Matt Tong, aka the drummer of the UK’s post-punk act Bloc Party, is so much more then what you might think. After wrapping up their latest album, Matt is looking ahead on personal projects, surprises me on his knowledge of Asian films, and schools me on how he initially joined the band (and proving Wikipedia isn’t always a resourceful research tool). But as easy, breezy, and infectious as Tong’s drumming can be, beneath the surface lurks deeper emotions. Read below for the full Q&A…
I hear Kele keeps himself busy with remixes, writing and DJing. Do you dabble with other jobs or hobbies aside from drumming?
When I joined Bloc Party I was studying recording technology in London and had the band not been signed, I think I would have headed down the path towards making tea for an overworked engineer in some studio or another. My interest in tea has waned in recent years, but recording music is something I’m finding increasingly compelling. I’ll never be the next Eno but I really do enjoy recording other bands and I’ve been making my own music as an experiment. I’ve nearly finished a full length of my own, and when I finally learn to relax a little and stop being so defeatist and self-critical, I’d like to spend more time working on my songwriting. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the time and space in order to do that.
When Bloc Party put an ad out that they needed a drummer, did you ever think that going the route of ‘ad answering’ would garner the position you are in now? It seems a bit lucky!
Actually I didn’t answer an ad, that was Gordon. I ended up joining because Kele worked with a dear friend of mine and he always seemed to need a drummer for his band. I knew him for a year before I joined but because he always needed a drummer… I kind of thought it was a bad sign or something. I guess he wore me down in the end because I hadn’t given much thought to being in a band. Looking back, I’m more surprised that I ended up playing in the first place than I am that Bloc Party got a record deal! But, in relation to your question, did I ever think being in the band would lead to where it did? In the early days I was definitely taken in by Kele’s commitment and drive and that made me think something could happen, but playing festivals, or playing in Japan, or the Philippines, or New York or wherever, that all seemed like such an abstraction that I didn’t dare think it was possible.
On The Nextwave Sessions, released in the states a few months ago, did you go into the studio wanting to make dance music through and through again?
I’m not entirely sure. The riff that Russell had written for “Ratchet” was something we’d been jamming about with for a while and it seemed obvious to us it could only be used in a dance-type song, so yes, it was much more design than accident.
In turn, after the haitus, as a drummer, when recording ‘Four’, did you find it difficult to build its momentum?
Surprisingly enough no, despite everything leading up to the album session: I managed to collapse my lung for a second time (the first time on tour seven years ago) at a party just before we went into pre-production. It seemed I wouldn’t be able to get out of having surgery on it, so I spent two weeks in bed and then another two panting whenever I tried to walk more than a couple of blocks. But I think we were all gripped with such a strong desire to make this record that it completely overrode any sense that we’d have to pick up the pieces slowly and meticulously after such a long break,
I always get nervous when a band takes a hiatus. Between the four of you, is the chemistry still there to make music? Or was there another reason?
Oh boy, I sure don’t. I would argue that it’s in the best interest of anyone in the creative field to take some time away from the one thing that they’re most known for and just relax and try something different, because there are so many ways to go about conceiving that one thing. Everyone has their tropes, it’s unavoidable, but I think that beauty in art comes from the conflict between being yourself, being yourself in the face of the monetisation of what it is you do and being yourself versus populist pressure to be “current”, whatever that means. That conflict can be exploited in order to make something interesting (even if it seems familiar) if you give yourself the time for a bit of self-reflection.
I left Bloc Party last summer, so it feels a bit odd to be talking about the hiatus given that the band is no longer a regular concern of mine, but for me, the three year hiatus between the third and fourth albums was useful for the aforementioned reason.
I heard you took a break from music when you were younger. I also heard John Lennon took a 5+ year break from music as well. It seems to somehow be possible for your musical growth as a whole. Do you have any regrets not continuously playing?
I wouldn’t say I took a break, though there were probably periods in my youth when I took music less seriously than I do now, but I was always doing something or other with music from the time I began learning the piano as a child. I do regret not being more invested in improving my technique because I think it would have been helpful in my present life, plus it probably would have been good to have that kind of focus during my adolescence.
What are some of your favorite Asian films and/or anime?
I’m not particularly familiar with much anime other than the classics. I grew up with “Battle of the Planets” but it wasn’t until recently that I realized how heavily edited it was compared to the original “Gatchaman”, so I’m interested in getting hold of all the original episodes now. I think the last anime I saw was “Millennium Actress“, which I loved. I found it incredibly moving and full of wonder, and since it’s based in part on the life of Setsuko Hara, I started getting into Ozu films, which are hard going for someone as sleepy as me, but they are so dense and elliptical and say so much about the many subtle mysteries of the human condition that they’re worth spending time with. I’m a big fan of Hirokazu Koreeda – one of my favourite films is “Nobody Knows“, and although it’s an extremely distressing experience and best avoided by anyone with abandonment issues, I can’t recommend it enough. “After Life” is also a great work and I feel better about being less than the sum of my parts for having seen it. It’s such a gentle, playful and deeply affecting film.
Wong Kar-wai is great. “In the Mood for Love” interests me in its insistence that the form of refusing to succumb and reconciling yourself to your secrets is an authentic experience and not a substitute or an excuse for avoiding our instincts. Jackie Chan, of course, was a hero to me as a child. I love “Police Story“. Even [close to] 30 years after it was made, that movie still seems completely unhinged. It’s so relentless and I’m still unpacking what the car/bus chase at the start means – you know, the bit when he gets into a shootout with some gangsters and ploughs through a shanty town in a car in pursuit before hanging off the side of a British-style double decker bus with an umbrella. There’s a message in there, somewhere, about postcolonialism, I just know it! However, I didn’t do “Critical Theory 101” at university, so perhaps I should best leave it there…
For those unfamiliar with Bloc Party, where would you suggest they start? Silent Alarm?
Oh, definitely “Silent Alarm”. There are some good moments on all of the records, but I still think “Silent Alarm” is the most consistent and solid of the four to date.
Your band has that under-produced quality. Is that a deliberate way of adding a more human quality to some of the more over produced slick stuff on mainstream radio?
Hmm. I would disagree. “Silent Alarm” is very produced, though it is a little rough round the edges in places, in keeping with Paul Epworth’s credo, and Kele really wanted some of songs on “…Weekend…” and “Intimacy” to sound very artificial, and sounding slick is often a byproduct of that. However, “Four” was definitely intended to sound less slick than some of the earlier work and we wanted to show that it was the product of four people performing together.
What is ahead for you in 2014?
Settling into a more consistent life, I suppose. I’m looking to finish off my record before summer and if I can shift 10-20 copies, that’ll be something. I also have a couple of friends I’d really like to collaborate with, so I’m looking to get some new projects going. It’s just hard to mobilize right now… it’s so bloody cold!
Lastly, any advice for a young drummer trying to improve his technique?
I’m probably the last person you’d want to ask for advice, but if I could do it all over again, I would have got myself a decent practice pad and just sat in front of the T.V. after homework doing all of the classic rudiments. In fact, that’s what I should be doing now. I wonder where I left my sticks again?