For a long time it wasn’t even clear whether or not Bloc Party still existed. Kele Okereke’s solo record “The Boxer” brought a decent crowd onto the dancefloor and rumors stating the rest of the band prefered to rehearse without its singer didn’t really appease either. But in August, against all media-fabricated odds Bloc Party released “Four”: the fourth album, recorded by all four band members four years after the last album. And Bloc Party wouldn’t be Bloc Party if they hadn’t added at least four and fourty tour dates to accompany “Four”. Before their show in Dresden, I got the chance to talk to bassist Gorden Moakes about the nature of rumors, the ominous numeric name of the record and how music is and isn’t all about mathematics.
Since the release of “Four” you have been touring almost constantly. Could you describe in three words what this tour has been like so far?
Three Words, wow. It’s been French, it’s been kind of long, it’s been fulfilling. This time of year is never your favorite time for touring, in the cold. But especially since we’ve gone to Germany we are back in our top shape for playing and it’s been good to be back. We took a lot of time off and even though we’ve been touring for a lot of this year you can tell the difference between the good audiences and the bad ones. And we’re feeling like we are playing what we can play, which is great.
So there is some sort of curve in the way a tour develops?
Yeah. And the curve is always affected by how long you’ve been touring already before the tour starts, how much time off you’ve had. But also what the mood is like in the camp and just know what the shows are going like. Generally I find that it’s not till you’re so far through a tour that you’re playing as well as you can play. And we’re about there right now. And then you start to peak off at the end because you’re tired and you’ve been away for too long.
During the early 2000s there was this certain kind of musical vibe from the UK through bands like Franz Ferdinand, Art Brut, The Libertines and of course you. This British kind of Indie music was very influential on other bands from Britain and Europe in general. Since then the protagonists have developed into very different directions. What made you part of this scene during that time?
I think you summed it up. It was more about the time than necessarily the influences. We had influences in common with Franz Ferdinand at that point, we played shows together and it made sense. But that was ten years ago and everyone ages differently and matures in different ways. It’s always an achievement for any band to say they have been going for ten years, whatever music they make. And the fact that we’ve been out to explore different genres of music – or at least different ways of playing – and experiment over those ten years has meant that we’ve gone in our own direction, in which no other band would ever have gone in that time I suppose. But there was a mood in the air at that time, an excitement for guitar music after a period when it wasn’t for people. I think we’re back in a period now where guitar music isn’t exciting for people. But there will always be exceptions for that and I hope for us that we are a band that still is relevant to guitar music.
In 2011 there was this rumor that three members of the band were rehearsing together without the fourth and that Bloc Party was even looking for a new singer. As we know now you as a band spread this rumor as a hoax. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Well it was just a joke Kele made that was taken seriously. That’s in the past now. It was funny at the time but it also kind of struck us how rubbish the media really can be just jumping to conclusions and making a story out of things that aren’t true really.
To what extend did you rely on this gullibility of the music media in a way?
Not at all. It’s funny at the time to make a joke. You can see how it came back to haunt us, because the music media doesn’t like being dicked around with, frankly. So they will try and show you who is boss. It’s a very petty world. In some parts of the music media it’s people who are just careerists who are looking ultimately go work for the sunday papers and then get a book deal. A lot of these people don’t give a shit about music, frankly.
So you’d say there is a line between using the media to your advantage and being used by them?
I don’t think there are any winners in that. If you take sides it’s ridiculous, because a band can’t print its own media just like the media can’t make their own music. You have to totally resign yourself to the role you have in that situation, which is for us to make the music and try to ignore what they write about you. Even though obviously good print coverage sells records for bands and they know that. At its purest, the people who care about music want to write about the music they love and the bands will continue to support those writers. But if you screw with our system, if you try and think that you are bigger than what that is about, it will always come back to bite you on either side. You could call it a symbolic, parasitic dependency (laughs).
You once said that in the past years you put much effort in trying to sound at least as possible like yourselves, manipulating your music etc. Do you feel content now with the amount of self in your music?
That’s a good question. I like to think that we feel as happy as we ever have as four people contributing to a band where actually our selves are in the music. It’s hard to describe. For instance, the beat Matt wrote and the way he played it, when you hear our record, it is the sound of Matt, it is an expression of him. And it’s the same for me, when I play a bass line. Then it sounds as much as I would want it to sound and as a reflection of how I would play it. And that’s the point of this record, that we went as far as we could, in the sense that all bands are compromising. You can’t have four lead players in a band. That’s never going to work. But at least what you’re doing and the way it sounds is as honest as a representation is possible. And I think that we definitely achieved that.
Are you afraid that you might get tired of this amount of self?
No. That’s an interesting thought. For a band to work it’s got to be a collective effort that supersedes any kind of self interest on any party. You could only say that one person shows to much self in a record. I don’t think we can all show too much self on our record. Unless there was fifteen bass solos on the record I think I’m probably not ever going to feel like that.
In some German music media there were some hints on what kind of records Kele listened to prior to making this record. What were your major inspirations?
