Shadow play: How Bloc Party reinvented their sound
When non-stop touring left them creatively shattered, Bloc Party had to reinvent their sound. Gavin Cumine hears how they did it
Monday 20 October 2008
I meet Bloc Party in London's fashionable Shoreditch, in precisely the kind of place satirised on the band's last album, A Weekend in the City. On that album's opening track, "Song for Clay (Disappear Here)" – named after the druggie, alienated protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis's novel Less Than Zero – lead singer Kele Okereke sang, "East London is a vampire. It sucks the life right out of me." The album that followed was an unflinchingly honest portrayal of British life: immigration, drug abuse, suicide, sexuality, the London bombings, a critique of youth subcultures and casual sex, and Okereke's identity as a second-generation Nigerian immigrant were all tackled. It was a record without answers, confused and caught in the moment, standing up for itself and its opinions.
It was also a change of pace from their well received debut Silent Alarm, a riotous salute to pop culture that, with its twisted grooves and Okereke's abstract lyrics, garnered NME's album of the year award, a Mercury Prize nomination, success in America and platinum sales. All this made Bloc Party one of the most popular bands in the country, but as bassist Gordon Moakes notes, the past three years have been a time of uncomfortable change for the band.
"At the end of last year touring became quite a grind. We started to play one set list we weren't deviating from. It was a tour too far. We were in Europe, but we all really wanted to get home. It was tough to look beyond that towards a new record and where we would go with it. I remember when we finished the last show in Barcelona we didn't say that much to each other, we just disappeared to the hotel, anxious to fly home and get away from the routine.
"At this point the single 'Flux' had come out and we were playing it live," continues Moakes. "The interesting thing about 'Flux' was that it opened a door to the fact that we could go in any direction on the next record. Before we even started thinking about a new record or going into the studio we needed to take time off. I had a weekend on the coast somewhere and we didn't really communicate with each other for a month. When we came back into the studio I felt that there were no rules."
The result was the band's third album, Intimacy, rush-released as a download in August after an announcement three days before at a webchat. It gets its official full release next Monday, including the new single "Talons", out today. The record shows strong resolve, with a toughened sound that, in addition to disembodied dance beats and orchestral elements, has an electronic tinge – a direction the band has only hinted at before. Bloc Party have had trouble finding their niche, their previous records' confidence masking a deep anxiety. Intimacy is a record that marries the boisterous aspects of Silent Alarm and the wisdom of A Weekend in the City – and the result reveals a band that has grown in confidence.
"I think with A Weekend for the City there was compromise. We knew we had to do something to push forward, but weren't entirely comfortable with going all the way. I think having gone through a period of uncertainty it came down to Kele saying that we needed to pin our colours to the mast. We had songs where we disregarded the guitar and focused on the beat, which meant we could really go to town with them."
Moakes is candid about his feelings towards the band. At 32, he is the oldest member and recently became a father. He missed much of their summer tour on paternity leave. "Now it is strangely more instinctive than it has ever been. We realised Bloc Party is not life or death for us as individuals. It is what we do, but you can devote more energy to it if you have perspective and something else to go away to. I think, allowing this record the space to come together the way it has, we realised that we didn't all have to be in the studio together."
The guarded Okereke and drummer Matt Tong come to join us. Okereke has never been the most comfortable of speakers and today he seems tired and unable to string his thoughts together. He refers to the download release of Intimacy as "a laugh", and in one particularly awkward moment refers to a fist fight with Tong that almost led to Tong's sacking. "It's a draining process," says Okereke by way of explanation for his demeanour. "With past records we have released them six months after we finished them, which is a long time to sit on a record and then have to talk about it. Naturally your mind wanders and you don't really maintain the connection with the record. Once it's done I'm not really interested in it. I'm always thinking about the next thing. That was related to the way we released the record, to retain some excitement for us."
"This is our third record now and I think that if we had any anxieties about the process, then they have been ironed out by now," adds Tong. "We know what we will be going through and how long we're going to have to do it for. I think we have got that tetchiness out of our system."
Tetchiness is inherent to Bloc Party's make-up, though. They are a product of their environment, their urgent music analogous to fast-paced London life. "There is real restlessness and a short attention span here," says Okereke. "Everything is so fast in London, and that is very apparent in our sound. Our songs are schizophrenic, which I think is something you need living in London. We just get bored so easily.
"I'm already writing the basic parts to the next record. It's on my mind now, because this one is done and there's nothing more I can add now that it's out in the public sphere. It isn't mine anymore. I just don't want to hit 30 and think, 'We could have worked harder.' We are not going to be in this forever and we might not want to do this forever, but while we have a window of opportunity to affect people it would be silly of us not to."
Lyrically, on Intimacy Okereke sounds more liberated, airing deeply personal details about a bad break-up, rather than the convoluted judgments of A Weekend in the City. "Weekend... was very opinionated, it was me saying what I thought of the world and trying to find my place. This record is the opposite. It is me worrying about what is going on in my back garden, about my world rather than what effect I can have on the world. When I wrote A Weekend in the City I had been going out more than I should have been and when the album came out I had stopped that lifestyle. With this record I wrote when I felt emotionally inclined to rather than because I had something to say."
One of the most interesting elements of the record is the way Okereke's voice is used, often treated like an instrument in itself; it is cut up, distorted, vocoded and run through a variety of effects pedals, most notably on lead single "Mercury" and album opener "Ares". "I wanted this record to sound like a modern rock band with elements of its personality manipulated, and distorted," explains Okereke. "I didn't want us to sound like we had been playing in a room. I wanted it to sound like we had gone through some kind of machine.
"One of the things that has really hounded us is that people likened us to bands that meant nothing to us; people seemed to miss the point," continues Okereke. "I wanted to make sure that people saw us in a different way. There was a whole spate of bands doing the disco thing and the staccato guitar thing and that form of music lost its appeal for me. I guess with this record I wanted to put us in a place where nobody else could make an album like Intimacy."
In their short lifespan Bloc Party have shown an exciting readiness to turn their back on the desires of others and a music industry they see as founded on repetition. "There is a real sense of the industry being like a dog that has been chasing its tail that has then caught its tail and started to eat itself," says Tong. "That image of the skinny guy with pointy shoes and a trilby hat, that silhouette of a band dude has been appropriated by the media and it has become a cultural norm. I'm not knocking the internet –I think the democratisation of music it has allowed has been great – but now being in a band has become a norm and you have a lot of people who don't really deserve to be heard. Being in a band has become the latest fashion accessory."
Out of step with trends, Bloc Party are a band determined to move beyond the hype they attracted some three years ago. Fashions may come and go but Bloc Party are in it for the long haul.
The new single, 'Talons' is released on Wichita today; the album 'Intimacy' is released on CD on 27 October
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