FFirst appearing as a surreal reaction to the horrors of World War II, the Japanese art of butoh incorporates violence, sacrifice and bodily mutilation: a captivatingly intense form of performance described by its founder Tatsumi Hijikata as the “dance of total darkness”.
For a teenage Tom Heyes, growing up in a dreary little Lancashire town, it was an escape from the abject mundaneness of his life. “When I started, I didn’t really consider it performance art. It was just me getting fucked in my bedroom,” he says, reflecting on his first take on the craft that was as much inspired by donk (the Northwestern version of hardcore dancing) as it was avant-garde. Japanese. Often he was left bruised and bloodied from those punishing dance routines, “but those at the time were the rawest shit ever,” he insists.
Now 25 and operating as Blackhaine (a nickname partly derived from his love of the movie La Haine), the unbridled intensity of butoh seeps into every facet of Heyes’ interdisciplinary creativity: a dazzling combination of drill rap, experimental music and contemporary dance. who recently hired him 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 which is battling a sea of gentrification. “I don’t really have any memories of my childhood,” he says in the same endearing Lancashire accent that inflects his music. “I remember I was three and then it’s a bit of a blur until I was around 14. Nothing happened for about 10 years. And even when it was, because it was against the backdrop of this boring landscape, it was never considered exciting. I think I’ve always carried this detachment.
Born in Preston and brought up near Chorley, the pervasive gloom Heyes refers to was his inspiration. “Unless you want to be a footballer or a fucking gangster or summat, then there’s really nothing else to do. So I just started writing. A two-year stint in a ‘security job no way out’ at Leyland station gave him plenty of time.
Citing a wide range of literary influences – from the drug-induced paranoia of Coil, to the dissociative prose of Kafka, to the sweeping ruminations of Moor Mother – he began jotting down whatever came to mind about a ripped iPhone 3, rapidly accumulating hundreds of vignettes that looked like a sprawling stream of consciousness. There were no plans to go any further, until fellow Lancastrian artist Rainy Miller convinced him to bring these thoughts to life.
He sent a cappellas to former schoolmate Miller, who created eerie metallic boring rhythms to complement Heyes’ dark meditations and flow of brutal, almost spoken words. The result was Blackhaine’s debut Armor EP: an eloquent exploration of northwest deprivation. “Rigor mortis in my cradle while you’re rocking me to sleep,” sings Heyes on the opening track Blackpool, and it’s hard to think of a better symbol for Blackhaine’s music than the impoverished seaside town; Black Lights on the M6, a nod to the motorway straddling his native Chorley, has his sparse vocals vying for space amid industrial sounds, evoking a desolate, monochromatic backdrop.
“That’s what Sleaford Mods think they sound like,” a friend of mine suggested playfully. The socio-political aspects are certainly more oblique than those of the East Midlands duo, but Heyes’ depiction of provincial working-class despondency is no less fascinating. “When I write, I’m more interested in an instinct or an emotion,” he explains. “We’ve outgrown the need for truly contrived storytelling.”
A standout contribution to Space Afrika’s acclaimed album Honest Labor followed, and Blackhaine’s second EP, And Salford Falls Apart, was released in December. The title references the city he now calls home, and it draws on the paranoia and angst of his first outing. “What is the price of England now? With Salford falling apart,” the title track cries desperately, a militant onslaught of harsh noise reminiscent of the agitators of Whitehouse power electronics. It’s a candid portrayal of someone teetering on the edge, and also a commentary on what Heyes sees as a decaying nation. “We all grew up with this vision of England,” he recalls. “Then we get a bit older and slowly realize that the country we live in is a shithole.”
The EP is also semi-autobiographical, with Heyes vaguely alluding to drug addiction (“Me mum will read this so I don’t want to say too much”) and suggesting he didn’t expect to reach his current age. The record cover is a photo of his own hospital bed, taken during a close call. “Weak heart and lungs,” he mutters deviantly. “But here we are. Happy Days.”
Miller is once again in charge of production, alongside Manchester-based Croww, and the three artists make up Blackhaine’s live show. “I’m a pretty anxious person on a daily basis, so when I’m up there, that’s when I feel like I can really breathe,” says Heyes, comparing his visceral performance on stage to that of a another North West iconoclast, Ian Curtis. “I’m not a technical artist at all, but if you put me on stage, I’ll go for it,” he says.
Dance remains crucial: what began as a way to “break detachment” quickly turned into choreography commissions for musicians such as Mykki Blanco and Flohio. The video for Vegyn’s Nauseous/Devilish, shot on the roof of a multi-storey parking lot, encapsulates Heyes’ dance style: he twists into the most unorthodox positions, as if fending off unseen antagonists.
He cites an interest in “finding involuntary states of the body” as a guiding principle, and the “spice heads” – zombie-like users of synthetic cannabis whose presence in Manchester city center constituted an epidemic at the time. late 2010s – as an unlikely benchmark. . “If you put a lot of stress on people or strain the muscles in a certain part of your arm, it will start shaking involuntarily,” he continues. “I find it incredibly interesting. I was researching it, then looking at the Spice Heads in Piccadilly – while not doing anything good in a similar way back then – and I saw a lot of parallels.
The high point of his budding career as a choreographer came in September, when Kanye West’s team requested the services of Heyes. “I’m not trying to sound arrogant but he’s my hero, innit, and I always knew we’d work together,” he enthuses, recalling sleepless nights spent frantically rehearsing in a church dilapidated Gorton. “I thought it would be on the next project when I had a little more clout behind me, but whatever.”
Heyes modestly suggests that this rapid rise is the result of his “filling a quota” – a symbolic working-class northerner praising simply for deviating from the stereotype of the London-centric arts world. In reality, it’s hard to think of another artist from any background whose work currently unites so many media outlets with such urgency and depth. “I think the urgency comes from saying what I really feel when I go into the booth to record,” he says. “And now that I have the confidence to express how I feel, I’m ready to kick things off.”