"I think that between the four of us there's a kind of unspoken guilt, really, that we're lucky enough to be able to do this for a living where many of our friends have to really struggle from day to day."
Matt Tong, drummer for the UK nouveau-post-punk sensation Bloc Party, is reflecting on the vagaries of success and how they have flavored the band's new material. It's a subject much on Tong's mind of late, as BP is in the studio placing finishing touches on the still-untitled follow-up to 2005's Silent Alarm.
"It's almost become a concept album, in a fashion," he muses. "Most of the action seems to take place around the weekend. I think one of the recurrent themes is the way people use their time away from the office or whatever job they do."
The new songs seem to be merging form and function in a unique way. As the record started shaping up into a series of songs chronicling the leisure-time pursuits of the working class (read: dancing and partying at clubs), the spare, rhythmic attack of the band's trademark sound started to become considerably more dance-oriented in the process.
"We didn't really wanna repeat Silent Alarm, but we did want to somehow maintain some elements that would make people realize it was us." One thing that's changed is the use of electronics on this record. "We've tried to embrace newer forms of technology without sounding too...clichd.
"I think that this time a lot of what we've done has been sort of influenced by chart R&B," Tong elaborates. "[Guitarist-singer] Kele [Okereke] is a really big fan of Amerie and her song 'One Thing,' which is a great pop song. I think one of the things we've tried to take from R&B is the inventiveness of the arrangements, really, more than anything else: the way the vocals work together and the way that stripping down the song can actually create a lot of room for vocal interplay. A lot of the ideas of how this band works were formulated on the dance floor, really. There were definitely periods in Kele and [guitarist] Russell [Lissack's] lives where they were going to clubs and taking in many different kinds of music, which all got channeled into what we currently do."
To this end, the band hired semi-superstar producer Garrett "Jacknife" Lee, who made his reputation manning the board on recordings by acts like Basement Jaxx and TLC.
"As a producer, Garrett's an extra ear in the process, really," says Tong. "And one that's not afraid to disagree with us as well, y'know? And I think it's important that you have that trust. It's a totally collaborative effort, really, and we always try to choose people to work with who can really add something."
What's being added in this case is a bit more in the way of texture than Bloc Party fans may be expecting. "Some of the drum sounds have been augmented," Tong readily confesses. "And we've definitely put more keyboards in there. [Lee] obviously has quite a strong history in dance music, and we're kind of wrestling with his ideas as well." One thing about earlier BP work is how strong the beats are, the rhythms sometimes threatening to overwhelm traditional musical elements such as, say, melody and harmony. "We always try to work from the rhythm upwards, really. This time we've tried to round the sound off a bit, though. I think some of the earlier stuff was perhaps a bit too drum-led. Which is weird to say since I'm the drummer..."
This is a band that's built a reputation on its brittle, propulsive, stripped-down live show, the feel of which was captured perfectly on such Silent Alarm cuts as "Helicopter," "She's Hearing Voices" and the increasingly topical "Price of Gas." The new material, some of which BP will be road-testing at their Warehouse Live gig on Wednesday, could be an eye-opening experience for both audience and band.
"There will always be a tension and a slight aggression at the heart of what we do," opines Tong, "but I think we're quite intent on conjuring up these elaborate textures. I think half the fun of touring this time will be trying to figure out how we can replicate the new stuff in a valid way on stage. No one wants to hear the album performed exactly. I think the problem with trying to play everything as recorded is that you lose out on spontaneity, the inherent rawness of rock music, really."
As for using ancillary musicians to help fill out the sound, Tong says, "it's something we talked about; I don't know that it would necessarily happen in the immediate future. I think there are other ways of getting around that. We certainly haven't ruled it out, but it's more of a challenge for us to try and do it as a four-piece. And the incongruities that brings up could be interesting, I think, as well."
This will be the first time Bloc Party has played in Houston, even though their first album is more than a year old and the follow-up is almost finished. "We're at a strange point, because the album life cycle is vastly different in the States than the cycle you get in the UK, where bands are definitely picked up on very quickly just because of the comparative size of the two countries. Obviously, when it comes to the States, there are a lot of places we haven't even been to yet."
As for specific plans for the night of the Houston show, Bloc Party appears to have water on the brain. "Seriously, if there's anyone in Houston who'll spring for a pool party for after the gig," says Tong, somewhat mischievously, "that'd be good. We wanted to get some pool party action going last time we were in Texas, but it hasn't happened. God, it's going to be so hot down there."
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