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If There’s Hell Below, Black Midi’s Gonna Go

… Or at least they’ll take you there. We spoke with frontman Geordie Greep about his band’s album ‘Hellfire,’ what truly bores him, and why boxing may be the perfect metaphor for the trio’s music.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s perhaps unexpected from the frontman of a band like black midi—the rowdy young London trio who turn free jazz and prog rock into anarchistic outbursts—but Geordie Greep loves boxing. Like, really loves it. The diminutive 23-year-old Greep regularly devours old fights, studying the art form and experiencing the sport in all of its beauty and brutality. He says he does so partly because there’s an unpredictability to it he admires: A single blow can leave best-laid plans unconscious on the canvas in a puddle of sweat and blood.

“You never can really tell what’s going to happen in a fight, and that’s why I love it,” Greep says via Zoom in June. “It’s nonstop—you can never take your eyes off of it. In a good fight, you never know when it’s going to end.”

It’s perhaps a too-neat metaphor for black midi’s music, but it certainly fits. To listen to a song by Georgie and his also-23-year-old bandmates Cameron Picton and Morgan Simpson is to never be able to guess what’s going to come next. That was certainly the case on their 2019 Mercury Prize–nominated debut, Schlagenheim, a testament to the spirit of improvisation. And while their follow-up, Cavalcade, ditched the song-writing-via-jamming approach, it’s no less a thrilling ride. Every black midi song is a self-contained multiverse, moving through seemingly dozens of genres and suites and emotions in the span of a few minutes. Sometimes they’ll assault you with horns and drum solos, other times they’ll serenade you with gorgeous guitars and keys, but they’ll never bore you. At their best, Greep and Co. sound like a troupe of Gen Z Frank Zappas trying to make the best of a bad trip. Call them the Sons of Reinvention.

On Friday, the rowdiest indie rock blokes that side of the pond return with Hellfire, an album worthy of the freewheelin’ legacy of its predecessors. Produced by Björk and Animal Collective collaborator Marta Salogni, Hellfire may be the black midi boys’ most realized work yet. Take a song like “Sugar/Tzu,” which is both playful and pulverizing at once—it evokes the best works of Chick Corea, but with none of the self-seriousness that one may associate with that. And then there’s the bleating lead single “Welcome to Hell,” a post-punk ripper that’s catchier than any song that contains the phrase “To die for your country does not win a war” has the right to be.

To that last point: Hellfire is a step forward lyrically for the big-voiced Greep, who narrates the album like Michael Buffer announcing a cage match in Hades. More so than Schlagenheim and Cavalcade, the songs here are rooted in mostly straightforward storytelling—absurdist at times and haunting at others, but mostly straightforward. The aforementioned “Sugar/Tzu” is based on an ultra-ultra-heavyweight bout in the distant future that ends with a child assassin taking down one of the fighters to the crowd’s delight. “Dangerous Liaisons” is a morality play in which a day laborer gets tricked into a hitman-for-hire plot, only to find that all that awaits him is a date with eternity. The closer “27 Questions” starts with the narrator ducking into a tavern during a downpour and discovering a living wake for a man named Freddie Frost transpiring. “And he wheezed and moaned in pain as he rose,” Greep bellows. “But we all just laughed at the sad old oaf / And laughed all the way home.”

“A lot of my favorite types of writing, a lot of my favorite scenes in stories and stuff is when you have a huge descriptive event of, and you can see all the different characters—all the things that are going on at this one time in this particular place,” Greep says.

That approach gives the songs a sense of incalculable unpredictability. Not only can black midi’s music reach unexpected heights, but Greep is also willing to move his characters around like a malevolent god, banishing them to unfathomable lows. Some find solace, some find damnation. The listener, meanwhile, may find themselves knocked out on the canvas, wondering what just hit ’em.

Boxing aside, would Greep ever write a song about another kind of sporting event? “Maybe next up is bullfighting,” he smirks midway through our conversation.

There’s probably a tidy metaphor for black midi’s music in there too.

How are you feeling about the new album?

Very excited. It’s a significant step in the right direction for us where we feel much more comfortable with what we’re doing, much more confident with what we’ve been trying to do than with the first two. So we’ll see how it pans out, but it was very fun to make, so it’s very exciting to have it out. It’s much more melodic, there’s a lot more kind of storytelling and stuff and it’s a bit more varied in sound.

Your first record, Schlagenheim, was born of a largely improvisational process. Its follow-up, Cavalcade, involved a slightly more traditional approach. What was the process for Hellfire?

Much more traditional than the first album. It was going down the route of the second album, where it’s writing quite a lot individually and then bringing it in and working together. That just meant that we could be way more outlandish and adventurous, ambitious with the songs themselves. You can’t really jam out a song with a lot of key changes and a complex chord structure. It has to be done methodically with one person spearheading it.

Boxing plays a role in this record and my understanding is that it’s one of your biggest interests. What attracts you to the sport?

