Bloc Party On

As noted in this June 7 profile, Bloc Party has ridden the hype rollercoaster over the past few years. The band's 2005 disc, Silent Alarm, was greeted with so many hosannas by British music journalists that their American counterparts reflexively portrayed the group as something of a letdown. Hence, the band's new CD, A Weekend in the City, has faced widely varied expectations on either side of the pond.

That's the backdrop of the following exchange with Bloc Party bassist Gordon Moakes, but that doesn't mean the topic dominates the conversation. Among the subjects touched upon below: Moakes' unusual hometown, Milton Keynes; his early musical influences, as well as his belief that the Sex Pistols' music now sounds tame; the band's tendency toward political statements; the grain of salt required when dealing with the U.K. press; the pros and cons of pushing for musical changes rather than allowing them to develop organically; the one Weekend track that bloomed in the studio, as opposed to mirroring a demo; and the group's current desire to embrace creative spontaneity.

Sounds like a real Party:

Westword (Michael Roberts): Where are you from originally?

Gordon Moakes: I’m from a town called Milton Keynes. It’s a new town. It wasn’t there forty years ago. It was planned in the late ‘60s and built, really, around about 1970 onwards.

WW: So it’s a planned community?

GM: Yeah. It was built around several kind of rural villages. Forty years ago, it would have just been some fields, but now it’s villages and huge suburban developments. But it’s now starting to have a history to it. It’s a very green city. That’s one thing in its favor. The public transport system is good there, and they always planned to put lots of flora and fauna into the infrastructure of the city. So it’s quite pretty.

WW: Here in the States, a lot of people think of those kinds of communities as being beautiful on the outside, but having many dark, seamy secrets just under the surface. Is that the case in Milton Keynes.

GM: I hate to say it, but when I was growing up, it was kind of anathema to me. I wanted the big city, somewhere with history. But I feel like it’s gradually begun to build its own history. And now, I think it’s a great place to bring up a family.

WW: So getting away from it allows you to recognize some of its more positive aspects?

GM: I think so. It’s clean, pretty, and that’s definitely something that’s good about it.

WW: Were your parents involved in music when you were growing up?

GM: Not really – although, having said that, my mother played piano, and she was a Sunday school teacher. So she was musically inclined in that sense. And my brother played bass guitar. He was very much into punk-rock music, and he had a bass. So that’s where I got access to instruments. And my mother had a classical guitar, which I ended up stealing off her in the end. I would sort of pretend I was rocking out on it.

WW: In other interviews, you’ve talked about how a lot of your influences don’t fit into the standard British rock pantheon. Was that thanks to your older brother? Did he have more eclectic tastes?

GM: Initially, I rejected a lot of the stuff he was into. I thought it was a bit too abrasive. Actually, I did come around to a lot of stuff he was into – and he was into Nirvana, Sonic Youth. I got into them through my brother. But he was a punk. He liked the Sex Pistols, although they’re seen as fairly tame by punk standards. But he liked everything from the Sex Pistols to the most kind of abrasive punk stuff – and I was thirteen when he was listening to all that kind of stuff, so it was too much for me at that age. I was into Simple Minds. That was my big thing.

WW: It’s interesting to think of the Sex Pistols, which was a band that was considered to represent total anarchic, sounding tame by comparison with what followed – but it makes sense from a thirteen-year old’s perspective…

GM: I’ve never been a big fan of them. For me, I felt punk was about bands like Gang of Four, who are now seen as post-punk bands. There’s a whole range of bands. Some are famous and some aren’t. But abrasive bands from the Bad Brains through to the Germs through to Crime, and lots of American kind of punk bands. In the U.K., I think even the Clash were seen in the end as being fairly tame. But the Gang of Four for me were one of the most outspoken bands – a band that actually stood for something.

WW: And that’s a tradition you guys have followed in.

GM: It’s turned out so, but when we started out, we didn’t have a sloganeering aspect to what we did. We didn’t think of ourselves as political. But as time has gone on, it seems that there aren’t very many bands that do what we do – actually commenting on what’s going on. There aren’t that many bands in the mainstream anymore. It’s hard to find a mainstream band that actually has an opinion on something.

WW: Does that surprise you? A lot of people feel that simply to live life, you’ve got to be political to some degree – but that really doesn’t creep into that much mainstream music…

GM: I think that the difference between us and a lot of bands is that when we started out as a band, we weren’t trying to write pop songs, and we weren’t trying to get on TV. Our heroes were as much the Sonic Youths as they were indie bands that we’d grown up with that we saw on TV: Blur and bands like that. But we just wanted to make a particular kind of music, and we didn’t think of there being a mass audience for it. I think we always thought we’d be fairly culty in terms of our surprise. But I guess we did it in a way that there was more of an appeal for it than we might have suspected.

WW: From the outside, it seems that the last two years have been crazy for you guys, with all the ups and downs. Does it seem that way from your perspective as well?

GM: Yeah. I sometimes feel like we’ve condensed our career as a band – traditionally what we’ve done, bands would have done in five or six years.

WW: I hope you guys don’t end up with a shorter career as a result of that…

GM: It’s hard to say, really. It has been quite concentrated. And we’ve put out as much music as we could, and that was the main thing for us. We weren’t pinned into just touring music. We also had time to write it as well. That’s always important to us.

WW: Here in the States, there’s a perception of the British press as anointing a new savior every ten minutes or so. Is that a valid perception. Or is that a cliché that you guys wound up being associated with, because you guys were anointed as saviors, too?

