Let’s face it… Matt Tong, aka the drummer of the UK’s post-punk act Bloc Party, is kind of like a mythical unicorn. He’s a hilarious “6’2” British Asian guy, who slays a drumkit like King Arthur slayed dragons and is pretty much my favorite chef ever. So naturally I was completely stoked when he agreed to talk with me in prep for their show at Rams Head Live this Saturday night (tickets are somehow still available despite selling out several nights at the 930 club recently). And if their show continues to be anything like the last four I’ve been to, you’re going to be in for one hell of a good time. You can see photos here and here if you need more convincing.
Where are you right now?
We’re currently in New York, quiet excited for the start of this leg of our tour.
Tell me about Bloc Party’s latest record, Four. What was the mindset going into the making of the record? And the influences, or message that Bloc Party is trying to convey? Was it a conscious choice to make it a heavier record than previous records?
You know we were just trying to make a record that is messy and fun and chaotic — less tightly controlled. It basically lead to this sound. And yeah, definitely it was a deliberate choice on our part. All of the arrangements were worked over in the studio, but in terms of picking apart the recorded instruments we didn’t spend too much time on that. In the past we strictly edited what it component sounded like, but this time we just took the best performances of each and put them to bed together.
Do you write with the focus of live performance in mind? Or is it… more of a “these are our songs, we’ll make them work for a crowd” type approach?
Well, it’’s dance music through and through. We kind of write our songs as is but we appreciate them live — and this time around, the energy, the record… we thought it would be kind of nice to show this side of Bloc Party.
Obviously you guys have been around since 2003, what’s changed for the band? What’s stayed the same?
Sometimes when we’re waking up in the morning, aching from rocking out too much it feels like 10 years have passed. A lot of happens, good and bad, but it still kind of feels like it was yesterday when we first sat in the room together to play music. I mean, the chemistry is still there to make music absolutely. In the beginning we weren’t prepared for it… being around each other for so much of our time. So over the years, we definitely learned to communicate and be more tolerant than we once were. We were very naive and had little idea of what it was to be in band when we first started.
In early 2011 there was some confusion about whether Bloc Party still existed, or would ever exist again in the press.. how did you guys overcome the hurdle both personally and professionally? I mean, Four is a cohesive sounding album, which clearly couldn’t have happened if the band wasn’t united in it’s approach and goals.
A couple of off-hand jokey comments were taken too seriously, but the general well-being and happiness of the band was fine. By the time we reconvened in 2011 it was already a concrete decision to make a record and we had worked out a number of issues by that point.
Yeah, with social media playing a bigger and bigger role in the way a band communicates and evolves, it seems like it all just spun a bit out of control.
Absolutely. This is when it does feel like 10 years have passed — generational gaps, social media awareness, etc. As a band you just have to embrace it.
And you definitely have. I’ve been following you guys on Instagram and there’s some really beautiful photography on there. What are is the colored smoke/jumping on trampolines series from? Please tell me that’s a new video.
They are! It’s a video shoot for our next single, “Truth.” It’ll be released on the 25th of February, just before we take the stage at Earl’s Court, which is an absolutely honor to be playing there after we’ve been away for so long. [Earl’s Court is a 19,000 person venue in the heart of London with tons of history. Bloc Party just sold out this show!]
Bloc Party decided against resigning or signing a new record contract before the release of Four… and you ultimately put this album out yourself with the help of Frenchkiss. How has that process been?
Well, Four was completely self-funded but then Frenchkiss stepped in and put the record out for us. With the industry in in the kind of shape it’s in right now… it seems like you’re shackled when you’re signed to a deal. We decided to spend the money on the record/producer/etc instead of what the record company would have wanted. We did it all at our disposal with no hold up’s. It was this mentality of “go ahead and do it, and then we’ll figure it out.” So we paid for it and then actually had a bit more control over all of it.
It’s coming up on 10 years for Bloc Party as a band… and we’ve seen lots of remasterings and retrospectives for other early aughts bands like Interpol and The Libertines… is there anything in the works?
Not yet, it seems like 10 years isn’t actually such a long time. Not much had changed in what’s available. I mean, in our minds it’s more important to keep pushing on than to hash out on familiar territory. To go back over the the back catalogue and give it preferential treatment seems somewhat counter intuitive. We’re not working for that kind of paycheck. It’s not our job to sell those kind of records. We already did that. We love Silent Alarm, Intimacy, A Weekend In The City, but they’re done. There’s nothing we can do to change them.
That’s my take though and I’ll get off my high horse. [Laughs] I mean, other members of the band could have a different opinion.
Yeah, I mean I still listen to all these albums WITHOUT them having to be remastered.
It’s crazy! [Laughs] Remastering just ruins the experience for me. The second or third records are already too loud. That’s it! If we remastered, I’d make them more quiet. Yeah, if we had to do it again, definitely more quiet.
I know you’re a huge Nirvana fan. I mean it seems like you’re always wearing their shirt, but I recently read in an interview that Kele [lead singer] did that Four is definitely your “Nirvana sounding” record.
Yeah, that was not the an off the cuff comment. Nirvana were a big influence on this record, as were a number of other bands from that era Kele was specifically talking about Bleach, which we took influence from with it’s abandonment of traditional recording processes. We wanted to roughen up our sound a bit and let go. That record, Bleach, it just depicts that idea perfectly.
It’s pretty well known you are an animal behind the drumkit. Be honest… how many energy drinks do you down before hitting the stage? You’re like an animal-meets-machine when you’re on stage?
A bag of crystal meth, a bit of blow and I’m ready to go. [Laughs] No, no, my pre-gig ritual is that I tend not to eat less than three hours before a show. If I do, I tend to feel a bit sluggish and a bit sick. Right before I go on? It’s just a strong cup of coffee — and healthy dose of nerves.
Wow, you still get nervous?
If I didn’t I wouldn’t bother doing this anymore.
We’ve recently seen a bunch of bizarro tour rider requests with some talent we’ve been booking. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve asked for at a gig? And the most bizarre thing you’ve seen in your dressing room?
To facilitate the gig? We ask for…. I don’t know. It’s all very… well, kind of mundane on the road… I mean, it’s exceptional to do this for a living, but it’s mundane on the road. We do have a blue elephant listed as some sort of specification because it means the venue has been paying attention to contract. But really it’s just water. Towels. Ponds full of white lilies. A lot of ginger, in case Kele’s feeling a bit sick. He can make his tea then. Craft Beer…
Craft Beer? We’ll have to let DC Brau know to send you guys up a couple of cases at your Rams Head show this weekend. What’s going on with Bloc Party for the next couple of months?
We’re pretty much signed up til the end of the summer for touring — Japan, then the UK and we’ve written new songs… so possibly a new EP record in February. We’re excited though because we’re going to some places we haven’t been before… Malaysia, etc. My dad’s family is from malaysia so that’s full circle for me.
And yeah, we’ll probably do another break of some kind. It’s really important to remember why we’re a band in the first place. Most get scared thinking they’re going to lose their place if they take time away, but if you give as much as you can… you know the audience is going to be the end.