I think it’s one of the most thrilling things you can see on TV. In boxing, it’s chess, not checkers. It’s styles make fights. Just because A beats B and B has beat C, doesn’t necessarily mean that A will beat C. The classic example of that is: Muhammad Ali with Joe Frazier and Ken Norton and George Foreman. So George Foreman destroys Ken Norton and Joe Frazier, who Ali had real trouble with. So in theory, George Foreman’s going to destroy Muhammad Ali, but no, Muhammad Ali beats George Foreman.

Do you have a favorite fighter?

I think my favorite fighter ever is Sugar Ray Leonard. Or when Chris Eubank was in his prime, I really liked his style. So Chris Eubank’s fights against Nigel Benn and stuff, I think are brilliant, brilliant matches. These days, I like [Vasiliy] Lomachenko, of course. Tyson Fury. I like the slick style, when there’s lots of movement.

If this is too much of a reach, please shoot me down, but I think there’s an obvious metaphor of the way you guys play and kind of the unpredictability and kind of playing off each other. Do you see it that way?

Absolutely. With the way we make our music, it’s all about playing off each other. And that’s what makes boxing so great. You never necessarily know when a matchup is going to result in a great fight. It can look great on paper, it can not be so good in the ring. And that’s the case with musicians as well. A lot of times you can have a load of great musicians, you get them together, and there’s no fireworks. But what’s been rewarding about our group is that we all play in a very different style and we’re all a very different type of musician. So that’s where the main draw comes: the interplay between each of us individually.

In boxing, there’s the intensity, just nonstop—everything is over the top. That’s kind of with our stuff as well. If there is a more emotional song or whatever, it’s pushed to the max, it’s very brash and almost comedically intense.

Of course, on the new record, there’s a story of a fictional boxing match. Can you tell me a little bit about “Sugar/Tzu”?

I like doing songs about events. There’s another song on the album about a horse race, and there’s one about a kind of mass entertainment funeral—like Michael Jackson’s funeral. But I’ve always wanted to do a boxing song.

The concept to this one is basically in a hypothetical future, there’s a whole thing where heavyweights keep getting heavier, or at least heavier guys can fight more effectively at heavyweight. Because I mean, in the ’80s, you have Butterbean who’s maybe 300 pounds? But he was completely ineffective. Whereas now you have Fury fighting close to that weight and being very effective. That’s a far cry from Joe Lewis fighting at 210, 215, or whatever. The basic hypothesis of the song is what if in a few hundred years, the fighters have got to inhuman weights of 500 pounds, 600 pounds. Then through the course of the song, there is an assassin, a kid who shoots one of the boxers while they’re in the ring, midfight. And the crowd at first just believes this to be the result of one of the great shots from the other fighter. So they’re cheering, whooping, while this guy is dying in the ring.

That’s also a little joke about how a lot of times in boxing, what you actually want to see is the brutality of it, and the pain or the kind of cataclysmic blow that’s almost hospitalizing someone. That’s not meant to be a thing against boxing. I love boxing, and I think people that call for boxing to be banned is quite silly, but it is kind of interesting that one of the main things we are attracted to in boxing, if we’re being honest, is to see someone be absolutely decimated. That’s one of the things that gives you the biggest rush. There are compilations of the knockouts and stuff and I watch it and I love it. I love watching someone get absolutely battered. Obviously let’s hope they’re safe, but it’s weird how much we enjoy it, is all I’m saying.

Besides boxing, were there any other inspirations, musically or otherwise, that really stuck with you for this record?

For “Sugar/Tzu” track, for example, it’s kind of based on jazz fusion music—stuff like Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra. And a lot of tracks pastiches of styles, or at least started that way. The last track, “27 Questions,” is a vestige of tango music. And then turns into a kind of show tune by the end. We have “The Defence,” which is a sort of musical Frank Sinatra parody. We have a flamenco tune.

You start off willingly aping a style or genre and it’s the thing of, we are never going to replicate it completely because we are not equipped. We aren’t good enough musicians in that genre. But the hope is that in failing to completely emulate it, you’ll come up with something slightly original or entertaining.

Kind of like early punk music, where the lack of complete mastery over the instrument actually led to better music.

Yeah, for sure. Happy accidents.

Is there anything that you could do really well on this album that you might have not necessarily felt that you could have executed on Cavalcade or the first album?

The main thing is stuff in the studio. We’re just much more confident now in general. We have the lyrics, we have the music. There’s a lot less hesitation in terms of, “Oh, we can’t do that kind of song. It’s a bit too cheesy,” or “Oh, I’m not too confident enough to write that directly about this subject or that subject.” It’s a lot more free-flowing now and everyone is taking things in stride and just moving on and trying different things.

I read a quote from the period going into Cavalcade where you basically said that by the time you got around to making the second record, you were bored with the first album. Do you feel that way this time around compared with Cavalcade?

