Founded in 1999 at the Reading Festival (the world’s oldest popular music festival still in existence) by school friends Kele Okereke and Russell Lissack, Bloc Party can look back on a long and successful career. Bloc Party have sold over 3 million albums worldwide
Bloc Party is currently touring around the world. Last week we met the British indie rock band backstage before their Viennese concert at the Ottakringer Brauerei.
The band’s fifth studio album, Hymns, the first to involve Harris and Bartle, has just been released on January 29, 2016.
We met two members of the band, Russell Lissack and Louise Bartle. From a Global Rockstar point of view we are very lucky to be able to ask one of the band founders and the newest member of the band about starting out in the music industry.
Founder and lead-guitarist Russell Lissack recently also took up keyboards for Bloc Party. Between 2007 and 2010 Russell was also part of the duo Pin Me Down. In 2010, during a Bloc Party hiatus, Russell – who covered the Irish rock band Ash during his teenage years – was asked to join Ash as touring guitarist and keyboard player. Depending on his availability, Russell has been an on-off member since.
Drummer Louise Bartle is a fast rising talent and joined Bloc Party in the second half of 2015.
Let’s start with a classic… Why music? How come you chose to pursue this career?
Louise: That’s a good question, I don’t know… I’ve always loved music, as probably a lot of people do. I started to play guitar first, but when I was a kid I was always tapping on something so I was like please mum and dad can I play the drums?! And eventually they let me play.
I think just listening to music was the key. You get really into it and then you want to start making it yourself, and making other people feel the way it makes you feel.
Russell: I suppose I discovered music when I was 14, then a year later I started playing the guitar and as soon as I started playing it, it kind of became all consuming. It was all I ever wanted to do.
It’s probably not a good lesson but I thought why go to school and doing all my homework? All I would do was sit around playing my guitar for hours and hours, or playing with my friends. It just felt like it was the only thing I wanted to do. And the only thing I could do.
A few years went by, you grow up and become an adult and you go off to university and that just felt like… I have to be making music!
You and Kele somehow kept your musical activity secret from your parents, Kele, even until the release of your debut album Silent Alarm…
Russell: I guess it was a similar thing for both of us, we grew up together. I was at university when we got a record deal and I dropped out. I didn’t tell my parents at the time, they thought I was still at university and I only told them when we started making a record and started getting some press exposure.
I kind of reached the point where I would have to tell them. I think it was a similar situation for Kele. Your parents have certain expectations of you and what they want you to do and how they view success. Perhaps for him… his parents were a little stricter than mine. The fact that he was dropping out of university and pursuing music as a livelihood was something that they really didn’t approve of or understand at the time. It’s only after seeing the visible success that we’ve had, they kind of understood what he does and why he does it.
And I suppose it’s probably not dissimilar for a lot of people… your parents want you to grow up and become independent and succeed – the traditional associations with that – to go and get a job. To be doing music when there are no financial guarantees is frowned upon by some people. Especially when you come from a different generation… that was something you couldn’t do when you were growing up so it’s hard to relate to your children doing it.
How can one cope? Do you have tips for people facing the same problem?
Russell: I don’t know, it’s difficult, but I don’t think you should regret things in life. If music is your passion and you ignore it, and you go down a different path, maybe you will have some success, but you will probably have regret as well: that you didn’t try and do the thing that you really loved.
It’s ok to try, if you don’t try that’s something that can probably eat away at you and be quite unhealthy for the rest of your life. If you are genuinely passionate about something you should at least try and do it rather than listening to what other people think you should do. And certainly your own parents have good intentions, they care about you. But only you, ultimately, know what inspires you.
You started university and stayed in university longer than one may think. When did you decide to set everything on the band?
Russell: Well in England you’re supposed to stay at university for three years and at the end you have a dissertation. I just started my dissertation and we got offered a tour with Graham Coxon, the guitar player from Blur! He was doing a solo tour and we got offered the opportunity to go on tour with him – we were supposed to be on tour with him for three weeks. But I was going to miss my dissertation and I had to make a decision: what am I going to do? At the time it felt like a brilliant opportunity and I made the decision to stop university and go through with it.
At that point we were getting bits of press that we’d never had before and interest from various record labels… despite what was happening academically I thought…
This is our opportunity, if it’s gonna happen it’s gonna happen now.
That was the point. I went to my university and told them what was happening and just said I want to try and do this, if I leave and come back can I do the year again? And they said yes…
Did you ever finish your dissertation?
Russell: No it’s still there!
Louise: How long is it now?
Russell: Oh, I don’t know… (giggles)
You went through some line-up changes in the last few years… how do you manage such an essential step? Is friendship important?
Russell: Personally, even though I’m not working with the others (nb Bloc Party ex-band members) professionally anymore I still retain the friendship with them.
A lot changes when you go from spending every day together for months at a time to seeing each other very rarely. Naturally, that brings changes.
In terms of new people coming along… it doesn’t feel unusual to me. It is exciting getting to know Louise and getting to know Justin (nb Justin Harris, bass guitar player of Bloc Party since 2015), getting to spend time with these people and getting to create music. It’s always exciting to find someone new to make music with, to find new ways to do things… It’s a good experience, a pleasurable experience.
