The Second Coming: Bloc Party
Following up their divinely inspired debut, Bloc Party reveal how they avoided the doggone sophomore slump.
What follows is an unabridged version of the Bloc Party interview that appears in our February issue.
You’d think Kele Okereke would be worried. His band, Bloc Party, are about to drop their much-anticipated second album, and they recently had to pull out of a potentially rewarding support slot on the Panic! At the Disco tour. Music bloggers obsessed over the Essex, England-based band’s 2005 debut album, Silent Alarm, which ended up on many critics’ year-end lists, and Okereke knows expectations are huge. But he and his bandmates — guitarist Russell Lissack, bassist Gordon Moakes, and drummer Matt Tong — also realize that for many bands the lightning of hype rarely strikes twice. “We know we’re not going to be the cool new blog thing this time around,” Okereke says. “We just have to work at attracting people in other ways.”
Bloc Party’s follow-up, A Weekend in the City, may just accomplish that. A radical departure from Silent Alarm, it’s a dark, widescreen epic that relies less on fidgety punk funk than on Okereke’s precise, anguished storytelling — more 1984 than Gang of Four. Over two days in New York City, here’s what the band (save the unusually silent Lissack) had to say. KYLE ANDERSON
How is the perception of Bloc Party different here than it is in the U.K.? As an English band, is it difficult to make inroads?
Okereke: I don’t know what the perception of us is in America. I just know that when we play shows, lots of people seem very excited to see us.
Moakes: Musically, we’ve grown up on anything but the traditional English mod upbringing. Any bands in England that do well always talk about the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Jam, the Beatles — bands like that. Whereas we’re about very diverse backgrounds, whether it’s English stuff, like the Smiths or New Order; American bands, like Sonic Youth and Smashing Pumpkins; or more international things, like Bjork.
Tong: One thing that’s worked in our favor is that we’ve never really been openly parochial about what we do and never made a big deal about who we are, like [adopts stereotypical British punk accent]: “Yeah! Fuck all! We beat up our wives!” We were thinking of calling the second album Winston Churchill.
Okereke: We were thinking of calling it Post-War Britain.
Tong: We vetoed it, though.
Moakes: I have met at least one person who was surprised that we were English. Of course, that’s one person in a lot of people. That’s an achievement for us, because we didn’t start the band to be an extension of our nationality. There are a lot of bands that are successful in England based on their nationality. Robbie Williams is huge in the U.K. It’s not an explicit thing on his part, but what he does is very English, and English people love it because of it. When you put it into an American context, it doesn’t make much sense, so the only way you can present it is to say, “It’s very English.” That’s how the American media get a handle on it.
Were you aware of the hype Bloc Party was receiving on blogs the first time around?
Okereke: Not really. It doesn’t seem like it’s as big a deal in the U.K. People have Web diaries, but it’s not as big a phenomenon. An American band can come over and play a big venue without having anything out. Panic! At the Disco played four nights at Brixton, which is huge, but their record hasn’t sold a lot of copies in the U.K. People are just excited about seeing a new band from across the pond, not because of any real hype.
Moakes: I think we got more [online hype] in the U.K., really. Especially on our own message boards and in our forums, they buzz like bees. They get a snippet of a bootleg or something, and they just pore over every word of it, to the point where it’s almost distorted our context. With us, a lot of the lyrics change right up until the last minute, and even after they’re recorded. There are kids who are poring over lyrics that have been changed or binned and left behind entirely. But they’ve got live versions of songs we did six months ago. I can understand why — they want to get as much meaning out of it as possible, but the context has changed. Nowadays, it’s recorded one night, it’s on the Internet the next, and before you know it, it’s gotten around the whole community and everybody’s got an opinion about it.
So is it hard to maintain control of what the band is trying to say?
Moakes: No, because even though I think people would be fascinated to see what it’s like when it’s just the four of us in the room together, that’s what the band is, and no one will ever be able to break into that. You’ll never be able to step into the band. I’m not trying to push people away, but that’s not going to affect the music internally.
Making A Weekend in the City, did you worry about the dreaded sophomore slump?
