Russell Lissack of Bloc Party: ‘I can’t wait for people to see us playing the new songs’

Bloc Party
Bloc Party
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For a band 15 years and five albums in to their careers, four-piece indie rockers Bloc Party have found themselves rejuvenated.

It’s common enough for bands to return after a period of inactivity and claim that they’ve regained their joie de vivre, when in fact they all hate each other and are desperately trying to hold things together for one more touring cycle.

However, for Bloc Party, who now boast an entirely new rhythm section, it rings more true than for most.

They are about to release a new album Hymns on January 29, and are headlining the NME Awards Tour along with Drenge, Rat Boy and Bugzy Malone, which stops off at the O2 Guildhall in Southampton on Saturday, January 30.

Bloc Party are an act that appear to have thrived on inter-band friction – they put things ‘on hiatus’ before after third album Intimacy, when charismatic frontman Kele Okereke pursued a solo career.

But after their last album, cunningly titled Four, drummer Matt Tong and then bassist Gordon Moakes left the band.

I think a lot of the stuff on the record sounds a little deceptive – it may not sound completely like it’s a live band playing, but everything on it is played live, and that was really important to us when we were doing the recording

Russell Lissack of Bloc Party

This left the songwriting nucleus of Okereke and fellow founder, guitarist Russell Lissack.

And as Lissack explains it now, the departure of their drummer and bassist wasn’t so much the end of Bloc Party, but the chance to start over.

‘In a way it was kind of the opposite of the end,’ Russell told WOW247. ‘It was the beginning again, I think.

‘The way things were for us at the end of 2013, we were touring and no-one was really enjoying what we were doing – some people less than others, and it got to the point where we couldn’t continue as we were.

‘It could have been the end, but the fact that Kele and I wanted to continue, and we found new people, it was the opportunity for us to have a fresh start.’

Russell and Kele began meeting up towards the end of 2014 to start songwriting again.

New bassist Justin Harris had been a long-term friend of the band ever since they played together on tour back in 2009 – Justin is also part of cult American rock act Menomena.

‘I think it was they happened to be taking a break for an unspecified length of time and we needed a talented bass player, so it was very fortunate that it happened to pan out that way.’

While the album features more influences from electronic music than before, there are still the nagging riffs that long-term fans will recognise.

And although Kele and Russell were the main writers on Hymns, Justin joined in time to feature on Hymns.

Did they ever think about following in the footsteps of other British musicians like The Cribs and Johnny Marr and relocating to Justin’s home of Portland?

‘Yeah, we talked about it at one point and thought it might be nice to go to Justin, but the practicalities of it didn’t make sense, ultimately. It would’ve been multiple people going there, when it could be just one person coming here.’

And he laughs: ‘We’ve bullied Justin into moving to London now – he’s a Londoner at the moment.’

The 21-year-old drummer Louise Bartle was discovered via YouTube.

‘It’s been really fun playing everything and learning some old songs we haven’t played for a long time.

‘Louise is really young and she’s a brilliant drummer, she can play anything we throw at her – she picks everything up really quickly, which is nice because I’m quite impatient,’ he laughs.

‘It’s nice to have someone you can say to: “Can you learn this?” And she comes in the next day and knows it better than everybody else.

‘It’s cool having someone who’s experiencing all of this for the first time – playing shows to people and travelling to different countries – her excitement has been quite contagious.’

It’s also given them a new dimension when playing live.

‘There’s definitely a different vibe – whenever you play with anyone different there’s going to be a change in the chemistry but the energy has been really good.

‘Not to talk ill of the other guys, we know we had a lot of great times, but certainly towards the end there was a lot of negative energy which made it not so much fun, but it’s been overwhelmingly positive for us at the moment.’

The title of the new album was inspired by Okereke seeing a talk by one of his favourite authors, Hanif Kureishi, discussing evangelical art and how unfashionable it has become. The frontman began to think about how he would express a spiritual dimension, without being religious.

‘It’s not really something that we discussed before we started writing the songs,’ says Russell, ‘but Kele did say at the very beginning that he wanted to call this album Hymns, and just having that title kind of helped set a tone for what we would do and I guess some of the music he was sending me to draw inspiration for.

‘Rather than an album that’s trying to draw a religious message, it’s a record that’s inspired by religion from his childhood experience.

‘There’s an atmosphere there that implies things without imposing a specific message.’

The band’s debut album, Silent Alarm, was a critical hit, with sales to match – going platinum in the UK. It was nominated for the 2005 Mercury Prize and featured in numerous end of year ‘best of’ lists – topping the NME’s albums of the year, ahead of Arcade Fire’s debut Funeral.

They also took part in that year’s NME Awards Tour with The Killers, The Futureheads and Kaiser Chiefs.

Being back on the NME tour more than a decade later feels like things coming full circle for Russell.

‘It’s funny, it’s one of kind of a lot of things that have fallen together and made it feel, for me at least, like I did when we started this band – the kind of writing in a room with Kele, the NME tour, there’s been various elements which make it feel like we’re doing it again for the first time, which is a nice thing to have.

‘It goes back to having the new members – it’s easy to get a little blase about things when you’ve been doing it for a few years. But even the little things seem exciting again.’

So is this line-up for keeps, then?

‘Yeah, definitely. We’re kind of all writing together now for the first time, all four of us. We’re trying to get as much of that done as we can in soundchecks and things, and we’re already thinking about what we’re going to do.

‘It is a bit weird as this album’s not even out yet from other people’s perspective and we’re already looking to the next one.’

But that’s not to say the band are already looking past this album – Russell’s suitably bullish about taking it out and playing it to their fans.

‘I can’t wait for people to see us playing it, I think it really takes it to the next level and it comes to life in the venues.

‘I think a lot of the stuff on the record sounds a little deceptive – it may not sound completely like it’s a live band playing, but everything on it is played live, and that was really important to us when we were doing the recording, to get in a room together and play all the songs and bring them all to life before we recorded them, and that’s the part I’m looking forward to most – playing it to people.’

n Bloc Party headline The NME Awards Tour at O2 Guildhall, Southampton on Saturday, January 30. Doors 7pm. Tickets £29. Go to o2guildhallsouthampton.co.uk
CHRIS BROOM