. I can’t wait. Super Mario Galaxy.

Cameron: From arrangements, to different people playing with us, to lineups.

Geordie: Different sounds, different grooves. We need to fly into the energy zone.

Of course. I was thinking that.

Morgan: Thought you were.

What are some live shows you guys have seen that have been influential?

Matt: Green Day. 2011. Emirates Stadium. That was a fantastic show. That is my real answer.

Morgan: D’Angelo at North Sea Jazz Festival in 2015. Definitely [the] best live show I’ve ever seen.

Geordie: I saw Boredoms a few years ago with 88 people playing symbols. That was an amazing sound. It sounded like the ocean.

Cameron: I saw Black Mass a bit ago in London, and it was really, really good—the volume and the visuals and everything.

Anything you want to share about what you’ve been up to, or what the last few weeks here have been like?

Cameron: Chocolate tastes a lot different [here in the United States].

Geordie: The chocolate is disgusting.

All the British people I know say that.

Geordie: It must be said. It’s night and day. The Kit Kats here are good, though.

Cameron: In San Diego, we had the best fish tacos.

Geordie: The best fish taco I had was in Silver Lake. It was amazing.

Morgan: And Impossible Burgers are crazy.

Matt: I think we must have had about 15 between us this whole time.