Black Midi On Miles Davis, The Adventures Of Tintin, And Other Inspirations For Their Wild New Album
Under The Influence is a new revival of a very old Stereogum franchise, in which we ask artists to talk about the inspirations behind their albums. From other music, to film, to novels, to stray notes left behind by friends, and who knows what else, this is what’s on people’s minds when they’re writing the songs we eventually come to know and love.
A few years ago, we were blown away by Black Midi’s debut album Schlagenheim. We named them a Band To Watch and ranked the album as one of the best of 2019. Here was an exhilarating, transfixing new band — who would also completely blow your mind live — and as much as Schlagenheim fired off into all kinds of directions and rewarded each time you returned to try and figure more of it out, you could also get the sense that this band was so idiosyncratic and restless that by the time you caught up, they’d be off somewhere else entirely.
It quickly became clear that was the case. Black Midi were already known for occasionally showing up and totally altering the format of their show, but in the last couple years they’ve had a sly tendency to keep everyone guessing — piss takes like a Limp Bizkit cover and an Ed Sheeran diss track, performing radio plays during lockdown, joining fellow young English art-rockers Black Country, New Road to cover Bruce Springsteen, some surprisingly straightforward Christmas standard renditions. As this new era of UK rock bands has developed, people have been eager to place definitions on many of them. Black Midi, like their peers, seem to be having a lot of fun confounding them.
“Our whole idea with this album was to keep going towards both sides,” Geordie Greep told me over a recent Zoom call. “To make songs that were much more nuanced. Not afraid to the tranquil, beautiful stuff, but also let’s try and take the crazier bits even further. More intentionally designed in their insanity. That’s it. We were trying to make it as crazy as possible and as enjoyable as possible.”
All of which is to say: Even with one’s expectations adjusted, Black Midi’s sophomore album Cavalcade is a wild ride. The rock songs have gotten stranger, more relentless, and yet also more elusive than the big riff hooks of something like “953.” The album shows whole new sides of the band, whether in gentle ballads like “Marlene Dietrich” or in the way some songs seem to move mysteriously through the shadows. Take the centerpieces of “Slow” and “Diamond Stuff” for example. “Slow” has jagged, darkened guitar, hyperactive jazz rhythms, ghostly vocals, and eventually a heaving, intense conclusion — it moves with an inevitable, unwavering propulsion but still pulls you through all these different passages and ideas. “Diamond Stuff,” too, plays that trick, with muted atmospherics eventually cresting into a shockingly gorgeous, haunting outro.
Now that you can stream Cavalcade for yourself, you can see what Black Midi meant — alternately more batshit than ever and subtler, more complex but at times more spare and vulnerable, the only thing predictable about it is how it continues to upend everything we might’ve predicted Black Midi would do. Once more, who knows where they might go from here, but it certainly seems the journey will continue to have plenty of twists.
As musically dense as Cavalcade is, it’s also got a lot of different ideas colliding. Black Midi were tight-lipped about the meanings and themes of the songs on Schlagenheim, but from the jump they introduced Cavalcade as a multi-faceted, festering series of characters and scenes. A lot of different inspirations went into that. Ahead of Cavalcade‘s release, the current members of Black Midi — Greep, Cameron Picton, and Morgan Simpson — called us to talk about what they were reading, watching, or listening to when concocting the contorted, vivid world of Cavalcade. The band approached this a specific way: Each member chose three of their own influences, and then all three selected one they collectively held close. Read below to hear some of the stories and thoughts that made Cavalcade what it is.
The Adventures Of Tintin
GEORDIE GREEP: It was one of the first things I was obsessed with. Growing up, reading books was one of the first things I did loads. I got less into it when I was a teenager, but when I was a kid I loved it. Once you figured out you could read, it was like knowing a magic spell. You could see this stuff and know what it means — it’s pretty crazy. First it was Roald Dahl books and all that sort of thing. When I found Tintin, it was amazing. It’s just fantastic stories, really. He goes all across the globe. And it’s so fast-paced, that’s what I love about it now looking back. He’ll go from being lost in the middle of the ocean, saved by pirates, taken to a desert island, held prisoner in chains, a plane comes, he’s up in the air, then he’s dropped into the jungle — this is all in 10 pages. Stuff like that. He’s always going on these mad adventures. Now it’s quite dated, some of the attitudes are bad by today’s standards. But when you’re young, it gives you a basic sense of history and the different parts of the world.
