Though they knew a bit about each other, when Bloc Party singer Kele Okereke and guitarist Russell Lissack first officially met in 1998 in London, they didn't really know that much.
"I had been making music by myself and it was something that I felt passionate about," says Okereke, who would eventually form Bloc Party after meeting bassist Gordon Moakes and drummer Matthew Tong. "Russell was a friend of a friend I had at school. He didn't go to my school. He wasn't actually at school at the time. He was just at home playing his guitar and I saw him in a cover band and I thought he was a good guitarist. I thought he would be a good person to work with."
That's a bit of an understatement. Like the Smiths' Johnny Marr and Morrissey or Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke, Okereke and Lissack have a distinctive chemistry.
"I think that's something that fluctuates," Okerke says when asked about their working relationship. "I don't know if we always are on the same page. I think we come from different worlds. That is maybe less apparent than when we started. We all have different musical identities. The one thing that binds us is that we trust each other. You might not always see eye to eye on everything but it's important that everyone expresses themselves because it's a collaboration and everyone has to feel that they contributed."
That "collaboration" has made Bloc Party into one of the decade's best Brit-pop exports. The band quickly established itself on its 2005 debut, Silent Alarm, an album of angular guitar riffs that combined the melodic side of Brit-pop acts like Blur and Elastica with darker forerunners such as Joy Division and The Stranglers.
"For us, it was the first record we ever made and we just made a record," he says. "We locked ourselves away for that one month in Copenhagen and we made the record and released it. When it went on to connect to so many people, we were surprised as anyone else. We have an intensity to our music that maybe not so many other British bands have or had. That must have some impact. I have no idea what people see in what we do, but I am glad that they do."
The British music mag NME voted Silent Alarm album of the year and it drew comparisons to Gang of Four. While that was meant to be taken as a compliment, Okerke objected at the time simply because he hadn't spent any time listening to the great British post-punk band.
"When I did find out who they were, I wasn't that into it," he says of the Gang of Four comparison. "I understand that people see things in your music that you might not see yourself. I understand that. To me, they aren't an influence at all. I know they kind of were for one member of the band so I don't want to completely disparage them. For me, the sounds that we were using seemed more current. The sounds that were exciting me were bands like Elastica or Blur or Pavement or Smashing Pumpkins. There was contemporary rock music that I was into. I was a bit blindsided by it, but it doesn't bother me now. Four records in, people have an idea about what we are as a band."
The band successfully followed Silent Alarm up with 2007's A Weekend in the City and 2008's Intimacy but hit a major speed bump in 2009 when band members decided it was time to take a break. Burned out from five years of touring, the guys needed a chance to catch their breaths.
"We released a record every year and then would go back into the studio for six months and then release another record and tour for a year," Okerke says. "It was starting to feel like we were losing track of our lives. We needed some distance and space. That's what we got. It was the best thing we did."
When the band reconvened in 2011, it recruited Alex Newport (At the Drive-In, Mars Volta) to produce last year's Four, which was recorded at the studio that former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha owns in New York.
"He was great," Okerke says of working with Newport. "He was a really unobtrusive presence. He knew we wanted to make something that felt lean and honest. He was constantly there to keep us on track. It was one of the nicest recording experiences we've had. I was living in New York at the time. I was walking to the studio every day and it was a beautiful spring as well so it felt very easy."
Despite the fact that Okerke was in such a good frame of mind, the album has a much darker tone, something that's apparent right from the feedback that leads into the opening tune, "So He Begins to Lie." Okerke sounds a bit like Johnny Rotten as he sneers and stutters.
"I think it's more of a confrontational record," Okerke says. "We were listening a lot to [The Pixies'] Surfer Rosa and [Nirvana's] Bleach and White Pony by the Deftones. We wanted to make something abrasive and ugly sounding and quite lean. I don't know if we got there but it pushed us in a different direction. It's weird thinking about some of the lyrics and how they're some of the most aggressive and angry things I've ever sung, but I was in a Zen place. I had been living in New York and was meditating. I had no worries at all and was living this semi-Bohemian lifestyle and waking up and walking around and reading. I was in a good place. I don't know where the anger comes from at all."
The leaner and meaner sound doesn't reflect any internal tension within the group. In fact, Okerke says the guys have recorded an EP that will be out by summer's end. They've worked some of the new songs into the live show, too.
"So long as the four of us are into it and expressing ourselves in the most honest way we can, that's the only thing that matters," he says. "There's going to be lots of music over the course of our careers and I understand that. It's about doing the best you can at the time you have. Once it's done, you move onto the next one. There's no point in thinking about how things were."
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