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First things first: Bloc Party will be honest. Brutally honest. Why not? They’ve built a band, created a following, crafted a career, from putting The Raw Stuff out there. It’s one reason for the passionate nature of their music, their gigs, and of their fanbase following.
So: the four of them didn’t think they would – or could – get to this point. “This point” being the making of a fourth album. And “this point” also being the making of a record that defies expectations, and their own track record.
Yet here they are, back, solid, forthright and foursquare. There is a new album, and it’s called FOUR. Recorded largely live, it’s four friends, gathered for fun, making music together, just like back in the east London day, “just like we did before the record industry intervened”. And yes, the capital letters are purposeful. Are they a shouty two-fingers to the naysayers who had written off Bloc Party as a dysfunctional quartet heading for the exit?
“Ah… no,” demurs singer Kele Okereke with a smile. “I guess all of our records have been quite studio-based. But I think we all felt it was time to try the opposite – something a little bit leaner. We were conscious about it sounding like the four of us just in a room together. So the title seemed apt. It felt right.”
Says Okereke: “Well, when we decided to take a year off in 2009, in my mind I didn’t see myself going back to making a record with Bloc Party. Our relationship… everything just felt like it had come to an end. So in my mind that was the end of that.”
Says bass player Gordon Moakes: We always meant to have a year off after we finished touring the Intimacy album. But I don’t think any of us really knew if it was a gonna be a year or how long… We were all busy doing other things during that year.”
Says drummer Matt Tong: “It was becoming apparent to me that we weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders, or cooperating in a way that I felt we should have been after having spent so much time together. We were tired and a little bit lost. It was the right time for a pause.”
Says guitarist Russell Lissack: nothing. Lissack has never done much in the way of interviews. And he’s not starting now. You could say he lets his musicianship – mercurial, sharp, brilliant – do the talking. But that would be wank.
In sum, three years ago, the Bloc Party might have been over. After a decade and three albums – art-rock blitzkrieg debut Silent Alarm (2005); polemical state-of-London indie-epic A Weekend In The City (2007); the anatomy-of-a-breakup (maybe) out-of-nowhere release Intimacy (2008) – the four were heading their separate ways. After an intense time of recording, touring and planet-girdling graft, personal space and side-projects loomed.
In Okereke’s case, this meant 2010’s The Boxer. It was a solo album bristling with sex, beats and loose lyrics that spoke of the singer’s newfound desire to not “overthink things. And just sing what about I was feeling right at that moment”. The other members of the band were equally busy elsewhere. Lissack toured with Ash, produced an album for Japanese band Heavenstamp in Tokyo, and formed Pin Me Down – the electronic/rock duo released three singles and 2010’s self-titled album. Moakes co-founded hardcore (or even post-hardcore) outfit Young Legionnaire, releasing three singles, an EP and last year’s Crisis Works album. Tong wrote the song Company Flow for a “soundtrack” accompanying underground comic Hilarious Consequences, and released another composition, Present And Correct, as a split single with Wet Paint.
Bloc Party’s frontman – a man with multiple, overlapping and occasionally conflicting layers – also began writing a collection of short stories. In early 2011 he took himself off to New York, shaking off the clog of London, the better to immerse himself fully in a fresh environment and fresh state of mind.
Over the space of a year, editing and revising and revisiting his stories in a Chelsea apartment focused his thoughts. Days would pass and he would barely speak to anyone. The 30-year-old acknowledges that this was a “dark” period of self-imposed solitude. But also, it brightened his outlook vis-à-vis the band he had once thought finished.
“I found that over the year or so of doing my own thing,” he reflects of his time touring The Boxer and his time writing his book, “I did miss the others and did miss what it is we can do as a band. And that was a real motivation in getting back together again. I didn’t think I was gonna feel like that,” he concedes, “but I did."
Bloc Party reconvened early this year. Grievances, they admit, were aired. Positivity, they are pleased to acknowledge, emerged. And a rebooted enthusiasm for their band, and what their band could do, quickly dominated proceedings. The gang of four were back in action.
To further ensure a clean slate, they opted to record in New York. In Stratosphere Sound they hooked up with expat Brummie producer Alex Newport (At The Drive-In, Death Cab For Cutie). “He was the first producer we’ve worked with who didn’t want to take us somewhere – it was just about capturing what was there,” enthuses Okereke. And rounding out this sense of new beginnings was the fact that Bloc Party were now working with a new label, New York indie Frenchkiss Records.
