Above photo: David Fearn
When Morgan Simpson picked up my phone call on a Sunday morning in late July, he had just wrapped up a Redbull video session in the UK with keyboard player Joe Armon-Jones. Since he was just two years old, Morgan has pursued the drums through a variety of avenues, from session work to various bands. He also won Young Drummer of Year in 2014.
Today, Morgan makes it a point to stay busy, which has become easy with the growing popularity of black midi, the experimental high energy rock band for which Simpson is the drummer.
The band’s first full-length album Schlagenheim was released this past June, and has gained much praise amongst fans and around the web. Pitchfork even gave it a high score, calling Morgan “an absolute legend.”
Morgan chatted with Drumhead about what his days look like now that he’s touring more than ever. We also spoke about his beginnings, his influences, and how he views the progression of his career.
CW: What does your schedule look like these days?
MS: 70 to 80 percent of my schedule is black midi stuff…mostly touring dates. I’m also trying to keep other doors open, because I’ve been enjoying playing with other people and other kinds of music, so I try and keep those avenues open.
I play with Joe [Armon-Jones] quite a bit, I’ve done four or five gigs with him this year around Europe, and I’ve got some more coming up with him.
When I’m not doing black midi stuff, I try and balance resting with doing other kinds of work as well.
CW: How did you get started as a drummer?
MS: I started when I was two years old. I grew up in a musical family and my parents were heavily involved in church, so that was kind of my avenue in…my uncle plays drums and I was really attracted to the drums. I don’t remember too well the early days, but I do remember when I was four or five, having the kit at home and trying things out. When I was about five I started playing in Church with musicians and that was a really great experience. I often say that growing up and playing in church is I think the best, in my opinion, the best musical training to have at a young age. Because, the nature of the church I went to, there was a lot of spontaneity, which forced you to be creative and think on your feet and not necessarily follow structures or whatever. I really feel grateful that I was exposed to playing with other musicians at such a young age, whereas with a lot of other musicians, they don’t get to play with other musicians until they’re 15 or 16 in like school band or that kind of thing. I really do acknowledge the fact that my experience in the church helped me out tremendously.
CW: I understand your parents were session musicians?
MS: Yeah, my dad is a bassist and guitar player and my mum is a singer. They backed various artists playing in session bands.
CW: Could you describe your relationship with improvisation, and how you view the drums as an improvisational instrument?
MS: I guess pre and post black midi, my view of the drums as a whole thing has really changed quite a bit. Before black midi, I was doing a lot of pop session work, and in that kind of world, terms like back beat and groove, all these terms that a drummer “should do,” that was kind of my way of thinking. Then I slowly changed as I started playing with people at the BRIT School. I don’t think I would have reaped the same rewards if I hadn’t started approaching the drums as “the drums.” By that I mean, I don’t think now in the sense when we’re writing a song, say, I don’t think ‘oh I’ll play a back beat here,’ or ‘let me do a fill here.’ That might be how it comes out but I try not to think things out in such a methodical way. To me it feels more natural. And not to say that being methodical about things isn’t cool because there’s so much great music that’s very methodical, and there’s definitely part of black midi’s music that is also methodical, but however, over the last few years I’ve really noticed that when I play naturally it sounds and feels much better. And we all feel that, as a band. Improvisation is such a cool tool, and we try and use it where possible. I think over time, it’s really become a part of our live shows. In the earlier days, it was more like, ‘just play the song.’ As we’ve become more comfortable with one another, it’s nice to express ourselves in this improvisational way.
It’s obvious to site jazz as an example of some of the greatest improvisational work. At the moment I’m really heavy into Miles Davis’s work, in particular, his electric period, from like 1969 to the late ‘70s. Albums like Bitches Brew and On The Corner. Re-listening to that whole period has really just clicked with me. There’s such a special feeling in that music, in that period. I don’t think that kind of thing could be done again, with that kind of insight and vision; combining musicians of different musical backgrounds and meshing them together…which is a risky thing to do, but Miles was all about risk taking. I think we all, and as a band, have a lot to learn from Miles Davis.