Slightly. It’s not as extreme, but yeah, that does remain a little bit. I think when we did the second album, Cavalcade, I thought that was just specific to the first album—it’s just because we don’t like what the first album is that we’re feeling this real boredom with it, real nausea at the thought of it. But no, I think that’s just kind of the way we are really—we’re always going to move forward and always be bored of what we’ve just done. And maybe that’s a sign that it’s not very good. I’m not sure, but my inclination, my hope, is that it just means that we’re very restless and are always wanting to try something different.

Do you get bored easily in general? In your personal life, do you find yourself always moving on to the next thing, new interest, what have you?

I’ve got a good attention span when I need it. I’ll sit through a long movie if it’s meant to be good. But I’m quite restless. The thing I bloody hate is when you are on a night out and everyone’s just standing around saying, “Oh, where do we go next?” And just standing in the middle of the road. I like it when it’s “OK, we’ve gone to that bar. Let’s go to this bar now.” Or, deciding where to eat, stuff like that. It’s like, “Ah,” I can’t be bothered for that kind of thing. I really hate it. I’m not necessarily impulsive, but I’m decisive in that regard.

With the music, it’s the sort of thing where I hate having endless conversations about “Should we record congas or maracas on this track?” I just say, “Well, if we spent the time we were talking about doing it, we could have done both and then chose.” I just like getting things done.

Do you think there’s a conception out there with black midi that perhaps you guys take yourselves seriously?

Yeah, potentially. I think that was the case with the first album, probably still with the second album. I hope that’s quelled a bit with the third album, because it is so stupid. At least with the lyrics, I’ve tried to make it much more outwardly and obviously comedic, because that was the thing with the first two albums. There were always bits where it’s meant to be kind of funny. And people were just taking it at face value and saying like, “Oh yeah, that represents rape or something.” I was like, “Well, what the fuck? Where do you get that from?” But you can’t really choose how what you do is perceived.

I really dislike and find pathetic bands and artists who get annoyed about a certain type of people or a certain type of fan that likes their music. It’s like, you’re lucky to have anyone listen to your music at all. You can’t really complain or say, “Oh, I wish my fans were more like this and more like that or thought of it in this way.” If you put something out thinking it’s a soul album and then people decide it’s this other type of music because it sounds that way, then you can’t really complain. Unless it’s a journalistic bias or opinion.

If we put our music out and people say it’s pretentious or whatever, or takes itself too seriously, at the end of the day, I don’t have no control over that. So why am I going to get annoyed or say, “Well, it actually isn’t”? You don’t really decide what it is or what it isn’t. All you’re doing is making it. So it’s up to the fans or the listeners to decide that.

What excites you when it comes to new music?

I’ve really enjoyed this band called Jockstrap. They’re another U.K. group and the singer plays violin in Black Country, New Road. It’s great electronic music with these occasional classical or punk detours, which is just really great because a lot of my favorite music is that kind of stuff.

With the understanding that I’m asking to speak to a trend when you’re just making music: Why do you think bands like black midi, Black Country, New Road, and Squid are kind of having a moment right now? It just seems there are a lot of bands—especially ones coming out of the U.K.—that are occupying a very progressive, musical lane and getting a lot of buzz for it.

There’s always going to be a desire for live music and exciting music and exhilarating music. Not to get hippy or whatever, but it is a powerful thing to see live music, especially music that has no backing track music and is just everything you’re seeing on the stage—you can trace every sound you hear, you can see it being created.

But also I think the big thing to do with it is that the people who are about 20, 21, 24, whatever, the young generation now, having had the majority of their lives with the internet. They basically have grown up with way less dogmatic genre rules. With previous generations, there’s always been this thing of, “If you like X music, you’re not allowed to like Y music.” Or if you’re a punk fan, you don’t like jazz.

It seems now because of the internet—because everything is so free and because anyone can listen to any record that’s come out anytime since records have been made—everyone’s much more open-minded now. You have the thing where artists are becoming huge playing really niche styles of music, or styles of music that on the surface seem quite pedestrian, but really there’s a lot going on. I think that’s a big thing, to be honest. I’m not sure we would’ve been nearly as successful were we working 20 years ago, 25 years ago.

Do you think that can sometimes be a double-edged sword though? We recently ran an interview with Bartees Strange. And he was saying that, because he can traverse all genres—sometimes within one song—labels were saying things like, “Yeah, could you give me five more songs like this other one?” And he was like “Well I could, but that’s not what I do.”

Well there’s a lot of debate over whether labels will even exist in five or 10 years because in the last 10, 20 years the most successful artists have done it completely independently. So I’m not sure how viable it is, and it’s also a thing of music makes absolutely no money now, really.

But yeah, the whole genreless thing does pose problems in terms of marketing and getting assigned to a traditional label, which is how you make a living without being hugely successful. But I don’t know, I think the pros of the open-minded audience outweigh that because at the end of the day, the way you are going to make money now from music, if you are, is from doing live shows. And especially in America actually, much more than in the U.K., the young people are really, really open-minded. In the U.K., with a lot of the older guys, there’s quite a tendency to be more close-minded, more constricted in what you’re listening to. With the younger guys and especially in America, they’re very, very, very up for anything really.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.