You, Louise, joined the band after Hymns was finished. How is it to join a band after so many years of success? Do you feel a bit like a guest? How did the adjustment phase go?
Louise: I was and still am aware that the Bloc Party has been a band for nearly 10 years now and has had two other people who made four albums before…there’s history!
And a huge success, also!
Louise: Yeah, yes! I definitely felt like a guest… of course at the beginning you feel like this isn’t my thing, my space. I want to respect the fact that they existed for so long, I think you respect any fellow musician. But I guess I’ve started to feel more and more at ease, it is a natural thing after spending time with all of them. I know about the last 10 years, but I’m feeling like there’s a new thing happening…
Musically as well, it’s all coming slowly together, to feel complete… you feel relaxed, you don’t feel like ahh I’ve got to play this! You just start to relax a little bit and just start to be more yourself.
Russell: I was just thinking, I guess I’ve been on the other side, I’ve been where Louise is. Because when we had a break in 2010 I played drums in another band for a year… they’re a band called Ash…
Yes, I know Ash!
…and they’ve been together for probably 15 years and I was the new boy coming in, learning the ins-and-outs of their relationships and the idiosyncrasies of each person. It was a nice experience to develop these friendships and develop these relationships.
Bloc Party took a hiatus in 2009, then again in 2013, to focus on side and solo projects… it is never clear if Bloc Party will come back together but indeed you do always get back together!
How do you balance between band and side projects?
Russell: I think it’s quite healthy to take time off from just doing one thing. To just do Bloc Party all the time is quite all consuming, it’s quite easy to get lost in the bubble… is this your existence and nothing else happens?
You spend months at a time traveling, it’s kind of easy to get tired and lose perspective on things. So after a period of doing that, to then step away from it and work on something completely different, associate with different people and spend time at home as well… I think it’s really important for everyone.
Spending so much time with the same people is always going to lead to problems. With the new line up everyone has other interests outside of this, other music they enjoy, other activities they enjoy. It is good to be able to come back fresh to this, to bring what experiences you’ve had in that time and the things you’ve worked on.
Helicopter was featured in many video games,which is brilliant as it gets so close to the public! Do you play videogames? Ever happened to hear your music while playing?
Russell: It has happened! I think Ratchet, one of our singles from a few years ago, was in a FIFA game!
I love video games, personally, but I don’t have much time to play them anymore, I’ve got a young son now. When I’m at home I don’t really get to sit around playing computer games… I have parenting to do! But I’m hoping in a few years, then, he’ll play them with me. I’ll have a resurgence of video games!
Certainly, it’s cool having your music in a video game – It’s quite a big medium now – video games are very popular, there are millions of people playing them, so millions of people get to hear your music! People that might not necessarily have heard you before.
Whoever’s job it is to pick the music… they’re good at it! They pick a lot of interesting and exciting music. I remember hearing things and discovering bands from video games as well.
Video games and music coming together has been a good collaboration for both parties.
Music sales shrink constantly while other opportunities appear, like licensing. How do you see the future for up and coming artists? Where is the money?
Louise: My opinion is that the money – if there is money – is not in recording. I think it is known, it’s gigging, it’s the live performances where the money is at.
But it’s tough, really tough… there’s no real answer. It’s also good, because you can do a lot of stuff yourself now, you can record yourself. There’s a lot of access with the Internet, but at the same time it’s oversaturated. It is hard to find good stuff, it is hard to get yourself heard in the sea of many other people who are trying to do it. And the number of people who want to do music just keeps going up, because it’s so accessible to anyone: you can get a guitar anywhere, get a computer, plug it in, sing away…
Yes, nowadays you don’t even have to be physically in the same studio, it’s a little weird…
Most songs of your new album Hymns – released January 29, 2016 – are somehow available online, some lyrics, some videos… we know so much about it!
Back in the offline days a release date was a real deadline, an event, a complete surprise for every fan. How does a release work nowadays?
Russell: It’s difficult you know… people expect to have access to things immediately, they want to be able to see things online whilst they’re happening. It certainly feels like that kind of air of patiently waiting for something to be released and then going out and buying it… that doesn’t really exist anymore.
Maybe there’s a few exceptions but nowadays you’ve always got links and things… and artists will purposely put songs out early as well, just to generate publicity and hype! To what Louise was saying, there’s so much available out there that it’s hard…
To get the attention?
Yes, you have to think… it’s difficult because a lot of times, as an artist, you’re focusing on making the music, not thinking how do I get this music to people? It’s probably something you think about more when you’re starting out.
When you are starting out, obviously, nobody knows who you are, so you are actively thinking how can I get people to hear this? In the position that we’re in now, obviously, we still want as many people as possible to hear it, but we’ve got the benefit, at least, of having a record label and people that work with us to help make that happen.
Louise: It’s a very different industry now than when they started. I’ve grown up to see how it works now, but when Silent Alarm came out I was still in primary school. I almost feel the change even though I wasn’t in the music industry in that way. If I think back to it now, I can see the change, even from 2007 – it’s massively changed. I know a lot of amazing musicians who write great stuff. But that’s the big question: How?
I think so much of it is luck as well. It’s like everything coming together, luck, talent, knowing people, playing your heart out. There’s no formula. Just keep going and try to meet the right people!