By Jim Schutze
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"That was a song we wrote in the winter of 2002," says Bloc Party's Kele Okereke in the midst of a fitful, mostly mumbled explanation of how his song "Like Eating Glass" evolved. "It was kind of..." He stops, then starts again. "I'd heard a remix version of the Smiths' song 'There Is a Light That Never Goes Out' and..." He pauses again. "The important thing was to make something..."
Okereke isn't being purposefully cagey, as is often the case with the leader of a super-hyped, over-interviewed band such as Bloc Party. Rather, the dangling phrases and pregnant pauses come because he's searching for the right words. And when they emerge, they tumble out of his mouth like the manic drumbeat that opens "Like Eating Glass."
"That remix of 'There Is a Light,' it just obsessed me," he begins again. "And I wanted to make a song like that, one that was aching and melodic and yet at the same time insistent, with a real groove. That was the initial idea, and then it took us ages and ages to get it right. The drums, especially, they were..." Okereke falls off once more before finally offering, "We beat that song into shape."
Talk to Okereke for just a few minutes, and you'll begin to understand the way Bloc Party songs are made. The act's sound and its hypnotic, hyperactive live shows seem to be the work of either demon possession or divine intervention--or possibly both. But the Party's evolution was as slow and deliberate as Okereke's delivery.
"I guess you could say that the band started when I met Russell Lissak, our guitarist," he recalls. "This was in '98. I was in school at the time, and I knew I wanted to start a band. What I liked right off the bat about Russell was his restraint. He paid attention to the little things. And I've always believed that making music is about observing the minute. The difference between a good album and an amazing one is in the details."
It was another two years before Bloc Party picked up its third member, bassist Gordon Moakes. By that point, both Okereke and Lissak had plunged themselves into the club culture of their East London neighborhood, an immersion that marked the group's first major progression.
"When Russell and I first started playing together," Okereke says, "we were doing mainly, you know, straight-up guitar rock. Or, if not quite straight-up, then certainly something very much influenced by what was in the mainstream around that time, bands like Blur and Radiohead. But when we started going to clubs, our whole approach changed. We were hearing atmosphere, space, rhythm in an entirely new way. It wasn't until Matt joined the band, though, that we were really able to explore those ideas."
Timekeeper Matt Tong, Bloc Party's newest member, came aboard in 2003. Although drummer issues are a rite of passage for many bands, the Party members' recruitment efforts are already legendary back in their native England: At one point, Okereke, Lissak and Moakes were so desperate to round out their rhythm section, they literally went knocking on doors. Giving up, however, was never an option.
"Matt recently told me that it was my drive that got him to join the band," Okereke says with a rare laugh. "He'd been in a bunch of bands that weren't going anywhere, he said, but when he met me, he could tell I wasn't the type to screw around."
In turn, Bloc Party discovered the key to its sound: a drummer with a genuinely inventive and expansive concept of "rock" drumming.
"We had become so focused on rhythm," Okereke says, "on using new kinds of rhythms, on building songs around the beats, that it was essential that our drummer be able to run with our ideas. That's why it took so long for us to find one."
The long wait paid off. Mere months after Tong joined the band, in what's now another piece of Party lore, Okereke was emboldened to send a demo disc and cordial note to Alex Kapranos, front man of Franz Ferdinand. The then-buzz band promptly anointed its successor by inviting Bloc Party to open at a show attended by more than a few music-industry heavyweights. For the public at large, the rest is history. For Okereke, though, the reality is a bit more complicated.
"Like I was saying, about 'Like Eating Glass,'" Okereke says. "That song had been kicking around for about a year before we really started to make it work. And it was Matt joining that did it. But even then, it took us four months working on it in the rehearsal space before we were ready to play the song live, and then once we were playing it live, that changed the song again. And then it changed even more when we went into the studio."
"For me, a song is never finished," he goes on. "There's always some way to trim it down, refine it, play with the arrangement. I know a lot of bands operate more instinctively--and absolutely, a lot of what we do begins and ends with instinct. But I don't see any reason not to take something that seems done but not quite and spin it on its axis. And if that works, then it's about the details again."
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a musician so attuned to the nuance of his music, Okereke is at least as proud of the invisible details of his songs as he is of their overall impression.
"We work really hard to create something whole and coherent and special," he says, "but for me, it's often the little things that make me appreciate what we've done. Like, I remember the first time I listened to the playback of 'This Modern Love'--I started crying right at the part where the backing vocals come in on the second chorus. I mean, it was so perfect--so perfectly what we'd set out to make, a song that's, like, two people on the telephone, who can't touch each other, and as the song and the conversation progress, everything amplifies. What starts out small and static, just rhythm and vocals, intensifies the way that conversation intensifies, intensifies to the point where you have the guitars and the glockenspiel and the extra vocal tracks..."
He trails off again, but this time he's not searching for words. "It still gets me, that part," he says. "Even now, we've played that song hundreds of times, and sometimes when I hear that shift happen, it overwhelms me. It's always new."