In 2019, Bloc Party returned to their roots with a tour where they performed their platinum-selling debut album Silent Alarm in full. Buzzing from that tour, they started writing their sixth album.
“We wanted to capture the energy and the chemistry that the four of us were forming from playing live again,” says lead guitarist Russell Lissack. They finished their initial writing period in March 2020, so you know what happened next...
Unlike other bands, however, recording remotely and sharing files online was not an option for Bloc Party. As Russell puts it: “Touring Silent Alarm was quite instrumental in the writing process.
“We wanted that same energy when we were in the room bouncing ideas off each other. I think I don’t think it would have been the same if we tried to do that remotely.”
When Russell breaks down the band’s process, it’s obvious it couldn’t happen any other way. And as he explains, everything begins with an idea from the band’s leader, guitarist/vocalist Kele Okereke.
“Kele might come in with a chord sequence or a general idea,” Russell says. “I’ll be more sprinkling things on top of that to add character to it, rather than coming in with specific sections. Kele tends to prefer everyone reacting in the moment to something. He’ll either have an idea or even a suggestion: ‘Let’s try something like this,’ and seeing where it goes.
“When you come in with something that’s quite formed already then it’s harder to deviate from it, because you’re quite used to something that already exists. When you do it all together it feels less cemented. There’s more room to experiment, to change things.”
So they waited, much to the band’s displeasure. “Being forced to sit on something for extended periods can be really frustrating. You lose that initial excitement,” Russell comments. It proved a good decision, though. “We overcame that and ended up changing some things, adding new excitement and energy.”
The band’s new album Alpha Games has a freshness that comes from new blood, being the first album they’ve recorded with drummer Louise Bartle, who joined in 2015. It sounds distinctive for being an album based on live interplay between musicians in an era where almost everyone is working asynchronously.
As Russell says of the enforced delay: “It gave us more time to sit with the songs that we’d written, change things and write more songs. Ultimately, we finished with a stronger selection of songs.”
They made an exception to their insistence on teamwork for Russell’s standout guitar moment on the album, the solo to The Girls Were Fighting.
“I recorded the solo from that at home,” he says. “We’d written the whole song together and there was a gap where the solo was going to be. We weren’t going to see each other for a month.”
Russell had four weeks to kill and a newly acquired pedal, the Jack White-approved Mantic Flex Pro. “It’s a fuzz pedal but it goes completely wild,“ he says. “It kind of goes all 8-bit, glitches and stuff. As soon as you hear it you can recognise it. That’s the newest addition to my ’board, but it’s one of my favourites.”
As always for Bloc Party’s lead player, pedals are where the action is. “The effects pedals are the defining part of our sound more than guitars and amps,” Russell says. “I would always cite what I’m doing with pedals as being the most important thing. I tend to be doing as much with my feet as I’m doing with my hands.
“It’s certainly the challenging part of what we do on record and replicating it live. There’s so much footwork involved and real-time manipulation of sounds using pedals. They’ve always been the one of the most exciting aspects for me.”
We tried asking Russell what pedals were used on Alpha Games, but he revealed that he and producer Adam Greenspan had brought in “probably 100 different pedals” to the recording sessions.
“There’s not a specific chain,” Russell explains. “During the course of the recording, I was dismantling the pedalboard and putting things in various orders.” But central to the Bloc Party tone are the Boss delays (two DD-3s, two DD-6s and a DD-5) and OS-2 Overdrive/Distortion, which have been on Russell’s ’board since day one, and the Slicer dual tremolo pedal.
Alpha Games sees Russell go further than ever in his quest to push the guitar into synth territory.
“The Electro-Harmonix Synth9 pedal is quite a big part of this record,” he says. “I’ve always been into pedals since I’ve started playing guitar. I’ve always had like this desire to make the guitar sound as much like a keyboard as possible because there’s such a range of sounds achievable from a synthesizer.
“This pedal is great. It’s definitely the closest I’ve got to that. It’s got a real range of synth effects. It’s not a million miles from the Electro-Harmonix POG, but it’s the next level up from that. When you combine that with other things as well it’s fairly unlimited.”
Further weirdness came from Hologram pedals. “They make loops and real-time manipulation of things you play,” Russell says. “They create glitches and different time patterns, different time signatures. We were using those quite a bit during the writing and the recording.
“They would add a random element to what you’re doing, and by changing what you’re playing it caused you to respond to something unexpected in real time. It was quite exciting having that artificial influence on what you’re doing.”
Despite this passion for synth sounds, Russell is reluctant to go to the whole hog and try a MIDI guitar synth like Roland’s GK-55.
“I’m stuck between worlds,” he admits. “When you get too far in that direction it’s like you’re not actually playing a guitar from someone else’s perspective. No one would know it was a guitar on the record, so you might as well be playing a synth anyway.
“I like to think even though the sounds are quite unusual and have that synth element, they do still sound like they’ve been played on a guitar. There’s a nice middle ground which I enjoy. I guess it’s more exciting for me and rewarding to feel like pushing what the guitar is doing while still being a guitar.”
The guitar in question is still a 2004 American Ash Telecaster, bought with the money from Bloc Party’s first advance. Besides a pile of stickers and a Seymour Duncan bridge pickup, it’s unmodified.
On the band’s current tour, it’s supported by a more recent Player Plus Telecaster in Aged Candy Apple Red. Lissack’s Billy Corgan signature Strat also made it to the Alpha Games sessions, but the Telecaster ruled the day.
Amps were Fender’s ever-reliable Hot Rod Deluxes, mainly used on the dirty channel. “We’ve been using them since 2004,” says Russell. “They still feel like part of the Bloc Party sound. I have tried other things I’ve never found anything that feels as right as they do.”
On the day we spoke to Russell, he’d just taken delivery of a Boss GT-1000, which he’s considering as an alternative to real amps for touring.
“Our crew would appreciate not having lots of amps,” he says, “so they’re quite keen for us to try alternatives. The Hot Rods do always sound different. I’ve got two on stage for different channels, and even between the two of them they sound quite different, especially when the when the valves age. When you’re doing international touring and having to hire amps, having the same sound every night could be good.”
Effects wizardry aside, Alpha Games still took plenty of old-fashioned musical craft to write. Opening track Day Drinker came from Kele’s idea to write a canon (“like London Bridge Is Falling Down!” Russell laughs) where the same melody is triggered at different times, creating harmonies with itself.
“That was the starting point for the second half of that song,” he says. “It was mostly written in the room together getting little bits of melody and seeing what works in harmony together. I remember playing it round and round, just the three of us finessing it and extending the sequence from quite a simple starting point, getting it longer and more developed, and then editing it down.
“We had a phone just recording it in the room so we could listen back to it each day and see which bits were working. There was an element of improvisation to what we were doing.”
With such multi-tracked, detailed recordings, it must be a nightmare to replicate live. Russell, though, is more than up for it.
“We try and replicate as much as we can from the records. We both have multiple channels going from our pedalboards into separate amps. We try and incorporate loops and things we can have as much of what is going on [on the records] being replayed live as possible. It’s great to focus more on what we can achieve as guitar players again.”
- Alpha Games is out now via Infectious Music.