- 02 Feb 07
Recorded in the bucolic splendour of County Westmeath, Bloc Party's second album is a labyrinthine concept album about urban living. Better to take a risk, says frontman Kelé Okereke, than to repeat yourself .
It’s the oldest hitch in the book. You’ve got a lifetime to conceive, conceptualise and compose your debut album, but a scant two years in which to produce a follow-up. To compound the problem, your attention span is shredded by the instant gratification of live shows and the demands of press and promo duties. Consequently, that difficult second album is often so named because it’s as hard for the paying public to listen to as it is for the band to write and record.
Bloc Party singer and guitarist Kelé Okereke is all too aware of the old industry tropes and career traps, and when it came time to record the successor to the band’s critically lauded and commercially lucrative Silent Alarm, he was determined not to screw it up.
“We’ve always been fans of music as young people, we always read the NME from the ages of 13, and we knew what the classic paradigms are: band makes successful debut only to be slated on the sophomore record,” he says. “But that’s less to do with the music and more to do with the media’s emphasis on the ‘new’ all the time in this country.
“The second Strokes record isn’t a particularly worse record than the first one, but the absolute hyperbole and critical acclaim, because they were new and came from nowhere, meant that no matter what they did, there was gonna be a very palpable sense of anticlimax. I’m curious as to how the Arctic Monkeys are going to manage that situation. They’re a good band and they’ve had lots and lots of success first time around – it must be quite nerve-wracking for them.”
Not that much less nerve-wracking for Bloc Party, one imagines. When the quartet released that first album exactly two years ago, they seemed to jump the queue overnight and assume the status of third-in-line heirs to the post-punk modernist guitar band throne, behind Franz and Interpol.
The quartet – Kelé, guitarist Russell Lissack, bassist Gordon Moakes and drummer Matt Tong – were an aptly named lot, their buzz-cut rhythms, jagged guitars, strangled, emotive vocals and icy keyboard atmospheres suggesting the in-house soundtrack to some prohibited basement bash taking place behind the Iron Curtain circa 1984, when the gloomy yet uplifting sounds of The Cure, Wire and Joy Division were still too recent to be termed a revival.
Silent Alarm (the title came from a New Scientist article about earthquake warning systems) reached number three in the UK charts, eventually going platinum, and spawned a succession of hit singles including ‘So Here We Are’, ‘Banquet’, ‘Helicopter’ and ‘The Pioneers’. Mainstream America evaded them first time around, but the band have yet to get seriously stuck-in Stateside. Last year’s tour with Panic! At The Disco had to be abandoned when drummer Matt’s lung collapsed during an Atlanta show in November.
“Apparently it’s quite common for tall, skinny guys,” Kelé proffers. “When it happened, I got lots of messages from friends saying it happened to their brothers or boyfriends. I don’t think it’s particularly fatal, it’s just incredibly painful. We cancelled the tour and Matt spent a few months in the States convalescing and we came back to do European press, so it wasn’t the biggest deal for us; he just has to be careful about exerting himself, and he’s given up smoking.”
If much of Silent Alarm’s coiled, sinewy energy derived from the kinetic tension of a band willing to improvise and innovate while still utilising the primary elements of guitar, bass, drums and voice, the new album A Weekend In the City, produced by Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee, sounds like the group consciously orchestrated a quantum leap in terms of their musical vocabulary.
“We were quite aware as a band that it was probably going to shock some people because we didn’t really want to make Silent Alarm part two,” Kelé resumes. “We really tried to push ourselves to explore new sounds, new constructions and new feels. I hope people don’t get put off by the fact that there are no songs that sound like ‘Banquet’. But I really feel that to inspire loyalty from a fanbase, you have to challenge them.
“There’ll be lots of people who have never heard of Bloc Party, coming to us for the first time, and that’s really the mindset that I try to maintain while writing songs. It’s not about trying to patronise your audience, repeating yourselves with that kind of supply-and-demand attitude. It’s really about forcing them to invest in your music, I suppose, to constantly be reappraising what it is you do as a band.
“I guess with Silent Alarm, one of the disappointments listening to it a year on was, although I feel it’s a good album, I realised that we could have done those songs a whole lot better. With this record I really wanted it to have more varied textures and just make something that was really representative of what we were listening to as a band, which wasn’t the typical Wire-y post punk thing that everyone assumed about us when we first came onto the scene. I’m as much inspired by electronic music or dance music or contemporary classical music as I am by Joy Division or The Cure.”
He’s not kidding. The looped rhythm patterns and multi-tracked vocals on tunes like ‘The Prayer’ sound more akin to Kate Bush circa The Dreaming than this year’s models.
“I’m a big Kate Bush fan,” the singer confirms. “She’s one of the few artists that I have ever described as being a true pioneer. Listening to Hounds Of Love, which is probably my favourite record of all time, there are such fantastical elements to the sound, it really feels like you’re being completely immersed in someone else’s world. A track like ‘The Big Sky’ has this surreal quality that I don’t think much pop music really has. It seems that since the ‘90s there’s been a move towards making records sound ‘authentic’. There’s so much you can do in a studio now; why aren’t there more bands making records that sound 4D?”
