Bloc Party

By Jordan McLachlan

Angular art-punksters Bloc Party have released one of the best albums of the year in Silent Alarm. Guitarist Russell Lissack talks song writing, recording and influences.

The UK has a long history of producing guitar players worthy of the title ‘hero’. And they’ve not emerged exclusively from the rock scene, where ten-minute solos and squealing harmonics are de rigueur. Guitarists such as Johnny Marr, Bernard Butler and Jonny Greenwood have everything it takes to achieve legendary status, without the posey histrionics associated with certain axe heroes. The individual styling, remarkable sound and distinctive approach of the aforementioned trio have influenced a generation of indie-savvy guitar players, not least Bloc Party’s Russell Lissack. It’s too early to say for definite whether Russell will eventually take his place in such esteemed company, but the signs are good. His compelling blend of melodic statements, choppy rhythm parts and swirling six-string soundscapes on Bloc Party’s debut album Silent Alarm mark Russell out as one of the most interesting young British players in a long time.

The fact that he’s just one of an outfit which comprises three other unique players explains in great part Bloc Party’s incredible recent success. Despite sharing many of the same post-punk influences as contemporaries such as The Futureheads or Kaiser Chiefs, the band simply don’t sound like anyone else. So just how do Bloc Party come to make such a glorious noise? How does Russell build his expansive guitar tone? And why is the Boss DD-5 delay pedal his best friend? You’re just paragraphs away from finding out….

Russell, you’ve been recording recently – given that Bloc Party have such a distinctive sound, do you all have a clear vision of how you want your songs to end up before you go into the studio?
We all have a slightly different vision of how things will come out, but I think we’re all aware of what we’re working towards. We’ll write something in a sound check or rehearsal room, but we all realise that the way it comes together isn’t necessarily the way it’ll sound in the end. Once we get into the studio, there are always extra elements added – vocals and things we can’t incorporate when we’re writing – and that’s where things really take shape. We’re much more aware of how those additions can alter the nature of a song now that we’ve had some proper recording experience.

What impact did the making of Silent Alarm have on the band?
If you’re working with a good producer, they’ll get you to try different things in terms of arrangements and sounds, and think about what it is you’re doing. That’s great, because as a band you’re very close to your songs and that extra pair of outside ears will often hear things you’d never think of. What we ended up with on Silent Alarm was better as a result of working with [producer] Paul Epworth.

Do you enjoy being in the studio?
No, I don’t like being in the studio. I hate it, actually. I’m really, really impatient and I usually get my parts done quickly and then end up frustrated because I’m hanging around with nothing to do. Especially the way things are with Pro Tools now, it seems you’re always waiting for the computer to do something. I like Pro Tools and what you can do with it – it’s all we’ve ever worked with – but things never happen quick enough for me.

Talking of being impatient, it would appear that Bloc Party have enjoyed overnight success, but things are never that simple. Were there periods of frustration before you got signed when things looked as though they were never going to happen?
Kele [Okereke, Bloc Party’s frontman/guitarist] and I were always absolutely determined this band was going to happen and be successful. It was frustrating trying to find the right people to complete the band, but we always had faith in the songs. We started writing together in 1998, so it’s taken six or seven years to get to this point, but we never gave in to the idea that it wouldn’t happen. We had a lot of problems finding the right drummer, until Matt [Tong] joined us. The drums and the rhythm are such an important part of Bloc Party because we didn’t want to be just another guitar band. That’s had a big impact on the way we write songs and the way that we sound as a band.

Bloc Party might not be a common-or-garden guitar band, but your guitar playing has come in for much praise since the album’s release. Can you talk a little about where your influences come from?
For me, there are two sides to my influences – there’s the Johnny Marr and Bernard Butler stuff, which is really melodic and not based on effects or anything. And then there’s the Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead, bands that are more about getting different sounds from the guitar. It’s about using a combination of those influences in the right place, trying to mix them up and come up with something new.

And what gear do you use in order to conjure up the Bloc Party sound?
My guitars are all Fender Telecasters, and Kele and I use Fender Deluxe amps both in the studio and on stage. Pedal-wise, it’s pretty much a Boss-fest. I’ve got a TR-2 Tremolo, DS-1 Distortion, a new PW-10 Wah, the DD-5 and DD-6 Delays and the PS-5 Supershifter. For a long time, all we had was a distortion, a delay and an old wah pedal and we really got the most out of them. The DD-5 was always my best friend because there were so many different types of delay, but it was always really flexible. I really like to push my effects to see what sounds I can achieve when I get new stuff, but it’s been ages since I’ve had time to really experiment with things.
I like the way new pedals can open up different ideas. Pedals can inspire new parts or songs by giving you access to new sounds. And the way you can hook them up in a different order as you get more of them can be really interesting too. Unfortunately, the only time I get my hands on my gear now, except for during a gig, is when we’re sound checking. And people don’t tend to appreciate you trying out weird sounds when they’re setting the rest of the PA and monitors up. So I’m a bit frustrated at the moment, because I’ve got all of this new stuff and I haven’t begun to explore its potential yet!

Can you sum up your approach to creating the Russell Lissack tone?
I don’t like to over-use things. I generally don’t have an effect on for a whole song, otherwise it loses impact. I use a lot of delay, but not all the time – other effects get switched in and out for specific parts. There’s quite a lot of tap dancing and trying to switch two pedals on and off at once during a set.