Earlier this year, Bloc Party released their fifth studio album, ‘Hymns’. After going on a second hiatus and assembling a new line-up, including Louise Bartle on drums and Justin Harris on bass, the band are ready for a revival. bite spoke to lead guitarist, Russell Lissack, about the new album and what it takes to maintain a long-lasting band relationship.
What are you doing differently on this album?
I’ve been trying to push the limit for what I can actually do with the guitar. In the whole of this record there’s a lot of new sounds that we haven’t used before, but everything is still going through my gigantic FX pedal board.
Do you ever surprise yourself with new techniques that you haven’t used before?
Now we’ve started to tour I’ve had to get a new pedal board so that we can actually play the new songs live and I think it was exciting for both of us [Lissack & Kele]. A lot of the stuff I was playing in the past hinted at manipulating things with my hands – playing things through the guitar and then scrambling around on the floor, playing with the FX pedals at the same time. Now it’s taking that to the next level by being able to play the guitar and manipulating the sound in that way at the same time.
You’ve got quite a variety on the record – some of the songs seem more stripped back or even sparse, while others are definitely dance tracks. Was that mix important to you when making the album?
Yes, I think I could put a case for that being how we’ve approached every record we’ve made, they’ve all sort of had an eclectic feel to them. We’ve written a lot of different types of songs and I guess that’s just the way we go about doing things. I think it’s just a natural way we write music, to have one idea and then try and do something completely different to keep the process interesting.
Back in 2005, Kele said Bloc Party are a “postmodern band” and that you don’t want to rely on nostalgia and just go along with the guitar, rock-band/Brit Pop band kind of sounds. Is that still important to you, do you not want to be tied down to any kind of label, or do you think Bloc Party, now in 2015, has a particular genre?
That’s funny that you said that, because that definitely rings true now, more than ever. You can go through our catalogue of music over the last ten years and I don’t think we’ve ever tried to repeat ourselves, we’ve always tried to do something different. Even from one record to the next, it’s always kind of a reaction to what we’ve just done. We’ve made an album and now it’s time to do something different.
Do you think that’s the secret behind being able to have a long running band? Is it important to keep trying to be fresh or should that just come naturally?
It’s always been important to us, I think it’s probably the thing we bonded over in the first place – a dislike of artists that just repeat themselves, that have maybe one idea and that was kind of it and didn’t seem to push themselves creatively. For us it was always more exciting to try and do something new and different. Even what we were saying at the beginning about the different sounds, the sonic FX, again I think that’s what we bonded over in the first place. Even when I first started playing guitar, learning how to play with my friends rather than learning how to play scales and things like that – we just wanted to learn how to make crazy noises basically. That’s still something that stimulates us.
Kele has talked about revisiting his childhood hymns and listening to devotional music to write this album, which makes sense when you’re listening to the lyrics. Did you do anything to prepare, musically, to match that hymnal theme?
I don’t think I prepared… on the one hand I brought the things that were inspiring at the time we were making the record to Kele and said “what do you think of this”, and he said “that’s exciting, let’s see how we can use this in the context of the song.” In other cases he would suggest to me, “can you try this, or something like this?”, or would describe something and see how I would interpret it. But there wasn’t an overall kind of game plan, like “let’s make this record fit the title “Hymns””. Kele threw the title out there very early on to see how it might almost subliminally influence how I would approach things.
Has the involvement of Justin and Louise changed the band’s dynamic or sound in any way?
I think in terms of dynamic, it’s having more of an influence on the live performances. We’ve just kind of started playing and touring with Justin and Louise for the first time in the last few months, so the new dynamic has been onstage. It’s been really positive.
Did you have any words of wisdom or reassurance for them?
I think it’s different for them because Justin had already been in a band, an American band called Menomena – he had ten years or so of experience, whereas Louise is 21 and all of this is quite new for her. So she’s always asking us for advice and is soaking things up a bit more at the moment. It’s also really nice having someone with us who is experiencing some of these things for the first time, is super excited about it all and very optimistic and enthusiastic.
What made you reach out to YouTube to find a new drummer?
It wasn’t a specific plan – let’s find a drummer on YouTube. It was more that we needed a drummer and were thinking about people we knew in other bands, friends and were just asking around. Our friends and people we know knew we were looking for a drummer and started sending us links to things they’d found and so on. So someone stumbled across this video of Louise and sent it to us. We got to see her playing and we were really impressed, so we asked her if she wanted to meet up to see how we all got on and try jamming together. Yeah it all kind of came together nicely from there.
So you and Kele met when you were in your teens and now you’re in your thirties – how do you think being in a band influences a long term friendship?
Haha we’re bitter enemies now but we get on with it. No, it’s difficult but it becomes more than a friendship I guess, it becomes more like a big relationship. It’s someone you end up spending a lot of time with. We go on tour for long periods of time, we live on a bus together, we spend days in the studio and so on. You don’t spend that much time with anyone else in your life, even if you live with a friend or a partner – generally you go to university or go to work and have a lot of time apart. It’s a truly unique position where you spend so much time with the same people. On the one hand, obviously that can lead to problems. Spending that much time with people can become like a version of Big Brother and those people end up fighting after three days. It can go that way, but then on the other hand it can also end up making some of the strongest friendships and relationships you have in your life.