Kele Okereke Talks Bloc Party 2.0 & Giving Up The DJ Life
Written by Cyclone Wehner on 12th November, 2015
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The British indie rock band Bloc Party, led by singer/guitarist Kelechukwu “Kele” Okereke, is back in a new incarnation – and with a new album, HYMNS, dropping at the end of January. Over summer Australian fans will have a chance to check out Bloc Party V 2.0 when they play Falls, Southbound, and side-shows.
Bloc Party was formed by old London pals Okereke and Russell Lissack, the lead guitarist. They’d round out the line-up with Matt Tong on drums and bassist Gordon Moakes after auditions. Bloc Party premiered with 2005’s instant classic Silent Alarm, which the now in-demand Paul Epworth helmed. On subsequent records, the group became ever more hybridised, incorporating dance elements.
That Bloc Party have returned is a happy surprise as in the past they’ve announced ominous hiatuses. The band last hit Oz for 2013’s Future Music Festival. That same year Tong split, followed later by Moakes. Okereke, apparently a reluctant frontman despite his iconic status, began to take his teen hobby of DJing seriously, being drawn into the bass house underground. In 2014 he issued a second solo album, Trick, of afterhours vibes. Okereke DJed here in March.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Silent Alarm yet Okereke, artistically restless, has always been one to look to the future – and, crucially, he recognised that Bloc Party had one. Okereke and Lissack lured new bassist Justin Harris from Portland’s experimental rock outfit Menomena and added drummer Louise Bartle, discovered on YouTube, making Bloc Party super-diverse. They’re calling it “a rebirth”.
Bloc Party’s fifth album, HYMNS reps the band’s first fresh material since 2013’s The Nextwave Sessions EP. Unusually, has heard an early advance stream of HYMNS – and, as an album thematising (secular) spirituality, faith and devotion, it’s revelatory, Okereke arching indie and underground dance. Bloc Party hired London Grammar producers Tim Bran and Roy Kerr. The single The Love Within could be a (way) wonkier Wombats with its disco fervour. Incredibly, Lissack created the track’s synthy sounds live on guitar. Yet other numbers – Only He Can Heal Me, Different Drugs, My True Name – are divinely and subliminally epic.
Watch: Bloc Party – The Love Within
You’re coming back to Australia ahead of HYMNS – which is such a good record.
Kele Okereke: Well, thank you. I’m super-proud of the record. I’m also happy that finally people are getting a chance to hear it. Obviously there’s been so much going on about line-up changes and stuff at the moment, because that’s the only thing I guess that people can talk about right now – because no one’s heard any of the music. But I’m glad they’re getting a chance to hear the music because the record is why we’re carrying on – because we all love it and we think it’s great.
How much of the album will you play in Australia? You’ve performed a couple of songs before in the US and for BBC Radio 6. Will you do more?
KO: I think we’re gonna be playing four or five songs from the record – and we plan on playing the whole thing once the record’s come out. But we’re kinda conscious that people don’t really know the record… So we wanna give people a taste of what we’re doing, but not the whole thing. We’ll hopefully come back to tour Australia properly once the record’s out, so those will be the real HYMNS shows.
This album reconciles your indie and dance impulses – but it also expands those two worlds. Would you agree?
KO: I mean, it’s weird because I’ve heard that from people who have heard the record – and I guess I can’t really deny it. And, if I can’t really deny it, I feel that, as much as HYMNS is a follow-up to the last Bloc Party record [2012’s] Four, it’s also to me maybe a continuation of where I’d been with my last solo record, Trick. I felt that record was a very chilled experience.
I was listening to lots of club music, electronic music – and what am I trying to say? Sorry, I just woke up, like, 15 minutes ago, so my mind isn’t really working so well! But, yeah, I feel that with Trick I wanted to make a more sensual kinda electronic record that wasn’t aggressive, that took the listener on a very steady journey – and I feel that with this record, HYMNS, I wanted to try and do something similar.
I feel that sonically right now – or at least while making the record – I had moved away from the idea of kinda sharp, kinda angular, abrasive music. I just felt like I wanted something that felt smoother – that had a more gentle feel. It’s something that I started with Trick and I wanted to see it through to HYMNS. I think the record Four that we made was a very aggressive-sounding record and, although it was what we wanted to make at the time, I just felt that we had to move away from the sound. I was conscious that there’s no distortion at all on HYMNS. I think I was just naturally gravitating to gentler sounds.
Bloc Party did go back to you and Russell. But it’s cool because in a way you’ve expanded the band by having an American, in Justin, and a woman, Louise, join now. What have they brought? How has the dynamic changed?
KO: Yeah, I feel that it’s definitely changed the dynamic. Personally and musically, I feel that we as a band have a kinda united sense of adventure. It feels like a new start for us all because it is a new start – we’re essentially like a new band. And that’s a nice feeling, to be honest, after, I don’t know, 12 years of being in a band. Things maybe started to feel a little stale between us.
