At SXSW 2005, you cannot escape Bloc Party. Their image is plastered to every street light and taco stand in downtown Austin. They are staring you down and daring you to find a cooler band… or at least that’s what the Hype Machine would like you to believe.
You’ve been granted access to this hipper-than-thou British quartet from 1:20-1:40 pm at the Fader Trading Post — a music venue/clothing store, which has been assembled for SXSW and will disappear when the shows are over. You meet security guard #1 at the entrance and are escorted to the backyard, which is furnished with cushy chairs and loveseats. A DJ is spinning and dancing, and with all the 80s-inspired get-ups and hairdos, you feel like you’re back on Bedford Avenue. Security guard #2 sports strategic bed-head, distressed jeans, and thick corduroy wristbands. He instructs you to wait on a sunny staircase until further notice. It’s nearly 2:00pm by the time you meet #3, who guards a green room. You and the friendly crew of a New Zealand radio show are led past a couple of pizzas, a bowl of candy bars, and several racks of neatly folded band-wear.
Out on a noisy balcony, where the bustle of 6th Street competes with the hum of the elevated I-35, the subjects of those ever-present posters are waiting. They look terrified. A radio crew from New Zealand makes a beeline for Kele Okereke, the striking lead singer. His mop-top dreads look as cool as they do on the posters, but he’s shifting nervously from one foot to the other and battling a fierce stutter. You aren’t sure what to do and end up with bashful guitarist Russell Lissack. And like the last two sixth graders left unpaired at the call for couple skate, you’re just so relieved to see each other.
He hides behind a curtain of asymmetrical boy bangs, and as he leans beside you over the balcony rail, a rainbow rave kid bracelet peeks out from the cuff of his oversized hooded sweatshirt. He reads your notes as you write them:
The L Magazine: Have you been to Texas before?
Russell Lissack: No, we just got in last night. It seems cool so far, just walking around this morning. We’re never in the sun, so it’s nice for us.
The L: Did you have to quit your day job to go on this tour, or have you been full-time Bloc Party for a while?
RL: Yeah, I quit university a year ago this week.
The L: What did you study?
RL: Sociology. I only had, like, three months to go. We had to go on that first UK tour, and I had to decide. It wasn’t really a hard decision.
The L: Seems like it’s turning out to be a good career move, though, right? Have you started thinking about what you’re going to do if this takes off, and you start, like, having a lot of money?
RL: [Laughs.] I’ll just keep doing this! I just want to make music. If I started to make lots of money, it would be something — I don’t know — so I didn’t have to work when I was old. There’s nothing I want to buy, really. I don’t want a car or anything like that. Maybe I’d see my friends on holiday.
The L: Did you go out to any shows last night?
RL: No, we got in pretty late. It took us 20 hours to get here — very long flight. I was pretty tired from that. Matt [Tong, the drummer] went out. He can’t help himself. It’s weird here — you walk down the road and you keep running into people you know. It’s like a little rock ‘n’ roll village. Do you know who comes to this SXSW? Like, what will the audience be like?
The L: It’s a lot of industry people, but regular people can get tickets, too.
RL: Oh. Industry showcases make me so nervous.
The L: Well, the good news is that most of the industry people are drunk. Even for the day shows. [RL still looks a little worried.] Are there any bands you’re looking forward to seeing?
RL: Hopefully we’ll be able to see some bands. I mean, we’re doing two shows a day so I don’t know how much time we’re going to have. I don’t really know who’s playing. I just got a timetable and all the people I want to see seem to be playing at the same time.
The L: That’s always the problem. Who did you have in mind?
RL: Probably Mee-ya, is it? Or Maya? M.I.A.? LCD Sound System is playing at 1am, but I have to be at sound check at 9am tomorrow. I don’t know who’s playing for the rest of the weekend. Does anyone know or do you just find out on the day?
The L: It’s all in this booklet. Would you like to see it?
RL: For the whole weekend? Really? Oh, but we haven’t got wristbands or anything to get us into the shows.
The L: Umm, somebody at your label should have them. Maybe you should ask around. [A film crew shuffles by behind you, and Lissack leans in closer, nearly tucking his head into your shoulder to avoid them.] What made you pick Vice anyway?
RL: We wanted to go with a smaller label because we wanted to come over here [to America] and do this properly — tour and work our way up. We didn’t want to be one of those British bands who comes over and gets their picture on the cover of every magazine before they’ve even played a show. When I was younger and would see things like that — you get put off straightaway. We’ve been getting a little bit of that anyway, but it’s not what we wanted.
The New Zealanders are ready for Lissack. He smiles shyly and says he’ll look for you at the show. Jittery Okereke seems too worked up for another interview, so you just thank him on your way out and ask him if he’s looking forward to any shows while he’s in town.
“Do you know who else is playing?” he asks. Shouldn’t someone have debriefed these kids? Surrounded by Levi’s apparel and
kept in the dark about this very American music fest, this band has a lot more in common with the Soviet Bloc than anyone could have imagined.
Now Okereke’s freaking out over your schedule booklet — he can’t believe that M.I.A., ESG, Death from Above, and LCD Sound System are all in one place. He starts to write up his own schedule when his publicist signals that it’s time to go. He asks if I’ll be at their show and when I say that I will, he smiles for the first time. You can’t figure out why they didn’t choose a happier shot for those posters — the kid lights up the room.
You see him just before their second performance. He is schmoozing (or, more likely, being schmoozed) with some leather-jacketed industry folk at the Spin Party at Stubb’s — a huge outdoor venue where the vodka is flowing for free. You catch Russell stumbling around with a perma-grin, and a few minutes later Okereke walks past you, staring off into the distance as though he’s looking for someone. Then he walks past you again. Then, he’s standing next to you, turning in circles and making a big show of scanning the crowd. Finally, you tap him, and he smiles too fast to really seem surprised.
“I thought it was you,” he says. “Did you come to our show last night?”
“No, I couldn’t get in — it was packed.”
“Oh, good. There was a problem with the sound, and it was just awful.”
Grinning goofily and adjusting his backpack, he politely asks you to watch the Futureheads with him, without a sputter in his speech. But when a couple of dudes ask to take a photo and each throw an arm around him to pose, his smile fades and he stares sheepishly at the camera. When it’s Bloc Party’s turn to take the stage, bassist Gordon Moakes handles the intra-song banter, drummer Matt Tong immediately sheds his shirt. They’re rocking as best they can in broad daylight, under the scrutiny of a tough (but moderately drunk) crowd. For the record, they’re not the best band in the world, but the hype isn’t too far off. They’re just a bunch of sweet British kids trading guitar riffs, singing party songs about skirts and solitude, and having an American adventure that they didn’t quite see coming. They’re the rock fantasy that everyone likes to read about. They’re living the dream that you hope won’t ever happen to you.