A couple of weeks ago, we were lucky enough to have the chance to interview Bloc Party just before they launched their new album ‘Hymns’. We spoke to Justin Harris about how they have risen from the dead and released an intimate, personal new album. Have a read of what Justin had to say to Harry below:
So, how are you firstly?
I’m doing alright, yeah, I’m doing good.
You’ve been doing a little promotional tour for the album, how’s that been going?
It’s going good, yeah. We’re playing in London tonight for MTV.
I imagine you’ve been enjoying the tour, as it is one of your first with Bloc Party!
Yeah, it’s been fun!
The new album, ‘Hymns’, comes out this Friday. I’ve been lucky enough to have a copy myself and have really been enjoying it. How nice is it for other people to have it and for it to be out there finally?
Thank you and yeah it will be nice for the album to be out. As albums are, once you’ve made them it’s just a waiting game. The album has been done since August! And yeah, waiting to actually be able to release it and play the songs live, so it’s pretty good.
I’d probably say my favourite track on the album is Into The Earth, do you have a particular favourite?
Yeah I do, and that’s one of them as well, but I probably think Different Drugs is my favourite, favourite on the album. I like So Real a lot, and I like to play Virtue. It’s interesting, I think a lot of them lend themselves to a live setting, there’s a little-added energy to them, almost better live. Into The Earth is a good one, and that one was a controversial one when recording.
Yeah, it almost wasn’t recorded. I think everybody, myself included, was thinking it didn’t fit with the rest of the album and I still think it doesn’t, musically maybe. But everyone just liked it, so we stuck with it, and now you’ve heard it.
I really like it! Maybe it’s a bit different to the rest of the album, but I think it references the old Bloc Party with the new style very much in focus. You’ve mentioned you have to wait around, and the label have to approve it and market it etc. but do you guys have any say in what the singles are from the album or is it the label that picks them?
Yeah, but certainly the label has an idea of what they can work with and use the most. It’s subject to label approval. I think really they listen to Kele and Russell, but there is an approval process. I think they (Kele and Russell) have quite a lot of say, but they are also trusting in what the label say they can work with.
What was the creative process like on this album? I heard you replied to ideas over Skype initially.
Yeah, initially it was. Kele had contacted me and asked if I was interested in helping out fleshing out their songs and getting some ideas down to the demos that they were working on. Yeah, the initial stages were like that, and then I came over. After I had come over to London, we had a conversation and it felt very organic. And we were kinda like “well let’s just see how this is all feeling”. We kept moving forward, and we all digged it. It kinda created out that way, and then it when it came to actually recording. We rehearsed about two weeks before we went into the studio, so by the time we got into the studio it was just a matter of recording the songs as we needed them.
So you had a bit more time and practice that some other bands might not be so lucky to have?
My other band back in the US, that was not how we had ever recorded, so it was nice for me to have a different experience so we could go in and just record as a band. We recorded most of the album together, in the same room so it was organic and natural.
Did you record it live or did you track the album?
Yeah we tracked everything as live as far as instrumentation goes, and then there’s overdubs to be done, but most of the foundation parts were done live. I think almost every part I did was live, or a live take, and we would re-record certain sections. Yeah, it was mostly live.
You mentioned your previous band, and you’re going to have to bear with me on this for the pronunciation, was it Menomania? Menomena?
Menomena (correctly pronounced).
Ah, Menomena, obviously! I read it as ‘phenomena’, and then I can see what you’ve done there. I know with them you played a fair few instruments live, so is it nice to just play bass and synth, although I did hear you played saxophone last night!
Yes, I did play Sax! With my other band, we were heading in the direction of taking some time off due to some life changes with my partner in the band. And then Bloc Party popped up. So I just had a good time and didn’t have as many instruments to play with as before. Kele emailed me first and I thought it would be nice to do something else for a while, and be in a situation where I’m just playing bass! So to answer your question, it is nice to just focus on my main instrument, but it is nice to play some other things too. In Menomena it was a juggling act, playing bass with my feet and saxophone with my hands and singing in between. Very strenuous and a little exercise trying to do everything. It’s nice to play their older songs too, and Gordon was a great bass player, and it’s been fun to learn his parts and try to do them justice. Well having heard live performances since the second hiatus of Bloc Party, I think it is fair to say that yeah, you have done them justice. Well thank you, it’s been good so far. It’s been quite good, it’s always going to be hard as not being an original member, dropping in at this point in the band, 10+ years into it, and I understand not everyone is going to be stoked about it. But there’s new fans as well, and hopefully, we can win the others over.
Hopefully, I think you will do, especially with the album out now.
I’ve heard that in your old band that there was almost a lack of democracy in it, in making decisions and perhaps recording, so is it nice to have the solid core members in the band, Russell and Kele, and have a frontman leading the band?
