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Bloc Party - A Banquet of New Sounds

The UK-based indie band, Bloc Party, gained prominence in the music scene in September 2003, following on the heels of the Franz Ferdinand-led post-punk revival, when they managed to get their demo into the hands of BBC Radio One DJ, Steve Lamacq. The foursome – proclaimed by UK weekly music magazine, NME, as “the coolest new band in 2004” – has been around since 2002, going through various name changes such as Superheroes of BMX, The Angel Range, Diet and Union before emerging as Bloc Party. Lead singer, Kele Okereke, and guitarist, Russell Lissack, who have always been at the core of all of Bloc Party’s other incarnations, met through mutual friends while attending neighbouring schools in Essex. In 1999, when they ran into each other at the Reading Festival, they decided to start a band together and would spend subsequent months perfecting their song-writing skills in their bedrooms.
Okereke, born in Liverpool to devoutly Catholic Nigerian parents, opted not to mention anything to his family about his decision to abandon his pursuit of an English literature degree in favour of a musical career until after a record contract was signed. In various interviews, Okereke has mentioned a lack of support from his parents right up until the band started to take off. Similarly, Lissack found himself dropping out of university, where he’d been three months away from the completion of a sociology degree, to chase after his dream of being in a band.
Bassist Gordon Moakes was brought into the fold in early 2000 when he answered an advertisement that Okereke and Lissack placed in music weekly, NME, citing influences such as “Sonic Youth, Joy Division, Pixies and DJ Shadow”. The final member, drummer Matt Tong, was asked by Okereke, who met Tong through a mutual friend, to audition after the band had gone through eight other drummers. Bournemouth-bred Tong had arrived in London to study music technology, with the blessing of his mother, who encouraged him to “just do what you love” and start a band. Tong’s frenetic style quickly won over the other three bandmates and soon, Bloc Party was formed --- a name chosen as a melding of the political terms eastern “bloc” and western “parties”, but which ultimately, “looked, sounded, seemed fine so we went with it,” according to Moakes on the band’s official site. Things started rolling when frontman, Okereke, managed to get a copy of the band’s demo into the hands of both Franz Ferdinand singer,
Alex Kapranos, and BBC Radio One DJ, Steve Lamacq at a Franz Ferdinand concert. The single was inspired by the experiences of a friend of Okereke’s who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia --- and like so many of the other songs to follow, Bloc Party lyrics would weave somewhat dark narratives into pulsating music punctuated by edgy guitar rock and Tong’s manic drumming. Steve Lamacq would play the demo on his show and later invite the band to record a live session, which led to an invite from Franz Ferdinand to play with them at the Domino label’s anniversary celebration. Bloc Party would eventually wind up signing with indie label, Wichita, and roll out their critically-acclaimed debut disc, “Silent Alarm” in February 2005. While the single, “So Here We Are” cracked the top five on UK charts, the subsequent singles, “Banquet” and “Helicopter” only managed to make it into the top 20. As the boys prepped for a UK tour in October 2005, “Silent Alarm” was re-released with the inclusion of the new track, “Two More Years” to coincide with the tour launch. By the end of 2005, the band was placed second in the BBC’s “Sounds of 2005” list of promising new acts --- a list culled from the opinions of more than 100 music writers and DJs. Bloc Party found themselves on tour in November, supporting Panic! At The Disco’s first stadium tour, only to have things grind to halt three shows in, when Tong suffered from a collapsed lung and the band had to bow out as a result. Later, Bloc Party would admit to having reservations about joining the tour, given the fact that Panic! At The Disco’s fan base seemed to be made up predominantly of young girls.
This fact make Bloc Party seem like the unlikeliest candidate to support Panic! At The Disco, though both groups had hoped to broaden their appeal to a wider audience through the tour. Okereke noted more friend requests on the popular site, MySpace, after the short stint with Panic! At The Disco, even though Bloc Party already enjoyed a strong following in the blog universe. In a January 2007 interview with Spin, the band noted that the blog hype generated in the UK and on the band’s official message boards had always been intense, with fans dissecting lyrics and searching for meaning in each new release. With positive reviews in both the press and in the blogosphere, Okereke resolved to push himself lyrically with the band’s sophomore effort. In a Guardian Unlimited interview with Craig McLean in early 2007, Okereke said, “One of the things I was most disappointed about with ‘Silent Alarm’ was I was hiding behind abstraction. Then I really got into The Smiths. The lyrics were amazing, so focused. There’s no worse sin as an artist than hiding behind cliches and abstraction. If you have something to stay, it should be able to be understood by everyone. So I wanted to make sure this album had a real centre.” Okereke had also said the band wanted to try to capture the idea of life in “a living, breathing city, and not have it be clouded by one person’s view.” On the band’s official website, they declare the aptly-named “A Weekend In The City” to be “an electrifying and staggeringly direct chronicle of post-millennial Britain.” The first single, “The Prayer” was made available on the band’s MySpace in November 2006 and seemed to signal a turn for a darker sound in a marked departure from what was offered up in “Silent Alarm.” The follow-up album, produced by Jackknife Lee, was released in February 2007 and would exhibit Okereke’s attempts to delve into more personal and political subjects such as racism and homosexuality. Okereke has been notoriously tight-lipped on the status of his sexual orientation, despite having made comparisons to other bisexual frontmen like Morrissey and Brian Molko of Placebo. Various tracks on “A Weekend In The City” have seemed to explore the issue of homosexuality --- most notably, “I Still Remember”, which recounts memories of a chance not taken. Okereke sings, “We left our trousers by the canal/And our fingers they almost touched…I kept your tie/I’d have gone wherever you wanted…I should have kissed you by the water/I still remember.” The intensely private Okereke has often voiced his distaste for interviews that pry into his personal life, preferring to focus on his band’s music. Okereke has cited in various interviews that three pivotal news events in the UK helped to lyrically mould the shape of the sophomore album. He has noted the racist attack and subsequent stabbing death of family friend, Christopher Aleneme, the fatal beating of gay bartender David Morley in South Bank and the 2005 London bombings as subjects which he touches on in various tracks in “A Weekend In The City”. In “Where Is Home”,
Okereke is making reference to the hate crime committed against Christopher Aleneme, but seems to also tap into his own disenchantment with life as a Black man growing up in the UK. On the track, he sings, “We all read what they did to the Black boy. In every headline we are reminded that this is not home for us.” Despite this turn into exploring much more political issues, the band has expressed a wariness towards performing at charity gigs. Gordon Moakes has said that the band almost decided to take a pass on the Live Earth concert helmed by Al Gore to raise awareness about global warming. At an interview with Contact Music, Moakes said, “I’m a bit wary of the idea. It’s almost like an easy option. That’s the danger – the fatigue that goes with seeing a really high-profile gig being televised, not thinking what it's about. I'm whole-heartedly behind the idea that it's to raise consciousness, not money. It's an important cause to get behind." Bloc Party is slated to appear at the Live Earth concert July 7, 2007 at Wembley Stadium, as the band’s popularity continues to mount. To date, Bloc Party’s songs have been featured in “The Wedding Crashers”, “Grey’s Anatomy”, “CSI: NY”, “The O.C.”, “Entourage” and various commercials including the 2006 Saturn ad.