In-conversation

Horsegirl and Black Midi go head-to-head
Music | 3 August 2022

Horsegirl deserve your attention. With the release of their debut album, Versions of Modern Performance, last month, the US trio – Nora Cheng, Penelope Lowenstein and Gigi Reece – went from underground praise to mainstream attention. And it’s totally warranted. Drop the needle and enter a warm, scuzzy world guided by dark, swirling instrumentation and lyrics that lean towards the surreal. Marking Horesegirl’s album release, we connected the band with friend and contemporary Cameron Picton, bassist for UK band Black Midi, who are stirring their own sonic revolution with the release of their brilliant new record, Hellfire.

 

Cameron Picton: Congratulations on the album, it’s epic. How does it feel for it to be out in the world, I imagine you’ve probably waited on releasing it for ages. I don’t know what your experience is, but whenever we finish a record it’s like a year before we can release it.
Nora Cheng: It was a year.
Gigi Reece: We recorded it last summer and then we heard it would come out in June and were like, “Whoa, that will never happen.” But I’m glad it happened.
Penelope Lowenstein: It feels so good. The last year was super weird, because these two were in New York finishing college, and I was doing my last year of high school in Chicago. It felt like we had just done this thing and then we had to wait for a year and do nothing. The only time I got to see them was doing Zoom interviews and making band decisions. Now it’s like, okay, this is real.
GR: Now the album is out and we get to tour for two months or whatever, it’s like we get all that time back. 

CP: You can actually hang out with friends again, rather than every interaction being a business meeting.
PL: That’s been the thing I missed the most.
GR: It is definitely hard when things become all business.

CP: It’s definitely a weird part. When you start a band when you’re a teenager or whatever, you’re all mates and then you get a record deal and it’s like, “Oh, shit, okay. This is a business now.” It’s a strange thing to navigate.
PL: It was a learning curve. Now we have two different group chats. One for band stuff, and then a different group chat that’s friend stuff. Like in one chat it’s, “We have to schedule this thing,” and then in the other it’s, “Have you guys seen this video?” Both are important. Do you guys have separate group chats? [laughs]

CP: Oh, we just have the management chat now.
GR: You talk gossip in the management group chat?

CP: 100 percent, it’s the most chaotic thing ever. Trying to find something you actually need, like the Zoom link for this, even though it was probably sent yesterday, I  scroll back for about five minutes to actually find it. There’s a stupid amount of stuff going through there. When it comes to doing press, have you found it’s a lot for this record?
GR: It’s more than we ever expected. You guys probably do a lot more than us, but the week before the record came out we were like, “Oh, this is kind of insane.”
NC: For me, it was finals week at college, so it was like on top of that I had these interviews and weird times because time zones were a factor. Sometimes you do have a really lovely interview and you come back like, “That was nice.”
GR: Should we ask a question? Do you guys find you get a good amount of friend time on tour?

Photography by Carlos Lowenstein

CP: It depends on the tour. On the earlier ones we did when we were promoting the first album, they were not nice tours. Just super intense. We were doing like two gigs in one day, an in-store and then a gig in the evening. That was crazy. But more recently there’s definitely way more time to relax and hang out and have a nice time. Especially in Europe because we get the bus in Europe so we drive overnight.
NC: When I saw you guys in Chicago, it was some of the most intense moshing I’ve been in. Do you guys want people to move your music? Is there a way you prefer an audience to respond? For us, our favourite is when people dance in their own bubble, like moshing is awesome but we’re trying to get kids in Chicago at least to like, dance together but not in a pushing way. That would be like our dream. I prefer when people move because you feel like the energy is good.

CP: The American audiences are the craziest by far, to a degree way where we’re like, “This is fucked up.” At Webster Hall, the building was shaking– it was earthquake vibes.
GR: We were at the Brooklyn one where the thing fell down.

CP: That was one of the worst shows. The best, most appropriate crowd reaction we’ve ever had was in Japan. Dancing in their own bubble sort of thing and respecting each other’s personal space. The really bad thing you get in England is when you do a quiet song or there are quieter moments, you immediately hear this contingent of usually older men at the back of the crowd talking and you just hear the general hum of their conversation. Let me ask you a question. I was reading your press – basically, I typed in ‘Horsegirl interview’ and read the first five articles as my preparation – and in one the Sugar Records guy said you guys are gonna be ‘fucking bananas big’. What does that mean to you?
GR: [laughs] What does bananas big mean to us? That’s a good question.
PL: I don’t think we know how big the bananas are.
GR: Like a bunch of bananas? I feel like we are so much more bananas bigger than we ever thought we’d get. Because we were literally just playing in our friend’s basement.
PL: I think all of this was something we didn’t expect. Even when we wrote the record, we wrote it before we knew how many people would hear it.
GR: We have people interviewing us from Japan, we never thought that ever happen.
PL: I don’t think we processed that signing a record deal would mean that the territory would grow and things like that. We’ve always had this thing about… we come from a community in Chicago with a lot of bands where there’s definitely something going on. Guitar music is appreciated and people feel like young people should be going to rock shows and things like that. We’ve always said it would be so awesome if that became something bigger, like outside of our city. And if also, you know, similar, young people were making guitar music everywhere. So if Horsegirl had something to play in a bigger thing like that, that’d be bananas big. What does it mean to you?