In terms of this album, those press shots we’ve been doing — The Adventures Of Tintin was the direct inspiration for that style. Not only the drawing style, but doing comic panels that are as fast-paced as possible, to end up in different scenarios in a page.
Igor Stravinsky’s “Cantata” And Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise Opera
GREEP: When I was young, my parents used to play Stravinsky’s music a lot. When I was 12 or 13, there was a music teacher I really, really liked at school. We got along really well and he showed me all these cool types of music. I thought, “This guy is a great man.” Then he left and he was replaced by quite an old, cranky teacher. Someone I didn’t respect very much. I thought, “This old guy, he’s not all that.” A lot of time with my original music teacher, I used to go up at lunchtime and chat music with him. That’s where I learned a lot. With this new teacher, I couldn’t. Slowly but surely I found he wasn’t so bad. He knew a thing or two. One day he says, “Let me put The Rite Of Spring on.” Because it was him that was playing it, I really wanted to hate it and think it was complete crap. It was shocking to hear, because it’s a crazy piece of music. I was like, “Yeah, you’re nuts.” But really, I was like, “This is really good.” There was something there compelling me to listen to it. As we were listening, he said, “I would give anything to be able to listen to this for the first time again.” I thought, “Whoa, that’s pretty mad.”
I forgot about it after that, but maybe a year later I found Rite Of Spring again, and I listened to it again and again and got really obsessed with it when I was a teenager. Then I got into all of Stravinsky’s music. One of the most recent, a few years ago, was this piece, the “Cantata.” One of the amazing things in music is when you’re listening to it and it feels like it could be the beginning, it could be the end, it could go on forever. It’s got this cyclical, eternal, perpetual quality. While not relying on a simple pattern or repeating riff to make it that way — I always find that quite lazy, when it’s repetition to give a cyclical nature. The vocal melody is fantastic.
Also this Messiaen piece, this opera, it’s one of the newest things by Messiaen I’ve gotten into. It’s a crazy four-hour opera. It’s all in French, so I can’t really follow the story, and what story is there is esoteric, I think. It’s more a case of just listening to it. It’s very advanced musically. Some of Messiaen’s music is quite accessible, but this is not really. It’s very hypnotic and addictive once you get into it.
I was listening to these pieces quite a lot, and that basically formed the inspiration for the last track on the album, “Ascending Forth.” Most of the melodic stuff in that song is based on these two pieces of music. Not directly, but as I was going through the chords, I was trying to emulate the hypnotic, circular but also romantic, alluring feeling you get from these two pieces.
It was being more ambitious. Not thinking, “That’s intellectual music, we can’t think to use that as an inspiration or aspire to remotely be on that level.” At a certain point, it’s a life’s-too-short kind of thing. If that’s truly the music you’re passionate about, why not try and learn from it or try to incorporate it into your own music? Why think it’s too pretentious? Who cares. If you fail, you fail. But if you win… you win.
Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire
GREEP: Like I said earlier, when I was a kid I used to read a lot. Once I got heavier into music, I started reading a lot less. Every year or so I’d read a couple books. Mainly silly stories. When I was 16 or 17, I got back into it properly again. Pale Fire got me back into it. It’s an amazing book, really. It’s technically astounding. God knows how he put this thing together. It’s very beautiful, very imaginative, and really, really funny. The whole book is basically a joke on literary criticism and how people overanalyze things incorrectly and begin talking about themselves more than the work in question. But the thing I admire most about it is that it’s very inventive, very forward-thinking. It’s very modern, while not at the expense of a great story. A lot of modern stuff, it’s really admirably experimental but that’s at the expense of being an actually engaging story. But this is a classic, regular story. A lot of Nabokov’s plots are quite pulpy, really. They’re more an excuse for the brilliant writing. But this is just a great story, fantastic.
You can’t really aspire to be on that level. You’re just going to come up with crap. But it’s good to have it as a guiding light. That’s the catalyst for writing the words in the way we’re doing it. I’ve read it a few times since. It’s always great.
