Bloc Party is less a band than an evolving concept. At least, that’s the impression you get talking to Russell Lissack. And the guitarist would know: He and frontman Kele Okereke decided to start what would turn into Bloc Party back in 1999, and almost seventeen years later they’re the two original members left standing. Through thick and thin, through permutations of the project’s sound, through line-up changes, this pair of high school friends has remained the core of the band.
This far down the line, though, the continued existence of Bloc Party in any form – let alone its sustained creative output – is hardly something to be taken for granted. Tense tours, infighting, the dreaded indefinite hiatus, solo albums: The Bloc Party at the turn of the decade couldn’t survive, and it didn’t, but Okereke and Lissack vowed to continue this band by hook or by crook. That resolve would be tested in 2013 with the departure of Matt Tong, the drummer whose frenetic percussion and masterful crescendos were an integral part of the band’s debut, Silent Alarm. Then, early last year, bassist Gordon Moakes jumped ship, too.
According to Lissack, this provided a clean break of sorts; one that was not only necessary but anticipated and dealt with quickly. Indeed, the two old friends didn’t waste much time getting back into a room together to write Hymns, Bloc Party’s forthcoming, fifth album.
Rife with battles of faith, and tales of self-medication through sex and drugs – you know, that good news the preacher mentions from time to time – Hymns does what any self-respecting post-religious indie rock album is supposed to do: By blending dogma with unbelief, Okereke is able to shed light on the perverse mirror exposing the age old kinship between the sacred and the profane. If we were in no need of saving, what’s all the salvation for anyway?
And Okereke doesn’t mince words or leave these themes to the imagination, as could be guessed from the album’s title or a brief glance at the track listing. “I used to find my answers in the gospel of St John,” he croons on “The Good News”, the album’s first single, “but now I find them at the bottom of this shot glass.” There’s no real need to press these themes further; of all the aspects of this album, they’re the easiest to pin down.
Less easy to suss is Lissack’s approach to the guitar. On its surface, Hymns would appear to be Bloc Party’s album least reliant on the instrument to date. Take “The Love Within”, the record’s opening number: We’re greeted by the sounds of a modulated organ, and when the chorus hits, a girthy synth line takes the lead, affecting full-on dance-mode.
But sounds can be misleading. As Lissack was quick to inform me over the phone last week, virtually all the sonic elements on the record are manufactured by his guitar with the help of various effects and dial-shifting techniques. “I’m not just sitting around reading a magazine,” Lissack defends of his contributions to the highly textured and spacious LP. “I’m actually doing something.”
Filling in the gaps left by Tong and Moakes are Menomena’s Justin Harris and Louise Bartle, a young drummer the group found on Youtube. The two were brought into the fold late during Hymns‘ recording – essentially functioning as studio musicians, to a degree – but have already cemented themselves as permanent members. The additions make the prospects of a Bloc Party 2.0 feel even more tantalizing, particularly when it comes Harris, who with Menomena has spent a decade deconstructing the building blocks of rock music and reassembling them as something somehow both lean and towering. Also, he plays a mean saxophone.
For now, with Lissack and Kele back at the helm of this dynamic and talented foursome, it seems like Hymns represents a cycle of rebirth, befitting the religiously fraught symbols defining this album. What remains to be seen is where the group decides to go with it, and if their past sounds are any fair indication thereof.
Hymns is a layered, spacious record. There are some dance elements in there. With a few exceptions, it feels like guitar work is sparser than what Bloc Party fans might be used to. Did you find that your contributions to the record were different this go around?
It’s funny because, from my perspective, almost all the sonic aspects have still been made with a guitar – there are just a lot of unique effects put on top of them. I tried to make some really brand new guitar sounds. That’s always been one of my favorite parts about what we do creatively: trying to push the guitar to the limit. We’re trying to do things that have never been done with the guitar before.
I can certainly see how just to listen to the record, that it certainly is a spacious record. That’s something that we did consciously. But in terms of how the sounds have been made, it’s still a very guitar-heavy record. I could say any song and point out parts that are guitar that would surprise you.
On “The Love Within”, most people would assume that the majority of the song is made with a synth, whereas it’s actually the case that it’s a guitar. And it’s a funny one because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how something’s been achieved, it’s about whether you like the sound of it and whether you like the song, but I can certainly see how – especially if you’re not a new band, if you’re an established band that’s associated with certain elements – it’d be easy to hear this record and think that it’s something that it isn’t.