CW: Who are some drummers who have been influential to you?
MS: Tony Williams is a very obvious answer. It really is mind-boggling when you consider that he was like 17 when he first started playing with Miles Davis. I think Tony took jazz drumming to another place, with his creativity and what he could do with the drums.
In the last few years, my way of approaching music has changed, and that coincides with drumming. People like Tony, and people like Greg Saunier from Deerhoof, and Billy Cobham, who’s one of my favorites…all these drummers are not thinking about what they’re playing in the way of ‘back beat here, fill here,’ and I really dig that kind of style; not approaching drums in the western way of thinking.
Mitch Mitchell is another one of my big favorites. Again, it may be cliché, but someone like Ringo, his rawness on the kit is so cool, and a lot of people say that he’s not a great drummer, which I would strongly disagree with. One: what makes a good drummer? And two: are you saying that he’s not a great drummer because he’s not technically skilled? If you are, I think you’re missing the point. A good drummer is someone who’s good for the music, and in that sense, Ringo was great.
And that’s another way that I’ve changed the way I think. I don’t value technical ability over feel anymore. Two years ago, if you had said to me, ‘Ringo’s really cool,’ I might have been like ‘he’s alright but he’s not Billy Cobham.’ I’ve come a long way in my thinking!
CW: Since the release of black midi’s first album, Schlagenheim, which has been out for a couple of months now, how has your outlook changed and how have things changed in general for the band?
MS: With the album being out, we have a marker laid down. So in that sense we have a clearer idea of what we want to move on to. We’re very intent on releasing a lot of music. We all believe that albums and singles or whatever are only representative of that artist at that time. We just want to capture that moment in time and move on. And however long it takes to get to that different phase…
The album being out has been amazing. We were at the Bowery Ballroom in New York [in July] and that show was like, nuts. And for a number of reasons, one of those being it was sold out which is just totally insane for us, but also the general vibe! People were genuinely into the music. I saw people singing lyrics, and some of the guys’ lyrics aren’t the easiest to catch on to and sing to, so it was really amazing to see people so into the music. It was a special moment. I think we’re all, as a band, trying to go along with things but also at the same time have a plan of where we want to go on to next. We’re not thinking too hard but enough to have a plan for a wise next move.
Everything that’s happened for us has been totally surreal and I’m just super grateful.
CW: What are your favorite drums to play? Are you loyal to a brand?
MS: I have a deal with Ludwig which has been a recent thing. The name speaks for itself, it’s just a classic drum, super reliable. I think that in the last few years of playing I’ve really started to get closer to discovering what sonics I want within the kit. I also have a deal with Protection Racket. I’m trying things out really. Trial and error!
CW: What’s your relationship with practice? Do you find that you’re able to progress naturally in playing or do you set time aside?
MS: Practice is another thing that in recent years I’ve developed a different viewpoint on. I guess within music, not just drums, practice always meant technical practice. Whereas now I kind of approach it in a way…well first of all I know that I’m super fortunate to be in a musical setting, the band, where I can try things out and basically practice on the spot. Basically, black midi has become my practice because we put emphasis on experimentation. In terms of technical practice, like sitting in the bedroom working on singles and doubles, I personally at this stage don’t really do that. Practicing for me is as much listening as it is technically practicing. It’s just a different type of training if you’re listening. If you’re listening to music, you’re training your ears, and your hands too even if you may not be doing anything. Naturally as humans we soak things up. The more you listen to anything the more you expand your musical vocabulary.
CW: What are you most excited for in the coming months? What are you looking forward to?
MS: I’m looking forward to not knowing what’s going to happen in this next year. It’s just going along with it and enjoying the ride. I just want to keep progressing personally as a musician and meeting and playing with different people. Yeah man, I’m just excited for whatever the future holds, even though I don’t know.