MORGAN SIMPSON: When I think of my childhood, three programs come to mind: Recess, That’s So Raven, The Suite Life Of Zack & Cody. That was all I watched, really. It’s funny they’re all American as well. I chose Recess because of its… a lot of these programs for children have a bit of a message. “Be nice to people,” “Don’t do this,” but sometimes when you’re a kid you don’t realize that’s the message. I always felt that with Recess, it was never corny. They were always hilarious stories. The characters were so accurately depicted. Like, Vince, my guy — I think I actually saw a lot of similarities in me and him. The Black dude, cool guy or whatever, good at sport. If I had to pick any character in any of the shows or movies I watched, he’s the one that really resonated with me. I loved the motley crew aspect of all the characters. I thought it was beautiful to see a diverse array of people who couldn’t be more dissimilar, to all be a gang. It’s a bit of a life thing for me. I feel like the best things happen when loads of different people are involved.
I think this list perfectly explains who we are, but also the music we make. We’re not all about some serious intellectual shit. There’s two spectrums to what we do. There’s a lot of misconceptions, or there were around the first album, about things being too serious. But they never have been. We’ve always been taking the piss out of ourselves, really.
CAMERON PICTON: Other people take us more seriously than we take ourselves.
SIMPSON: That’s the thing, we don’t take ourselves seriously, but we take what we do seriously. That’s the difference.
Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks
SIMPSON: A friend of mine in secondary school was really into art, and he showed me that painting. I wasn’t into art that much at that time. I do remember that being one of the few paintings where I thought it was very cool. A few years ago, I went to an exhibition, “Soul Of A Nation: Art In The Age Of Black Power” at the Tate Modern. After the exhibition, there were postcards in the shop, and Nighthawks was one of them. It wasn’t related to what I’d just seen, but it jumped out to me. In that moment, I felt a sense of tranquility that I’d never really felt looking at a painting before. That’s why I love it so much. It’s actually my laptop background. It’s just some peeps hanging out drinking whatever it is.
I’ve probably done the thing a lot of British people do and subconsciously look over the river. When I thought about my influences, I’ve gone for all American ones without consciously thinking, “Wait, there’s loads of British ones that could also be on that list.” It just shows the influence you guys have on our country.
James Baldwin’s Unfinished Manuscript For I Am Not Your Negro
SIMPSON: There was something about actually reading his unfinished text that was very pure. When anything is put into film, naturally things are going to be dramatized and maybe embellished a bit too much. I really enjoyed reading his words. With it being the year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder… this was a book that grounded me in the fucking chaos that was going on in that time. I mean, James Baldwin is one of the most incredible writers. One of the most eloquent people I’ve heard speak.
I love how plain and simple he is in the book. He’s not afraid to say that some of the atrocities have occurred in the world throughout history, a lot of them are to do with micro feelings from white men and white male insecurities, which then evolve into — fucking shit up basically, in the simple terms. I love how he was always like that, in the time where he was fearing for his life. To have this sort of ability to clearly detail his feelings at such a time, I find that incredible. He was talking about Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, three of his compatriots who were all murdered. I just can’t comprehend that he was able to still compose in the way he had up until then. It’s a big, big inspiration.
El Lebrijano – “Saeta al Cantar”
PICTON: He did another album that was more successful, that was a lot more toward the North African side of things. It’s basically flamenco fusion with North African music, with some quite experimental production. I really liked all the production, and the excitement and emotion of it. The crazy vocal sounds. It’s really well done.
For this pick, I wasn’t thinking too musically about it. We weren’t trying to do flamenco or whatever. It was specifically about that production, although I love the music. This particular record, I thought it was so beyond… even more out there flamenco stuff, this was just fully and completely in another world. There’s all that flamenco nuevo stuff that’s trying to do like, rock and flamenco. But this is is something completely different, in a lane of its own. It’s otherworldly, exciting production, and cleverly done arrangements.
[It influenced aspects of Cavalcade like] the intro to “Dethroned” and stuff like that, where one instrument is able to create an atmosphere. On the first record, it was everything together creating that atmosphere, or a specific element the whole way through. Now, everything has its different moments doing different things. This record, every element plays different roles.
John Renbourn – “Rosslyn”
PICTON: When I was younger, I had a neighbor who taught me guitar. He showed me all this Bert Jansch stuff, like “Black Waterside” and all that. I got really into it. When the band started, because I was playing bass all the time I got home and was more interested in making electronic music or listening to electronic music than doing anything with guitars. It’s just what I was doing all day. When we got back from that US tour and I had time to sit down, it was like, “Ah, yeah, I forgot I really enjoy playing guitar.” I was doing arrangements to try and find my feet again. When lockdown happened, I fully went back into that. The two guitarists I particularly like are John Renbourn and Bert Jansch. When I was 18, my ex-partner showed me this video fo the two playing “Bells” together. It’s stuck in my head ever since. They’re just working it out. It’s way better than the actual recording. As a lot of those things are, the studio recording sometimes isn’t a scratch on the live performance.
