It took a reality check to break Bloc Party. The pioneering UK indie art rock group had slowly started to dismantle in the latter half of 2013 when drumming virtuoso Matt Tong announced his departure. But it wasn’t until March 2015, midway through writing new material for their fifth album, that bassist Gordon Moakes exited stage left, and the band’s new reality set in. Confounding people’s expectations is nifty, but not when it comes with an identity crisis.
With only lead singer Kele Okereke and guitarist Russell Lissack remaining, Bloc Party were forced to confront the question of what really gives a musical group its identity. In pop, at least, fans tend to remain faithful to the band as long as the music doesn’t shift too much or the disbanding members aren’t integral to the vocals or songwriting. Just look at The Rolling Stones: Only three of the original members are still in the band, but the critical core of their voice remains intact.
How did Bloc Party set themselves apart in the beginning?
Russell Lissack (RL): In the beginning, what we were doing felt like it was a reaction to what was happening around us. The pop music at that time was dreary. I don’t want to slag off bands from that period, but it felt like everyone was doing the same thing. We wanted to do something completely different.
Bloc Party also hit the scene well before the Facebook, Instagram, Twitter Bermuda triangle. Do you think it’s harder for a band to make it now than back in the early ’00s?
Russell Lissack (RL): I was talking to my friend about this recently and wondering how much of a role music plays in people’s lives now. We are the last generation that grew up spending all our money on music: going to concerts and clubs, buying records. It was the definition of who you were. In the UK, culture was divided into tribes where every person was kind of defined by music. Music is still there, but because of the way that people access it, it plays such a different role in younger people’s lives. It’s certainly a different climate musically to how it was back when we first started, especially in the UK. At that time, the focus was really on guitar music. Now, pop and electronic music are more prevalent in the UK.
Kele Okereke (KO): I think it definitely would be harder being a new band starting now because I feel like there’s less focus on music these days. We’ve been going for 12 years, and at this stage, people understand who we are or have a sense of what we’re about. There’s an international audience of people who are interested in our music, and that’s something I’m very thankful for.
When I saw that you were coming back with two new members, the word “rebirth” trailed behind a lot of your press releases. Do you feel like this is a natural progression from everything you’ve been doing for the past 12 years, or is it really a new beginning?
RL: Having Justin and Louise has been a rebirth for us. Kele and I have our ups and downs personally, but as a music relationship, it’s always been really strong. Bringing new guys on board is just bringing in a new ingredient to let us continue.
KO: Honestly, I think it’s the next step. I don’t know what the future’s going to look like, but I feel that right now it just feels right.
It’s still always been you two since you met during the ’90s, but you can’t ignore there are new bodies and minds in the mix now. Does the new lineup of Justin Harris from Menomena and Louise Bartle still feel like Bloc Party, or did you ever think of relaunching under a new name?
RL: You know, Louise is only 21. She’s an amazing drummer for how young she is. We had already started recording the album and still hadn’t got a drummer and looked everywhere for one. And then someone forwarded us a YouTube video of her playing, and we were really impressed. We asked her to join pretty much straight away. Justin’s band, Menomena, supported us in the US in 2009, so we already knew he was a great musician and a nice person as well.
KO: Russell and I started the band, and all the music that everyone has ever heard on Bloc Party has come from Russell and I. We write all the songs and all the music, so I never felt the change in the lineup meant us needing to change our name. I was conscious about how we stay true to the legacy of what Bloc Party is about, you know? The way I rationalized it is that one of the big things about our band now is how much it felt like all the musicians were now pulling their weight. The songwriting finally felt like a real democratic process. Our previous members weren’t the best players in the world, and I think they would even admit that. They certainly had their own unique musical voices, which helped give Bloc Party a sound. I felt the only way we can move forward is considering that we didn’t need to sound like our previous members. The new members needed to have their own musical style and musical voice in order to make something new, and I feel that we found that with Justin and Louise.
Your voice is distinctive, Kele, so it’s difficult not to sound like you, but was there a prolific moment during the progression of this record?
