Bloc Party: Rock around the Bloc

Bloc Party are shaking up British indie rock: goodbye narcissism and frivolity; hello talent, passion - and ginger beer
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The parents of Russell Lissack, guitarist with the British indie-rock band Bloc Party, never took him and his bandmates terribly seriously when they practised on Sundays in the front room of the family home in Chingford, Essex, in 2000. "My parents just left us to get on with it," says Lissack, 24. "So when I wanted to commit to the band full-time, I didn't tell them I was dropping out of South Bank University, where I was reading sociology. I kept the whole thing under wraps until the band took off."

The parents of Russell Lissack, guitarist with the British indie-rock band Bloc Party, never took him and his bandmates terribly seriously when they practised on Sundays in the front room of the family home in Chingford, Essex, in 2000. "My parents just left us to get on with it," says Lissack, 24. "So when I wanted to commit to the band full-time, I didn't tell them I was dropping out of South Bank University, where I was reading sociology. I kept the whole thing under wraps until the band took off."

Yet, since Bloc Party signed in April 2004 to the independent record label Wichita (the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Bright Eyes are also in the fold), their debut album, Silent Alarm, has made the Top 10 in the UK, charted in 17 countries and has just been released in the US. They have not paused for breath since their single "Helicopter" exploded into the Top 30 in October. I catch up with them as they play the UK dates of a tour taking in Europe, Japan and the US; they'll be back in the UK just in time to play Glastonbury in late June, and the band go into the studio in the summer to work on their second album, before doing their biggest UK tour to date in October.

But steering jerky indie-rock into the mainstream hasn't been easy: the band's meteoric rise has meant that Lissack and his bandmates can no longer lead normal lives. Gordon Moakes, the bass-player, reveals that his long-term relationship has ended, and that he never has time to see his friends. "I just managed to send my close friends a copy of the album and a quick note saying this is what I am up to," says Moakes, 28.

When I meet them, the band are hanging out at the Astoria venue, in central London, before playing the second night of their sold-out shows. Although the band felt lifeless on stage from jet lag, having just returned from a US tour that included two nights at New York's Bowery Ballroom, no one would have noticed from their performance.

"A good show feels bigger than the four of us making music," says Kele Okereke, 23, Bloc Party's singer-songwriter and guitarist. "It is as if in that moment everybody is paying attention. It feels that there is an actual connection between us and the crowd. The audience definitely carried us along last night." Moakes is disappointed with his own performance, but is going to make up for it tonight. "We all have off days," he says.

The band were always convinced that they had what many other bands lacked. "We are constantly trying to find new ways that we can play and express ourselves," says Okereke. "We have a willingness to push ourselves forward." What really worries him is being surrounded by sycophants. "They are telling us we are great all the time," he says. "You have to keep all that stuff at arm's length. It is the worst thing ever when you meet a rock star that's been in this industry for a long time and they can't actually relate to real people. They seem hollow and not there. We would be very frightened if that ever happened to us."

Despite feeling the strain of constant touring, the band are in a very good mood. "For us, it couldn't really have gone any better," says Okereke. "We are in such an amazing position. Better than any other band at the moment. It is everything I ever wanted. The thing that stops me getting really excited is that there is so much more that you had not bargained for in the beginning. It is really this never-ending, never-fulfilling life, because there is always the next record to make and the next tour to go on."

Bloc Party have been labelled as art-rock, a punk-funk rock band and a DIY punk band, and as owing a debt to such post-punk bands as Sonic Youth, Joy Division, Gang of Four and The Cure. "It is not our job to label it; it is our job to do it," says Moakes. And although Okereke says he can see the similarities to The Cure, he does not own one Cure record. "Our idea of modern rock is really rooted in what is happening right now in terms of the musical consciousness," says Okereke. "Electronica, R&B and pop informs how we put songs together, not just bands from the Seventies and Eighties." He claims to be more influenced by the Britpop movement's Elastica and Suede."But the trouble with the bands of that period that I liked so much is that they ended up doing nothing at all," he says. "Blur are the only ones who went on to have a proper career, and now Graham has left and they are really a different band."

He was also inspired by US guitar rock music:Smashing Pumpkins and the geek grunge outfit Weezer. "We owe these bands the most credit when we started out," the singer says. "People need to know this when they break us down." He names Björk, Missy Elliott and Usher as people who are making exciting music - and Radiohead. "They are a mainstream rock band who are completely aware of their limitations," he says. "They are willing to try things that are unnatural to them. Radiohead realised, as we have, that the essence of what is going to make rock music survive into the next century is if people start mixing styles that aren't supposed to be together."

That is what Bloc Party are exploring with their ever-evolving sound. The desire to mix dance and rock music began when Okereke and Lissack met as Essex teenagers (Moakes came on board in 2000 and Tong in 2002) and fell in love with electronic music. At one stage, the band was called Tiamat (a character in Dungeons and Dragons). "Electronic dance music really was influential in how we tried to put songs together," says Okereke. "There is a real sense of space and atmosphere that you will hear in the techno-house style [but] you will not hear in a three-minute guitar pop song. It is a very difficult thing to try to put the two together without it sounding lame. We are still trying to work it out. We are excited by it. The two songs 'Positive Tension' and 'She's Hearing Voices' are examples of what we are trying to do."

Okereke, who crafts the songs, balancing dark lyrics with uplifting melodies, says there was no masterplan when he wrote the album. "I just tried to explain what was happening around me," he says. "Looking back on the album, I can see that there are themes of helplessness and weariness. A lot of the album is concerned with what I was feeling as an 18- to 20-year-old. Everybody starts out in their teens thinking they are invincible. I also believed that nothing would ever move or touch me. It was later that I realised that life is soul-destroying and essentially pointless. That informs a lot of my song-writing." And where are the band heading? "Modern-day American R&B is the biggest influence on how I write songs now - not The Cure, Joy Division, Gang of Four or Franz Ferdinand."

Ultimately, Bloc Party are prepared to do what it takes to get their music heard, whether it be disrupting Mum and Dad's Sunday or embarking on their own version of the Never-ending Tour. "The work we put in day in and day out is phenomenal," says Moakes. "We are not complaining. It is what we have wanted to do for years, but then you have to sustain it."

Lissack, who has been mostly silent throughout the interview, pipes up. "I love it," he says. "Just playing guitar and being able to do that for a living is good for the soul."

Moakes adds: "People are excited about meeting us, and I remember thinking, there is nothing extraordinary about us as people. But I've come to understand that it is not who we are, but what we have done musically. We are now living with the fact that what we have done has touched people. That is a two-way process. If you put music out there, the only way it is not going to change your life is if it is completely ignored."

The single 'Banquet' is out now on Wichita

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