I found that performance of “Rosslyn,” because I was looking for things to do arrangements of. I don’t know if he wrote it specifically for this TV performance he did. It was the sort of thing where he was trying to showcase the different styles of folk guitar in the world. There’s that American primitive section, then more English stuff, then it combines towards the end. I thought it was a good exercise, so I did that. There was this other song I did an arrangement of, Renbourn’s arrangement of “Little Niles” by Randy Weston. That was just me in lockdown, sitting in my room, tuning the guitar differently, and then “Diamond Stuff” came out randomly.
Isabel Waidner’s We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff
PICTON: I had the lyrics, I recorded the part — simple changing bass notes over a drone, basically. I sent it to the guys and they were into it. The song didn’t get fully finished until we added the end part all together in the rehearsal room, towards the end of June. That’s when i was reading the book. I really enjoyed it, I read it a couple times. Especially at the time, thinking about Britain — it’s just evocative, there’s loads to it. The book is a constant barrage of stuff, simultaneously referencing high and low culture, lots of funny bits about homonationalism and trying to apply for British citizenship, but also with ridiculous mythical creatures. It’s only like 100 pages.
I cribbed that line, and then also tried to write some lyrics in at least a similar style. You know how every 10 years or so they found some guy in Ireland or England who’s been left in the peat bog for 2,000 years? I was just thinking about what if that happens, in 5,000 years a mining company finds you.
Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way
SIMPSON: I think similarly to Nighthawks, every time I listen to this album it gives me a very particular feeling. Quite a similar feeling — when I hear the album, I think, 8PM, New York, thriving, lots of people around. Similar to What’s Going On, I feel like some albums really put you in a particular space or environment. As soon as you hear the first five seconds, you’re straight in. In terms of Miles’ journey, it’s very interesting that that comes directly after Miles In The Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro, which were the end of his super out there second quintet stuff. Then he’s like, “Ah, no, fuck all that, let me strip it back.” I think that’s the coolest thing ever — and to do it with essentially the same musicians. It’s testimony to how incredible those guys are. Hearing players like Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Dave Holland, Miles be so restrained, is very, very humbling. It was one of the first albums that made me realize how powerful musical maturity is.
It’s very clear those guys can play anything they wanted to, whenever they wanted to, but they chose not to. Of course, this is also supposedly the first electric album — which I actually don’t agree with, because I feel like Miles In The Sky is pretty much the first one. But yeah, it’s such an incredible album. Talking about restraint and discipline, this is the first one that comes to mind. Especially Tony Williams, who is the most absurd drummer, and he’s just playing hi-hats for pretty much the whole record. No one else would have done that. It’s mind-boggling to me. I think he’s been the most creative drummer in popular music ever. But I say that because he could do both ends of the spectrum. He could do all the ridiculous technical stuff, but also just play hi-hats for 40 minutes, and it still serves the music and do what it needs to do.
GREEP: Like Morgan was saying, it’s the ultimate tease album. It’s on the second track I think, there’s maybe eight bars or so when he goes into a full groove, and it’s the most satisfying thing ever. Then straight away he says, “No, no, no, no.” It’s almost like a nun or a monk wrote this album.
As you could probably guess, we all like quite different things most of the time. This is one of the few points where the Venn diagram intersects completely. We’ve all listened to it at different times. Personally, I found this album when I was about 14 and I got really into it and listened to it all the time. It’s also brilliant because it’s got the whole thing of sudden changes in dynamic. He does the same thing on the Jack Johnson album as well, where it’s almost unnaturally alternating between the serene and the obscene. But it’s a fantastic album.
SIMPSON: That’s a good point. It’s probably one of the first albums where you can hear the beginnings of unnatural tape splicing. Of course Bitches Brew is the big reference point for that kind of thing, but In A Silent Way was the first time you could really hear that.
PICTON: I can only echo what they have said. It’s a transcendent record and stands on its own as one of the greatest works of the 20th century.
Cavalcade is out 5/28 on Rough Trade.