So much has already been said about Bloc Party, from the early clamor around “She’s Hearing Voices” right up through today’s release of Silent Alarm. All that hype is tough to live up to, but Silent Alarm definitely delivers. It’s one of the best things we’ve heard this year, and we can’t wait for Bloc Party’s sold-out appearances at the Bowery Ballroom on April 7 and 8. Needless to say, we were pretty excited to sit down and chat with guitarist/lead singer Kele Obereke and drummer Matt Tong a few weeks ago. Fresh off of performing at the Motherf*cker party, they stepped away from VH1 Classic for a few minutes to talk to us. This interview was done in conjunction with our friends at OneLouder.
Are you surprised by the reaction you’re getting in New York?
Your shows were sold out well before the album’s release date.
Matt Tong: It’s the downloading that’s going on.
Does that bother you?
M: I remember the people who are singing the words
[laughter] and we meet them afterwards.
Kele Obereke: We get the roadies to go out and shut
those people down. We give them the shakedown. [laughs]
Is there any concern from you or your label about downloading? Some artists are worried about losing sales, but you’ve sold out two shows at the Bowery Ballroom.
M: Complaining about downloading really seems to be the province of people like Metallica; immensely successful people who want more, more, more.
K: I read somewhere that Madonna was really worried she wouldn’t be able to give her kids an education because of people
downloading her records. It’s really ridiculous.
A lot of the media lump you in with the post-punk revival – some call you the next Franz Ferdinand. How do you feel about that?
K: It’s not something you enjoy, but who cares. If it wasn’t the next Franz Ferdinand, it’d be the British Rapture or it’d be something else. I think the media is always going to try to compartmentalize you. In the UK, I remember when bands like Muse and Coldplay were being called the next Radioheads. No one says that now because they’ve established what they are.
Success seems to all be happening quickly for you guys. Is it
surprising how easy it’s been so far? You haven’t been around that long, at least over here.
K: Well, we haven’t spent that long in the public eye, like a year or something, but we were playing as an unsigned band for a year before that. I’ve been in a band with Russell [Lissack, Bloc Party’s guitarist] since 1998. So it’s taken us about five years to finally find the right lineup. Once we found that, it’s all fallen into place rather quickly.
What did you sound like back in ’98?
K: We were a much more conventional rock band, I suppose. We had big ideas but we didn’t know how to express them in a band situation. That really came after writing a lot of songs together and becoming more confident about our abilities between the four of us.
Was there a breakthrough song or moment?
K: The breakthrough moment was when we wrote “She’s
Hearing Voices.” That would have been around the spring of 2003, about three months after Matt joined. Because we had had so many drummers come and go, we spent so much time teaching drummers parts of our songs, trying to get something to play live. Then it wouldn’t work out and we’d have to go back to the beginning.
When Matt joined we were able to write more songs together. We were able to evolve. I remember when we wrote the song, we were immediately pleased because it was something we were always aiming for. It was the first song that we wrote that had a lot of space in it. It was really just a drum beat, which was something we couldn’t do before because we relied on writing songs only with guitars.
M: I remember being shocked when Kele said “just take it easy, don’t change the beat.” I just had to have a lot of trust in him as a leader. It was one of the first times we all realized it was more important to sacrifice aspects of your individuality for the greater good of the song.
Is that when labels started to take notice?
K: There were a few that were interested around that
time. When we released that song on our first demo, no one really liked it all.
M: It was quite a departure at the time. It was the
first time we recorded something that was on our own terms. Even though we were limited by our lack of equipment at the time, it was still a song we recorded as intended, in terms of getting down our ideas.
Listening to the album, it was most surprising to hear the
slower, more atmospheric songs. Were these written early on or later in the process of recording the album?
K: Some of those songs were the last set written before we began recording the album. We always wanted to express more than being a fast, disco rock band. We’ve always like bands that can vary what they do. It was something we weren’t as confident earlier on we were first started touring. I’m really excited about the next record because I think there will be a great exploration of those ideas.
Have you started writing new songs already?
K: Yes, we have about 12 songs already. We going to do more recording at the end of this tour. We write very quickly. If you sit us down for an hour we can come up with a song because we always have ideas. Unfortunately when you’re on tour for a long time you don’t get to sit down and not worry about playing shows. We’ve been filling our spare time in the studio, recording.
What’s your process for recording a new song?
K: Usually I have an idea about a rhythm. I have an
idea about how the song is going to start or how it will end. Sometimes I will have the music; sometimes I won’t have anything at all. I usually ask Matt to play something on the drums, which will start me thinking of something to add to it. Usually the original idea will be superceded by other ideas that are thrown out.
All of the songs on Silent Alarm were written before we entered the
studio. Nothing was written in the studio. We had already recorded demos of them all before we went in. But of course it is a creative process and you have to let yourself be inspired while you’re in the studio as well. That’s what we were aiming for. Nothing was set in stone. We had a blueprint, but the songs had to sound better, bigger.