CP: This is already pretty bananas big from when we first started. I mean, just so much like stupid shit. Like to play in front of ten thousand people at Primavera, that’s pretty bananas big. We’ve sort of accomplished a lot of the life goals we first set out to do when we started the band. Whether it’s in terms of making records or doing shows. Definitely with this record, we’ve sold out a bit more to actually do what the label wanted us to do in terms of press and stuff. We’ve basically not said no to any press we’ve been offered, when in the past we’ve been like, “I don’t want to do anything at all if possible.” But I think it’s just because we think this record’s good. I listened to some of the Chicago bands you’ve mentioned in interviews, like Friko and Post Office Winter. They’re sick. The goal to have a group of bands get successful is really good, rather than just being like, we’ll get big and fuck everyone else. The idea of bringing your friends up in interviews is really cool.
GR: I think we have this general idea of like, it could have been anyone. It’s sort of ridiculous that it was us.
PL: We just played our album release show which included all of our friend’s bands, it was this huge venue with a bunch of kids and the crowd were just as into every single opening band as us.
NC: Definitely. It felt like the order was unimportant.
GR: I think us getting signed did ignite some type of spark and traction there. It’s on the way. I know you guys came from a music high school kind of thing, which we have something similar in Chicago, and clearly you’re all very trained and super tight on stage versus us who were always the kids who didn’t have it together at music school. I feel like part of our bonding was we felt we could start a band without being the most technically good. We found it kind of awesome to find people we could play with who… we never talk about music theory, when we’re writing songs, for example. We were curious, how do you use that training? What role does it play when you guys are actually writing?

CP: I spent ages trying not to use tabs or anything like that and I ended up developing a pretty decent, strong ear, so most of the stuff I do is by ear. And obviously, I know like a little bit here and there, but I’m not some sort of like Jacob Collier vibe at all. When we’re all sat down together, it doesn’t really get particularly theoretical. Mostly, it’s just talking about song structure, especially at the moment when either me or Geordie are bringing in a full or 80 percent of a track. Most of the ideas are already there, it’s just a case of working out how to execute them best. I think someone who didn’t know music at all could follow a rehearsal and understand genuinely what was going on. I had a similar question for you relating to music school. In interviews, you say that you came out of youth art systems. I was trying to think of what the equivalent would be in England, but I couldn’t really think of anything. Maybe you could explain what it is first?
GR: It was an after-school programme. The one we hung out at was like, one day you’d have a lesson and then another day of rehearsal where you just work on covers of rock songs. Then after a few months, you invite your parents to come to the show. There would be the kids that took it so seriously, who would do solos. And we were not those kids [laughs]. I don’t know if London feels this way, but kids who grow up in Chicago end up going through the same music programmes, like everyone did the same baby music programme. And then like, Nora and I both did this thing called Girls Rock Chicago, which is an awesome project in Chicago that puts little girls and bands together and it ends up sounding like super no-wave and insane. They all sound like The Raincoats and it’s actually amazing. They teach you drums in one week and throw you on stage. Then by the end of this, there are a bunch of teenagers who have been through all of this. I feel like there’s always been a teenage music community in Chicago that book shows and a bunch of DIY stuff.

CP: Okay, I have a silly question now. Well, actually, it’s actually probably the most serious question. What is your favourite Project Runway contestant or moment in the show?
PL: Dom is really good. Dom is my favourite. Do you have feelings about Dom?

CP: Let me see [Googles], my favourite I remember was Olivier from season nine.
GR: Is he the one that looks like he’s kind of airbrushed?

CP: That rings a bell.
PL: My favourite is Dmitry!

CP: Was that the mean one?
PL: Yeah. He looks just crazy.

CP: The show is so weird, the clothes are so shit sometimes. [all laugh]
NC: They’re products of their time.

CP: When we first went to New York, one thing on my checklist was to try and find mood fabrics. [all laugh]
GR: Next time you’re in New York. All three of us will be living there and will help you.

CP: How are you finding New York?
GR: It’s pretty hectic because we both [Gigi and Nora]  just completed our first year of college and were living in Manhattan. Now we’re in Bushwick. New York is fun, there’s always something to do. But sometimes it’s really overwhelming.
PL: They like Bushwick because it feels like Chicago [laughs].
NC: The elevated train tracks!
PL: It’s a magical place that can be home for you, whatever home is. It’s a melting pot of some of the worst people ever, but also some cool people.

CP: I was with Charlie Wayne [from Black Country, New Road] last night and asked if he had any questions for you. He said do you want to open for them in New York? He also asked what your favourite Sufjan Stevens album is?
GR: Oh Illinois! Are they playing at Bowery? All right!

Horsegirl’s debut album Versions of Modern Performance is out now on Matador.
Black Midi’s Hellfire is out now on Rough Trade Records


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