KO: I feel that, like, having made seven records now, five with Bloc Party and two on my own, I have a sense of what the process is. I’ve realized what the function of making music serves. I realized that I’m doing this because I wanted to do this, because it’s important to me to express this. It’s not about the money — there’s something in me that I need to expel. There’s something inside that I need to get out. The most important thing to me is that I’m being authentic and that I document where I am right now.
Did Russell and you ever thought about getting rid of the name and just start a new band to make a clear cut?
KO:It was something that went through our heads for a short time but in the end it has always been Russell and me who wrote all the music and lyrics on those records. We did the same on Hymns, starting the ideas together and asking the others to contribute their thoughts later. The progress hasn’t changed that much. We felt that we were more BLOC PARTY than anybody else so there was no need to change the name.
How did you connect with Justin?
Menomena toured with us in the U.S. in 2009 or 2010, and we’re fans of their music – especially Kele, he’s a really big fan. He stayed in touch with Justin over the years, and so when it came to the point that we needed a new bass player, he was the first call we made. Despite him living so far away – he’s based out of Portland, Oregon – he was the man for the job, so we were able to overcome any long-distance difficulties.
You found her on Youtube.
Yeah, we’d already gotten into the recording process and still needed a drummer who would become part of the band. It was getting to the point where we needed to start thinking about touring and resolving this. We were asking around for recommendations to see if anyone knew of some that would work, and a friend of a friend sent us some videos that Louise had uploaded of her playing in a rehearsal room. She just seemed really good. Also, she lived in London, where we recorded the record. We asked her to come down to the studio, just to check out how she was as a person, and she was lovely, so we had a quick jam on the spot – we put her on the spot slightly for that – and it went really well. We asked her to join pretty much immediately.
So, what aspects of vocal technique and composition do you think about now, Kele, that you didn’t necessarily think about before?
KO: Wow, if I hear anything from Silent Alarm, I just cringe. My voice has changed so much, and I can hear it now! I’m going to say the same thing when I look back in 10 years’ time at Hymns. That’s just part of being a functioning creative person. You always try to make yourself better.
Russell, can you relate? What about the juxtaposition of manipulated electronics and loud guitar strings is appealing to you? What do you value most in your new music?
RL: It’s been a weird one for me. When we wrote this record, I was listening to a lot of electronic music, but the inspiration I took was how I wanted to use that in guitar effects, and it’s now 90% of what I’ve done on this record. A lot of this doesn’t sound like it’s a guitar, and everyone has jumped to the reasonable conclusion that it’s an electronic record. I knew how I was doing things, so I took that for granted. It shouldn’t matter how someone makes music or what instruments they’ve used. I know people are judgmental, especially people who traditionally like music that’s created with organic instruments. So, I’m finding it a weird position to be in that people are judging music on what they think it is rather than what it actually is. It’s an odd place for me to strike that balance into what we do creatively as opposed to what people hear. My favorite part of what we do has always been playing live. In that realm, I get to play these songs so people get to see that we’ve been reborn, still playing our instruments and not fiddling on our laptops.
Would you already consider the four of you as real unit by now or do you still need to work on that?
KO: We are at the start of the progress. We’re jamming a lot and I think that’s the best thing we can do at the moment. Talking about music, sharing music and getting to know us better. This all needs to happen very fast because we as a band have the history of the past ten years; a history that Justin and Louise aren’t part of yet. But that’s a good thing as it allows us to become something else. It would be a bit flat to just be the type of band we were ten years ago. Having new members on board was mainly about how to deal with the band’s legacy and how to remain true to what we were about. And that also meant that we didn’t need the technically best musicians in the band. Gordon and Matt weren’t the best musicians as well but they had their own distinctive musical voices. They were confident in how to present themselves and write interesting and dynamic parts. And that’s what we are aiming for with Justin and Louise as well.
You’re not afraid of the reaction to the new songs and members then?
KO: I am not. Every new record you release needs a certain amount of time before the songs enter into the public’s consciousness. I think it always takes around ten months or so before people actually ‘get’ the songs. At least that’s the impression I got over the past years. We would not release a new album if we weren’t sure about its quality. For some people it’s going to be hard because the face of band changed that much. But others might not even remember what the other two members look like. (laughs)