Real Talk was one of the first songs to emerge. For Okereke especially, a track that features Lissack on banjo and is based round what Moakes describes as “a laidback groove” is a cornerstone of the album.
“It’s the most straightforward, and one of the ones I’m proudest of. We’ve never done anything like this song before… And that was the first one that I heard where I thought, alright, this is what Bloc Party version four is gonna sound like.”
At the other end of the writing period came Octopus, FOUR’s first single. Okereke sings the praises of Lissack’s inventive riffing, while his own sweet falsetto vocal is at odds with the violent imagery of “classrooms being shot at”.
The band’s lyricist paints more vivid imagery in Kettling.
“There was so much going on in the world in 2011 – you couldn’t turn on the television without seeing pictures of people protesting or rioting or mass disarray. Of course those are quite frightening images. But there’s also something quite poetic about people standing up and saying they’ve had enough of something; that no, they will not take this any more. That’s what the song was really about: this idea of saying no – the way we are feeling is more important than the way it is, and things can be better.”
To ensure the new songs were both viable and vibrant, Bloc Party turned resolutely away from the Pro-Tools-heavy, studio sonics of Intimacy – a record on which, they admit, not all of the band members were present all of the time. Before beginning recording FOUR they rehearsed the new songs solidly, repeatedly, in the practice room for three intense weeks. Only then, notes Moakes, did they begin recording – “and recording as live as we could get away with”.
Tong singles out Coliseum as a personal favourite. It starts off with a dirty bluesy riff dreamt up by Lissack, before changing dramatically halfway through. “Russell has never really displayed that side of his playing in Bloc Party before. And I like the way it switches. Someone told me it sounded like Slayer the other day. That’s kinda awesome,” the drummer grins. “No one ever dreamed of us attempting something like that.” It stands in stark counterpoint to Truth, a love song that Okereke identifies as the most “delicate” song on the album.
Moakes, meanwhile, is still bowled over by what the four of them achieved with Team A. “We were all quite surprised at how that materialised,” he says of the taut, swaggering agit-funk dance tune. “It really is greater than the sum of its parts. I’m really impressed that we’re at the point where we can do something that’s that much of a statement musically. We couldn’t have written that five, probably even three years ago. It’s a real leap forward in our abilities and playing and ideas.
Variety, maturity, confidence, looseness – it all speaks of the range of ideas and options at the men of Bloc Party’s fingertips. In all the right ways it’s a grown-up record. No more over-revving, no more turning everything up to 11 all the time. As Tong says, “we came to realise that this is wonderful opportunity that we’ve had for so long – but just because we’ve been lucky enough to have that, it doesn’t mean you have use every single musical idea in every minute of every song!”
He adds that further underlining the spirit of adventure and sense of real-time fun is the conversational snippets strewn between the racks.
“At various points Alex just left the tape running, and at the end he edited all these assorted pieces of dialogue together and played it to us. We thought it sounded kinda cool, us caught off-guard, and presenting a slightly different view of the band. So we chose bits of that and included it.” The casual talk of spider bites and turkey breasts, “give the impression of someone walking past the practice room and just picking up one something…”
Bloc Party FOUR, then. Do we call it a rebirth? A reboot? Nah. That, too, would sound wank. Okereke, for one, doesn’t want to let hyperbole to get in the way of what matters: great songs, made by a quartet of old friends, slotting together once more to do what they do best.
“A big part of this record for me is about the way we were interacting as a band. That’s why we called it FOUR – it was about the contribution that everyone makes.”
Moakes also shrinks from too much OTT bollocks.
“Reborn is maybe a bit too strong,” he says with a grin. “But what I’ve realised is that it’s our band again. Maybe towards the end of touring before, the band was dragging us along. It should be the other way round. But ‘Bloc Party’ had become a lot bigger than any of us, and we were running from the idea of it. And I think we’ve reclaimed it.
“And we’ve decided: ultimately, the band is us four people, we created it, all the music that has been this band has come from the four of us. And just understanding and embracing that has really injected something…
“So yeah,” the bass player concludes, “FOUR is us finally taking back control of Bloc Party. It’s the sound of our genuine love for what the band is, and what our band can do, coming to the surface.”
Finally, coming soon to a venue near you, one of the most inventive British guitar bands of the Nineties, doing what they’ve long done brilliantly: rocking it live. That’ll be real FOUR play.