Kele Okereke stares intently out a plate-glass window overlooking midtown Manhattan, and for a brief flash his eyes seem to search the rushing crowds and rooftops below for some kind of inspiration — or maybe it's more akin to information. At 25, he already exudes a calm and worldly demeanor, but it's also clear that he can't sit in one place for too long because there's still so much out there just waiting to be experienced.
“It was important for us to make sure our next record accurately reflected what being alive in the 21st century feels like,” he says suddenly, his short dreadlocks whipping across his forehead as he turns back toward the tape recorder. “In the way that iPods and laptops and high-speed travel and all this technology are a part of everyone's life, we wanted to allude to sampling and a synthetic sound system so that alongside traditional organic sounds like rock guitars and vocals, you could have the synthetic aspects — drum machines, synths, programs and glitches — and they would just co-exist. It wasn't intended to be an aftertaste. I wanted electronics to be as integral as the drums or the vocals because that's what life is now.”
On the surface it may seem like a radical move for a band that only a year-and-a-half ago was being touted by NME as the “anti-heroes of post-punk” as well as Britain's answer to the sleazy dissolution of The Libertines — another punk-rock juggernaut that went down in a hail of booze, drugs and bad publicity. Bloc Party's anything-but-quiet full-length debut Silent Alarm (Vice, 2005) was the antidote, with Okereke's fervent wail and angular guitar playing leading the charge. Joined by lead guitarist Russell Lissack, bassist Gordon Moakes and drummer Matt Tong, the Nigeria-born East Londoner and his mates managed to carve out something unique — a fiercely passionate hybrid of glam, garage punk, art-rock and pure adrenaline that soon had Bloc Party selling out venues all over the UK and Europe.
“We actually recorded Silent Alarm before we ever really toured,” Okereke says, “which since then I think has helped me become a more capable singer. I've wanted to try more things with my voice really — not just the 100-mile-an-hour full-on yelp. Now it's more about trying to convey range and dynamics. When we went into the studio again [last June], I was definitely conscious that my voice had to be in different places.”
Okereke's vocal delivery isn't the only thing that's different about A Weekend in the City (Vice, 2007). Recorded over a period of six weeks with producer Garrett “Jacknife” Lee (he of U2, Snow Patrol and Editors fame), the album incorporates everything from live strings to heavily processed drums, synthesizers, samples and ambient noise — much of it the unmistakable signature of Lee's expansive, hyper-stereophonic sound. What's more, the band has tapped into a sophisticated streak of songwriting prowess that threatens to leave their UK retro-rock-minded peers (Kasabian, anyone?) in the dust. And maybe it's about time.
DOORS OF CONCEPTION
It could be argued that work on A Weekend in the City began long before Bloc Party even committed a note of it to tape — in fact, ideas for the album began to take shape during the band's time on the road in late 2005 and early 2006.
“Matt and I tend to get a riff and a drum beat together,” Okereke says, “and then the other guys will come in. We recorded our sound checks on a MiniDisc player and listened back to the parts to see if they were working or not. That's essentially how it started.”
Before long, the band had sought out a wish list of key producers to test the waters, recording demo tracks with Ben Hillier (Blur, Depeche Mode) and Steve Dub (Chemical Brothers). “Jacknife Lee was the third guy we tried out,” Okereke explains, “and the one song we did with him [‘I Still Remember''] sounded great. He seemed to really be aware of what it was we needed to do.”
Lee had worked with Irish alt-rockers Snow Patrol at a fully restored Georgian-style estate called Grouse Lodge, and he recommended the studio to Bloc Party [see sidebar, “Grouse Hunting”]. “I knew what I wanted to do with the band,” Lee recalls over the phone — when reached by Remix, he was actually in between takes with Editors (another hot alt-rock combo from Birmingham) at the very same studio. “They're an unusual bunch, but I knew we'd get on. I talked to Kele about what my ideas were, and he told me what he wanted. We didn't do any rehearsals or anything — we just went straight in. We pretty much agreed on what we thought was necessary, so it was more of an instinctive thing.”
For Okereke, many of those studio instincts had been coaxed into action by a period of deep immersion in as many musical sources as he could get his hands on. “Jacknife had given me a few CDs to listen to,” he says, “everything from Amerie to [György] Ligeti. I'd already been listening to Missy Elliott and that sort of post-modern hip-hop, and then I was given a choral score by [Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki] called St. Luke Passion, and I listened to that obsessively for a while. A lot of composers, like Philip Glass, gave me inspiration — with Ligeti, you get this amazing sense of atmosphere and tone and really close discords and harmonies. If you're not a classical musician, you always have the idea that classical music is something that's ornate and pretty, but it was amazing to hear something that was completely dark and sinister and huge. It just really made me want to try something different. I mean, I don't think we set out to make a neo-classical record [laughs], but I do think we relied on that kind of atmosphere.”
