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Blackhaine is the primal dancer making drill in Manchester

The choreographer and musician has released Armour, a love letter to inner city life and long nights

In 2019, Blackhaine starred in Pearl City’s video for “Down By The Tree”, a visual that captured him battered and bruised, stalking through Manchester, before breaking out into beautiful contortions in a pub, with patrons seemingly unaware of his presence. Is he really there?

Later that year, Blackhaine choreographed Mykki Blanco’s live video of “Lucky” for the Dazed and Gucci project GucciGig, commanding a feral army to form a circle around the rapper as they performed in an empty Skinner’s Hall. In 2020, the artist also choreographed Flohio’s video for “Unveiled”, directed by Daniel Sannwald, leading a group of topless skinheads through an otherworldly space while the rapper spits bars. Blackhaine’s dancing style is primal, visceral, and this energy transmits directly to Armour, his first EP as a musician and a continuation of the raw style that got him noticed as a dancer.

Armour is a wounded release, and unmistakably Northern. It’s a paean to the desolate Lancashire regions he grew up in, while influenced by the UK drill sounds coming out of London. Produced by Rainy Miller, and made in quarantine between Preston and Salford, it’s a body of work described by the artist as an opus to an inner city environment, long nights, heavy mornings, and lost months. We caught up with Blackhaine to talk motorways, madness, and music.

Armour sounds so specifically Northern - what is it about Preston and Salford, about Lancashire, that inspires the music you make?

Blackhaine: The Lancashire I know is a lost place, trapped between hills and moors. That feeling drives me when I make music, being pressured between nothingness. There’s less sunlight and more rain in Preston, Salford - non of these areas are gentrified yet so it’s a lot more real here for sure. 

The record was made over quarantine, how did that shift in living inform Armour?

Blackhaine: Creatively I don’t think anything changed, I’m used to working on concepts in isolation. In terms of the lockdown it gave me time without distractions to get deeper into my process and research ideas more. Practically this record was created over the internet. Rainy Miller and myself have known each other for around ten years, we’ve always talked about working together but never really had the chance. When lockdown began I sent Rainy the Blackpool vocal and he turned the record around in 4 hours. We kept on making tracks and it felt right to release a project. Rainy created a label based in Preston - Fixed Abode – so we had a platform to release the record on.

When it came to filming with Rawtape we had to carefully plan around Covid safeguarding. There’s a lot of shots we wouldn’t have been allowed to take, which pushed us in a completely different direction of exploring this idea of isolation. For ‘Blackpool’ we got into a gas tower over looking Manchester so that we could see one man alone in the city. ‘Womb’ follows on from that as I’m trapped in amongst these different versions of me being confronted by myself.

There's a clear drill influence on the EP - which drill artists are you rating right now, and why?

Blackhaine: Producers are the driving force behind drill at the moment - M1 On The Beat is high on my list, as is Ghosty. In terms of rappers I’ve been listening to Unknown T and M1llionz. I like artists who can match dark, involved content with active flows and I think these two have mastered it. 

There’s a lot of artists in the drill scene who I think are great - if I’m being honest now the Americans have got hold of it I’ve lost interest in the scene as a whole so I just focus on a few artists that are having their moments and pushing the drill sound into interesting territories.

Were you writing a lot of lyrics while working at the train station? One of my favourite authors Raymond Carver did a lot of writing while working as a night custodian in a hospital.

Blackhaine: I think artists like Carver, Kafka, even Burroughs to an extent deal with a similar context, this mirrored escapism. Their art is this escapism that reflects as a depressingly abstracted reality. I think being northern definitely gives you a certain aperture and this same release is found in my work. 

I’ve worked a lot of really dead end jobs to make ends meet, and have always found myself in great creative periods during. The train station was long, cold hours and I was in a state because of the drugs so the only way to keep my head active was to take longer cigarette breaks and write lyrics. 

I wrote a lot of records whilst I was there but only 2 made it on to the record. I wrote ‘Womb’ while I was in Lancashire and ‘The Fall’ and ‘Black Lights On The M6’ when I was in Barcelona.

“The train station was long, cold hours and I was in a state because of the drugs so the only way to keep my head active was to take longer cigarette breaks and write lyrics” – Blackhaine

What’s your favourite motorway in the UK, and why?

Blackhaine: M61. It’s this long stretch of concrete that starts in North Manchester and follows to Lancashire. It’s between these areas that I've spent most of my life, so I pull a lot of inspiration from these roads. 

‘Blackpool’ and ‘Death In June’ were written at a time when you were drinking heavily and taking a lot of pharmaceutical drugs. Are you out of that now, and how does it feel listening back?

Blackhaine: I almost took those tracks off the EP as I didn’t know how I would perform them live, getting back into that zone isn’t a quick, 5 minute job that ends when you walk of the stage. The way I work is all about sinking into dark, almost involuntary environments - to be honest I don’t even remember writing ‘Death In June’.

Constantly existing in this mode of stress and pain starts to feel normal sometimes. At the moment these tracks exist as reminders from when I took it too far. I forgot about them for a while, and when I listened back they felt really bruised - my voice definitely comes in a lot more raw it sounds almost scared or something.

I just felt numb a lot – now I’ve got a certain amount of distance from that but when I started working on those records it was hard to listen objectively. It’s the balance of not losing the meaning of that zone, that time in your life so that it doesn’t become washed, but not drowning in that mood at the same time.

What’s good about working with Rainy Miller is that he wasn’t aware of that period. We created something over the internet and then we moment of distance and intimacy at the same time. He took those tracks at a complete base value and built a completely different world around my vocals. 

You’re a choreographer as well - can you tell us about your style and how that informs the music that you make?

Blackhaine: It’s hard to fully describe my movement for me as it’s such a physical, sensation based thing - essentially it’s the practice of constantly forcing my body and mind into areas in order to cause strain and tension so that I can bleed into a different place artistically. It’s not about getting there, it’s about the attempt to reach, watching a man struggle and wrestle through the pain and never attain that enlightenment is more interesting to me.

With this practice in hand, I create deconstructions of the mainstream shit I see everyone else do. I don’t think there’s much exciting work coming out at the moment so to deconstruct it seems needed so that I can work out where the industry goes from here.

“I create deconstructions of the mainstream shit I see everyone else do” – Blackhaine

The creative process combines the tension and staging of deconstruction whilst I thread images and film scenes from my thoughts/subconscious and abstract them into reality. Recently I’ve been working with film more so it’s been interesting to involve the editing room into this tension and deconstructive process. When I make music I work with the same film scenes in my head. It’s interesting as the images I talk through on Armour are ideas I’ve been working with in movement for years. With the upcoming projects I’ve worked more on applying tension to recording takes, so keep it locked.

The EP is out now, what’s next musically for Blackhaine?

Blackhaine: Next year is looking busy. I’ve got a project called DID U CUM YET / I’M NOT GONNA CUM that’s releasing end of Jan. I created this record in Salford with Michael-Jon Mizra, and it’s sounding fucking mad. 

It’s dialogue with myself and artist Richie Culver and will be launching on Participant, a label ran by Richie and filmmaker William Markarian-Martin. There’s another record around that time with a Manchester label I’ll be releasing that me and Michael are currently recording.

I’m working with Varg2™ on something and there’s a few other projects I’ve got that are almost finished I want to release before the summer. There’s a real energy in Manchester at the moment so looking forward to seeing what comes about. In between all that there’s some film projects that I’m set to work on.

Armour is out now via Fixed Abode