Bloc Party are a band that have, at times, seemed somewhat inaccessible to the wider pool of music fans out there. If I asked some of my less musically-aware friends to name a Bloc Party song, I’m sure they’d be hard-pushed to pluck something other than ‘Banquet’ or ‘Helicopter’ out of the air, two of the band’s biggest hits from their 2005 debut, Silent Alarm.
But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find that the band Liam Gallagher once dubbed as being “something off of University Challenge” have a committed following and have been enjoying a plethora of successes in the Indie scene since their breakthrough over a decade ago.
The last 10 years have seen all of the band’s previous albums reach the top 10 on the UK Albums Chart. They’ve achieved nine top twenty singles on the UK Singles Chart. They even headlined Glastonbury Festival’s ‘Other Stage’ in 2009. How have they managed to maintain their prominence?
“There’s always demand for change and experimentation to stay…relevant” muses lead guitarist Russell Lissack, backstage ahead of their Leeds show as part of the 2016 NME Awards Tour (which they happen to be headlining), proof enough that their transformations as a band have allowed them to extend their success over the years.
Lissack is well-versed in the art of change: he and frontman Kele Okereke have seen a number of line-up changes in the London band’s 16-year history, which has recently seen the addition of bassist Justin Harris, from US band Menomena, and drummer Louise Bartle, who Okereke and Lissack discovered on YouTube and who they say “blew them away”.
Such transitions can often be problematic, especially regarding a band with such a sizeable back-catalogue as Bloc Party’s. “I’ve found it quite enjoyable so far” says Harris of his recent addition to the band, only for Lissack to cut in and exclaim “you told me it was traumatic!”
“There’s a lot of pressure to ensure you learn the back-catalogue properly and do the songs justice” resumes Harris, “but yeah, while I may have said traumatic, what I really meant was…enjoyable.”
They laugh, and their camaraderie is evident. Perhaps this explains then why the band’s performances on the tour so far have been met widely with positive reviews from music critics: they’re enjoying themselves.
Of course, for a band to tour, it usually requires new music. Not everyone can be like The Rolling Stones and live off the same, admittedly unparalleled back-catalogue for decades. And, fitting to the rule, Bloc Party released their fifth studio album, Hymns, in January. The album itself contains an incredible amount of religious imagery. Aside from the evidently religious overtone in the title, the tracks themselves have an obvious motif of faith: ‘Only He Can Heal Me’, ‘Into the Earth’, ‘Virtue’. I wonder whether these links to religion were prompted by anything.
“It’s more from Kele’s perspective” says Lissack. “The religious imagery is mainly in the lyrical content.” But Kele is keen to emphasise that the album is not linked to his own faith.
“I’m not a Christian. I grew up in a religious house so I’m aware of the imagery.” It seems the religious element is to a large degree born out of an experimentation with evangelical art, and importantly, its absence from modern popular culture. Kele notes that “music originated in a religious place”, and that his lyrics’ religious content is spawned from a desire to explore how he would go about producing art that “has a spiritual dimension” sacred to him.
The album comes after an unofficial hiatus of a couple of years, which Lissack believes has allowed the band to refresh their sound. “During the time off, we had the chance to investigate new equipment and things that we hadn’t had the opportunity to use before.”
The result is a much more electronic sound than fans of their earlier material may be used to. Kele very much approves, previously stating that what Lissack is doing with the guitar is “blowing [his] mind” and that he is impressed at how Lissack has been able to use the guitar as “an instrument of white noise”.
Elsewhere, there’s talk of David Bowie (Russell: “we want to follow the David Bowie model”), the band’s enjoyment of touring Japan for the unique culture, and the possibility of even more new material (Justin: “we’ve been writing stuff in sound checks but what the masterplan of that is has yet to be determined”).
In regards to live performance, the band have enjoyed playing the new songs, but I ask their feelings about sharing the limelight on the NME tour. “It’s a mix of fans who’ve come to see the different bands on the tour (Drenge, Rat Boy and Bugzy Malone), so it’s not exactly a conventional Bloc Party show,” says Russell. “But it’s kind of like a tiny festival travelling around.”
And on that topic: festival season. Lissack tells me “plans are still being made”, and he is only allowed to tell me that the band will be playing Benicàssim in Spain, but that other things are in the pipeline.
Bloc Party have throughout their career been unafraid to question things that they see as unwelcome or not quite right in the music business, an attitude they’re unlikely to drop. Lissack waxes lyrical about the stagnation of festival line-ups. He notes that festival bills now are “the same as ones from ten years ago”.
I ask which artists he would like to see headlining the likes of Glastonbury, but he asserts “It’s not really for me to say”, before pausing in thought. “But, if Michael Eavis wanted to get The Smiths back together, then I wouldn’t complain…”
Interesting that he should choose The Smiths, a band that evolved throughout their career, and who Bloc Party confess to admiring. Change. Transition. Evolution. Something that Bloc Party have done over the last decade, and are striving to continue to this day.
“We want that to be our ethos” concludes Lissack. “That will always be our approach to music.”