First things first, fast things first.
In August 2008, Bloc Party were midway through a run of summer festival appearances: a defiant performance in sweltering heat at Chicago’s Lollapalooza, an ecstatically-received set at Belgium’s Pukkelpop, a huge Dublin show with The Killers ahead of them, followed by a return to Reading – the scene, nine years ago, of the first meeting between singer Kele Okereke and guitarist Russell Lissack at which they discussed forming a band. So far, business-as-usual for the rock band.
Then, on August 18th, 2008, via a live webchat, Bloc Party announced that their new album was finished. Three days later and beyond, you could download that album. “We remember being teenagers,” says Okereke, “when [Oasis’s] Be Here Now came out and everyone at school rushed out to get it at lunchtime and listened to it and talked about it the next day – that doesn’t really happen any more, that sense of occasion.” Here, Okereke is of a mind with Jack White. Earlier this year, the sometimes White Striper insisted The Raconteurs’ second album be in the shops as soon as physically possible after recording was complete. No frontloaded marketing campaign, no singles fanfared in the media weeks beforehand – indeed, Bloc Party released the song “Mercury” with nary a whisper of “promotion” the week before the announcement of their new album, Intimacy. “It was a case of, ‘why do we need to sit on the record for six months?’” continues Okereke. “If we’ve finished it why don’t we just put it out there? We’re lucky that we have an international fanbase, so we know people will be excited by it. So,” he says with a smile and a shrug, “that’s all that mattered really.”
Intimacy is a fittingly up-close title for an album that is, immediately, in-your-face and in-your-ear. Even better: the medium isn’t just the message. That is: for all the innovation surrounding the method of its release – and fleet footed Bloc Party have outpaced both The Raconteurs and the In Rainbows-era Radiohead – Intimacy is remarkable not so much for how it got here, arriving instantaneously on desktops around the world, but for what it sounds like. Bloc Party’s third album is a thrillingly radical record, bristling with percussive innovation, scorching riffs, orchestral sampledelia, biting emotional candour and fuck-off tunes. It turns out that the radio-rattling “Mercury,” with its belting mix of drum&bass, rapping and brass that demands to be called “phat,” was a good clarion call.
So, not-so-much business as usual for the rock band. Not that the fiercely self-critical and impassioned Bloc Party could ever even be considered a traditional rock band. Certainly Okereke doesn’t see the London-based four-piece that way. “Is Intimacy as radical as a Missy Elliot record?” wonders this questing frontman who, by his own admission, is a glass-half-full kinda guy. “Probably not. People always think of us as a rock band. But – and I’ve said this from the start – that’s really not where I see us. That’s not what inspires me. I’ve been listening to the same things I’ve always listened to: Dizzee Rascal, Missy Elliot, DJ Shadow, Prefuse 73, RnB. It’s just that I think maybe we’ve become more confident about what it is we’re about.”
The writing and recording of Intimacy prefigured the manner of its release. Adjudging that first ideas are often the best ideas, Bloc Party decided to record the first ten songs they wrote. What seems on paper a restrictive brief, paradoxically, proved a spur to creativity. Unlike A Weekend In The City, there would be no confusion of ideas – they had a pool of 30 songs for that record – to pick from and fret over and worry apart. Echoing the process behind 2007’s between-albums single “Flux” (the band suddenly decided they wanted to release a one-off single before year’s end, so wrote and recorded “Flux” in a week), Bloc Party opted to work hard and fast on these core songs.
Also different from A Weekend In The City were Okereke’s lyrics. Gone was the polemical snapshot of life in London offered by that second album. Instead, he was writing ‘from the heart’, about emotions, relationships, true love and ugly splits. That said, such was the intuitive speed with which he was writing, it was only after the songs were completed that he realized they shared this thread.
Intimacy was produced by Paul Epworth, who produced Bloc Party’s 2005 debut Silent Alarm, and by Garrett “Jacknife” Lee, who produced the follow-up, 2007’s A Weekend In The City, and mixed by Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, amongst myriad others). The producers were at the controls for five tracks each; fans will have to wait until the physical release of Intimacy on 28th October to read who produced which – for now, the band want to leave as much of the magic and mystery as unexposed as possible.
