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."
"For the most part, rock has become so dull and generic. Now I get more excited by Usher or something. I want to hear music take on a different life."—Kele Okereke
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."
"Things aren't always the way you thought they were going to be. You're not invincible, and the world is a dark, complicated place."—Kele Okereke
The singer's media awareness is remarkable; our conversation will touch on everything from stateside acceptance of the Futureheads to CNN political coverage to the typecasting of British comedian Steve Coogan. He's keenly concerned with the media's perception of Bloc Party and annoyed that, in England, the band is considered another abrasive, jarring rock band. He's already begun to read advance reviews of Silent Alarm online, frustrated that "no one notices the things I was kind of hoping people would notice about it, like the lyrics."
Silent Alarm is a record about confusion, or as Okerke puts it, "just being kind of slackjawed at the world. There's a lot of disquiet, and there isn't any resolution." Even the mellow tracks get thrown for a curve; "Blue Light" is a whispered, yearning paean ("I still feel you/ and the taste of cigarettes") that should be the band's slowjam, their cellphone-as-lighter-in-the-air power ballad moment—but its skeleton is an uneasy metronome of snare-rim clicks. "We never wanted to patronize people," says Okereke, "I'll never feel comfortable with obvious hooks." Yet somehow, it all congeals into unconventionally catchy, genius pop that expertly straddles the line between sweetness and abrasion. Okereke's delivery is expressive rather than explicit, but delivered with an unfailing
passion—without a lyric sheet, it's hard to tell whether you're listening to a political song, a love song, or both. "I've always been skeptical of bands where all they ever talk about are their girlfriends or something, and I've always been skeptical of big, didactic sort of speeches, tirades against whatever," he says. "But when I actually started to look at the world with observant eyes, I noticed that things aren't always the way you thought they were going to be. You're not invincible, and the world is a dark, complicated place. I kind of realized the importance of love. So that's why I've tried to balance this record with songs about relationships and people—it suddenly became a lot more important to me."
Weeks after the East London interview and the concert at Whelans, a conversation with a friend had me thinking about how all the new wave bands of the '80s were obsessed with the Cold War—"like they wanted to be desperately and sadly in love while the world exploded," she said. Bloc Party capture the same feeling: the galloping drums and electronically bent kamikaze guitar divebombs; the sawtoothed melodies that cut through drumline stomp, only to all fall back completely in aftershocks of nothing but woozy bass and vocals, ringing delay and empty space. The lyrics come as snippets: something glorious is about to happen, we will not be the last, are you hoping for a miracle? They're writing dance music for the fallout. Like Bloc Party, we grew up in that same era of Reganomics and Thatcherian dread; the paranoia sublimated in our action figures, where our good guys shot blue lasers and our bad guys shot red ones, was bound to surface sometime—especially when the world's atmosphere is still one of impending doom. It's insane, but even Bloc Party's name implies that it's as much about us, the listeners, as it is them, the band; that connection is what allows the music to resonate. The cover artwork for their album, designed by Moakes, is a forest that's been almost completely whited out so that all you see are faint outlines of trees and the words Silent Alarm. It feels empty and lost—but not alone.
Back in Ireland, at the filled-to-bursting Whelans, the kids are bringing it to life. When Bloc Party is on stage, their performance creates that ridiculous wave of people moving as one; any time Okereke leans out over the crowd in the slightest, the tide rolls over in a collective attempt to touch him. It's an effect you don't expect brainy, politically minded art-rockers to generate. The hey, hey, hey which starts off "She's Hearing Voices" is turned from an eerie, stalking whisper to a stadium-ready, fist-pumping chant. Someone is crowd surfing. When Okereke announces from the stage, "this next song is 'Like Eating Glass'," there is an eruption of cheers. "Why are you clapping? You're not supposed to know that song yet!" The audience sings every lyric, hangs on every one of Okereke's words: I can't e-eat, I can't…sleep. I can't sleep, I can't…dre-e-am... The release of Silent Alarm is still months away, but a genuine bond has been made, a nerve touched. Maybe it's just the end of the world as we know it, again.