JOHN BLEK is not really called John Blek. ‘Blek’ is a moniker adopted for the stage, with the songwriter and producer keeping his actual name a secret (rumour has it he was born John O’Connor).
This is possibly a consequence of the healthy paranoia one cultivates growing up in a semi-rural suburb — he’s from Glanmire, Co Cork — but also speaks to the artistic ambitions of Blek and his band, The Rats.
“The group was named after French graffiti artist [and Banksy inspiration] Blek Le Rat,” he says. “Having a stage alias is definitely freeing in some regards. It lets you express a particular aspect of who you are.”
However we are to refer to him, good things surely beckon for Blek and his comrades, a roiling rag-tag whose sound slips between old timey Americana, swoonful chamber pop, and contemplative alternative rock. The ensemble have just released their second album, Borders, having enjoyed a degree of success with their debut, Leave Your Love At The Door, both in Ireland and on the continent.
“The first record was a collection of songs written over a long period of time, as is often the case with debuts,” says Blek. “For the follow-up, I wanted to make something that was more cohesive thematically and sonically — that would represent a stand-alone piece of art in its own right.”
He blanches slightly when asked about the band’s Americana influences. If Leave Your Love At The Door had an undeniable Appalachian twang, he hopes that isn’t at all the case with the follow-up. The moment has arrived for Blek and the Rats to marshal their own aesthetic and on Borders this is revealed to be a lush marriage of Midlake, Divine Comedy, and Nick Cave. It’s carried off with verve and steely belief.
“The first record may have had an American feel — with the new one, well I’m not sure you’d call it ‘Americana’ at all,” says Blek. “Starting out you are trying to make something that you enjoy and are drawing inspiration from other people. This one sounds like the work of an Irish band — musically and in terms of songwriting, it is its own thing.”
Blek studied music at Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa in Cork and Limerick Institute of Technology. As with the majority of the band, he pursues songwriting full time (the solitary hold-out has an office job). “The goal is to sustain a relatively OK standard of living while creating your own art,” says Blek. “It’s well and good selling a million records or whatever. That isn’t why any of us are doing this. I feel compelled to write and arrange and perform music. It’s the compulsion that drives us all. I couldn’t sit behind a desk doing a nine to five job. I’d crack up.”
Their relatively rapid rise belies the fact that John Blek and The Rats took some time getting off the ground. Originally, the project was a collaboration between Blek and a drummer friend. When his creative partner moved to London, Blek recruited acquaintances from the Cork music scene. Players came and went; several years would elapse before Blek began to think of his ensemble as a band in the conventional sense.
“In your early 20s people are in transition — travelling, going to college, starting work. It was next to impossible to tie anyone down. As we’ve all come into our late 20s and early 30s, we have reached a certain level of equilibrium . We’ve been able to commit to the idea of being in a group.”
Borders is out now. The band plays Coughlans, Cork, tonight and Friday; and Workman’s Club, Dublin, Nov 5.
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