“We felt we had unfinished business with both Garrett and Paul,” says Okereke by way of explaining the splitting in half of production duties. “We recorded ‘The Prayer’ right at the end of the Weekend In The City sessions and it is my favorite song from that record. So I knew we could push it further, and that Garrett was someone that was going to encourage that rather than stifle us. It’s like [Brian] Eno and [David] Byrne – with the right combination you can do anything, and that’s what I felt with Garrett. With Paul, I liked working with him but it was hard for us because it was our first record and there was a lot of resistance to stuff on our part, and we didn’t really enjoy the process as much as we could have done. And I thought there was more we could do with Paul. And I was right.”
As much is obvious on the first song, “Ares.” Named after the Greek god of war, it’s almost onomatopoeic: squealing guitars and violent drums usher in a cacophony of overlapping, clashing vocals. It’s about a physical fight, the singer admits, and he says the writing was simple: Matt Tong came up with a drumbeat “that we edited and fucked with,” explains Okereke. “That was pretty much it. We made it sound really harsh. Then I kind of rapped over it. I was listening to a lot of Afrika Bambatta. I was trying to get something that sounded like old school hip hop – two guys rapping over each other, that was what I was aiming for. Then Garrett did this great thing on the chorus where he sampled a vocal from Mercury and fucked with it – that’s what the vocal is on the chorus. It’s one of my favorites and it seemed like it really had to open the record.” Equally hammering is “One Month Off,” a scabrous song about the dissolution of a relationship – lyrical terrain that Okereke has previously explored on “Flux” and “Like Eating Glass.” “I don’t really form attachments easily with people, so when they go it’s really hard for me,” he says. Then there’s “Zephyrus,” in which its mellifluous vocal is layered over Aphex Twin-style rhythmic agitation and which “offers an apology to someone” – a feeling underscored by the stirring choral voices swimming in the mix. “Signs” offers more textures still: Lissack playing glockenspiel, Rhodes and Mbira as Okereke delivers one of his most beautiful lyrics. “We sampled the Mbira and glockenspiel and laid them over each other, and had this kind of shimmering feeling – the aim was to have this Steve Reich-esque, percussive, moving thing. I wrote the lyric around that.”
You might think an album called Intimacy would offer, as Okereke describes, “lots of wet balladeering – you don’t think it’s gonna be violent, ugly or harsh.” But such are the contours of most relationships: moments of sublime beauty counterpointed by jagged peaks and troughs. Yet for all the itchy agitation and anger that attends some of the album’s more outspoken lyrics, it draws to a close suffused in happiness with “Ion Square,” a six-and-a-half minute techno-psychedelic wash of tenderness. “I wrote the words two years ago. It’s just about being in love with someone and the bad stuff having not appeared yet on the horizon. It’s about being comfortable with someone.” Writing it, Okereke was reminded of a poem he read at school, I Could Carry Your Heart by ee cummings. “So we called his estate and asked if we could use it. So that’s what the chorus is. It really was right for the song. It’s the best feeling in the world, feeling comfortable with someone, and being in love. When it ends it’s hard, obviously, but when it’s great it’s the best thing in the world. So yeah, I wanted to end a note of positivity.”
Bloc Party: so here they are, quicksmart, gung-ho and restless. Intimacy is the sound of a band invigorated by success but also challenged by it. How do we keep on topping the pinnacles scaled before? Well, by embracing Intimacy… “We were all really energized by ‘The Prayer’ and ‘Flux,’” says Kele Okereke, a singer-songwriter who confesses he’s still wrestling with the candidness he can’t help but pour into his lyrics. “With those songs we were doing something different and it didn’t sound like The Kooks or the Arctic Monkeys. It didn’t sound like any other guitar band. I just thought we needed to carry that on into a full-length record and really make something that sounded like today. I just wanted to make something that had as much life as an R&B record, that had as much color. I think we’ve done it, and I’m really proud of this record.”
And for their next trick?
“I wanna go in the complete opposite direction for the next one. A real dirty rock record.”
“Yeah! Rootsy and soulful,” he laughs. “We’ll see!”