‘There’s a complete fearlessness to them’: Inside the raucous new south London guitar scene

From Black Midi to Squid, a musical movement has formed of great alternative bands who sound nothing alike. So what unites them? A south London label called Speedy Wunderground and a sense of wild genre abandon, says Kieran Read

Tuesday 23 June 2020 10:51 BST
Brighton band Squid
Brighton band Squid (Holly Whitaker)

A sure-fire way to bury a young band under false expectations is to compare them with the pioneers of alternative rock. Talking Heads, King Crimson, The Fall, Slint, Sonic Youth: all are storied and impossible to live up to. But what if a band sounds like 15 of those iconic bands crammed into one?

In south London, the exciting new groups hanging out at venues like the Brixton Windmill or piling into the studio of the Speedy Wunderground label are talked about breathlessly as one of the most striking new music scenes of the past two years. But while journalists have attempted to amass them all, what binds them is their unwillingness to subscribe to definitions and genre. The only thing, perhaps, that Black Midi, Squid, Black Country, New Road and their peers have in common, apart from neighbouring postcodes, is how bewildering they sound.

This reputation as one of the most exciting musical movements began gaining traction from early last year. When Black Midi performed their single “bmbmbm” at last year’s Mercury Prize – their first televised performance – vocalist Geordie Greep’s awkward moaning and guitarist Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin’s out-of-nowhere front flip felt more provocative and perplexing than rapper Slowthai throwing Boris Johnson’s disembodied head around. Something clearly resonated, though, as they quickly became a shorthand for what the new era of kids picking up instruments could achieve with a willingness to eschew conformity and a liberal approach to genre.

What’s most vital about this “scene” is the way it takes the universal plight of the young musician and moulds it into something that embodies that internal restlessness itself. When I asked Black Country, New Road’s saxophonist Lewis Evans why he felt these groups’ sounds were always drawing comparisons to one another he answered jokingly, but somewhat accurately: “Because we’re all bands with guitars in them.”

But unlike others given similarly premature accolades as the future of guitar music, this lot have flipped the “new band” script by weaponising their listeners’ impulse to immediately draw comparisons. Instead, they throw out multiple possibilities within the space of minutes. A lot like the amorphous mass on the cover of Black Midi’s debut album Schlagenheim, these bands’ styles give off the thrilling illusion that they embody everything and nothing that has gone before them all at once. Because of this, they don’t actually sound all that alike.

Black Midi were the first to spark this conversation, while having enough incongruous elements in their formula to set them apart from the prototypical buzz band. The four members met as students of London’s Brit School but they also shared an affinity for jamming angular, frenetic grooves and feeding obscure samples (like Nikki Grahame’s Big Brother meltdowns) through their amps. After a whirlwind few months, including signing to Rough Trade Records, an airtight KEXP performance and a cosign from Can’s Damo Suzuki, they were quickly lauded as the “weirdest band around”, which, in turn, only assisted in building their recognition.

This contrast made clear the faults in what young bands must do to gain attention – why be any one thing when you could instead sound like them all? “953”, Schlagenheim’s opener, segues from thrashing garage to steady post-rock to alien folk like a well-oiled machine that’s unsure of its default setting. This highwire act of genre-bending saw critics grapple to define them, throwing out terms such as “crank wave” or “wonk”. Coupled with their general elusiveness towards the media (I reached out for comment and they kindly declined), it ensured the entire gambit stayed alluringly under wraps.

Not long after, other outfits from the Speedy Wunderground label would recur as trailblazers for this style and would similarly put forward great arguments for the complete dismantling of definitions within guitar music. “I think distinctions are incredibly detrimental,” says Ollie Judge, vocalist and drummer for the band Squid. “If we write something that feels a bit too familiar, we’ll scrap it and move onto something else. That expectation of what people want you to sound like can make you go a bit mad.”

South London band Squid (Photo by Holly Whitaker)

Squid’s progression from a self-described “ambient, post-rock thing” to the punky, loose and darkly comical rhythms of hit singles “Houseplants” and “The Dial” laid varied groundwork for the band, recently landing them a spot on the legendary electronic label Warp Records. “I remember listening to [Warp signees] Flying Lotus and Aphex Twin when I was 10 and being floored by their creativity,” says Judge. “I’m now thinking, ‘Should I put an acid line on this track?’” He laughs, though it’s hard not to believe a part of him genuinely entertains this idea.