I’ve always said that I listen to a lot of Heavy Rock and Hardcore and things, and that hasn’t changed. We all were listening to things that Kele suggested, really. It could have been anything from Aphex Twin to Deftones to Faith no More to Donna Summer. I think record by record you just focus on what you’re good at and it kind of comes more intuitively rather than from directly listening to records. You just get better at what you do.
Can you plan on getting inspiration just by saying “Now we need to write a new record and now I’m going to listen to those three records to get inspiration from”? Do you think it could work that way?
It can. If you limit yourself to listening to a number of records, that can put you into a certain space. But I think you have to find something within those records that is innately inspiring. To take the Deftones as an example: In order to listen to those records, I’d listen to the way the drums work, I’d be listening to how crunchy and how overlayed the guitars are. You’re listening not just for a sort of technique but for the production of records. There are so many things you can analyze on a record if you chose to look at it from an analytical point of view. But some records give you a feeling and that is where inspiration comes from. What we do quite often is, Kele has quite his way of listening to records, it’s more abstract in a way. He’ll put things on for us that we either don’t know or haven’t heard he’ll say “Listen to how the bass appears against the beat” or whatever it is. You just come at it from a particular direction and to be able to do that in demand is not easy, but it’s all about opening your ears to something. There is a grey area in saying exactly how you’ve been inspired by something, unless you’ve set out very particularly to rip something off without it sounding like you have. We’ve done that too in a way, without knowing and without telling each other that we took something. But not directly. You take something and you play it differently and ultimately it becomes something else.
That’s how inspiration works. You can be very specific, you can be quite abstract. It’s like opening a door onto a journey, you’ve got to have a starting point. You can’t just go out into a room and say “Okay, let’s write something bluesy and see”. Some bands do this and they’re just jamming. But we’re not that kind of band. We’ll just play around aimlessly as musicians unless somebody says “Okay, let’s try writing something in this tempo, that’s got this sprit”. Russel will just klick on a guitar pedal that has a particular sound and I’ll just follow where he is going or I’ll go against it. There’s a bit of magic in there somewhere. And that’s what you can’t really describe.
The title of your record is “Four” and it contains songs with titles like “Octopus”, “3 x 3” or “Day four”. What’s up with all the numbers?
Well, the starting point was just being very objective about what a band was. It was our fourth record, that tied in with the fact that there are four of us, which was the first idea we had with this record – that it would be a very simple portrait of four people. I don’t know if that opened up a channel for Kele to have more numeric stuff or if it was a coincidence, because those came from him. So I couldn’t say.
Some people say thirteen is for bad luck, do you relate certain numbers to something?
I have always avoided superstition. But I’m interested in how numbers become symbolic in cultures. I read that in Japan four is an unlucky number, whereas in Western Europe thirteen is the bogey number and I’ve aways liked the number thirteen. I’ve always liked odd numbers, it’s sort of playing with symmetry. And also in music everything is numerical, even if you don’t realize it. Most rock songs are in four, we’ve written stuff in six and even in five, I’ve written a song in eleven, but that’s getting a bit more complicated. You’re surrounded by numbers in music, even if you don’t know it really and I guess sometimes you play up to that and sometimes you don’t.
My music teacher in high school always said music basically IS mathematics.
Yeah, but then actually most things are, when boiled down to it. Physics is all mathematics, our world is made of physics and particles are all mathematics. So ultimately you can describe the whole world in mathematics. And I’m not going down this route but there are some people who would argue that we simply are mathematics, that we are just like a visual representation of mathematics.
There is this thing called arithmophobia. It’s a basic fear of numbers, you could say. How would you convince a person with arithmophobia to listen to your record?
We’ve been talking about music being numbers, but you can also say that music isn’t numbers, that it’s all pure emotion really. You can give songs titles and can count music in songs, but you can also listen to it in a quite abstract way that hasn’t to do with any of those things. I would say, if you have arithmophobia, it’s probably best not to buy a physical copy. Have somebody buy it for you, put it onto the iPod nano that doesn’t have a screen, and then it’s just music, that’s all there is.
The song “Kettling” on the record refers to the occupy movement.
Well, it was inspired by the occupy movement, it’s not directly sort of pro occupy.
Would you consider Bloc Party a political band?
Ultimately I have to say no. In the beginning, when we started forging ideas and trying things out, on one level you could have said that. But then again it depends how you feel it. I think songs like “Uniform” – that is quite pointedly political. It’s just not lecturing from a point of view. I think that’s the point: the politics in the music is on a personal level. And that’s fine, in lots of ways I like bands that are overtly political. But we’re never going to be that. I think there is a role for both, so I’m happy with that.
Is it possible or might it be possible to change, let’s not say the world, but political circumstances through music or as a musician?
I would say that it’s really important that people hold on to that concept, because otherwise then you’d say what I do is a hobby and I do it just for me, which is often the case. But people setting out to make music should see it as being a doorway to the possible and doing anything, whether it’s change or just keeping the status quo. I believe in an idea and that it could be possible. But whether it’s possible or whether it might actually happen is a whole other story. But I’m a romantic, I believe in that, sure.