The English rock band Black Midi isn’t keen on discussing their musical influences, or any particulars about their future. Instead, they’d rather talk about video games. When we met ahead of a sold-out Brooklyn show, at least half of the foursome, all of whom are under the age of 21, were hesitant to talk too much about any of the typical topics that come up when you’re interviewing a rising rock band. But when asked about gaming, there was a noticeable upward sway in enthusiasm — smiles, nods, and looks of shared understanding — while all four quickly listed off their preferences: Red Dead Redemption, Metal Gear Solid, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Grand Theft Auto, and the like.
The band — Morgan Simpson (drums), Matt Kelvin (guitar/vocals), Cameron Picton (bass/vocals), and Geordie Greep (guitar/vocals) — met in high school, where they studied music. Following an early residency at The Windmill in Brixton, London, they began touring through Europe, and broke into the U.S. earlier this year. In January, a live performance filmed at Seattle’s KEXP radio went viral amongst music nerds and fans of noisy math-rock, leading to their reluctant creation of official social media pages. Recently, the band made a number of lists for best bands at SXSW. “Crow’s Perch,” their most recent single and released with a video and strobe warning on their YouTube channel today, is based on a recurring riff accompanied by jazzy drums and musing vocals, ending with a whirlwind of buzzing sound. (The song’s title is also a subtle reference to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, one of those games they love.) The driving bass lines complemented by spurts of chaos are reminiscent of the action within a game, anxiously attempting to achieve a new level or overcome a recently given challenge.
For those of you who don’t already know, a MIDI is an audio file, much smaller than an MP3 or WAV, that doesn’t actually contain any audio; it points out when and what notes should be played and for how long or how loud. The black MIDI music genre, from which the band takes its name, deems the MIDI “black” because the notation of the music appears almost solid black due to the impossible number of notes. Greep discovered the genre online, thinking it was a cool sound and a great name for a band. The complexity of Black Midi’s music has led some to compare their mostly indescribable sound to the genre, but of course, Black Midi have made this resemblance uniquely their own.
Their live shows go from a spoken-word bit about a convenience store and getting hit by a truck to unexpected screaming spasms of chords, wandering beats, and piercing vocals. During a performance of “bmbmbm,” Kelvin played vocal samples through his iPhone while holding it up to the pickups on his guitar. Through the night, one could hear country twangs, ambient textures, funky basslines, industrial beats, and noisy riffs — sometimes in the same song. Off stage, the members were soft-spoken and often quiet but excitement surged when they weren’t strictly talking music. The band spoke with The Outline about the origin of their name, video games, and their increasing number of fans.
Is there a link between black MIDI the music genre and video games for you?
Greep: Yeah, the genre itself is from video games. The whole genre of black MIDI is made from bullet hell games in Japan where you have to dodge loads of bullets coming at you and stuff in these crazy 2D games. We all like games.
Picton: We like the aesthetic of games.
What’s the draw?
Greep: Crazy worlds and stories to explore and experience. A life that you would never lead that you get to experience through the game.
Simpson: The whole fantasy side to it is cool.
Greep: The same as why you would watch a film or read a book.
Do you see it as kind of an escape?
Greep: Not an escape, but it’s just good art, really.
Simpson: It is nice to just immerse yourself in a world, not as escapism but it’s cool to explore things and look at the interesting things that people have done. Some of the level of detail that people have put into the design of games like Red Dead and Witcher 3, it’s a bit mad.
Kelvin: I do treat it as a form of escapism. It’s just nice to appreciate that sort of work. The artwork is cool.
You all did a live set where you played video game music, right?
Picton: We worked with our friend Jerskin Fendrix. We did a song with him, we released it for charity on an EP with a few other bands. He was doing a residency at the Windmill and on the last show we played and then at the end he joined us and we did the Christmas song together. And then we had learned new instruments over the last few months, so we hung them up and then we did a couple covers.
Greep: We did a song that’s the gypsy jazz standard “Dark Eyes,” then we did a song from the Witcher 3 soundtrack, which is a medieval RPG game.
Picton: It’s the main theme that plays while you’re walking about the game.
Greep: We want to do some sort of soundtrack. That would be a very big vibe.
How do you feel about the comparison of your music to the genre black MIDI?
Simpson: It’s not something we set out to achieve. That’s just how the music came out. It’s a coincidence.
Greep: We didn’t try to make complex music for the sake of making complex music. It’s more about doing something that’s interesting and not perfectly simple.
Are there any major influences you all would say you share as a group?
Greep: Mmm.... there’s stuff we all like, but it’s not like we all like stuff that we based the band on sort of thing. We’ve tried to keep the band quite distinct from what we like.
Picton: The music itself feels different. The influence we’ve taken from other bands has been more of an approach rather than the actual music. An approach to how we play songs live, how we record things.
Is everything recorded live?
Greep: We play everything together and then just add stuff in the studio. We need that energy. We need to play together because a lot of our songs have subtle changes and tempo. If you did it to a click track you would lose all of that. Not necessarily if it’s changing really fast or really slow or time signatures, just like subtle shifts. There’s a subtle performance that you lose when you do a click track.
You have a small online presence, but you still have a large online fanbase. Why do you think that is?
Simpson: Ninety percent of the people who have come to the shows and who I’ve spoken to have said it’s because of that KEXP video. It’s crazy how far that’s gotten.
Picton: I don’t think any of us expected it to be on its way to 200,000 views.
Simpson: Pretty random. But it’s cool.
Picton: We kind of knew that we had played well after that session. We knew it had gone well. There were loads of positive comments when it initially went up. And then they remastered it and put it up a few months later. I don’t think we realized that the second upload would be way bigger than the first. It was good, really nice.
Have any of you been to the U.S. before this?
Picton: Morgan and I have.
What do you guys think so far?
Greep: It’s funny man. Very different. Bigger roads, bigger cars, bigger folks, bigger food.
Picton: It’s a big country.
Greep: It’s a big country and big cities. Los Angeles, man — if you ain’t got a car, what are you gonna do? New York — I probably like this one the most so far, even though I’ve only been here a day. The slices, they’re doing it for me man, what can I say.
Picton: I think New York is quite cool. You can kind of see that it’s similar-ish to London. Any of us can kind of get around with relative confidence.
Greep: The people are more like in London as well. They’re to the point.
Picton: Whereas in LA it’s a bit...
Greep: Chatty. Everyone is very chatty in LA.
You’re working on a record right now?
Greep: We’re recording stuff.
Picton: We did a bunch of recording at the end of last year. None of it has been released yet. None of the sessions from the end of last year have been released yet. The song “Crow’s Perch” is the first of those sessions to be released.
Are those songs going to be a record?
Greep: Yeah. [pause] I’m not sure about that. We’ll see.