Interview: Russell Lissack from ‘Bloc Party’
It’s been a challenging couple of years for British indie-rock legends Bloc Party, with the band forced to source replacements after the loss of founding drummer Matt Tong and bassist Gordan Moakes. The new look 4-piece released their 5th studio album ‘Hymns’ in January, which received a mixed reception from fans. We called Bloc Party’s lead guitarist Russell Lissack to talk about the band’s new attitude, his mind blowing new guitar sounds, and why the band won’t ever look to recreate their breakthrough album ‘Silent Alarm’.
Between your previous album ‘Four’ and ‘Hymns’, Bloc Party saw the departure of two founding members. Was there ever a point were you and Kele (singer) seriously thought about ending Bloc Party?
Umm no, several days after we finished touring in 2013 we spoke and decided that we still wanted [Bloc Party] to carry on almost immediately! We took some time off because we had a long tour, but we basically wanted to start working on stuff in 2014. We started the writing process for [‘Hymns’] in 2014, so from our perspective it was almost continuous.
With the additions of Justin Harris on bass and drummer Louise Bartle how do you feel Bloc Party’s sound has changed, if at all?
Justin came on board towards the very end of the writing process, and Louise we didn’t really meet until the end of recording the record. So, in terms of their influence, it’s kind of something that’s yet to come. I think they’re impacting on the live show with their performances, but in terms of the creative side…we’ve just started working on new material while we’ve been on the road for the last month. I actually think we started writing while we were in Australia! So we’re hoping to put out some new material sometime this year… that’ll be the first sign of how the four of us are working together.
Will the new material continue down the line of the electronic sounds on ‘Hymns’ or back to ‘A Weekend In The City’?
It’s probably a bit early to say at the moment y’know, we’re still trying to get the feel for each other and starting to write together. I certainly don’t think we’re going back to anything, that’s never been something we’ve ever done, we’ve always tried to do something different. Also, to me, I don’t feel like ‘Hymns’ is an electronic record. I can see why people would say that when they listen to it, but the way everything was recorded and written was still all made using guitars and effects and a drum kit and a singer. So in that sense it doesn’t feel like it was an electronic record. Because we’re mostly writing with our instruments during sound check, it’s naturally going to sound different to ‘Hymns’.
‘Hymns’ definitely sees you delve deeper into an electronic sound, so why are there no real dance-y tracks on the album like ‘One More Chance’ or the more recent ‘Ratchet’?
I don’t know. I guess we’ve never approached something saying, “let’s write a dance-y song” y’know? We’ve just written the music we’re interested in or inspired by and what we want to do in that moment in time…when we were writing [‘Hymns’] these were the kind of ideas that were happening.
The lead single from ‘Hymns’ was The Love Within, which was the first real release featuring the two new members. I was a little disappointed that in the first song from Bloc Party 2.0 you were stuck behind a keyboard rather than playing your Telecaster! What spurred your move from lead guitar to keyboard?
Well The Love Within is all played on guitar, I never played the keyboard. I don’t play the keyboard on any track on the album, everything is still on the guitar.
Oh! How have you changed your guitar effects to make it sound more like…well a synthesizer?
I listened to a lot of electronic music and for me I find it more exciting to see what new sounds I can get out of the guitar, that’s been something I’ve always enjoyed ever since I started playing the guitar. As we became Bloc Party and made all our records I’ve always tried to make new sounds, so that’s how I approached this record during the time off that we had. I had the opportunity to experiment and get new equipment for my guitar and effects pedals. People perceive the sound as a keyboard because it sounds so alien from how people traditionally hear a guitar being played. I’m a very bad keyboard player so I wouldn’t be able to play the parts on keyboard anyway (laughs).
The pick guard on your go-to guitar to play live has an incredible amount of stickers on it – and your guitar strap has quite a few badges – when and why did you start decorating your guitar?
Ahh well that dates back to when we first started… I can’t even remember [when I started], I think I just put a few badges on my strap for fun and then people kept giving me [badges] all the time until the whole strap just got covered, and it’s kind of remained covered for many years now. I haven’t really added to it or taken away from it for a while now. And the same with the stickers, I think a lot of them originate from Japan. I think I put a couple on [the guitar] and then people in Japan ended up giving me lots of stickers which kind of ended up covering all the guitar. I guess they’ve become a sort of historical document, as they’ve been untouched for a few years now…
Have you stopped putting stickers on the guitar because there’s just too many?
I do mean to add to them. I’ve got a box, because I’ve been given so many stickers and I haven’t used all of them and I’ve been meaning to give [the stickers on the guitar] a little refresh. I’ve never got my guitar at home, it’s always on tour or in storage, and so I never remember to take the stickers on tour with me. But maybe one day I’ll actually remember to do that!
What do you say to those people who only want another ‘Silent Alarm’ sounding album?
I think that a lot of bands have that kind of thing that people really latch onto, like a specific album, and then just want to hear songs that sound like that album…and that’s fine. But that’s not what we’re doing, that’s not what we’ve ever done. It’s been 10 years [since the release of ‘Silent Alarm’] so we’re not going back and making another album from 10 years ago because we’re different people now, to do something like that would be kind of cynical I think if nothing else. I think every album we’ve done has been different to the one before it and that’s kind of the way things are. That doesn’t mean we won’t make an album that’s super heavy and guitar based, anything can happen in the future! But we’re never going to listen to ‘Silent Alarm’ and try and write music to that because it wouldn’t make sense from an artistic point of view.
You were just out in Australia for Falls Festival and a few side shows, how did Aussie crowds receive the new-look and sounding Bloc Party compared to ‘the States and back home in the UK?
Everyone’s seemed receptive! I guess that Justin and Louise are such good musicians, so people can kind of see that immediately and lots of people have commented on how happy everyone looks on stage and how much fun everyone seems to be having. It’s nice that [the happiness in the band] is coming across to people.
Does that mean you guys weren’t that happy on stage over the past few years?
Umm I think the chemistry between everyone over the last couple of years was definitely a bit lost at times…I always enjoyed [playing live] because it’s always been my favourite part of what we do. I guess [our happiness on stage] is just something I’ve never really noticed people talking about, or they weren’t observing how we were on stage before [the lineup change]. [The recent comments] I guess have just kind of stood out to me as a nice thing to hear from people.
Of all the Youtube videos I’ve watched of Bloc Party playing live I think you look your happiest when you flick your hair a lot. Is that a good indicator of if Russell Lissack is happy on stage?
(Laughs) Yeah I guess it’s like a dog’s tail wagging…
Bloc Party are loved by many because of the unique sounds and effects you make through you immense rack of guitar effects. For the benefit of those budding guitarists, such as myself, what effects did you use to create THAT solo in The Prayer?
Ahh well we haven’t played The Prayer for a while…there’s a handful of pitch shifters…I think that’s it really. It’s just distorted guitar and a handful of pitch shifters…
(Skip to 2:43 for Russell’s wicked solo)
You make it sound so easy!
Yeah, well I’ve been doing it for a while now and I do it every day just using three pedals, and I’ve got a rack of 20 pedals that usually sits in front of me…so I guess my explanation does sound relatively simple. I guess when you know how it’s done it seems super simple…I guess it’s like a magic trick!
Read our album review of ‘Hymns’ HERE