Robbie Byrne talks to the self-confessed grandpa of Bloc Party, Justin Harris, on old feuds, new sounds and a bright future.
Earlier this year, democratic socialism, the lifelong foe of American capitalism, rose above decades of mockery and disdain. A spiritual awakening of a nation locked by Trump fever, democratic socialism is the romantic balladeer to capitalism’s Wolf of Wall Street.
Like its socialist frontman Sanders, Bloc Party, the almost-darlings of UK indie, were dead and buried eighteen months ago. Like Bernie, Bloc Party had an ideology to resurrect, one that peddled all too romanticised ideals, and yes, both had to battle doubters as they hurtled towards the twilight of their careers, unwittingly in sync.
So the timing was immaculate, even discomforting, when Bloc Party’s first record in four years, propped in part by a new generation, dropped within a day of Sander’s historic Iowa Caucus tie.
“I’m still not fully aware of everything and that’s fine by me,” begins Bloc Party bassist and self-confessed grandpa of the band Justin Harris.
It’s a little over sixteen months since the former Menomena bassist was asked to join Bloc Party 2.0—two years after the outfit’s first headline festival tour culminated in the departure of stick man Matt Tong amid reports of cocaine use and pre-gig bust ups.
“I was never aware of any in-band tensions as such,” Harris explains. “Having said that, I remember opening for them as Menomena in 2009 and recalling some contentions off-stage happenings, but you know, I had that in my band too, so I never saw it as something out of the ordinary.”
That Stateside tour ended after a 23 date run, but Justin and Bloc Party frontman Kele’s friendship stretched beyond that, resulting in the two keeping in touch throughout Bloc Party’s numerous hiatuses and eventual break up:“We always kept in touch through email, if Kele found himself in Portland or I in London we’d always do our best to catch up.”
“Having heard that Gordon and Matt had left, I honestly thought the band were dead and buried, but one morning I received an email from Kele and Russell to say that they were working on demos for a new album, and asked if I would fill the void on bass, play on the demos and generally flesh out the sound that they were working towards.”
The initial sessions, Justin tells me, were low commitment, a gentle introduction to life at Bloc Party. Nonetheless, joining the outfit full-time was far from a no brainer.
“I had to give up part of my life to do this, but having said that, I’ve always admired them as musicians and people, so it wasn’t a difficult decision to make,” he says, before conceding that his own band, Menomena, is snugly placed on the back boiler for now.
But as the months passed, Justin became enveloped within the project, transmuting his role from part-time newbie to Bloc Party’s de facto bassist.
“I flew to London to begin recording in the spring of last year,” Justin says. “I made it clear to them that I didn’t have the stake you guys had, but that coldness warmed as the album progressed.”
Moreover, there was a personal challenge to overcome, as despite spending two decades in the business, Justin had yet to write with anyone other than longtime music-making partner Danny Seim.; “This was my first time recording with somebody else, admittedly it took a little time to get used to, despite how great Kele and Russell were.”
Still, widespread rumours of fraught Bloc Party recording sessions were never realised: “as far as the recording process goes, it was the easiest I’ve been part of,” he quips, exhaling an exuberant sigh of relief.
“Anytime I record a Menomena LP, it turns out to be a tumultuous period—fiery passion and compromise with blood sweat and tears. But this was plain sailing; we knew what we were playing once we went into the studio. It couldn’t have been more seamless.”
The end product Hymns is the work of a band after metamorphosis. Gone are the spiked guitar interplays, frantic stick work, and barked vocals of Helicopter, Banquet and Kettling and in their place, buttery smooth slowed-down R&B jams that meld with synthetic soundscapes—only recognisable by Kele’s trademark vocals, the one time voice for agitated millennial urbanites.
It’s a change that has been met with some critical criticism, and one that Justin is forearmed to answer.
“When we wrote this record, Russell was listening to a lot of electronic music, he wanted to replicate the sound of through the guitar—it’s 90% of what we’ve done on Hymns. Obviously, the singles didn’t sound like the sounds were made from guitars, so everyone assumed that it was going to be an electronic record. While there are still people out there who gravitate towards music that’s created with your traditional instruments, I don’t think it should matter how I make music or what instruments I use.”
It’s this stripped down sound that Justin claims is a natural progression related not to line up change, but to what Kele and Russell were doing outside the band.
“From the outset we wanted Bloc Party to make a record that they haven’t done before. But it’d be wrong to assume that this was linked to Matt and Gordon’s departure. For us, the intent of Hymns is to stretch the Bloc Party discography, while broadening the band’s abilities.”
Bizarrely, as the Hymns cleared the final hurdles, Bloc Party were still without a replacement for Matt Tong, relying on session drummer Alex Thomas to stand in on certain tracks. As Justin explains, it wasn’t until early summer; only weeks before the trio were due to play California’s Glass House Festival that a permanent replacement—20-year-old Louise Bartle—was found.
“Honestly, it was a concern of mine,” says Justin. “You know, she was only 20 when she joined—a huge gamble. She’s was musician who had never played live, or survived a hectic tour schedule.”
He pauses, thinking back to the time they first met.
“I remember walking into the studio for live rehearsals and being completely bowled over by her. I could tell she was nervous by the whole experience, but she’s had the confidence of youth, she threw everything at it. An utterly refreshing presence to be around, maybe even more so as I don’t tend to hang around with 21-year-olds,” he jokes, hesitating for a moment to consider the genius and/or daftness of the remark.
Despite a seventeen-year age gap, the new line-up gelled, culminating in a rapturous encore at their debut live performance. “We surprised ourselves,” he says. “The energy from the audience was wild. Perhaps that masked over the fact that we weren’t as tight as we could have been, but that’s par for the course.”
Unlike Bloc Party’s 2013 headline performances, which commenced with the departure of drummer of Matt Tong and culminated in one omnipresent question mark hanging over the band’s future, Bloc Party’s 2015 comeback tour affirmed the band’s fate, one that Justin is fully committed to.
“Things have improved even further over the past few months; the nerves have disappeared, the jams are better, the classics are tighter. Bloc Party is a fantastic place to be right now.”
It’s a mood so positive, that the quartet is already penning new material: “Over the past few months, the band’s dynamics have totally changed. We’ve all been writing new material together, and have the bones of on an EP in the bag—and what we have so far is sounding like another progression of the Bloc Party sound.”
There’s a good chance we’ll be releasing something within this record cycle, maybe even later this year,” he adds.
As the summer roster fills up for yet another hectic festival season, Justin tells me the best is still to come from a band revitalized.
“This is my favourite part of being a musician. So, yeah, a manic summer is in store with festivals from the UK to the US.”
Like Sanders, the odds will never be in Bloc Party’s favour to dominate—but with Hymns they’ve stamped their calling card, they’ve made their mark, and boy do we love a trier.