A Surprising Portrait: Interview with Bloc Party

Posted October 30, 2008 in Music Features

NCH – 25 sep-3 oct-22 Desktop

As I wade through countless interviews and press snippets across the internet to find hitherto unasked questions for the subject of an upcoming interview I’m struck by a common thread throughout: Bloc Party are shy, prickly, self-involved and sometimes downright standoffish bastards. Everybody who has sat in a room with the London quartet for at least fifteen minutes seems to have had the soul sucked out of them. Needless to say, I feel like Bertie walking towards a tribunal bench as I’m led up the stairs to be introduced to these heartless harpies in their record label office.

The Bloc Party I find, however, are not the caricatures I’ve drawn in my mind. Bassist Gordon Moakes isn’t sitting in the corner reading a Camus novel, drummer Matt Tong isn’t scribbling away at the Times’ cryptic crossword, and the two guitarists Russell Lissack and Kele Okereke aren’t engaged in a weedy argument over whose effects pedal has the most spacious hall reverb effect. Instead Kele and Matt are jostling over a HandyCam and laughing like sherbet fizz-ridden schoolboys, Russell is perched jauntily on a desk seemingly mid-joke, and Gordon Moakes is… sitting in the corner reading.

“Hi… how are you?” I tentatively offer the notoriously bristly frontman, Kele.

“I’m brilliant, mate. How are YOU?”

I want to say “A bit taken aback, really”, but I settle for an “a bit knackered”, to which he responds enthusiastically about his early morning flight home from Brussels and his recent Belgian exploits. As he and Tong take a seat across a pub table a few minutes later they’re all smiles and unbridled giddiness, almost as eager to talk as they are to lash into their pub dinners.
Since the formation of Bloc Party in 2003 the band have amassed a massive back catalogue. As successful for their one-off singles, b-sides albums, remix records, and internet-only releases as for their triptych of albums (2005’s breakthrough Silent Alarm, 2007’s big-time-beckons A Weekend In The City, and current curveball album Intimacy) the band have been as restless as their twitchy post-punk styled music. So are Bloc Party prolific or is everybody else just lazy?

“I remember thinking about the Beatles putting out a record a year and it’s possible, it’s definitely possible,” explains Okereke in his thoughtful, stammered voice. “Some bands take four years writing records, we just have a different chemistry. We’re quite studious, like that. Writing songs is something that comes very naturally to me. We’re 26 and we’re not going to be popular forever – why not work as hard at this as we can, while we can? Otherwise we’d just be sitting around getting stoned all day.”
Nevertheless, it’s the band’s refusal to sit back with a spliff and enjoy their spoils that has caught their fans by surprise. Pre-empting the inevitable leaks albums of as high a profile as their third outing tend to suffer, they rush-released Intimacy via their website three whole months early, in an inversion of record industry conventions.

“Both of our previous records, Silent Alarm and A Weekend In The City, we sat on for six months. When you sit on a record for three months, and then have to talk about it for the next three months, it’s a very deflating experience. That was part of the reason we decided to put the record out the way we did this year. By the time we come to talk about it we’re usually already over it. Around the time I was giving A Weekend In The City interviews the music I said I was listening to was probably a lot more applicable to this record, which is something to bear in mind.”

But Intimacy is a plot-twist not just in terms of its method of release, but its musical direction. The previous two singles, the hyper-emotional Flux and head-wreckingly catchy Mercury posited the band as a Big Beat electronic band with few elements of their previous songwriting tendencies in place. Yet their third album was promised by Okereke to be a mixture of their two previous “conventional” records. Upon release however, there was clearly very little that was conventional about Bloc Party Mk. III. From the spliced vocals of Ares to the canned-choir dramatics of Zephyrus the album is a ghost train from start to finish: you’re propelled forward through the dark, unsure exactly what’s going to jump out at you next. As Okereke and Tong talk us through their process, it seems album three was very much an undemocratic album.

“Half of the songs we wrote during the year, we went into the studio and just recorded, the other half are songs where we went into the studio with no music and just let our instincts take over. That was a very liberating, and frightening way of working. What was frightening was when we did The Prayer (A Weekend In The City’s first single), when we didn’t know what we were doing. We had a fist fight actually, and this is true…”

Tong interrupts Okereke to clarify the details of the ‘fist fight’. “It was more than a fist fight. We were using bats with nails in them.”
Okereke takes up the narrative mantle again. “Oh come on, it wasn’t that bad… but I did actually scratch Matt’s face. The Prayer was the first time we did a song without drums, Matt came in screaming “I want to play drums, I’m the fucking drummer”, and I said “relax, it’s going to be great, just listen to it”. He swung at me, and I swung at him. Garret (producer Jacknife Lee) pulled us apart, it was alright. He has experience of working with bands, deflecting them from each other. It was really tense, but I wasn’t going to be dissuaded, and it turned out to be one of our most successful songs.”

So if at least half of Intimacy is the product of Kele’s studio experimentation as opposed to a band effort, that equals six fist fights this time around, right?

“Hahaha yeah, that adds up about right. No no, really, the rest of the band left me alone a lot, didn’t interfere with the songs, but didn’t feel left out, and gave me the space to write more songs like that.”