What inspires you to write?
K: Usually I’ll hear something in a club or I’ll listen to something and one little thing will stick out to me. Then I’ll go away and obsess about it and it will spark ideas.
What kind of clubs do you like to visit?
K: One of the turning points for this band was when
Russell and I got into dance music. When we first met we were just two kids who liked playing guitars and were into traditional rock and roll. Then we both discovered house and trance music. It sounds odd, but it really did affect how we put music together. It made us more aware of space, atmosphere and rhythm in music. It’s an integral part of our sound now.
Are there any certain DJs or electronic artists in particular
who did it for you?
K: I still don’t know that much about dance music. We really like DJ Shadow and Squarepusher. It’s enough to me to go to a club and dance for three hours and be made aware that there’s lots of different rules about music.
For me, as someone who was interested in playing guitar and experiencing dance music for the first time, it was something that I didn’t want to immerse myself in. It was enough that I could hear it in a club and be inspired by it.
How did your collaboration with the Chemical Brothers happen?
K: They got in touch with our manager and asked if I
could sing on one of their songs. I’ve seen them a couple times and
thought they were quite good. So I was approached and thought it would be good.
They had ideas for what they wanted and I tried to accommodate them. I didn’t really add anything to the structure or tone of the song. It’s not really my song, I just sing on it.
The Japanese version has an impressive list of artists remixing your songs: M83, Four Tet, and Mogwai. Did you pick them out?
K: We got in touch with lots of different people and
asked for remixes. We got them all back and some were better than
others. Some of them were real disappointing, but some were interesting. You have no idea how someone is going to change a song. It’s interesting to hear someone reinterpret a song.
What I can’t stand is when people change just one thing about it. It
seems really lazy. I hate that.
Anything that implies someone has actually engaged with the song is
really exciting. The M83 remix of “Pioneers” is really lush and ambient. Overall we received about 10, but many of them weren’t that good.
Did you find a difference at all in the crowds in NYC compared to LA? Those are the two places you guys have played in the US so far.
M: LA seemed a bit sleazier. [laughs]
K: We had two really odd shows in New York and LA, so we can’t really compare them yet. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when we come back on tour properly. Then we’ll get to see every city. I’m quite curious to see which cities are going to take to Bloc Party and which cities are not going to take to Bloc Party. America is such a big place.
I always find it odd when British bands declare that they’re going to
break America immediately. You have to keep coming back and back and
back if you want to be really successful in the States. It takes a lot of hard work. When you’re a big band in the UK, you can think that you’ve made it pretty quickly.
This is a question we always like to ask – what were your first concerts?
K: I saw the Cranberries at Wembley with my mom and my
best friend and his mom when I was fifteen or so.
Was that the Everybody Else Is Doing It tour?
K: Yeah, it was that period.
M: I didn’t know that.
I think the first concert that I saw was Blur. It was in a big arena.
It was just when The Great Escape came out.
Didn’t you guys just do something with Graham Coxon?
M: Yeah, we toured with him for about 3 or 4 days.
That must have been pretty cool, if you’re big Blur
K: Yeah it was. It really was.
K: We’re all Blur fans, and he’s certainly one of my
favorite guitar players.
M: I think he’s probably our favorite member of Blur as well.
What’s your take on Blur without Graham then?
M: I’m pleased that they’re at least trying to do
something interesting, because Graham pretty much was Blur.
K: I think the point about Blur, and one of the reasons that I liked them, was the different personalities were making something more than just pop songs. Graham was into really noisy, heavy music, and Damon was trying to make really parochial-sounding pop music, and it was really interesting watching that sort of tussle between them. And I think now that he’s gone, they’ve lost a lot of their appeal to me because there’s no tension. It doesn’t sound interesting to me.
It’s quite bad, because I thought they were getting better. I know it’s not a popular view, but 13 and Blur were my favorite Blur albums, Blur especially. It’s completely dark. I wasn’t really a fan of the twee English ones like Modern Life is Rubbish or Parklife. I couldn’t stand that sort of chirpiness.
M: Really – when did Parklife start to piss
K: It’s just something that I never listen to now. I listen to Blur and 13 when I listen to Blur.
M: There’s a real underlying sense of sadness in
Parklife, I think, wouldn’t you say? About half the album is pretty sad.
K: I think The Great Escape is a sad album.
There’s a real sense of weariness in it. But yeah, Blur‘s my favorite.
What was the last album you went out and bought?
K: I just got a Fleetwood Mac live CD. We were
watching some Fleetwood Mac on the tour bus and I’d always thought that they were a rubbish band. But actually watching them, I was really impressed with their musicianship. Matt’s already a really big fan of theirs. Really awesome I was listening to it last night.
What do you think of New York, by the way?
K: I like New York. I like the fact that it’s a grid, so you always know where you are in relation to everything else. It’s empowering!
Indeed. Thanks for your time!
Bloc Party MP3’s
— “The Answer”
— Banquet (Phones Disco Edit)