Bloc Party‘s career in recent years has been sometimes known for doubts and rumours rather than music. And those rumours confused both old and new fans of the british musicians.
At the end of 2013, Matt Tong left the band, followed by bassist Gordon Moakes in 2015. 50% of the original band that may lead to think of the end of the band as we knew them. But far from being dissolved, Kele Okereke and Russell Lissack -original founders-, took new impetus with the additions of Justin Harris and Louise Bartle on bass and drums respectively.
That kind of Bloc Party 2.0 is a reality that you can listen in their brand new album, “Hymns” (Infectious Music/[PIAS], 2016). A slightly turning point to not look for the old Bloc Party or try to find a revolution in their sound. After more than 10 years releasing music, the band has never hidden their taste for experimentation and contortion of sounds, so this new album is no exception. “Hymns” is a darker and honest record, whose nuances can point out the new direction of the band.
We had the chance to interview Russell Lissack who talked about the career of one of the top British indie icons of recent times.
It’s been four years since your last release. You have had opportunities to try new projects. How have those years been for the band?
It’s funny I guess; I get asked this a lot. From our point of view it hasn’t been that long at all. We put out our last record in 2012 and then we toured for eighteen months. At the tail end of the touring in 2013 we put out an EP – four songs. Then we started working on this latest record at the end of 2014. You can look at the album release dates and it seems like there’s a gap but from our point of view there’s been lots of activity in the interim.
You have a new line up right now but how was the departure of Gordon and Mat? Was it the best that could happen to the band reaching a certain point?
I think it was the only way the band could continue; otherwise I think it would have ended in 2013. That would have been it.
The change of the line up meant we were able to continue and put a new record out and play shows and we’re already working on new music as well. It was the way to go forward, for everyone.
“The departure of Matt and Gordon was the only way the band could continue”
Has there been any moment when you’ve been afraid about the band continuing or was it clear you were going to go ahead?
When we finished touring in 2009 or 2010 after Intimacy; at that time it felt like maybe that was the end. We didn’t have any plans; just let’s take a break and see. There were no plans and everyone went off and did their own thing. That was the point when it felt most likely we were done.
But this time round we had plans fairly soon after we finished touring so it didn’t feel like that this time round. 2009/2010 was the biggest period of uncertainty I think.
Let’s talk about the album. Hymns seems to give more space in terms of sounds. Could you tell us how you approached the sonic aspects? How did you experiment with guitar in this case?
When Kele and I started writing this record and meeting up to talk about it, we don’t tend to have big discussions about the music, we tend to just work on things and see what comes up naturally. But that was the one thing we did discuss before we stared writing – trying to make something that had a sense of space.
Beyond that I wanted to try a lot of different things that I hadn’t done with the guitar before. It’s easy to keep doing the same things that you’ve done in the past but it’s not challenging, it’s not as creatively stimulating. For me one of the things I enjoy most is trying to create new sounds with the guitar. I love discovering new effects pedals and playing with them, making combinations. Even making sounds in my head and thinking how can I translate this to the guitar, how I can do this with the guitar? One of the aspects for me, for this record, was pursuing that avenue.
On the other hand there was a lot of just trying different techniques. There’s a track, The Good News, I just play slide guitar on it. I’d never played a slide in my life. Kele suggested trying it. Obviously it’s not a brand new concept but for us it was a new technique and a new thing to try.
I guess it kind of came from two different directions – experimentation and challenging yourself.
“We were really fortunate. We probably came along at the last time you could go down that traditional route of starting a band”
Does this album mark a turning point for the band? I think the evolution of your sound is pretty distinctive in this album; at least more than in your previous works.
I guess it is. It’s difficult to say. I think I mentioned we are already working on new material. I think that’s probably going to sound quite different as well. To me it feels every record we’ve made has been not a turning point but a slight move into a new direction and an evolution of what we’ve been doing. I think it feels like that. It feels like something we’ve always done – we’ve never been a band that repeats the same ideas and does things it’s done in the past.
I think this album represents that attitude that we’ve always had.
I think this album is a bit dark. I’m not sure if that was your intention from the beginning or if it just came out naturally?
I think it probably comes out naturally. Certainly my instinct sonically, melodically and musically – there has always been a hint of darkness in what we do and what I do. I think that’s something that’s been present in everything we’ve done. I suppose the atmospheric nature of this record and the lyrical content and the themes certainly sets a darker tone.
Songs like Fortress or especially Different Drugs – could it be the sound we are most likely to hear in future album? Is it going to sound like those songs for instance or are you open to experiment with any idea you may have?
Different Drugs is one of my favourite songs off that record. It’s one of my favourite songs we’ve ever written. But as I said before the majority of this record was written by just Kele and I whereas the material that we’ve just started working on now has been written by all four of us, including Justin and Louise – the new members. Because of that it will naturally take itself in a different direction; just because there are two other minds contributing to it.