Yeah. My old band started a long time ago in 2000, and there was three of us. It started as this almost uber-democracy. It was one of those things where it wasn’t a majority vote, it was a minority vote where if one of us didn’t want to do something, we just wouldn’t do it. I just wanted everyone to be happy, but I think it was a bit too much. Over the years, I think I’ve learnt that democracy doesn’t work very well in bands, and I think there does need to be a kind of strong person steering the ship otherwise you’re just going in multiple directions or circles. So yeah it is good to have a clear, a clear directive. But certainly Kele and Russell are open to suggestions, they’re not like these evil dictators. They do have this kind of supreme vision and it’s a fine vision! So I have no problems with it.
I know Kele studied literature at Kings College, and this album for me it seems is a lot more mellow that previous albums, a lot more personal in terms of lyrics. Do you know how much of his studies have affected the lyrical content? Previous albums have been heavily literature based in terms of lyrical content, so was it a deliberate attempt to make it more personal, on this album?
I think so, from what I understand. From my conversations with him, and hearing him talk about it to others. Yeah, I think it was potentially more personal, in terms of taking it into a real lyrical being about things that are important to him personally rather than maybe just something that’s a persona view about something more general. But yeah, he does talk about truth and devotion and how these can be applied outside of religion. So yeah I think that was certainly the thematic feature, but certainly a better question for him to answer than me!
Well, thank you for answering that anyway! Could you see yourself contributing more on future Bloc Party records – perhaps backing vocals or even Sax?
Yeah, I mean I did do some backing vocals on this record. But yeah by the time I think we actually were recording this record, and because I had only just joined the band and wasn’t part of the demo sessions, I think Kele and Russell had a really clear vision already, and so my goal was just to help them. And to see their vision comes to fruition in the best way possible, and help them with the parts I’m able to help them with. In the future certainly yeah (I will contribute more). We’ve already been working together and writing for quite a bit. Now with Louise as a part of the band, that’s been much more cooperative. I’m not subject to changing or reinterpreting a part that Gordon did. Hopefully, I certainly can contribute more than I have, but they do say less is more! Definitely, I will contribute when necessary.
After two breaks for the band, it’s nice to hear something positive going forwards.
Yeah, coming from the band background I have, I certainly understand what it can be like to be in a band with that culture and environment and having people not get along. I know how unpleasant it can be. Having that energy slowly ruined is not a nice band to be a part of, and for the fans. But now we are good. The band, the label, the management – we are pretty good.
Do you have a favourite record or song before Hymns, as someone who wasn’t in the band until last year?
Yeah, I’d never heard their Nextwave Session EP. I’d never heard that, so I had to learn how to play Ratchet. And then when I heard Ratchet I was like “this is such a great song”, so that quickly became one of my favourites of their back catalogue.
Is that in terms of playing, or purely just liking the song?
Both! I really like the song and it’s a fantastic bass part and the chorus is really interesting to me musically. That’s my favourite song to play, probably. I have a soft spot for that as I’d never listened to it when it came out so I’ve played it the most. I hadn’t heard much from Four either, I kinda lost track – not lost track, but was busy doing other things. I didn’t hear much of that album at all until afterwards. It took me a while to get into it, but there’s some really cool stuff happening on that album. I hope that answers your question!
It does, it answers it quite well! You mentioned learning the back catalogue – can you just pick a song and play it, or are there 20 odd rehearsed songs that you pick from to play in a set?
Yeah, we certainly don’t know how to play every song off every album. But we play quite a few at this point. There’s probably 30 songs that we are able to play. It’s nice, too, as we change the set up every night so far. The set order at least, maybe not the songs. There’s different encores each night, and different songs each night. It keeps it fresh. For example, Mercury was debuted last night, and that was the saxophone song.
How did that work out?
Good, I think, from what I remember. So that song is off Intimacy, and we hadn’t been playing more than three songs off that record. That was the record that my band was opening for them on that tour. For their Intimacy tour, so I remember hearing all those songs live back in the day. I loved them – I loved Ares live. Mercury live, that’s also great as a song, so why don’t we play more of those? And then it was the whole “you play saxophone don’t you Justin? Maybe we can get that horn part for real”.
I know you haven’t been in Bloc Party for too long just yet, but it’s fair to say the band has quite a variety in its back catalogue. Ranging from heavy moments in something like Kettling or R’n’B and Gospel on the new album, so what makes Bloc Party, Bloc Party?
Ooh, erm… that’s a good question! I think, from what I understand, Kele and Russell were the founders initially before Matt and Gordon joined. They created a sound together that I think is Bloc Party. But it still is Bloc Party, as Kele and Russell are the heartbeat of Bloc Party. Of the band, they are obviously the two original remaining members. So yeah, without them obviously, say had it been the other way round and Kele and Russell quit. If it was just Matt and Gordon, I’m not sure that would be Bloc Party. That’s not really for me to comment on. I don’t want to get into the politics of it, but I think they’re still Bloc Party. It seems like the driving force had to be Kele and Russell and cannot sit still and they kept writing stuff and wanted to keep the band going. I think thoughtful music is what makes Bloc Party, Bloc Party.
I’d settle on that, too! Thank you very much for your time, and best of luck with the rest of the tour and the album!
Bloc Party’s new album ‘Hymns’ is out now.