Okereke: There are lots of bands that have made a [follow-up] record that’s safe, that has less drama and less excitement. How many of the bands in the last five years who had a modicum of success with their first record went on to make a disappointing second record? A lot.
Tong: I don’t think many bands think about that. Whenever you make a record, you have one chance to get it right. I think the more you worry about making mistakes, the less you trust the record.
Moakes: We’ve heard so much about it that it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Now that we’ve finished the record, there’s not much we can do about it. We’re thinking about what comes next. None of us were complacent about what it would take to really step it up, and we knew it would be a lot of work.
How long did the recording process take? What was the gestation period?
Tong: About half of them, we started them while we were on the road.
Okereke: We started writing again when we got back home at the start the year. Some of these songs have been knocking around for a while, some of them we wrote before we went into the studio.
Tong: We started rehearsing in January and it took until May before we actually entered the studio. We went on a short tour to try out some of the new stuff and went back and rehearsed, chipping away at the songs again before we went into the studio.
It’s rare to not receive pressure from the label and take so long.
Tong: We were incredibly fortunate in that respect. There wasn’t any pressure from the label at all.
Okereke: I think that’s one of the great things about participation on an independent label — they won’t put as much money into it, but we know it’s successful on our terms, and there’s always support for what we’re doing.
You got a lot of exposure on soundtracks, commercials, games. Is that something you preside over, a conscious decision?
Tong: If it’s a controversial kind of proposition, about, I don’t know. It was a fast-food joint or something clearly unethical, we would protest.
Okereke: There are a lot of other things we’re associated with, but it’s…I mean, we all play computer games. We’re comfortable with where our music ends up.
What music did you listen to while recording?
Tong: I was listening to a lot of Nirvana because I was trying to perfect Dave Grohl’s double-kick drum technique. Not because I needed it for any of the songs, but because there’s a lot of time when you’re not doing anything.
Okereke: I like to listen to as much different music as possible, really. I’ve amassed so much new music and haven’t had the time to sit down and listen to it.
The new album is a pretty big departure from Silent Alarm — literally, the songs sound huge. Is this your bid for arena-rock stardom?
Moakes: I knew when we were writing that, we didn’t want to have the same sort of angular guitar sounds. In the year after [Silent Alarm] came out, a lot of bands started doing that new-wave thing. It became quite prevalent, and it was becoming tired. When we were gigging before recording Silent Alarm, we didn’t play with bands like that. The bands we were playing with were still doing garage rock from the year before. So we never felt connected to any of the bands we’re associated with.
Okereke: Some of the songs have a large sound, but we never really intended to just make things sound bigger. You make music for people to like it. You very rarely see huge bands make interesting music. To be a big band, you have to go with the lowest common denominator. I think [popular bands] can still be interesting, like Queen. That wasn’t a hands-in-the-air, Nickelback kind of thing. It wasn’t an empty gesture.
Moakes: I don’t know that we designed any of the songs to be played in arenas. I think part of that is in the instrumentation. I think Broken Social Scene also make that kind of music, even though they’re not playing arenas. They’re epic in a very tangible way. So we’ve definitely widened the sound in that sense.
The first line Kele sings on the new album is “I am trying to be heroic.” The other lyrics are very dark, but there are glimpses of hopefulness. What perspective were you writing from?
Okereke: The thing about this record is it’s not just my story all the way through. It’s a lot of different perspectives from different walks of life. I wanted to capture the feeling of a city with lots of different stories, with everyone walking around and trapped in their own concerns. The perspective in “Hunting for Witches” for that protagonist is different from the protagonist in “SRXT.” We wanted to try to capture this idea of a living, breathing city, and not have it be clouded by one person’s view.
Tong: I did talk to Kele just before recording, and I said I wanted this record to be about the city.
Okereke: And he was denied.
Tong: And then he did it anyway. Sort of like when Muttley has an idea for Dick Dastardly. I think there is this unspoken, implicit agreement that anything Kele says, he represents us in some way. As a person, he’s always been very considerate and conscious. I don’t think we’ll get in a situation there where he’ll say a load of stuff and we’d be uncomfortable with it.
Okereke: What if I said I was bigger than Jesus?
