We’re sat in the singer’s kitchen, halfway up a block of flats in Bethnal Green, East London. Since DiS’s eyes popped out about one minute into the first track of their first demo back in Feb ’03 (at the time, they were called Union), we’ve wanted to know more, to tell the world about this promising young band - and with the growing industry interest and the name of the band on people’s lips, now seemed like the right time to do it properly.
Introducing Bloc Party: kids growing up on a diet of ‘OK Computer’ and Smashing Pumpkins, regressing through dark ‘80s British post punk, a desire to constantly change, to be true to their art yet still create what are basically pop songs. “The Rapture are a good band with good songs,” they voluntarily tell DiS, “it’s just a bit scary the way that sort of thing is popular just now, music is a fashion thing, and it’s something we don’t normally think about. It’s worrying, cos fashion changes.”
Can you say ‘zeitgeist’?
Kele Okereke (vocals and guitar) and Russell Lissack (lead guitar) met through a mutual friend at the Reading festival. They went to neighbouring schools and knew each other, sort of, but had not really spoken until then. “It was just after Reading we met at a house party and slipped upstairs,” says Russell.
“For some action!” interrupts Kele, worryingly.
“GUITAR action!!” Russell is quick to reassure.
Russell had been doing the rounds in covers bands “for a laugh” before trying to take things more seriously (“it’s difficult to be serious when you’re 15. I was inspired to pick up the guitar after watching ‘Back To The Future’”). “Then I saw his (Kele) band play… which was the highlight of my life,” he deadpans.
Kele: “Heh heh. It was quite abysmal but I think Russell saw something in it that he could work with...”
Russell (interrupting): “Change.”
K: “Bloc Party Mk 1 was born. But yeah, it’s taken us quite a while to fully realise what we can do, and we’re still learning I suppose.”
This learning process, after a succession of bassists and drummers, has found them bassist/backing vocalist Gordon Moakes and drummer Matt Tong, who was found via an ad in the NME backpages a year ago (bands mentioned in the ad were Joy Division, DJ Shadow, Sonic Youth and the Pixies, “to make sure people knew it wasn’t going to be just another rock band,” says Kele). Indeed, they acknowledge the introduction of Matt as the turning point for the band, the point where they realised it was all coming together, and the start of them as a group of friends as well as band members.
“It wasn’t just a drummer we met through an advert,” explains Kele, “it was someone we could talk to about anything. We’d been there with Gordon but we’d only ever see each other at practises and gigs and it didn’t feel like a real relationship until Matt joined.”
R: “The day we met him, I saw him at a club later that night. We got drunk and made friends. It was nice that we liked the same places.”
We’ve come across a band not dissimilar to this before. Not necessarily in musical style, but the same kind of approach to music. A hugely diverse range of influences brought together as one. It’s talking to Bloc Party at length for the first time I realise how similar they are to Jarcrew.
DiS: How does the songwriting process work within the band?
K: “Generally it can be anything like a sound or a riff. There can be a lot of head-scratching cos nobody knows what they’re doing, but you keep playing and it materialises. But some songs Russell and I have worked out riffs we want to bring in.”
R: “We’ll come in to practise with at least one idea that everyone then adds to, then we’ll record it onto a dictaphone that Kele then takes home and structures… cos he likes structuring stuff.”
DiS: Where does your like of structuring stuff come from?
K: “Oh, I dunno. I was a lonely child.”
DiS (eagerly): Did you ever play Sim City?
K: “No, no…”
DiS (eyes widening) Build cities and destroy them?
K: “I know of it… It seems quite an interesting idea but I wasn’t around a computer when I was a child.”
R: “Except for Mario.”
DiS (disappointed): Gah! Mario!
K: “Yes, except for Mario. It would’ve been quite interesting I think. It’s just come from… you know… no-one else is going to do it… we can jam and have ideas, but someone has to spearhead it, or else it’ll be lots of musicians jamming in a room, which is fun but not as good as it could be.”
DiS: Are you the one cracking the whip then? (Russell nods at this.)
K: “In some respects, yeah. I wear the trousers.”
R: “He wears a top hat.”
On the subject of managers… well… they don’t have one. This is not unusual for a band their size. At this stage, most managers just seem to be glorified booking agents. But since sending out unsolicited demos to a few sympathetic ears, things are moving fast for Bloc Party. It’s only recently that Kele has started giving this more thought (they'd been to meet a lawyer earlier that day) and has learnt some home-truths about the music industry. “It’s the same problem with the drummers we’ve had; if someone’s going to be our manager they have to really get what we do. Although a lot seems to be happening at the moment, it’s going to take a lot for me to just give it over to someone. I’ve just no idea what people hear or see when they see us onstage. We realise that some aren’t being nice for the sake of it - people want to get stuff out of us, and that’s the way it works - and we’re wary of that and not wanting to make any rash decisions. It’s quite important to all of us how it’s heard; it’s our art form, so we’re not just going to fritter it away at the promise of lots of money.”
Bloc Party certainly have their heads screwed on straight. They don’t rely on sending packages to labels. It’s their upfront approach which has gained them supporters in the right places. Having read about them in the press, a curious Kele sent a copy of their demo to Franz Ferdinand. The band called them and asked them to support them at the Domino anniversary gig they were putting together at the Electrowerkz. A week later, he handed Steve Lamacq the same demo at the Franz gig at the ICA, and Lamacq duly played them on his Radio 1 show, calling them “genius.” At that point, people started taking them a bit more seriously.
DiS: What was your plan giving Franz the CD – was it just to get a support slot?