Compared with the more skeletal, basement-sounding rawness of Silent Alarm (itself a masterful touch from producer Paul Epworth), there's an immediate sense of the otherworldly and supermassive that emerges in Weekend's opening cut “Song for Clay (Disappear Here)” — a feeling that also has, according to Okereke, some cinematic roots.
“I was going for something almost like a Bond theme,” he says, referring perhaps either to Paul McCartney and Wings' “Live and Let Die,” the John Barry scores of the '60s or maybe even Garbage's “The World Is Not Enough.” “It has a melodramatic intimacy to it, and there's a lot happening — for example, the drums had to be processed a certain way to get that dramatic effect. I remember Jacknife said he wanted it to sound like you'd been mugged violently with broken glass — something really shocking or visceral.”
Lee describes a wide-open process that relies heavily on audio manipulation in Logic — a program he first started using on his own recordings nearly 10 years ago — to achieve the appropriate shock value. “There's very little that isn't touched, to be honest with you,” he explains. “I normally get everything recorded into Pro Tools and then treat the parts as individual stereo files in Logic, and once they're in there, anything can happen. With the drums, I might change them for the chorus of the song so the room opens up, or I might put them through the [SmartElectronix] SupaTrigger plug-in so they regurgitate themselves. For the guitars, I might use [Logic's] Sample Delay to get some space on them — and at the same time, Russell can get some amazing swelling guitar sounds with the pedals he uses.”
With the six weeks of sessions they had blocked out at Grouse Lodge, the band had the time to try multiple versions of the same song, even playing along live with their own previously recorded tracks that had been, again, run through the wringer in Logic. The strikingly weird Roxy Music-versus-The Cure overtones of “On” — the album's arguable centerpiece track, along with the infectiously catchy UK single “The Prayer” — benefit from an exhaustive reworking of live takes.
“We recorded ‘On'' as a series of loops,” Lee says. “Most of that was done to the drum beat and the bass guitar, which meant that we half recorded it as a band and then dumped it to Logic to be manipulated. We left the whole middle section of the song blank — I got them to play just random things for that, which we also put together in Logic. And then they played on top of that again, if that makes sense. Basically we would replace a lot of things that were on the original rough tracks, and if we thought we'd lost anything, we'd record the band playing live again over what had been replaced. We did that quite a lot just to break things up a bit.”
“On” also makes use of a string sextet — yet another manifestation of the orchestral but with the electronic twists (in the form of glitchy distortion applied by Lee) that bring the song into a 21st-century mode of thinking.
“The way that strings are used in rock music tends to be really reductive,” Okereke observes. “I mean, it hasn't really moved on all that much since The Beatles. I wanted to make something that really was a part and that moved from A to B in a real natural and exciting way. The idea was to make it sound like you were standing on the edge of a precipice. It's not just something nice that sustains in the background. There's a real sense of danger and discord there.”
Of course, in following his intent to explore the expansiveness of the sound that was in his head, Okereke also felt the pull to layer vocals — sometimes dozens of them. The album's closing track “SRXT” — named for the UK-manufactured anti-depressant Seroxat and directly inspired by Brian Eno's classic (and disturbingly beautiful) “By This River” — pivots on a double-tracked lead, as well as a veritable sea of background vocals.
“I really didn't notice it until after we were done,” Okereke admits, “but there are loads of stacked vocals on this record that resemble choral sections, and I really attribute that to Penderecki, who I'd been listening to. I'm not really thinking of solo voices anymore. I'm thinking of my voice as a real instrument, in the way I think of a guitar as an instrument. That's why there are so many choral interludes — like in the middle of ‘The Prayer'' and ‘SRXT'' and in ‘Uniform,'' with this criss-crossing of vocals. ‘Uniform'' alone must have at least a hundred tracks.”
As Lee remembers it, there are even more. “I think ‘Uniform'' probably had about 120 tracks,” he says almost matter-of-factly. “From the beginning, we were playing with the idea of the record not being a rock-and-roll record, so we would just keep stacking vocals to get the size we wanted. That also meant we were submixing a lot. I do a lot of that anyway, especially with guitars, and I think it's because I learned to mix using Logic. I don't really like mixing on a big desk. Even though I do spread everything out, submixing can be great for putting order to a song.”
Although much of what resembles synth textures on A Weekend in the City was actually generated by Lissack on guitar, there are actual synth parts that crop up throughout the album. “Hunting for Witches,” which starts off with a John Cage-like collage of spliced voices that create the main rhythm, surges with the squawks and squeaks of what is perhaps a temperamental EDP Wasp and a gurgling Minimoog — just two of the many units in Jacknife Lee's arsenal.
“I also have some Alesis drum machines from a really good guy in England who does a lot of circuit bending,” Lee raves. “Gordon would take those and do maybe 10 minutes of just plugging things in and out, and then I would listen back and chop out the nice bits and put them in time. If you're gonna play a drum machine or a Moog live over a track, the best thing to do is just play it all the way through. Not all of it is gonna be good, but once you've gone through a few takes, you can find the right little bits and move them to the right place.”
