BLOC PARTY at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Saturday (April 2). $13.50. 416-466-0313. Rating: NNNNN
Austin - Ever since Glaswegian geeks Franz Ferdinand navigated a nerdly route to the American heartland, there's been a mad scramble amongst similarly 80s-inclined Brit boys with guitars to follow Franz's lead.
The Futureheads were momentarily the lads most likely until everyone realized how deadly dull they were in the flesh. Now the smart money's on Bloc Party.
Admittedly, dreaded singer dude Kele Okereke, sporting a hot-pink polo shirt, and bed-haired bassist Gordon Moakes don't look terribly special slouching across the table from me in the lobby of Austin's upscale Omni Hotel. Yet later that afternoon, when they're plugged in and raging on the Stubb's stage with shirtless drummer Matt Tong flailing away Keith Moon-style, all the typical "best band ever " blather coming from the UK doesn't seem so much like empty hype. In fact, these weeds actually rock.
So it's no great shock that all it took was a single opening slot on a bill with Franz Ferdinand to achieve instant Next Big Thing status. Although the story about them being hand-picked by Franz after main man Alex Kapranos received an ass-kissing fan letter from the Bloc Party might not be entirely accurate.
"The Franz guys made up that letter story just to make themselves look cool," snarls Okereke, shaking his head in disgust. "It really makes me sick. The next time I see that Alex Kapranos, I intend to give him a piece of my mind."
"You're gonna chin him, are you?" chuckles Moakes
"Yeah," grins Okereke, "I could definitely have a go at him. It's true that we did get a gig opening one of their shows, but it wasn't quite the stuff of legend, as they'd like to think. BBC DJ Steve Lamacq was really the key figure. After seeing us at that show, he started playing our demo on Radio One, and that's when all the industry people began coming to our shows. The free-for-all was on."
When the smoke cleared from the ensuing bidding war, Bloc Party had unexpectedly signed to UK indie Wichita, passing up big-money offers from the majors for the sake of creative freedom, and then confounded everyone else by sneaking off to Copenhagen to record their Silent Alarm (Vice/Warner) album with producer Paul "Phones" Epworth (Futureheads, Death from Above 1979).
Evidently, the crisp Danish weather combined with Copenhagen's storied after-hours club scene made the perfect environment for a Bloc Party session.
The Joy Division and Cure inspiration so apparent on their earlier singles like She's Hearing Voices and Banquet - conveniently compiled on their self-titled EP for Dim Mak - are still evident. But it's clear that they've progressed beyond the 80s revival shtick to which many of their contemporaries still cling.
"I knew before going into the studio that I wanted the album to sound very rich and full," says Okereke, "not too flat, like many of the guitar rock records that have been coming out of Britain. The goal was simply to give the music more depth, sonically speaking.
"We never set out to be any sort of punk-funk or 80s revival band. Those terms are far too restrictive for what we aim to do. I know some people saw our first single, She's Hearing Voices, as nothing more than a funky little ditty, but there's a lot more going on in that song, with the atmosphere and tension.
"We were a bit concerned when we came to re-record it for the album, because we were so used to hearing it in a certain way. At first, the new version sounded alien to me, but I've grown to really like what we did with Paul. He had some very good suggestions about dynamics, but I'm glad we didn't listen to anything he said about song structure."
The comment about Epworth's compositional advice draws a laugh from Moakes, who nods knowingly but declines to elaborate. He has nothing but praise for the live sound man and part-time club DJ's studio work, even the mandolin idea.
"Paul's the sort of producer who looks at the entire studio as an instrument. He'll check out the desk and investigate everything in the room to see how it might be used to enhance the recording.
"It was kind of strange when he had me strap planks of wood to my feet to get the right stomping sound on Price Of Gas, and we had a lengthy discussion about the use of the mandolin on This Modern Love.
"We resisted at first, but he was right - it worked perfectly to offset the low end in this one small part. It's just one or two notes that no one would probably notice unless I pointed it out."
Now that the album's done and on the street, the challenging part of selling the Bloc Party to North America audiences is next on the agenda. Their connection with the Vice empire, including its spin-doctoring arm, addVice Marketing, should help get the important tastemakers on side. They're slick operators.
"At one point, we were going to sign with the 679 label in England. That's how the people at the Vice label, who are the U.S. counterparts of 679, became aware of our stuff," explains Moakes.
"When Dim Mak was going to put out our EP, addVice Marketing knew about it and offered to work the release for free. When the time came to consider a U.S. label, we already had a relationship with the Vice people, so there really wasn't the same kind of crazy situation we had in the UK."
Even though the Silent Alarm disc just hit the streets, they're already starting to receive remixes - so far Mogwai, Ladytron, Four Tet, M83 and the Glimmer Twins have each tweaked different tracks - and new songs are being demoed for the follow-up album. The Bloc Party have no intention of being another passing trend.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't aware that we're considered the fashionable thing at the moment," smiles Okereke, stabbing his guitar pick into a banana peel. "But we've never courted that notion, nor do we even think about it. I mean, it's not important at all for me to go out to parties and hang out with celebrities.
"Now and again we'll check into a hotel room and find a big bag of designer clothes and stuff waiting for us," allows Moakes. "It's not like we aren't clothes horses, or clothes whores. I think if your main concern as a musician is making sure you look right...."
"Well, some of us in the group have always been aware of the clothes we put on," injects Okereke. "Shopping is one of my favourite pastimes. I've always enjoyed buying lots of clothes. Just because all these designers are throwing stuff at us all the time now hasn't changed a thing."