In a New London, Bloc Party are ready to detonate.
On a Monday night at Dublin’s Whelans, emotion hangs in the air, dripping off the Celtic knots painted on the walls, seeping out onto the Wexford Street cobblestones. Minutes ago, Bloc Party kicked off their highest-profile headlining tour to date, and will run through all their independently released singles from the past year and most of their brand new album, Silent Alarm. But the setlist is not important; that night, everything the band stands for will be legitimized by the throng of sweaty Irish teenagers mashed at the front of the low stage, screaming together as frontman Kele Okereke reaches the yelped crescendo of “Positive Tension”—Why’d you have to get so fucking useless?—taking the song to some transcendent place at which the recorded version only hinted. A few days earlier, I had interviewed Okereke in East London, along with the rest of the group, but the story was across the UK, inside a capacity crowd of regular kids in knit pullovers and zipped-up track jackets who stuffed themselves into a very small, very wooden concert hall to sing along with a band who haven’t even released their debut LP. As the feedback fades and the song ends, Okereke looks into the audience and smiles, grabbing the mic. “I think this is going to be something to remember.”
Talking about his music one-on-one, Okereke is serious and reserved, perhaps even a little uncomfortable. But with the rest of the band, the singer is incredibly animated, much more in line with his lightning-bolt stage presence; chalk it up to Bloc Party’s chemistry as a collective. Okereke always knew he wanted to make music; but it was not until a few years ago that he found his counterpart in quietly intense Russell Lissack. “I met Russell—I was at school, he was on the dole,” he explains. “We played guitar together for a year writing songs in the front room of his house.” The two found bassist Gordon Moakes through a classified ad listing “Sonic Youth, Joy Division, Pixies, DJ Shadow” as influences, and somehow recruited Matt Tong on drums months later. Several terrible band names (the Angel Range, Diet, Union) were shed as Bloc Party came into existence and figured out its sound. “There’s a club in the UK called Trash that was really important in the origins of Bloc Party,” Okereke says. “I’d go with Matt and we’d hear all this dance music we had never heard before at the same time as the Cure and Madonna or something. There was so much music—it was impossible for that to not affect what we do.”
Okereke’s parents listened to a lot of Afrobeat while he was growing up—King Sunny-Ade and Fela Kuti in particular. He didn’t appreciate it at the time because it wasn’t in English, but he can now look back on that music as the precursor to what Bloc Party is trying to achieve rhythmically. Says Okereke, “Drums are the most important part of what we do. That’s what I hear initially—I don’t listen to the voice, I don’t really need the melody.” The band’s emphasis on beats helped affix the “punk funk” misnomer onto most of their early singles; although the hi-hat march of “Banquet” and the rapid-fire kicks of “She’s Hearing Voices” are imminently danceable, Bloc Party aren’t just another wiry live band playing disco sweat music. They’re Radiohead-loving songwriters with Telecasters and distortion pedals who discovered that rhythm and velocity would take their music to a much more interesting, unexpected place—it gives guitar music a pulse, a sense of tension and immediacy. “For the most part, rock has become so dull and generic,” Okereke explains. “Now I get more excited by Usher or something. I want to hear music take on a different life.”
The band’s off-center approach to traditional rock sonics creates a novel hook for the stereotypically gobsmacked UK media; the week I was in London and Dublin, the band was plastered across the country on neon yellow NME covers exclaiming “THE FUTURE STARTS HERE!” The press attention picked up steam following even the earliest of the band’s electrocuting live shows, which—if legend is to be believed—are what got them signed in the first place, at a gig supporting Franz Ferdinand. Okereke had been furiously sending out demos and emailing bands in hopes of getting an opening slot from one of them—and FF mastermind Alex Kapranos was among the first to pay attention. But their story was never about some CD-R picked out of a hat, co-signed by a Glaswegian band on the come up—just the natural frenzy of Bloc Party on stage. Whereas Franz’s take on danceable, arty guitar music is delivered with a theatrically arched and finely groomed eyebrow, Bloc Party—simply put—rock the fuck out, bringing nothing more complicated than a handful of songs delivered with pummelingly tight musicianship and a visceral fervor.
In America, attention at the live shows was almost as rabid. When the band booked a short stint of gigs in NYC during the fall of 2004, they found themselves bombarded by A&R scouts and various record company dudes. “The dressing room was filled with people talking…to each other,” recalls Tong; “there’s photos from that night where we’re actually just sitting on the floor in the corner.” Okereke’s take on it is succinct. “This is like a silly circus, all this sort of stuff,” he waves, meaning everything from the industry to the NME cover to our own interview. “But if you try to resist it, it will tear you up.”