GM: I think it still happens, although I don’t think the music press has the same power it did ten years ago. Now the music press is trying to catch up with radio and TV and the Internet in the way it breaks bands and reports on bands. But there was definitely a moment where we were anointed, and I think that would have gone to the heads of a lesser band. And we wouldn’t have had a work ethic. We would have just sat on it. But we’ve always had a healthy kind of suspicion of everything that went with that, and just tried to ignore it and went on with the music.

WW: So even as it was happening, you understood that this wasn’t something you could just ride along and enjoy – that you still had work to do?

GM: I think we were wary of it. In the beginning, we didn’t believe it would happen to us. And as it started to happen, we were so wary of it that we just didn’t trust any of it. And our own instincts have kind of gotten us through this period. Our whole career has gone on instinct, and I think we’ll stick to that.

WW: Does the hoopla part of it seem to be ebbing? Do you feel that you can do your work without as many distractions?

GM: I hope so. The third album, I’d like to think, we’ll get to make it in a little more in peace. The thing I get asked over and over again is, “Did you feel pressure in making your second record?” And sometimes I say, “Yeah,” because I think we did. But sometimes I say, “No,” because we tried to ignore the pressure. But there was expectation, definitely, and I’d like for us to be able to make music in a vacuum. That’s the ideal – to not be concerned with any sort of peripheral distractions or expectations.

WW: But you’re honest enough to say you knew there were a lot of people out there who were eager to hear what you were going to do, whether they were looking forward to hearing it, or looking forward to bashing it…

GM: Yeah, and that’s never going to change. Whatever point you are in your career, as long as you’re popular, people are going to have expectations. That’s what’s having an audience is about. But I just hope people will trust what we do, the moves we make.

WW: The new album is considered a departure from the first one. Was that conscious? When it came time to make the album, did you guys sit down and say, “There are too many bands doing the things that we had been doing. We’ve got to set ourselves apart”?

GM: Yeah. You could almost say we conceived it, instead of letting it happen. We actually chased change harder than we might have done if it had just been allowed to happen naturally. We tried to create as different a sound as possible, and I think we’ll continue to do that.

WW: What are the plusses and minuses of chasing that change rather than just letting it evolve?

GM: The plusses are you get to places you never expected you’d reach, and that’s great, because it’s a leap of faith in that sense. You hope that where you land is going to be interesting, and it was. We landed in the midst of quite an interesting phase and space of the sound. I think the drawbacks are, sometimes you can’t be as instinctive, and you follow paths maybe because you think you should, or at least you just want to see things through to their conclusion. And it’s only after you’ve done it that you can take stock. And I think maybe we might have done less of a certain kind of song and more of a different kind of a song. But I think there’s a lot of instinct involved anyway, and you just have to hope for the best.

WW: You need a lot of confidence to take that kind of leap. Was that the case with you guys? Were you confident that wherever you wound up would be a place you’d want to spend some time?

GM: I don’t think we really thought about it. We wanted to make a record. We didn’t want to have just a bunch of songs. So if you’re going to make a record, you’re not going to just bundle together a batch of songs and hope it floats. I think we went some way toward finding songs that had some cohesion. In terms of confidence, we’ve always been confident in the songs. The things that are interchangeable are the producers and the way it’s mixed and the videos and the choice of singles. Those things are interchangeable, but our confidence has always been in the songs.

WW: All of the songs are credited jointly to the band as a whole. But does Kele [Okereke] bring in most of the songs and then everyone works on them together to come up with something new?

GM: Kele brings in 90 percent of what we do as a rough idea. He’ll bring in a sketch and the rest of us color it in. That’s an easier way of putting it.

WW: Are there songs on the new album where the finished picture is very different from the initial sketch?

GM: Not radically, and that’s interesting, because that’s just what we were discussing. We just had a meeting to discuss where we were going on the next record and ideas for the future. We demoed everything bar one song for this record. The one we didn’t demo was “The Prayer.” That song we wrote in the studio. But other than that one song, everything on the record was already demoed and we had a version before we went into the studio. And I think we’re going to look at the idea of doing it more that way. To go in with sketchier ideas rather than having a demo of everything to work to.

WW: That suggests to me that you look at “The Prayer” as a successful experiment. Is that the case? And is that something you’d like to replicate next time around?

GM: It was harder for us as a band, because there was no blueprint. There was no right or wrong answer to the question that was posed by a very loose riff we had in the beginning. Usually, up to now, the most basic ideas start somewhere, but at the end, we all knew we’d arrived somewhere. With that song, we never knew we’d arrived until the very last moment, and that’s not always easy to do. But I think you’ve just got to follow it sometimes.

WW: Was that exciting for you – to not know where you were heading?

GM: It was a bit scary. You need someone to say, “All right. You’re finished.” I hope we’ll be able to keep picking the person who does that. It’s not always someone in the band who says, “You’re finished.” That’s what a producer should say: “You’ve got a song. Stop.”

WW: Is that what [producer] Jacknife Lee did in this case?

GM: We did take that song into a rehearsal space, and we said to ourselves, “We’re nearly there, but something’s missing. How will this work if we rearrange it as a band” – and we did. So in the end, it wasn’t one person who said, “You’re finished.” We just agreed that we’d found it. So I think we’ll ultimately trust a collective instinct in deciding that we’ve arrived somewhere. And that we like where we are.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts