Fifteen minutes. That’s all I’ve got. In the midst of an American spring tour to promote their heavily-hyped and critically-acclaimed debut Silent Alarm, Bloc Party have set aside an afternoon to talk to us mere mortals of the press. I can hardly blame the time constraints as every publication on the known planet is probably trying to get a few minutes with these guys, and their tour schedule is very tight. Perhaps as a testament to the hours these guys have logged on the road, singer Kele Okereke, it is rumored, has begun to lose his voice. Not to fear, as drummer Matt Tong, on a brief break in New York City, has kindly stepped in to man the phones to provide a glimpse into the whirlwind that is currently surrounding the group.
Luckily for me, I had caught Bloc Party a few nights earlier in Montreal. The band’s popularity caused the show to sell out at one venue, before it was moved to a larger space, where the extra tickets sold out again in the span of an afternoon. That night Okereke had no signs of a strained voice, and the band themselves not only showed they loved the spotlight, they displayed a live show that relies as much on spontaneity as rehearsal. The audience wasn’t being treated to a simple retread of the tracks off of Silent Alarm, but were witnessing an event we may very well end up telling our kids about. While Okereke held his own as the frontman for the group, Tong brought forth as much charisma, though positioned behind the rest of the group. Shirtless, he pounded, stood, flailed, sung and generally exhorted the audience into a danceable frenzy.
Recounting the show with Tong, he relates with surprise and gratitude the success their first American tour has been: “We’ve been playing sold out shows which in itself is good enough as far as we’re concerned, because we weren’t expecting that at all. I don’t mean to generalize but I think its kind of a French thing [the rapturous reception by the Montreal crowd]. For some reason we’re really popular in France and French people always go crazy when we play. There’s something about what we do that strikes a particular chord.”
France, Canada and everywhere else, the sold out shows singal that the Bloc Party hype machine has been successful. In addition to Bloc Party, Britain has been experiencing a renaissance of bands pouring out of the country of late. As Tong relates, at some of the venues the Bloc Party has been playing in England, it would’ve been unheard of just a few years ago for a band of their type and stature to be performing there. But quietly convinced, Tong asserts that, “We’re confident we’re doing a good enough job to justify [the hype].”
One of the more interesting aspects to the band, and one that for the most part has been ignored by the press, is the group’s multi-ethnic makeup. I asked Tong if their ethnicity has informed any aspect of what they do. Acknowledging that the issue of race and music is somewhat complex, he does admit, “We’ve gotten a few unfair comments [like] some stupid kid [saying] ‘Oh, I’m going to form a band with a black singer’”. But Tong goes on to explain that the racial mix of Bloc Party is merely a result of modern life in cosmopolitan London.
In bringing their vibrant sound overseas, the band first enlisted Dim Mak to issue their initial recordings, before moving on to the larger Vice label for their debut longplayer. But for Bloc Party, signing to an indie wasn’t so much an issue of morals, as one of trust. “We certainly had a handful of bigger offers we could’ve chosen from, but we didn’t really trust the people we would’ve been working with,” Tong explains. The freedom of an indie was also a lure that was impossible to ignore.
It’s been nearly seven years since Bloc Party first formed (Tong joined around 2003 after the group went through a number of other drummers). For the most part, Silent Alarm is a culmination of the group’s strongest tracks to date. “With the exception of about four of [the album’s] songs, most of [them] we’d taken out on the road with us… the various parts of a song come together fairly quickly but in the terms of organizing them and making them work together that takes a bit longer,” says Tong. The group is hard at work on the next batch. “We’ve got about 20 songs in various stages of completion… I think we’re gonna go for a warmer sound on the next record and spend more time crafting the sound.”
But before they head back into the studio Bloc Party seem to be having the time of their lives, though with a refreshingly mature outlook, “We’re all aware this is a very transient phase in our lives and it won’t last forever,” says Tong. But the drummer quickly adds, “We’ve been overwhelmed by the reception we’ve had and we can’t wait to come back.” Neither can we.