Blame it on the twin pincers of Britpop and grunge. Post ‘90s, British and Irish acts have tended to favour drab realism over day-glo surrealism. It’s hard to imagine Kasabian or even The Libertines getting their chops around Side 2 of Hounds Of Love, possibly the closest sonic equivalent to the magical thinking and dream logic pioneered by our old muckers Freud and Dali.
“I think why Kate Bush resonated so profoundly with me as an artist is that, growing up in the ‘90s, you didn’t hear records that were that emotive and theatrical,” Kelé elaborates. “That theatricality is derided by some people, but I find it so intoxicating.”
According to the band’s mission statement, A Weekend In The City was inspired by Kelé’s interest in “the living noise of a metropolis… daily life in a modern city, and the quiet desolation that suffuses everything from commuting to casual sex, from going out on a Friday night to the long ride home in the early hours of the morning.”
Me, I think big chunks of it are the ideal soundtrack for a night ride on the autobahn. It’s a record full of flyovers and cats’ eyes and nocturnal motorway stations illuminated by streetlight orange and sodium yellow.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that a city is a site of work and also leisure,” Kelé says. “This dichotomy of leisure versus industry, what people do to have fun now. I guess a lot of the observations came to me while we were touring in 2005 and I was coming back to London intermittently, and I saw my friends that I’d been to University with, and they were all working or trying to find jobs, and it seemed that everyone had really embraced the hedonistic opportunities of living in a city, bars that open all night, clubs and parties happening all the time. I wanted to really capture that energy, the minute details of city life. That’s why there are so many references to commuting or drinking in bars, it was more about capturing this overview or snapshot than chronicling one person’s story. Lots of perspectives in the record are essentially different people – I hope that’s something that people realise, that it’s not me, it’s not one story careering through it, it’s supposed to be disparate views that paint an overall picture.”
Funny how audiences often accept that novelists and actors are inveterate role players but almost always assume that songs are autobiographical – perhaps because music is such an innately emotional medium.
“I know. But I can understand that reasoning. So much of pop music right now seems to be so narcissistic. You don’t get many young bands trying to paint a picture of the world or talking about situations other than what they want; you mainly get bands talking about their love interests or their conquests: ‘I love her but she doesn’t love me/Why doesn’t she love me?’, that sort of thing. Which is fine, that’s the principle of most pop music, heterosexual longing I guess, but I’ve never really found it that exciting to be honest.”
What cracks this listener up is when artists like Pink or Christina portray themselves as the wronged heroine in some soap opera dramatisation of their lives. What the hell have they got to complain about? It’s enough to make you yearn for the arty abstraction of early Roxy Music or Bowie.
“Queen, David Bowie and Roxy Music were the only actual rock bands I was listening to in 2005, the only rock records that really inspired me,” Kelé says. “I feel that rock music in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was a very different beast to what it is now. There seemed to be an intellectual engagement with music that’s all but erased. Being a child of Generation Y, you come to accept that the monolith of popular culture will not be changed. All the aggression and the fury of the ‘70s and ‘80s didn’t amount to anything, and it seems pointless adopting that stance. That’s the appeal of Green Day in this generation; they have the look of this anti-authoritarian aggression but they’re completely complicit with mainstream society and popular culture. You hear their songs every two minutes on American radio, you see their videos every hour on MTV, they’re part of the orthodoxy. There’s no transgression.”
At least Green Day have the guts to think big. Acts like My Chemical Romance, meanwhile, appear to have adopted some third generation Avril-alike’s idea of punk rock, filtered through McFly FM radio production. Big business has threatened to render rock ‘n’ roll impotent by making it ubiquitous.
“There will never, ever be a band that has the power that The Smiths had,” Kelé declares, “because the way that people listen to music now is not a cult or counter-culture thing. Indie music is on adverts and the radio – and it sells. Of the top ten selling albums last year, I think seven of them were guitar bands. That’s not to say that music can’t be as effective, it’s just that the medium has changed, and the artist will have a different kind of relationship with the fans. There isn’t any point lamenting it or paying credence to nostalgia. We’re living in the 21st century.”
And the 21st century is where Bloc Party have pitched their tent with A Weekend In The City. Although, one can’t help but wonder why they chose to record a metropolis-obsessed album in Grouse Lodge, Co. Westmeath.
“I think it was mainly technical reasons, in that the record company wanted us to,” Kelé admits. “If we’d recorded it in London or a big party town, it probably would have been quite distracting for us while we were trying to focus on making the second record as good. It was a bit odd at times having to constantly tap into the anxiety that city life produces when you’re surrounded by hills and cows and stuff, but I wouldn’t have traded the experience at all.”
One wonders what Michael Jackson made of it all. Any visiting musicians who’ve recorded in Grouse Lodge tend to emerge with two words to describe the experience: cabin fever.
“(laughs) Yeah, well, I was lucky in that I came back to London twice, but recording an album is a stressful experience, you’re constantly appraising what it is you’ve created, and it can be hard to relax because you’re always trying to stay receptive to see how you can make it better. But that’s part of making an album, it shouldn’t be an easy experience.”
A Weekend In The City is released on Wichita.