Alexis Petridis meets Bloc Party

They hate the press, despair of young people and condemn the 'poisonous culture' of having too much fun. But Bloc Party aren't arrogant, they tell Alexis Petridis - just shy

Kele Okereke seems puzzled. His brow furrows, his eyes narrow; he stares at the table. No, he says, he does not hate doing interviews, and no, if Bloc Party's record company gave him the option of never having to do another one, he wouldn't take it. He looks as if he thinks this is a bit of a stupid question, and, as he points out, stupid questions are rather the problem.

"In the last few months I haven't been asked any questions about anything I view to be important, so that's frustrating. No one's asking us questions that have anything to do with why we started this. I don't dislike doing interviews in Europe, I don't dislike doing interviews in America; it just feels like the mainstream music press in this country is completely concerned with something that isn't essential. But I haven't a problem with doing interviews at all. I enjoy it."

Still, you could see how someone might come to the opposite conclusion about Bloc Party's frontman. In the nine months since they were hailed as "the sound of 2005", the London quartet have managed to cultivate a reputation for prickly reticence. Despite their gripping stage presence, they seem utterly at odds with the prevalent notion of how a rock band should be.

There's not much that's intriguing about their history: they formed while Okereke and guitarist Russell Lissack were at university, recruited other members through small ads and came to prominence after giving a demo CD and a polite letter to Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand. Nor are they big on hilarious anecdotes about the crazy rock'n'roll lifestyle they have enjoyed since their success. "Young people have completely no regard for anything anymore," says Okereke at one point, before going on to berate the "poisonous culture of trying to just have as much fun as possible". This may explain why the music press, despite heaping superlatives on their Mercury-nominated debut album, Silent Alarm (gold status in 24 hours in the UK, a hit in 17 countries), have used quite different words when describing the band themselves: "nervous", "defensive", "super-sensitive", "diffident".

Today, bassist Gordon Moakes is affable, charming and, he notes, "kind of the exception in that I quite like talking about myself". Drummer Matt Tong is scrupulously civil, but warns: "We're not charismatic people in the way the Kaiser Chiefs are. We're quite shy, which comes across as arrogance, but it's not intentional." Lissack declines to be interviewed at all. "He's not a talker," says Moakes, "but he can express himself through his music."

Okereke, meanwhile, seems to find the process torturous beyond belief. A curious mix of shy and bullish, he is never less than polite, but he smiles once in an hour, and then only when Tong makes a snippy remark about one of the questions. He speaks with a stammer, and takes several runs at most of his answers, reshaping the words and occasionally the meaning: "Do I read my own press? No. Well, yeah. Not really." Whenever something he says threatens to get too interesting, he has a maddening habit of stopping himself dead and slamming the conversational door shut with a firm: "I'm not going to finish this off," or, "No, this is going to look really bad," or - heavily - "I know where this is going to go if I start saying things like this in this interview."

Mostly, this occurs when talk strays towards details of his personal life, discussion of which is famously off the agenda: an approach that has led to much speculation, mostly about his sexuality. On one occasion, however, he becomes weirdly reticent in the middle of an apparently innocuous discussion about early 80s music journalism, bringing the talk to a halt with an abrupt: "I've got to be careful what I say." This even seems to surprise Tong. "You're doing OK," he counsels gently. "You haven't slipped up yet."

The son of Nigerian parents, brought up in East Ham and Essex, Okereke is particularly guarded on the subject of race in rock music. As Moakes rightly points out, this shouldn't really be an issue in 2005: "The fact that we've got a black singer is pointed out to us every day as being news, but for us it's not news." In the past, Okereke has dismissed the subject; today he brings up the topic unprompted.

"I've never really agreed with this idea of a rock lineage where some things are pure and there are absolute truths about how things should be done. That isn't how my life is. I think that our perspective as a band is different because of the lineup, because of who we are as people - there are certain things that I'm completely excluded from because of the way I look. I just feel that there are certain ... I shouldn't ..." He tries again. "I've always been standing on the outside looking in at how these things work. Therefore, I've noticed the discrepancies, I've always noticed the borders between things. I've always been far more concerned with things that are fluid, things that aren't straightforward in terms of genre.

"There are certain musical forms that I hold very dear that are not straightforward, that are not part of rock music history and that affects how we put things together. I think what I'm trying to get at is ... Rock music has predominantly been the terrain of ... There's so much masculine-white-boy energy around it, it makes white males feel good about stuff. That's something I'm slightly excluded from." He sighs. "The point is that what we do is not exclusive to certain kinds of people. We draw from a wide variety of sources."