Also the way we’re writing now is slightly different. Nearly all of Hymns was written in studios and rehearsal rooms whereas the music we’re working on now is being written on tour and it’s been written in sound checks. So I definitely think it will be something different next. But it’s too early to really speculate on which direction we’ll be going in.
Does it feel like a new band now with Louise and Justin on board?
No. It doesn’t to me. I think the transition was really easy. They’re a pair of brilliant musicians and they’re both lovely people to spend time with as well. They came on board and they’ve taken the time to learn parts of our back catalogue so that we could start playing. I think people who come to see us play see how good they are and can see how much everyone is enjoying themselves when they’re performing. It feels good. There’s a good chemistry with everyone.
I’ve played with lots of musicians. I haven’t just been in Bloc Party in the last ten or fifteen years. As long as they’re competent on their instrument I’ve found it quite easy to gel with people. I think the transition was really easy and probably easier than anyone could have hoped for.
“Music plays a very different role in people’s lives”
How was working with Tim Bran and Roy Kerr for this new album?
It was good. That was really easy as well I think. Everyone said it was probably one of the easiest recording experiences that they’ve experienced. They’re both really lovely, talented people as well and they’ve both got their specialist areas.
Roy comes from more of an electronic background and he was there to help us with any programming or adding effects to things. Tim is more geared to the live side of things and getting the takes and sounds on that front.
To have two people with different perspectives together is great; certainly for a band like us it’s perfect because that’s always been our way of working – the combination of live, organic music and electronic music has been something that’s been a part of Bloc Party since day one.
The recording process itself, we spent a few weeks rehearsing songs and getting them tight and then we went to the studio and got everything done in a matter of weeks and had ample spare time, which is quite rare when you record; normally you’re rushing to get things done, staying up until two in the morning trying to get takes. So it was a smooth process.
I read some people think Bloc Party is turning into a more electronic sound. Do you agree or are you just exploring ideas?
I disagree. I think electronic music has been part of what we do since day one. I also think this record, certainly more than most of our records, is predominantly a live record. Everything was performed on the instruments. A lot of the sounds that people might think are computers or keyboards are actually being made by guitars but just with effects and sounds that people have never heard come out of a guitar before – so they are associating it as being electronic, but that’s not the case. That’s my perspective of it.
Are you looking forward to play this album live?
We’ve started playing it live. It came out a few weeks ago and we were on tour so we’ve been playing it live now. Certainly on a personal level it’s satisfying to play it, to show people, as we were just talking about, it is still four musicians making live music rather than backing tracks or laptops or anything like that. It’s nice to be able to introduce people to what we’re doing at the moment.
Do you think this could be your more personal or intimate album to date?
That probably applies more to the lyrical content of the record and that’s something that comes from Kele; they are all his words. But certainly from the outside, when you’re looking at the new lyrics, a lot of them are based on personal experiences, perhaps more than the past where he’d taken the approach of telling stories from other people’s perspectives. To me it seems more personal but it’s not for me to say.
If you had to look back what do you reckon has been the best and worst moment of your career? Would you change anything?
The best and worst? It’s difficult. It’s hard to think of the best because I’ve got some brilliant memories. Every year there has been fantastic things. I love performing live and seeing the world and getting to go to all these countries that I never thought I would visit when I was younger, getting to play to people in their countries and to experience the culture; it’s impossible to pick a best.
To pick a worst, I guess one time we played an awards ceremony in Brazil for MTV and our manager told us we had to mime. We didn’t really want to do that but he said everyone was doing it. When we got there no one else was miming and we were the only ones that were miming so we looked stupid I thought; and the audience could tell we were miming and no one else was.
That’s not my favourite moment so if I was going to go back I’d probably change that one and play it live instead, like we wanted to.
“If you looked back on anything you’d probably want to change it because you’ve changed as a person in that time”
What’s your opinion on the music that’s being made right now, with such a lot of bands. Do you think it would be easier to start now?
No. I think it would be really difficult. I think we were really fortunate. We probably came along at the last time you could go down that traditional route of starting a band and sending demos to record labels and playing gigs and getting spotted that way.
Now the landscape has changed completely – the internet is everything. A new band starting now, I wouldn’t know how you’d get yourselves noticed. There’s so much music out there, so much content – it’s overwhelming.
Music plays a very different role in people’s lives. So I wouldn’t like to start now. It would be difficult.
If you had to classify your albums, which one would be on top and which one on the bottom?
I couldn’t do that. They all, I was proud of them at the time, it was what I wanted to do at the time. If you looked back on anything you’d probably want to change it because you’ve changed as a person and you’ve changed musically in that time.
Are you happy?
Yes. I’m getting a sore throat from interviews but otherwise I’m good.
That was it. I really appreciate you having this minute with us. Hope to see you in Benicassim this summer.
Yes. I’m looking forward to it.