For such a young band, this is the time when you starting hearing the voices that say, “Party, you’ve made it, people love you.” There is a defining scene in Sunset Boulevard wherein director Cecil B. DeMille is commenting to an assistant about the eccentricities of his faded star, Norma Desmond: “A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.” So too it goes with bands these days. The publicity machine is pretty much the first thing that starts running, and is the last to be turned off. Bloc Party is no stranger to hype and, for better or worse, the recipients of loads of it. Matt Tong, the band’s drummer, has felt it and is quick to dismiss it…mostly. “We’ve been around long enough as music fans to realize there really is no substance to what you read (in the music press). That is a constant of what we do.” He pauses to consider, then adds, “Maybe there is slight pressure there to justify some of that hype. We’ve never really made any grand claims of greatness.”
So Here We Are
Greatness, though, has come quickly to them. Formed in London in 2003, Bloc Party—Kele Okereke (vocals, guitars), Gordon Moakes (bass), Russell Lissack (guitar), and Tong—released a series of very well-received singles and EPs which quickly worked their way up the U.K. charts. In a short amount of time, they found a U.S. label (Dimak) to release their self-titled EP last fall. Soon after, Vice Records came calling, releasing Bloc Party’s full-length debut, Silent Alarm, in late March. Before it hit the streets, even, Alarm was garnering favorable reviews.
Last fall, following a brief U.S. tour, Bloc Party returned to the full, 10,000-megawatt attention of the U.K. press. British press tends to pay more attention to their musicians—not always in a kind way, mind you (for proof, type Pete Doherty’s name in a Google search)—so the record-buying public knows the meanings of all the songs, the political mindset of the musician, what he had for lunch, who he is screwing, and what flavor of chips he likes. The band soon found themselves the subject of cover stories in NME and the like, and featured in publications as diverse as the London Times and a variety of fashion magazines. They were seen as serious musicians intent upon their craft.
In the ever-growing U.S. music press, attention has focused on “what’s new”: White Stripes: out. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: in. Strokes: way out. The search for who’s in goes on daily. In the last few years, the buzz has grown noticeably around bands from Great Britain. Led by Franz Ferdinand, the wave is unmistakably accented to the north and south of London. At this year’s South by Southwest, the normal Texas twang was eclipsed by the din of European accents. Bloc Party, as part of its official American debut, performed five times over four days, and each time, the crowd’s reaction was ecstatic. More impressive was the fact that the band had not yet released its album in the United States yet.
Tong has a philosophical view on the whole process. When I congratulate him on the band’s great showing at SXSW and the U.S. tour that followed, he demurs, “I really think we were a bit too stiff at SXSW, personally, but we feel like we’ve done it now. So it’s cool.” After the series of Austin concerts, the band did a three-week tour of the U.S. and Canada—exhausting, but serving as an initiation for the band. “I’m not going to lie to you,” Tong confided. “It was pretty hard going the first time. We were so exhausted when we started out and we didn’t really know what to expect.”
The band is used to large and growing crowds in the their native United Kingdom. Still, many European bands with dependable followings come to the States and have to start the process of fan-building all over again. Bloc Party, though, was genuinely impressed by the audience reaction here in March. “We were playing much bigger venues and to more people than we really ever thought we would on our first tour of the States, and more than most bands could ever really hope for, I suppose. I think a lot of people who came to see us hadn’t really heard anything before, so to that extent, maybe people weren’t quite as rapturous as they are in Europe.”
She’s Hearing Voices
Bloc Party’s storming of the American shores has been helped along by generous acknowledgement from the U.S. press. By far their largest show as SXSW was an appearance at the Spin party at Stubb’s. For such a young band, this is the time when you starting hearing the voices that say, “Party, you’ve made it, people love you”—but not according to Tong. “Basically, we are so busy at the moment, that even if we wanted to indulge in [the hype], it is just not right. It’s just not possible right now. We’ve got far too many other things to construct. Just the business of keeping our heads screwed on tight and focused on future tasks keep us busy.”
“Heads screwed on” is an apt phrase, considering the amount of time the band had between recording initial tracks in their rehearsal space to releasing a major label debut—just a little under two years. As I wondered what pressures had confronted them when signing on to a major (though Tong corrected me that Vice was thoroughly an indie…yeah, maybe, though one with a very imposing distribution partner in Atlantic Records), Tong came right to the point: “We made it pretty clear that we were going to make the music that we wanted to make…There’s never been a situation with someone from the record company coming in and overseeing. There’s absolutely no way that we could work under those circumstances. That’s never going to happen.”
And it probably won’t now, especially since this album is doing really well. Currently, Silent Alarm still resides in the Billboard Top 20 after reaching as high as 7. Tong also revealed the band is nearly halfway through writing a new record. “We are hoping to have the new single from the next album out by the end of the year. We hope to start recording on the new album when we have some free time.”
I mentioned to Tong that he was my second drummer interview this year. “Who was the first gentleman?” Tong inquired. I told him about our January interview with Sam Fogarino of Interpol (with whom Bloc Party had toured in Europe); ironically, both Tong and Fogarino were the last to join their bands, and both had been credited with helping to shape their band’s sounds in positive ways. Once again, Tong was gracious. “I don’t know; in my case, at least, you’re still limited, really, in regard to the melodic content of the song, and that doesn’t really add anything when it comes to that recording. I was simply the first person that Kele met that he could actually relate to on a really basic level. Most of the other drummers came through adverts. They had a kind of uninspired quality. I did what I’ve always done as a drummer; it kind of worked in this band, and I learned a lot from playing with them. My style altered, as well, playing in this band.
“It’s very hard to pinpoint what makes this band this band. I would certainly say a lot of elements were clearly in place before I joined them. I was very lucky really.”
This Modern Love
There was a moment in the interview in which I mentioned to Tong that the band seems very comfortable with each other, almost like close friends. He started to respond with an explanation about how those friendships are tested, especially when they are all tired. Suddenly, a loud voice rose up behind him and said, “True. I hate you all!” The drummer seemed a bit taken aback. “Did you hear that?” he asked. “That’s Kele, the singer. Kele, in fact, hates all of us and attempts at an imminent solo career are under way.” Tong turns back to the subject and adds seriously, “I’d like to think that, when this ends, we will all be able to look each other in the eye. I feel so sad, you know, whenever you see some crummy music documentary on TV of a once-great band and they have nothing good to say about each other…It breaks my heart.”
Though Okereke was joking, there was certainly a genuine intent from Tong to let fans know that the catapult which has rocketed them into a high orbit in the music world was not, like Icarus or Norma Desmond, going to send them crashing back to the ground any time soon. As Tong said in parting, “We’ve had a few people concerned about us…We haven’t actually gone nuts yet, at least. The more we do this, the more we see these rock clichés really do come in to play. That’s half the challenge: the fight against that. We are doing our best. It has just been a massive adjustment for us. We are far busier than we ever expected. I think once we kind of accept that and let go of a few things, at least for the time being, it will become easier. Essentially, we are just trying to be friends as much as possible.”