FThe Japanese butoh art, first emerging as a surrealistic response to World War II horrors, incorporates violence, sacrifice, and bodily mutilation: a captivatingly intense form of performance described by its founder Tatsumi Hijikata as “the dance of complete darkness.”
For a teenage Tom Heyes who grew up in the sad, small town of Lancashire, it was an escape from the absurd everyday life of his life. “When I first started, I did not really see it as performance art. It was just me being fucked in my bedroom, ”he says, reflecting on his early interpretation of the craft, which drew just as much from donk (the northwest spin on hardcore dance) as the Japanese avant-garde did. Often he would be left bruised and bloody from these punishing dance routines, “but those back then were the most raw shit ever,” he insists.
Now 25 and operating as Blackhaine (a term partly derived from his love of the film La Haine), the unbridled intensity of butoh penetrates all facets of Heyes’ interdisciplinary creativity: a breathtaking combination of drill-rap, experimental music and modern dance which recently got him hired by Kanye West to choreograph his stadium-sized listening parties.
Heyes sips a Guinness in a salt-of-the-earth pub in Manchester’s Northern Quarter that withstands a sea of gentrification. “I do not really have any memories of my upbringing,” he says with the same captivating Lancashire twang that reflects his music. “I remember I was three, and then it’s a little blurry until I was about 14. Nothing happened for 10 years. And even when it did, because it was in the context of this boring landscape, it became never registered as being exciting. I think I have always carried on that detachment. “
Born in Preston and raised in nearby Chorley, the ubiquitous gloom to which Heyes refers has been his inspiration. “Unless you want to be a football player or a fucking gangster or a summit, then there really is nothing else to do. So I just started writing. ” A two-year stay with a “blind security job” at Leyland train station gave him ample time.
Referring to a wide range of literary influences – from the drug-induced paranoia of Coil to the dissociative prose of Kafka and Moor Mother’s radical reflections – he began to note what came to mind on a messy iPhone 3, and quickly accumulated hundreds of vignettes resembling one expansive stream of consciousness. There were no plans to take it further until other Lancaster artist Rainy Miller convinced him to bring these considerations to life.
He sent a cappella to former classmate Miller, who made eerie, metallic drill beats to complement Heyes’ dark meditations and robust, almost spoken word flow. The result was Blackhaine’s debut EP Armor: an eloquent exploration of the Northwest deprivation. “Rigor mortis in my cradle while you shake me to sleep,” shouts Heyes on the opening number Blackpool, and it’s hard to think of a better symbol of Blackhain’s music than the poor coastal town; Black Lights on the M6, a nod to the highway that straddles his domestic Chorley, has his sparse vocals battling for space amidst industrial sounds and conjuring up a deserted, monochrome background.
“This is what the Sleaford Mods think they sound like,” one of my friends suggested playfully. Socio politics is certainly more slanted than that of the East Midlands duo, but Heyes’ portrayal of the discouragement of the provincial working class is no less riveting. “When I write, I am more interested in an instinct or an emotion,” he explains. “We have surpassed the need for truly constructed storytelling.”
A show-stopping contribution to Space Africa’s acclaimed Honest Labor album followed, and Blackhaines’ second EP, And Salford Falls Apart, was released in December. The title refers to the city he now calls home, and it builds on the paranoia and anxiety from his first release. “What’s the price of England now? With Salford falling apart,” shouts desperately at the title track, a militant onslaught of loud noises reminiscent of powerhouse agitators Whitehouse. and also a commentary on what Heyes considers a nation in decay. “We are all brought up with this vision of England,” he reflects. “Then we get a little older and slowly realize that the country we live in is a lortehul. “
The EP is also semi-autobiographical, with Heye’s guard alluding to drug abuse (“Me mom wants to read this, so I do not want to say too much”) and suggests that he did not expect to reach his current age. The cover art of the album is a photo of his own hospital bed, taken during a close call. “Shaking heart and lungs,” he mumbles, bending. “But here we are. Happy days.”
Miller is back on production assignments with Manchester-based Croww, and the three artists make up the Blackhaine live show. “I’m a pretty anxious person in everyday life, so when I’m up there, it’s where I feel like I can really breathe,” Heyes explains, comparing his visceral performance on stage to another Northwestern iconoclast, Ian Curtis. “I’m by no means a technical artist, but if you put me on stage, I’ll fucking go for it,” he says.
Dance is still crucial: What began as a way to “break through the detachment” quickly blossomed into choreography orders for musicians like Mykki Blanco and Flohio. The video for Vegyn’s Nauseous / Devilish, recorded on the roof of a multi-storey car park, sums up Heyes’ dance style: he twists into the most unorthodox positions, as if he fends off invisible antagonists.
He cites an interest in “finding involuntary conditions in the body” as a guiding principle, and “spice heads” – zombie-like synthetic cannabis users whose presence in central Manchester constituted an epidemic in the late 2010s – as an unlikely point of reference . “If you put a lot of stress on people or question the muscles in a certain part of your arm, it will start shaking involuntarily,” he continues. “I find that incredibly interesting. I researched this and looked at the spice heads in Piccadilly – while I was doing the same thing at the time – and saw a lot of parallels. ”
The highlight of his early choreography career came in September when Kanye West’s team asked for Heyes’ services. “I’m not trying to sound arrogant, but he’s my hero, and I always knew we would work together,” he says excitedly, remembering sleepless nights they spent feverishly practicing in a dilapidated church in Gorton. “I thought it would be on the next project as I had a little more weight behind me, but no matter what.”
Heyes modestly suggests that this rapid rise is the result of him “filling in a quota” – a symbolic working-class northerner who only reaps praise for leaving the trust fund, the London-centered stereotypical art world. In fact, it’s hard to think of another artist from any background whose work currently unites so many media with such an intrusive and in-depth character. “I think it’s urgent that I say how I sincerely feel when I go into the cabin to record,” he says. “And now that I’ve got the confidence to actually express what I’m feeling, I’m ready to kick start big time.”
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