Accordingly, Tong nods in agreement, rather than hurl his glass at Okereke and kick him to the ground. But surely if inter-band tension was the product of musical experimentation, the band have been aware of the anti-Bloc backlash beginning from the release of The Prayer, in both fan circles and the press crucifixion A Weekend In The City received.

“I think with the success of Silent Alarm we ingrained into our psyche that we can do anything we want. We never felt we had to impress people. Obviously we want people to like us, but we’re lucky that we have a sort of fan that doesn’t expect us to make the same record again and again,” says the frontman. Drummer Tong continues “We’ve learned to be more patient in ascertaining what people’s reactions are. I think the reactions we used to get to Silent Alarm songs were a product of two years straight touring. We’ve always taken a lot of care not to patronise our audience. It brings you closer to that audience.”

So far, so approachable. The pair are relaxed, open, and chatty as a pair of grannies at the post office. So has every other interviewer been hanging out with a completely different band, or have I just caught the pair in a strangely upbeat mood?
“I think that we get misquoted enough to be cautious about what we say. The space I’m in now I don’t care as much about that stuff at all. I mean who cares if we call Oasis a bunch of cunts? Oasis don’t care,” Okereke relates, distinctly uncautiously. It’s not going to make a difference to anything really.”

Feeling equally risqué Tong adds “From the outset we were quite cautious not to be reduced to half-baked soundbites, captions and phrases. I think that bothered a lot of more troubled journalists back in the day because we steadfastly refused to give them a story, say anything remotely contentious. As long as you’re not being willfully offensive or being controversial for the sake of it, I think… It’s boring to have to present this caricature of yourself, someone who doesn’t exist in day-to-day life. Like Kele says, “who cares if we think Johnny Borrell should be pushed off a boat?”

The pair cackle like witches as they imagine new demises for the lad rock aristocracy – “Yeah, who cares if we wish that Noel Gallagher had… impaled himself on his guitar when he fell off that stage?”

“Well it would’ve made a more exciting YouTube clip!”

How would the band feel if there was a clip of you guys being attacked by an ex-pat Irishman on stage up on YouTube though?

“I’d sign up and I’d post ‘He got what he deserved, the wanker’ in the comments”

“Or ‘Bloc Prty r d bgest selout wnkers, Artic Monkeez is so much cooler'”

“How about ‘If you read this comment within 3 days you’ll die?'”

Bloc Party are obviously a band who spend a grand portion of their time on the internet, as well as constantly inhabiting the indie environments of gigs, nightclubs, and London’s hip-as-fuck neighbourhoods. From their position they have a stalker-in-the-bushes view of the current youth subculture, characterized as it is by ‘hipsterism’, a wave of poseurishness and indifference being treated with contempt from most quarters. “One thing we started noticing after our first few months doing successful shows as a band, especially when we traveled abroad was that everybody there sort of looked the same, wore the same kind of clothes. It is something with a sinister sort of uniformity to it,” Tong postulates.

It’s a decentralized movement, with no dogma or organization like goth, or punk, I offer. “I think the time for dogmas has passed,” Okereke replies, now fully in grand-statement mode. “The age that we’re in, anything with a rigid set of codes and a belief system is going to be ignored. This movement is apolitical, it’s based on indifference. There’s no set of rules governing it, other than that capitalist principle of looking cool and spending money trying to. This mode we’re in now, I don’t see how a counter movement can exist, because it’s based on a general blankness. I don’t see how people are going to get motivated.”
Surely, being raised Catholic, this sort of anarchism is at odds with Okereke’s Weltanschauung? “Growing up Catholic you certainly have a lot of respect for the idea of a world idea. I don’t really agree with the doctrine, it’s just a set of ideas fine in principle, but that doesn’t translate to actions, it gets distorted and perverted. If you were in the 70s would you have predicted that the punk movement would have followed on? But now it seems obvious that it was aesthetically the opposite of what went before. Something will happen because young people will always want to claim their identity, separate from their forefathers. It’s like trying to predict what bands will be big at the start of a year, everything is too sped-up now to guess these things.”
Given the acceleration of the exchange of ideas, and the rapid changing of tastes and the smorgasbord of bands available to any discerning kid with a broadband connection, is there a fear that if Bloc Party did stop releasing music for a year or two they’d come back to a hostile environment?

“‘Who the fuck are these guys? They sound like that Bloc Party band…'”

“‘But worse, with less guitars. What happened to the drummer?’ He got a successful career in marketing!”

“‘What happened the singer?’ He got a sex change!”, they catapult jibes at each other. “I think we were lucky with the press we got when we arrived. We never actually sought it out, but it was felt that we were going to be the Big Band of 2005. Which didn’t happen… It was the Kaiser Chiefs, really,” Okereke chuckles. “I still feel most of our reputation comes from playing live, and from word-of-mouth. You have to control it because if you expose yourself too much, people can lose interest too.”

While the band’s new direction certainly holds the potential to polarize fans, losing their interest is not a potentiality. The band have created and released a brave record, even if they had to scrap their way to it. Its critical reception has already indicated that the press are beginning to warm back up to London’s four most productive, self-aware geeks. For all the cartoonist-like attempts to caricature Bloc Party, it turns out they make a far more complex portrait than their usual illustrations would have you guess.

Bloc Party’s third album, Intimacy is out now. For a full review and video go to our new releases section.

Words: Daniel Gray


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