It’s an odd position to be in from my perspective, for people to perhaps think that you haven’t contributed, when you have. It’s been a difficult one to try and explain – like, “Hey, I’m not just sitting around reading a magazine. I’m doing something.” That’s why I enjoy being able to play these songs. I’m looking forward to the record coming out and people hearing the songs, and then coming to the live show and hearing these sounds come out of a guitar. Like, these guys aren’t up there fiddling with laptops, they’re up there with instruments and making these sounds organically. I’m eager to get out there and for people to hear it on that front.
What do you do to accomplish these sounds?
I guess the thing that I did for this record was to bring my peddle board up so I can access it with my hands rather than my feet. Traditionally, if you’re using your guitar to make some of these effects, you’re limited by turning something on and off with your foot, whereas being able to access it with you hands means you have a wealth of dials and things you can manipulate. That’s certainly something we’ve toyed with in the past – I can think of songs off our first record where we were sitting there manipulating peddles to make a sound – but I think in this case it’s kind of taking it to the next level.
Kele’s said this is his most personal record to date. Are you able to say the same?
Lyrically, it’s less personal for me, because it’s not about my life or about my experiences – it’s about Kele’s. We’ve known each other since the age of around sixteen, but I think a lot of the lyrical content on this album is from before that – from his earlier childhood, growing up in a religious household and the experiences associated with that. That isn’t something that I necessarily grew up with. Religion was certainly there, I think it’s a part of most peoples’ lives in one way or another, but certainly not to the same level that Kele experienced.
It was personal for me in that the writing was more intimate, I guess. The record was mostly just me and Kele sitting in a room, rather than sitting in a room with four people and going back and forth like we had been for the past few years.
Is there a sense of a renewed dynamic between you two?
I guess we probably felt like we had something to prove, because people from the outside often thought that this record wasn’t going to happen, that there wasn’t going to be any more Bloc Party. I think that instilled a certain amount of determination to try and make it happen.
After the shakeup a few years ago – the departure of Matt and Gordon – was there a weight lifted for you and Kele? Or was there anxiety about what those departures meant?
There were elements of both. When you’re a band that’s been around for ten years, and then you have a kind of shift like that, people’s attitudes and perceptions of you are going to change. And you’re not sure what that reaction is going to be. But I think for us, it was a relief. 2013 wasn’t really an enjoyable time, I would say, for all four of us.
To be able to put that behind you and move on is certainly a relief. It was also a relief to know that we were able to carry on – you know, that it wasn’t the end. When we took a break back in 2010, I think that was a period of more uncertainty – like, “Maybe this is the end. Maybe we’re not going to carry on.”
But this time around, the break was quite sudden, and we all came around and reacted to it quite quickly, so the period of uncertainty was much less from our perspective. I could imagine it was quite different for people who were following us and didn’t have access to the same information.
Kele and I discussed quite early on that we were going to go on and keep making music together. So, it did feel like a relief when we were able to make that transition. And it also felt great when Louise and Justin got involved – the fact that we were able to meet these brilliant new people who can now breathe new life into the proceedings.
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.
Did he fly out for the production of Hymns or did you guys trade recordings digitally?
He came back and forth a little bit when he first got on board. We did talk about making the record in Portland and one point, but that ended up turning out not to be the way to do things. But when we did the actual recording, he came over for the duration of that, and now he’s moved to London while we promote this record. He’s enjoying life in England at the moment.
Menomena has used some interesting production methods. Did he bring any to the table?
I think that’s something that will develop more as we work together. At the point he came in, we’d written quite a lot of the record already. More of his input was just in the way he plays bass – he’s a very skilled bass player, and he’s got an individual groove.
As far as his other contributions, I think that’s something that comes out more in the live show, because he’s been bringing in ideas that we’d never incorporated previously on that front – even in regards to some of the back catalogue. It’s been interesting seeing his perspective. But now we’re at the point where the four of us are writing together, so his production ideas will probably start to be more influential
Do you see him and Louise as permanent members going forward?
That’s the intention – Bloc Party is now the four of us. We started writing together as the four of us, and the only reason we didn’t for Hymns was just timing and when we pulled them into the process. Now that we’re together all the time we’re taking advantage of that and trying to do as much writing as possible together going forwards.
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.
Additional contributions by Philip Runco.