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On the other end of the spectrum, Black Country, New Road, a seven-strong unit of musicians, create rich and foreboding narratives of social and sexual anxieties, thickened by saxophone and violin that twist into horrific knots of noise over multiple, carefully sequenced musical passages. “The writing process is really collaborative,” says saxophonist Evans. “We’ve all got very different musical voices and, if we didn’t utilise that, we wouldn’t be able to make the music that we do.”

Vocalist Isaac Wood often alludes to totems of popular culture (Kanye West, the Fonz, Ariana Grande’s “thank u next”) but distorts them a few notches to uncanny effect. They’ve also recently become referential about being referential: “As I move from one of my core influencers to another / References, references, references / Have you seen black midi?” goes the unreleased track “Science Fair”. Such early self-awareness feels compellingly confrontational, but also offers a glance into their inner workings. “In order to understand things they haven’t experienced before, people pigeonhole things, and we’re okay with that. At the end of the day, we’re just normal people making music,” says Evans.

Despite the bands being “bound together by not sounding similar”, as Judge puts it, a common ground is their shared partnership with prolific producer Dan Carey, who co-runs London label Speedy Wunderground with Pierre Hall and Alexis Smith. Carey has had a hand in the success of Kate Tempest, Franz Ferdinand, Fontaines DC, as well as countless others, and he has worked with all of the aforementioned bands via Speedy Wunderground’s 7-inch single series. The series is significant in its strictness: an artist lays down one track, in one day, in no more than three takes – and, up until recently, no lunch break. “Everyone started getting pissed off so I had to let them,” says Carey, of how he had to reinstate it.

Carey says his approach to recording was inspired by “hearing about Motown labels recording everything in one room, where every record gets its sound because it’s done in a certain way and a certain place. It felt really exciting.” This methodology proved fruitful for everyone involved, with Carey’s interjections, such as speeding up Squid’s “The Dial” by 10bpm, “quite radically changing the sounds”. It has led to ongoing relationships that have birthed numerous singles, Squid’s Town Centre EP (Speedy Wunderground’s first extended release) and Black Midi’s Schlagenheim, and brought a wider attention to the label, with the quality of demos being sent in from young musicians only growing.

The Speedy Wunderground team, L-R Dan Carey, Pierre Hall and Alexis Smith (Photo by Holly Whitaker) (Holly Whitaker)

Carey enjoys working with young bands such as Black Midi and Squid because, he explains, “there’s a complete fearlessness to them”. Through his rugged methodology, the groups’ outlines stay blurred enough that they seem continually unsettled. He likens his process to taking a “snapshot on the day”; a sole frame of the groups’ early yet ongoing metamorphosis.

Because of this dynamic, the scene remains on the cusp of exciting things. Black Midi are growing even weirder – their recent releases include an Ed Sheeran diss track and a Bandcamp album of Hemingway, Poe and Maupassant readings. For their debut album, Squid are drawing influence from Nam June Paik exhibitions and Seventies sci-fi books, and, if their live material is anything to go by, Black Country, New Road’s willingness to alienate is yet to be fully realised. Rest assured, these bands will soon be entirely unrecognisable.

Black Midi’s Georgie Greep performing at The Roundhouse in London, 2020 (Rex)

As for Carey, it’s likely he’ll remain an architect holding these types of harebrained feats of musicianship afloat. He’s particularly excited about the new hallucinatory pop group Tiña, who are set to release Speedy Wunderground’s first album, Positive Mental Health Music (recording it, he says, was the “most f***ing intense process” he’s been a part of). The “Speedy scene”, as it’s been called, continues to expand.

There’s plenty of worth in considering these bands as the forefront of something, but more so in distinguishing the mentality that actually unites them. It appeals to a more subconscious way of using your influences, like ingredients in a blender or colours on a Pollock painting. It’s working a fascination of the unknown into the listening experience, because there’s nothing more exciting than hitting play on a track and truly not knowing what you’re going to hear. That’s why no one can or should want to sound like Black Midi, Squid or Black Country, New Road – because they’re not interested in doing so themselves.

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