When documenting the creative arc that Bloc Party has followed since first coming together in 2003, “movement” is certainly the operative word that comes to mind. Now that electronics appear to be a permanent ingredient in the band's overall sound, it only makes sense that Okereke should be hacking out his own signal-processed path on a recently acquired Logic setup (Lissack's laptop, meanwhile, is outfitted with Pro Tools and Propellerhead Reason). Whether that means the band will be composing even more often with computers while on the road, only time — and tenacity — will tell.
“I guess the more you do the better you get,” Okereke notes. “I did want to make sure that whilst we're on the road in the future, we can jot ideas down quickly. Matt is very good with programming as well, so I think we're gonna make a concerted effort to start the year that way. It'll be great if we can just keep exploring more electronic avenues.”
That said, one thing seems a virtual certainty: There's bound to be a contingent of the notoriously fickle UK music press that will devolve into fits about Bloc Party's new direction.
“And you know, that's what I don't understand about the rock fraternity,” Okereke says, clearly a bit miffed at the prospect of having to defend his creative decisions to a bevy of — well, wankers. “They're so paranoid about the idea of using electronics, but there is so much fascinating avant-garde pop music being made now, like with Justin Timberlake or Missy Elliott or The Neptunes, that the argument against using a synthesizer because it's somehow not real is just stupid. A good artist will make use of everything around them to try and fully represent what they see. That's what's so powerful about this music.”
Nestled in the quiet countryside of Ireland's County Westmeath, Grouse Lodge has been the scene of some extraordinary recording sessions with everyone from William Orbit to Ms. Dynamite — a diverse swathe of clients that reflects the space's flexibility in any tracking situation. For Bloc Party's Weekend sessions, though, Jacknife Lee and engineer Tom McFall went the extra mile.
“The main room there is pretty big,” McFall explains, “so it's got a lot of natural ambience to it. Quite often we would end up dampening the room down, and we'd build a little booth around the back of the drums and have the front open. Sometimes we even built a roof over the top of the kit just to kill it completely.”
The band would set up guitars, bass and drums in the room with only a P.A. — no headphones allowed. Although Lee wasn't worried about bleed, the miking scheme for Matt Tong's drums was crucial, particularly in light of the extreme amount of looping, bit-crushing and processing that Lee had planned for the drum tracks once he got them into Logic.
“We'd have a D 112 with 47 FETs on the kick,” McFall says, “and an NS10 speaker [rewired] as a sub. Then there were 57s on the snare, 414s on the toms and a pair of overhead Brauners. The Coles mics were for the room, and then we'd have two more ambient mics that were distorted and heavily compressed to add a bit of grit. Quite often we ran those through Distressors, or we'd overdrive them on the [Neve] desk.”
From there, virtually anything was worth trying. Drums might be re-amped through a pair of Genelec 1031As (and sometimes while the band was playing live), or a brick might be wedged into the sustain pedal of a piano, with the vibrations miked during a live take. For one track — no one can seem to remember which, but listen for it in the latter half of “Uniform” — an old speaker was tossed off the balcony while blasting a drum beat, and the results were captured by a Digi 002 rig.
“It made this amazing smashing sound,” McFall remembers fondly. “Eventually it caught on fire, and we kicked it to death. That sounded pretty epic.”
Computer, DAW, recording hardware, interfaces
Apogee AD-8000 24-bit A/D converters with Pro Tools card and 8-channel D/A card
Apple PowerMac G4 dual 1 GHz computer, Logic 6 software
(2) Digidesign 888 audio interfaces, Pro Tools|HD system
Neve VR60 with flying fader automation
Audio Ease Altiverb 5 convolution reverb
Cycling '74 Max/MSP and Pluggo suites
Native Instruments Komplete 4 bundle
Ohm Force effects and filters bundles
Propellerhead Reason software
SmartElectronix SupaTrigger plug-in
Waves Renaissance bundle
Mics, preamp, compressors, effects
AKG C 414, D 112 mics
Blue Kiwi large-diaphragm condenser mic
Brauner VM1 valve mics (matched pair)
Coles 4030 ribbon mics
(2) Empirical Labs Distressors
Focusrite Liquid Channel (as vocal mic preamp)
Neumann U 47 FET mic
Shure SM57 mics
Sound Performance Lab Transient Designer dynamic effects unit Tube-Tech LCA2B stereo valve compressor
Urei 1176 Blackface, LA2A compressors
Synths, drum machines, instruments, effects pedals
Alesis HR-16 drum machine
Boss DD-6 digital delay
Clavia Nord Lead synth
Electro-Harmonix Big Muff distortion
Electronic Dream Plant (EDP) Wasp synth
Fender Jaguar, Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars; Precision bass; and Hot Rod Deluxe amplifiers
Gretsch Tennessee Rose guitar
Korg MS10 and MS20 synths
Moog Minimoog synth
Roland TR-606 and TR-808 drum machines
Dynaudio M4S 5.1 main monitor system with BM15 surrounds