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Black Midi Revel In Their Anti-Pop Proclivities

Percussion virtuoso Morgan Simpson on listening to D’Angelo and learning to play drums in church at two years old. 

by Daniel Hartmann

The mathematical anti-pop sounds of London-based guitar rock outfit Black Midi catapulted the young band up the ranks of British rock royalty, based solely on the merit of their stunning live shows and wiry 2019 debut, Schlagenheim. The odd-ball album caught the international music industry by surprise as it bursted at the seams with creative rhythmic sensibilities, flying in the face of modern indie music with a pulsing post rock edge. Following its release, the band took their spastic live show to the farthest corners of the earth and back again. When they finally settled back down to write their sophomore album at the onset of the pandemic, they made a point of taking as many creative risks as possible. 

Drummer Morgan Simpson and his bandmates — singer/guitarist Geordie Greep and bassist Cameron Picton — set out to leave their celebrated debut in the dust and Calvacade is their bold and audacious follow-up. Holding on to what made them exciting from the get-go while venturing into new sonic territories, Cavalcade is surprisingly much more melodic and shows off the band’s growth as a collective unit.

Opening track “John L” delivers the kinetic frenzy we heard on Schlagenheim, but from there the listener is met with lush and expansive tracks that push and pull with controlled energy. Playing out like a theatrical performance that you can’t look away from, Greep sings histrionic verses in his signature nasal tone about cult leaders and old movie stars as if he were monologuing from centre stage; expansive instrumentation creates an ethereal backdrop behind him.

While the band awaits their planned return to touring this fall, Simpson has spent the past month writing new music with the group and visiting several of Sadie Coles HQ exhibitions around London with his partner. With bated anticipation to get back on the road, Simpson talks to us about his musical background, how Black Midi made Cavalcade over the course of the pandemic, and why he values feeling over technical ability in the music he makes. 

It’s impossible to talk about Black Midi without talking about your skills behind the drum kit. How did you start playing the drums? 

I grew up playing in church. It’s basically the reason why I’m here today. I started playing when I was two and that definitely would not have happened if I wasn’t going to church every Sunday. One Sunday after church everyone was mingling and hanging out. At that time the church couldn’t afford a perspex screen so there was this fabric DIY version of that hence they couldn’t see what was behind the kit, you could see an adult’s head but obviously not the head of a two-year-old. My godfather was on the kit and I was on his lap, he was doing the feet and I was doing the hands – everyone would walk around and be like, “Oh, there is a two-year-old playing! That’s crazy.” The church is the best form of musical training that you can have due to the regularity of playing every Sunday with the same people. And a lot of people start young, which is amazing because there are not many safe spaces for young people to play in front of hundreds of people.

What kind of music did you grow up listening to?

A lot of gospel music, a lot of Fred Hammond and Richard Smallwood. A lot of Aretha (Franklin), Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. My dad is really into Level 42 (weird stuff, bass-slapping fusion). I didn’t listen to a lot of rock stuff until I met the guys in school.

Can you map out the venn diagram for the band’s collective musical tastes?

For me and Geordie it was a lot of fusion bands. We always say Manivishnu Orchestra, one of the first conversations I had with Geordie was about their first record (The Inner Mounting Flame). Also James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and D’Angelo. For me and Cameron, it was more Talking Heads. They were a band that we all connected on. Over the course of our time together at BRIT School ( the performing arts institution where the band met), it became bands like Swans, Death Grips, Deerhoof, Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Godspeed, Sleep, and LCD Soundsystem.

So Cavalcade, why did you choose that title?

After a lot of brainstorming and a lot of bad names being chucked around, I think it was Geordie (Greep) who suggested the name. The name feels like the perfect tying together of the record because the album itself feels like a dramatic performance. It was like the red curtains being pulled back with “John L” starting the album. And then it ends with “Ascending Forth” and that’s the curtain closer. That’s how it feels to us, hence why Cavalcade felt like the right name.

How did your creative process differ on Calvacade in comparison to Schlagenheim? 

We just had a clearer picture of what we were going for with this record. When you know what you’re going for more it’s then easier in a studio environment to execute because you have it in your head; you don’t need a producer to pluck it out of you. John Murphy did this record, he’s a really sick guy and an amazing producer. He facilitated that and I think he understood where we were really trying to go. 

What was it like pre-planning songs separately instead of creating them through improvisations together like you used to?

Towards the back end of Schlagenheim, we were sort of headed in the direction of less improvisation. When Covid hit and we actually couldn’t physically be in a room together it made sense for us to continue in the direction we were headed. That resulted in quite a few tracks on the record like “Marlene Dietrich,” “Diamond Stuff,” “Ascending Forth,” “Hogwash and Balderdash,” and “Diamond Stuff” being solely written by an individual. Four of those songs were written by Geordie and then “Diamond Stuff” was written by Cam. We sort of brought them to the table and the whole outro section came from jamming. It was a different way of working. I think it’s easy to get caught up in ‘oh, we used to do it that way,’ but you have to realize that there are different ways to get to a set goal. 

You mentioned in an interview with Drumhead post-Schlagenheim that you had started to value a musician’s feel over their technical ability. Did your opinions on ‘feel’ change while creating this record?

Since that interview, I’ve gone even more in the direction of feel over technique. That’s the vibe. Back in the day, it was like doing your movements and becoming a YouTube drummer, but that reaches a point where it actually becomes distasteful; you’re not playing music anymore.

Is there a moment in the record that was a great example of ‘feel’?

“Marlene Dietrich.” My reference points for that track from a drum perspective was a lot of Scott Walker, the Carpenters, Burt Bacharach — late 60s early 70s, large and beautiful sonic soundscapes. It’s the whole low volume high-intensity thing, which is so important because you hear a lot of drummers who aren’t used to playing low volumes, when they play low volumes their intensity drops as well. In my opinion, the best drummers can play quietly and it’s not like the intensity has dipped. For me, that track was a lot of fun to do because I never really get to dip into that sort of thinking. Also, I think “Slow” for completely different reasons. I think that track, in terms of the stuff we’ve written previously, is quite unique. 

What record (not your own) has inspired you the most?

D’Angelo’s Voodoo. It kind of speaks for itself. I came across it at 13 and, talking about being a YouTube drummer, that was the album that was the lightbulb moment for me. Music can be so powerful when it is mature. When I say mature I mean considered and intentional.

Who are some of your favourite improvisational musicians?

Thelonious Monk, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Ahmad Jamal, Brian Blade.

Listening back at it now that it is done, what are you most proud of with this album?

That we did it! We really tried to strive for the next thing, and I think we’re definitely headed in the right direction. 

What does the band have planned for the remainder of the year?

Album number three, four, and five! (Laughs) No, that might be a little ambitious, but definitely album three and maybe four. God willing, pretty much the second half of this year is flat-out touring. Just keep going in it. We have to count our blessings because we’re in a very privileged position. We’re 21 to 23 now and we’ve seen a lot of corners of this earth while playing music that we’ve written ourselves. It’s so important to count your blessings and be grateful.