Any interesting anecdotes from the road?
Tong: Somebody threw a tangerine at me once. And I shouted at him, and him and his mates just laughed at me. In Scotland they throw stuff at you all the time, and if they don’t then it’s a really bad sign. They throw bottles full of piss. The more things flying in your direction, the better.
Okereke: The more piss in your face.
Tong: Why would you express your love for a band by throwing something at them? You’d think it would make them play worse.
Okereke: One time the singer from Razorlight caught a paper cup full of piss, and he drank it all on stage. The show was going too well, but when he did that, everybody loved it.
Tong: I hope he went to the hospital afterwards.
Okereke: What was that band who famously took a crap on stage and threw it at the audience? Some American punk band?
Tong: Was it Marilyn Manson?
What happened on the aborted Panic! At the Disco tour? A lot of people would never have put the two bands together.
Okereke: I hadn’t really heard Panic! At the Disco’s music before, to be honest.
Moakes: It felt weird being down on the bill and having there be the main band’s dressing room, then dancers for main band, then crew for main band, then us.
Okereke: It was a support tour, and we hadn’t been doing support tours in about three years.
Moakes: I’d be lying if we didn’t debate going on tour with them. The timing was the best thing about it, because the record was ready, and we were ready to start playing it. The costs were not going to be much for us because we were the support band. The benefits were a really big audience and young fans.
Okereke: We knew the sort of fans they had, and we knew it would be a challenge. I thought they were going to have a sort of gothic teenage fan base. There were lots of really young kids, really young girls. We didn’t have much experience with that. But it’s a shame we didn’t get a chance to finish it. The band seemed like very nice people.
Tong: You’re giving the politically- correct version of what went down. I’m sure if Panic read this, they probably wouldn’t be offended if we said we’d probably misjudged their fans.
Okereke: Bear in mind that we only played three shows.
Tong: And in one of those I only had one lung.
Do you have any sense of how your lung collapsed?
Tong: I was throwing the ball at Russell and he didn’t catch it. And I had to run over and get it myself. Then once I sat down, I felt pretty crummy…There’s a famous doctor in England called Kennedy. He’s a soap opera doctor, apparently. I saw him when I was here — he was very brusque with me. But it’s one of those things. It could’ve been a lot worse.
There’s a lot of pressure nowadays to not only be a band but also a brand. Do you have any aspirations to start a clothing line or a record label?
Tong: I’m uncomfortable with the idea of making music as a run-up to something bigger.
Okereke: Pete Wentz style?
Tong: [Fall Out Boy have] got action figures, and it’s not an ironic thing.
Okereke: Marilyn Manson has got action figures.
Tong: But he’s cool.
Okereke: We should do the Bloc Party Book Club.
Tong: We need to get kids reading again. No joke, that actually would be a good idea.
Okereke: I saw an interview with some [female pop star] where she said, “I’m not that into music, I’m a model, and I’m just doing music to expand my empire” or whatever.
Tong: When you do that and create these companies to sell things to teenagers, it’s sort of the antithesis of rock’n’roll, isn’t it? Not to be a stick in the mud or to be too punk rock about things, but if you’re out to be a musician, you should concentrate on music.
Okereke: I guess it’s different growing up in the States than it is in the U.K. In the U.K. you’re taught that sort of careerist mind-set is really dishonorable. I think that that kind of entrepreneurial attitude is a bit shameful. But Americans have the American dream. The way you view self-made aspirations is way different than it is in the U.K.
Is there a band whose career you’d model yours after?
Moakes: Sonic Youth and Radiohead. Obviously when you’re a kid and you’re trying to make music, you don’t look at the business model. I respect bands that have the will to keep going in the face of acclaim or otherwise, really.
So are there any particular goals or milestones you’d like to hit with A Weekend in the City?
Moakes: We just want people to love the new album. We want people to want to hear those songs when we play [gigs]. I don’t think any of us has got a projected chart for what it does financially, but it’s our newborn baby, so we want it to grow up in a nice environment.
Lissack: I concur.
Tong: I want a handjob from Courtney Love. Quote Matt from Bloc Party, married ten months.