So it’s nice to have this new positivity and this new energy. Louise is 21 – she’s a generation younger than us – and it’s amazing seeing her enthusiasm for the whole process because it’s completely new to her. You know, this is the first time she’d been to America, the first time she’d been [able to go] to Australia – it’s nice seeing that excitement in someone else.
I think it’s quite a humbling thing. Musically as well, as players, they’re very different to the previous members. They forced us to approach our old songs in a different way – and to me that in itself has breathed life into what we were. So it’s been a learning experience. I’m just glad that we found two really great musicians. I’m looking forward to the future with them.
Watch: Bloc Party – Exes (Live on BBC)
Just to clarify, is Louise on the record or did she come in after?
KO: No – I think some of her vocals are on the record, but we didn’t meet her until after we started tracking drums. So, yeah, we’re trying to start writing basically as soon as we hit the road together and just see what that vibe is like.
Last year you wrote a piece for Thump (“On Being Gay and Black in the Dance and Rock Worlds”) and you talked about the “fetishisation” and referentiality in indie rock. Then I heard HYMNS‘ The Good News and I thought you could almost be subverting that cult of Americana that’s been going on. Do you feel that you are subverting indie rock – that obsession with “lineage”?
KO: I feel that my presence in indie rock music is somewhat of an anomaly. I think just being here and doing what I do is challenging people on some level. So, yeah, I’m kinda conscious that the things that I reference in my songs and what I sing about [might be different to] what everybody else in indie bands is singing about or referencing. But it’s important to do what I want my way – because I don’t think there is a precedent for the music that we’re trying to make or the standing that we have on the indie rock landscape. I feel that we’re doing us, really, and nobody else is doing us. And nobody else could do what were doing. So that’s a nice feeling, to be honest.
It never really occurred to me that you were an anomaly. I guess coming from the dance and hip-hop side, it just seems like music is so hybridised. But there is this conservative indie rock mentality.
KO: Yeah, I think that, when I say ‘anomaly’, I just mean that I don’t really see many people who look like me or sound like me doing what I do – and I certainly didn’t when I was a young person. But I like that. I like that because it feels like I have licence to make up my own rules. I feel like I have a certain amount of leeway to take influence from whatever I want and feed it back into the music that I’m making. So it’s not something that I lament, it’s something that I celebrate – that there isn’t another band that looks and sounds like us, you know?”
What is the song My True Name about?
KO: Um, what’s it about… I think it’s a love song – I think that it’s a love song to earth and to nature. I think it’s about lots of different things, but I guess the kind of dominant energies for me are this idea of a love so strong – comparing it to the feelings that I have connected with nature, connected with being outdoors, connected with being by water. There’s a line in that song, ‘Her voice seems like the Thames in the morning.’ The Thames is a river here in London that I’ve lots of fond memories of… That was the one thing about this record, that I learnt during the process of making [it]… I knew that the record was gonna be called HYMNS.
And I’m not a religious person really at all. So it was a challenge for me to try and make music that I felt had a sacred quality. But what I realised, while writing the record, was that I was very connected to the idea of the earth and I was very connected to the natural cycles and moonlight and being by water and being out in the fields – like those were the energies that kept coming back to me. Those were the things that I realised that I hold very dear.
I think My True Name is an attempt to discuss or explain those feelings of being connected to nature, really, in a kind of love song. It’s very hard to explain it – and it’s the first time I’ve really thought about it like that. But that’s what I think of when I think of the song at least – this sense of being just in love with the earth. Does that make any sense at all? It sounded really vague!
Watch: Kele Okereke – Doubt
Is there any chance of you doing sneaky DJ gigs on this tour? Are you still even DJing while promoting a Bloc Party album?
KO: Yeah, it’s weird – [for] months I’ve been DJing every weekend… But I felt that it was taking its toll on me. I love DJing, but it’s very late nights – you’re flying to places and then you’ll play in a club and you don’t get to bed ’til, like, five in the morning and then you’re flying somewhere else. And that’s a cool thing to do. But for these next weeks, I’m gonna be intensively rehearsing, so I need to be as physically well as possible – ’cause it’s already starting to become quite a gruelling kinda schedule.
So, yeah, I think I’m putting it on a back-burner for a while. But I love doing it, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few sneaky DJ sets here and there. I mean, I love travelling, I love DJing – and especially in Australia. I think you guys have a real appreciation for music. So it’d be a shame to come all this way and not do some DJ sets.
You named-checked Dusky’s music in an interview a while ago. They sell out shows here – it’s Duskymania!
KO: Oh really!
What else are you liking in that world at the moment?
KO: What else am I liking in that world at the moment… Expressions Of Love EP by [Peckham house producer] Wbeeza – I’ve been listening to that record a lot. I’ve been listening to a  TEED [Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs] record called Trouble that I’ve had for ages, I’ve never really listened to [it] – that seemed quite good. And I’ve also been listening a lot recently to Selected Ambient Works by Aphex Twin – a record from my youth I’ve rediscovered recently. I play a different sort of thing, but I think that there’s a naiveté to those recordings that still seems fresh to me.