Bloc Party: An interview with Matt Tong

These indy brit darlings were the talk of the town when they released their first record, Silent Alarm. Though I wasn’t impressed with their sophomore effort, I did, however love their remixed version of Silent Alarm. Maybe cause Silent Alarm was one of those albums I killed by listening to it obsessively for about 6 weeks straight. Matt was a fun interview. I had a tough time transcribing his responses though as you can tell from the extemporaneous amount of bullshit I put into the feature. I really quite liked the fact that I managed to get interviews with bands of this caliber before they really got too huge. Too bad no one read this when it came out, you would have thanked me for clueing you in. Just another example of how rad Vice is and how good Vice is for the music world. Here’s hoping Black Lips can have a stronger follow up than Bloc Party.

The London based four-piece, officially known as Bloc Party, are on the cutting edge of a new movement in music. It’s a movement that owes much of its sound and attitude to late ’70s punk, ’80s No Wave, Kraftwerk era electronica and-in the case of Bloc Party – drum and bass and math rock. Though these genres help create a point and reference to those unfamiliar with the band, Bloc Party’s music is not derivative of any one band in particular. Yes, they play dance-y rock n roll infused with punk rock affectation, but their lyrics, delivery and instrumentation are unique.

Their Web site, blocparty.com, states:

“They do everything that’s required to conform to the currently received ideas of what a band is: ostensibly to play instruments at the same time, but also have a title for the work created,”

It couldn’t be more succinctly put. Their 14 track breakthrough record, Silent Alarm (Vice Records),stands as a testament to Bloc Party’s a la carte approach to songwriting. Pulling ingredients from their diverse range of influences, Bloc Party has made Silent Alarm a stellar pop record outfitted with the machinery of dance punk and enough tantalizing guitar work to keep the wood-shedding fans busy for hours.

Bloc Party began as a bedroom music project between Kele Okereke and Russell Lissack who knew of each other but formally met at the 1999 Reading Festival. It was there that the two decided to work on music, later putting an ad out in search of a bass player and drummer. The engine of Bloc Party was taking shape, yet to complete the machine they would need two more important parts to alter the direction of their applied musical force. They would need a rhythm section to encase the geometric guitar riffs and staccato vocals.

Though all fixed and moving parts of the machine weren’t tooled to be exact, it’s the inexactness that BP’s uniqueness stems from. After putting an ad out in a local paper, bass player Gordan Moakes answered and joined the party, adding enough funky low end to glue the angular guitar work of Lissack and Okereke together. The only other element needed to complete the machine was a drummer, of which they went through almost a dozen, until they found Matt Tong, who fit in quite well, bringing his unique style, lightning fast beats and perfect timing and a much needed rhythmic foundation.

Matt Tong moved to London to study music technology but ended up being the ninth drummer for the fledgling Bloc Party. What is remarkable about Matt (aside from his drumming) is the time he spent away from the drums. “I started when I was eleven, in secondary school, and stopped after about seven years when I went to school,” Matt says. “[I remember it being] quite strenuous when I started playing again. The first four months or so after I started I was frustrated with my playing. Right up until that first show I played with the band actually. It took me about a year or so to become comfortable [behind the kit]. Most sort of ‘jobbing’ bands don’t realize how much touring really tightens up the music either.”

We caught up with Matt before a show at the Gothic Theater in Denver, CO, during BP’s current headlining tour. “Is the altitude going to mess us up?” he asked. Luckily, being the drummer for a percussion heavy band, Matt’s stamina isn’t compromised by a measly few thousand feet above sea level. Touring is really where Matt has learned the bulk of his craft. Those times during sound check, or in the midst of the set, Matt and his band mates have become a tightly functioning unit where a look can change the direction of a song. “Everything I do and everything I know has come from playing with this band,” Matt says. “It’d be nice to actually go in and practice just to pick a few new things up but it mostly comes together for me, playing-wise at shows and at sound check.”

Bloc Party is the type of live band that tends to move things around during their stage time, not so much changing the genetic make up of a song, but being comfortable enough playing their music allows for some variant interpretations of the compositions.

Some other things Matt has learned on the road aren’t necessarily based in the technical aspects of playing. In fact, the lessons he’s learned have more to do with self-realization than new time signatures or techniques. “I’ve realized that if I concentrate too much on a part that is coming up (in a song) that I will definitely mess it up. If you mess up a part one time it messes with your confidence and the next time you play that song and that part is coming up you tend to overcompensate. There is a kick drum pattern in “Price of Gas” that I keep thinking about too much. It’s crazy cause it’ll come back to me when I’m in the moment and not worrying about what I’m playing.”

The band has come a long way in their brief existence. One of their defining moments occurred when Kele sent an email to Franz Ferdinand front man Alex Kapranos who Kele admired for his like-minded approach to music and for what Alex had communicated during interviews. This seemingly small connection led to an opening slot at Franz Ferdinand’s anniversary show. They played the Elektrowerkz show with FF and impressed all gathered there, which eventually led to the release of the single, “She’s Hearing Voices” on UK-based label Trash Aesthetic.

“Kele generates most of the ideas and writes a good portion of the lyrics,” Matt says. “We all come with ideas and try and translate what he is thinking into something we can all work on. Sometimes with results equally good if not better. We play around. We’ll have a chord sequence or a riff and try and make it work. I think a lot of our songs rely on sharp changes in direction.”

While in the studio, Bloc Party utilized ‘loads of analog keyboards’ and other instruments that inspired their full creative spectrum. Replicating their album live is something that Matt finds to be stagnating and understandably so: “We can’t do all of it (keyboards/album nuances), of course, but that’s what is great about rock music is-that there is room to breath. It would be interesting to play with a keyboard player and maybe a percussionist, but it’s difficult to put those things in motion when you’re in the midst of it (tour, promotion).

There are bands out there that just sort of replicate their album live but we’re not one of those bands really. We have an awful lot of pent up energy when we play live and that translates into the music.”

Bloc Party is unconventional in their approach to writing and the performance of their music. It’s what will inevitably set them apart from their contemporaries in this day and age where people are quick (and lazy) to slap bands with a ‘Gang of Four’ reference. Silent Alarm is a good introduction to a band that has much more to give, and though its only a starting point, it’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next few years, given they continue pushing themselves as artists.

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