On truth and mutual obligation

A piece I wrote for The Vine about the whole silly Bloc Party controversy that’s played out over the last week, and what it has to say about how music journalism and the interview process work.

If you’re a Bloc Party fan, you’ll probably have followed with increasing bewilderment the ongoing has-Kele-Okereke-quit-or-hasn’t-he? saga that’s been going on over the last week or so. But even if you’re not, the whole thing’s worth looking at, because it raises a host of questions about the role of the music press, and music journalism/criticism in general. Here’s how it played out: last week, the NME published an interview with Okereke. The interview included a quote where the singer described seeing his bandmates entering a rehearsal space for what looked like a rehearsal scheduled without his knowledge, and then fretted that he might have been removed from the band without being told. (As an aside: who sacks their singer without telling him? But anyway.) A week later, the magazine published a follow-up interview with Bloc Party guitarist Russell Lissack, where he was quoted as confirming that the band were planning to audition new singers.
The quotes were republished widely across the web, along with claims that he band had split. Soon after, the band’s management started contacting various outlets who had carried to story, denying that the band had split. The implication was that this was a typical NME beat-up and that there was nothing to back up the claims.

Except, well, it appears that maybe there was. The NME took the virtually unprecedented step of publishing the interview audio in full on its website — we can’t remember any magazine ever having done this before, and the two recordings definitely make for interesting listening. The quotes are definitely genuine (assuming the actual interviews are genuine, which there’s no suggestion they aren’t), and honestly, we can see why the NME‘s editor decided to publish.

Of course, there are questions to be asked as to how they went about doing so — if it was TheVine who had these quotes, we probably wouldn’t have plastered them all over the front page of our website without contacting the band’s management, or Okereke again, to ask exactly what it all meant. But equally, it’s not a case of inventing a story out of nothing — rather, the magazine put two and two together, came up with the answer four, and decided to publish and be damned.

So what’s going on? Why did the band say these things if they weren’t true? Okereke posted a lengthy blog on his website entitled “Sleeping with the NME“, which you can read here. In the piece, Okereke reiterates that Bloc Party aren’t breaking up, and then also goes onto say that any interviews he gives “have to be taken with a pinch of salt”, and admits that “I don’t really have much faith in the interview process so i say absurd things to call the journalists out and they know this”.

Honestly, this seems more than a little disingenuous. If you’re going to accuse the press of not being entirely honest in the way it presents interviews, it seems strange to admit in the same breath that you’re not entirely honest either. No-one’s denying that the press does shitty things sometimes — certainly, if we were artists, we’d be pretty upset if we were the victim of a hatchet job like Lynn Hirschberg’s infamousNew York Times piece on MIA last year, for instance — and the NME‘s reputation for taking things out of context isn’t entirely undeserved.

But equally, journalists (or good ones, anyway) spend a lot of time researching and trying their best to formulate interesting and valid interview questions, and it’s disappointing when artists agree to do an interview but then fail to either a) tell the truth or b) treat the whole thing as a bit of a lark. Clearly, the relationship between artists and press is a strange one, laden with mutual compromise and varying expectations. There are many artists who don’t enjoy talking to the press, and only do so because they understand that doing so is an invaluable tool in promoting their music. Equally, magazines and websites want high-profile quotes and eye-catching stories to promote their content. Okereke makes some perfectly valid points in his blog: “I’ve always objected to the fact that you talk passionately about making music, something that you care so strongly about and the only thing that gets used is the 2 lines when you absentmindedly cuss someone out.”

To an extent, the NME are reaping what they’ve sown in the past here, because the reluctance of artists like Okereke to be forthright in interviews is (as the singer himself implies) probably due, at least in part, to the way that former editorial regimes at the magazine have treated artists in the past. But equally, y’know, be the change you want to see in the world, and all that. If you’re not going to tell the truth in interviews, you can’t really complain if what appears in print isn’t true. And if you do tell the truth, you can’t complain if you get caught trying to change your story later.

What remains unclear after all this hullaballoo is what it all means. It seems pretty clear that Bloc Party aren’t splitting, so we can only assume that they’ve resolved whatever differences that led to Okereke and Lissack’s original quotes. But trying to suggest that what was said was somehow all a bit of a piss-take is pretty poor form. Or, as at least one site has wondered, was the whole thing just a publicity stunt?

Whatever the case, the whole thing has proved a fine illustration at least one important point. Artists have every right to expect the press to treat them fairly and honestly. The press has the right to expect the same.

(Disclaimer: the author has contributed occasionally to NME, although never an interview feature.)

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