K: “I just kept reading the stuff about them and what they were listening to and it sounded a lot like the stuff we’d been listening to, so I thought I’d send them a copy, cos it would be nice if they could pick up on it, which they did. That was really, REALLY exciting and reassuring, because the day before we’d met someone [A&R man who shall remain nameless] who liked it but kept saying things like ‘you’ve got to change what you do, shorten the songs, write more pop music,’ and we’d decided we were quite happy with the way we were doing things. Then Franz Ferdinand gave us a call. That was more important for me and made me realise you’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing. There’s been a few people wanting to change aspects of what we do, telling us we need to write more pop songs… and we were getting quite worried about it.”
DiS (turning up nose): What do they mean by pop songs?
K: “People want Coldplay (Russell snorts at this) and ‘Yellow’. All the GREAT pop music I can think of WAS edgy and it didn’t sound like Haven or any other nondescript rock band – it was different and you recognised that and got into it. So I dunno. Who would’ve thought ‘Creep’ would’ve become such a big song? And it’s such a dark song. You have to have faith I suppose. I’m learning that the industry has little to do with real art and everything forced into how it’s going to be sold and marginalized… and we’ve not even signed a deal yet.”
Something else becomes clear during this conversation – there’s not really a lot of music around at the moment that’s inspiring them. Radiohead is the obvious one (Kele mentions them four times), while Primal Scream and The Strokes are named as “good pop bands” (and despite the A&R’s protest that Bloc Party aren’t pop, the band think quite the opposite), while Kele has a growing obsession with Kate Bush and Russell is rather fond of the Pretty Girls Make Graves album. “I’ve been listening to a lot of bad pop music recently,” says Kele, to DiS’s delight, “cos at least you know where you are with that. I think guitar music in general is quite derivative and at least with pop music there aren’t any pretensions.” Anyhow, there’s also a hatred which drives them on. OK, not just a ‘hatred’ per se, but being over critical. “We’ve had one bad review,” Kele says.
“It was just one gig we did… it wasn’t the best gig anyway,” scoffs Russell.
“How did you react?” enquires DiS.
“We stalked them down and cut their heads off. It had to be done.”
So let’s just hope that Muse don’t read this. Kele isn’t happy with Muse.
DiS: You’ve mentioned Radiohead a lot but it’s not like you’re trying to be one of these generic school bands trying to recreate ‘Creep’ (Russell winces). Or maybe you are then!
K: “We grew up listening to ‘OK Computer’. That was a really important album for me because it changed how I thought about music. I’m completely sickened when I see bands like Muse and Coldplay. It seems really pointless and there’s nothing happening.”
DiS: Nothing happening in Muse’s music. Really?
K: “I think he’s just a guy with a lot of effects pedals again and again and again.”
R: “He loves his scales.”
K: “Yeah he’s a great guitar player but the way he plays is really boring and obvious. For some reason I really hate them so I can’t say anything nice about them. What they do is really sickening, selling this packaged angst to kids. At least Radiohead stopped doing that and did something else. He [Matt Bellamy] is going to keep writing the same songs cos kids like being sad, and there’s always going to be a market for it, like Limp Bizkit too. I think there are better things to do with making music.”
R: “No more Muse.” K: “As an overview, I don’t think there’s anything going on in their heads other than ‘let’s write some songs with distorted powerchords’. But then there are millions of people who disagree I suppose.”
R: “I’ve had enough of you slating my favourite band.”
Let’s move on…
Their reasons for wanting to be in a band fulltime are the same as most others – the simple desire to be creative rather than stuck in a rut, commuting on a crowded train to an office every day. Their school days seemed typical affairs too – the distrust of the ‘cool kids’ (“they’re the ones who end up drinking in the pubs while the uncool ones go on to do something interesting with their lives”), and ignoring the careers advisors trying to push them in other directions. Yet Bloc Party have no world domination plans, and while they create music which is often as challenging as it is simple pop, they’re incredibly down-to-earth with their aspirations. When queried about this, Kele stumbles over his words.
“Er… (long pause) Er… (he thinks) I think… (thinks some more) the sad truth is that we want to do something good and have people remember us as doing something good.”
R: “And we wanna keep doing it too, not be a flash in the pan.”
K: “I think we’re a good band and we’re going to carry on making good music, that’s the exciting thing. We try not to repeat ourselves and when you have that feeling that you’ve created something amazing, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
DiS: What do you think you actually sound like?
R: “Art punk funk.”
DiS: Do you feel it’s particularly arty?
K: “No. Whenever I go to see an ‘art rock’ band I get bored.”
DiS: Who would be an ‘art rock’ band?
K: “Stereolab or something. I think we’ve got artistic dimensions. We’re all sort of… intelligent people…”
K: “… I’m not really sure what art rock is.”
DiS: If you were given the choice to play All Tomorrow’s Parties or Reading, which would you do?
R: “Heh heh, we were joking about that the other day. I don’t think they’d appreciate Bloc Party at ATP.”
K: “It’s too POP, bizarrely. I’ve always hated that thing, bearded Shellac kids… just this insane love of stuff that’s difficult, for the sake of it. Yes, I do think we’re a pop band, and I think we’re a GOOD pop band. There’s something happening, a tension.”
DiS: “Rivers run with your sons' blood / No case for extenuation / All the marshals are dead”… Your lyrics aren’t typical pop lyrics.
K: “Yeah… yeah… but then what does that mean? I don’t aspire to be Kylie or the Cheeky Girls.”
R: “The Cheeky Blocs.”
And with that, and Gordon and Matt on their way to the flat for a band meeting, it’s time for us to depart. With all the talk of music trends and fashion, it doesn’t seem like Bloc Party have much to worry about. There’s always room for an edgy, interesting pop band, and their debut single on the way, ‘She’s Hearing Voices’, is only just the beginning.
More info at www.blocparty.com