On one hand, he claims his race and background have no relevance to Bloc Party's music: "Everyone assumes the songs on the album are about my personal experience, and they're not at all." On the other hand, the link is clearly there. It's one of a series of intriguing contradictions. Okereke claims to have been worried by the number of good reviews Silent Alarm attracted ("to surround yourself with positive press is false, really"), but nevertheless seems aggrieved that the Guardian only awarded the album three out of five.

Moakes - who, in a bizarre reversal of standard practice, gave up a longstanding ambition to be a music journalist in order to join a band - says he understands the importance of mythology to any artist's success: "You can't touch people unless there's something a little beyond their ken." Accordingly, he designs Bloc Party's record sleeves to look "really ambiguous - like, how do you get a measure of this band?" However, his bandmates tend to make being in a group sound as mythic and exciting as working in a call centre. "You realise when you start doing this job that the people you see in magazines are just people doing their jobs," says Okereke. Tong, rather dispiritingly, refers to his fellow rock musicians as "people in this line of work".

The band, whose influences are rooted in hip-hop and grime rather than the standard post-punk music on which their music is pegged, consider themselves aloof from their peers. "I get completely bored watching rock bands now after about two songs," says Okereke, "because rock music is just not interesting enough." Yet they have managed to get embroiled in a series of slanging matches with little-known indie figures: Towers of London, Art Brut and female DJ duo Queens of Noize. None of it is exactly Blur vs Oasis (although that hasn't stopped Liam Gallagher from weighing in: he noted cruelly, but not entirely inaccurately, that Bloc Party look like contestants on University Challenge). But Bloc Party seem to take it seriously. "I don't usually rise to that sort of thing," says Okereke with a frown, "but if someone's going to throw mud in your face, you have a right to retort, and I thought a band like Towers of London ..." Off he goes again.

The one thing that causes the rather dour mood to lift is the prospect of recording a new album, which will contain "ideas about the cohesive agents of society". "We haven't even started making good on what we intend to do as a band, bridging musical forms," Okereke says enthusiastically. "I think we have a platform now where people are going to take us seriously. From the offset, we were always having to prove ourselves. Everyone thought we were going to be the next Franz Ferdinand. It's felt like we have to get better and better really quickly."

With that, I move to turn off the tape recorder. "Great, you've got all you need," says Okereke, with a sudden brightness you could easily mistake for an almost palpable sense of relief. Then he shakes hands and briskly walks away.

· The single Two More Years is out now on V2


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

CD: Bloc Party, Intimacy

They've toughened up their sound with orchestral stabs and disembodied dance beats

Dave Simpson

28, Aug, 2008 @11:07 PM

Article image
CD: Bloc Party, A Weekend in the City


Dorian Lynskey

02, Feb, 2007 @9:47 AM

Michael Hann's guide to the groups who have gone to town on their 'aesthetic'

Manifestos and uniforms maketh the band, says Michael Hann in his guide to the groups who have gone to town on their 'aesthetic'

Michael Hann

05, Jun, 2008 @11:10 PM

Article image
Going up?

Who will be the hottest new bands next year? Caroline Sullivan asked a few people who should know: the hottest new bands from last year.

Caroline Sullivan

09, Dec, 2005 @3:11 PM

Singles going steady

Chesney, your time has come, says Jude Rogers.

Jude Rogers

12, Jan, 2007 @11:58 PM

San Francisco's new wave of psychedelic rock
The city that defined the original 1960s psychedelic explosion is throwing up a new wave of bands who like to mess with reality. Sylvie Simmons meets the latterday Frisco Freaks

Sylvie Simmons

03, Sep, 2009 @8:50 PM

Paul Lester unwraps Newton Faulkner: 'I'm never going to be cool'

He's had a platinum album, praise from Jimmy Page and now a Brit nomination, but he's still strangely anonymous. Paul Lester unwraps Newton Faulkner

Paul Lester

18, Jan, 2008 @11:53 PM

Article image
CD: Quasi, When the Going Gets Dark


Leonie Cooper

17, Mar, 2006 @1:24 AM

Chris Salmon interviews Noel Gallagher

How is Tony Blair doing? Why does Liam hate him? Should stars shop at Waitrose? As Oasis release a greatest hits album, Noel Gallagher gives Chris Salmon the inside track.

Chris Salmon

10, Nov, 2006 @12:12 AM

Editors: In This Light and On This Evening | CD review

Walls of guitars have been replaced by a stark, electronic sound and songs about war, God, the CIA and death, says Dave Simpson

Dave Simpson

08, Oct, 2009 @11:05 PM