Interview with Bloc Party — “It needed to have the energy and musicians.”

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British alternative rock act BLOC PARTY recently have released their new album, Alpha Games.” We talked with vocalist Kele Okereke about the release of the new record. Read the complete interview below…

Thank you for joining me! Times have been crazy all around the globe, so how have you been?

This pandemic has been characterized by a lack of activity. I haven’t really been traveling or doing what I’ve been used to doing, I guess for the last 20 years. So it’s been kind of it’s been an interesting process where I’ve had to, I think, go inwards and work out what I’m about and what it is that I like and who am I if I’m not a musician? It’s funny because today is the first day that we do a live performance. So it’s been like 3 years that we haven’t performed live and today is the first day that we’re really going back into that world. So I’m a little bit excited. I’m also a little bit nervous, but I’m mainly more excited.

Great that you get to kick off performing again; are you actually going to play any new songs?

We’re going to play lots of new songs. We’re going to mainly be playing new songs, I think. So that’s going to be exciting. Today is going to be the first time that we will perform the songs in front of people, so that’s always a little bit scary. You don’t want to play the songs badly. It’s kind of exciting because it’s only really by playing your songs in front of people that you really get to see what it is that you’ve done. So I’m excited to see what it actually feels like to play the new songs in front of people.

Yeah, that makes sense. While listening to the new record, something that was clear to me is that you somehow managed to grasp a very nostalgic element in the music. It was transporting me to the early days of BLOC PARTY. At the same time, you also kind of showed in a way how you have evolved as a band over all the years. So I was wondering, why did you decide to maybe go back to a heavier side of the band and how did this album come to be, really?

I mean, I think it was a combination of things. I think the last studio album, “Hymns,” was a very different kind of recording, it was made in a very different way. We just parted ways with two of our members and I think the guitar player, Russell, and I, we knew we wanted to make a record but we didn’t really know how [we were] going to go about it. So it kind of became a quiet studio-based experience of just trying ideas directly into the computer. And it was great. It was a very liberating experience, but we knew that the next thing that people heard from BLOC PARTY, it shouldn’t be that… it should be a band, it should have the kind of chemistry of multiple musicians working together to elevate something rather than it just be about capturing one person’s vision they needed to develop in collaboration. So we kind of knew that, so we started writing music together in 2018 and 2019. By the end of 2019, we felt that we had enough music and we were ready to make the record within the pandemic. So we had to wait another year to actually get together and record. I think the thing that we were kind of adamant about, was that it needed to have the energy and musicians. It needed to feel like we were musicians that were listening to each other and working with each other together to make something. That was the only real goal for it… to have that sort of crazy element.

Is that also part of the reason why you decided to release “Traps” first, because of that energy? That song specifically captures that very well.

Yeah, I think so. I think we knew that “Traps,” when we were writing in soundtracks in 2018, we knew that it had this feeling that was kind of intangible, that whenever we played it, we couldn’t just stop and play it, we knew that there was something there and it just felt that this is the first thing people should hear, because it was so alive. This is affecting people. We knew that very early on.

I actually also loved the music video for that song, because it really nicely captured its energy.

It was a fun one to make, yeah.

Now, one of the things I also noticed is that this album requires a few spins to completely grasp it. There are so many details and, in my opinion, that’s maybe somewhat of a risk nowadays because people have such low attention spans and mainstream music is becoming a little bit simpler in a way. And personally, I really love music like that. But do you feel like it’s important for listeners that they truly immerse themselves in your album before making their ideas about your music?

I think it’s not so important, what I think about people. You can’t really dictate how people are going to come to your work. How it works for me is that, as soon as a record is done, as soon as it’s finished and you put it out there into the world, that’s kind of when my sense of expectation stops. I don’t want to prescribe how people listen to the record, you know. I’m spending time talking to you and to other journalists about what the songs mean or whatever, but I’m fully aware that for lots of people this is going to go completely over their heads and it’s just going to be about whether they feel something when they hear the music or whether they don’t. I’m in peace with that, it’s kind of how it is. The fact that the music is coming out and people get a chance to hear it and make up their own minds, to me is something… you will never be able to prescribe how people take your music into their heart to see, but the fact that they do is a magical thing. So you just, you make it, you put it out there, you just step back, and you let it do its own thing, and then you start thinking about making another one. That’s kind of my process, at least.

In another interview, I read shortly that the core of “Alpha Games” is about how people act in extreme situations. I was wondering if you could elaborate a little bit on the themes of the record?

I think the thing that I wanted to capture in the lyrics and the storytelling is the sense of… people and the things that people say to each other that belie their true intentions. There might be a public face, an acceptable face, but there’s also a private face, and that is where people kind of really reveal themselves and their desires and their motivations. I guess I kind of wanted to explore that. I felt like for the last 3-4 years as a citizen living in the UK, the system has been overwhelmed. I don’t feel so competent about the integrity or the values of the people that have been elected to represent us. It’s felt like for the last 3 years, every week in this country, there’s been some kind of scandal about how ruthless and how elitist our government are and, obviously, with the whole Brexit situation, that felt like it was a massive soap opera for the years it was happening when we were trying to get out of Europe with Theresa May and that’s when a lot the ideas for the music really came together, when I was just seeing how chaotic… the fact that it became clear that people who were in charge weren’t in charge, they weren’t in charge of their own party, it just felt like we were in an episode of House of Cards, where it felt like every day you’re learning about some behind-the-scenes meeting or attempt to manipulate people and it just became commonplace and currently, the government that we have now… our prime minister has lied to Parliament and has lied to the Queen and has done all this awful stuff, but he’s still our prime minister. And it’s hard to reconcile that. It’s hard to believe in a just, fair society when things like this go unpunished… sorry it’s a long-winded answer, but yeah, I think having that as a backdrop, that kind of political turmoil, it really fed into what I wanted to write about. I wanted to capture people lying to each other and scheming and trying to manipulate each other and trying to get ahead, you know, I wanted something that felt very ruthless and very ugly, or, at least lyrically. I don’t think that’s something I would have been able to have written in the past because I would have wanted to make everything seem positive or the gloss things over but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to revel in how ugly things could be when people stop treating each other with respect.

Makes sense. Talking a little bit more specific about the songs. One that I really liked was “Sex Magick,” which has an ’80s darkwave vibe to it. How did that song come together?

Musically, it was one of the loads of songs that we wrote, and there was just kind of great pulsing sort of sound that Russell made, and then Louise had this idea that quickly evolved, and Justin had this really slinky sexy bassline that really was very hypnotic. I remember thinking when we were recording that song, in the studio, every day that I would hear a bit of it being worked on. It just sounds so exciting, the beat sounded so hypnotic and groovy. That was the one that felt we were recording. I could see that it was gonna end up good, even before we had anything on it. Yeah, it’s one of my favorites on the record.

Another track that I personally liked was “In Situ”; I specifically liked the rhythm in the vocals.

Yeah, “In Situ” was one of the ones for me that, although I liked it, it wasn’t my favorite but weirdly everybody else in the band, in our team like producers and the managers and everyone, even the engineer, said that that was one of their favorite songs. To me, it’s hard because I can kind of hear aspects of things we’ve done in the past. So my first instinct when I feel that is to try and step away. I was reminded that this is something that we do well, we should be proud of that. So yeah, I kind of did a full 180 on that song.

Another song that sort of stood out because of the vocals was obviously the last track, “The Peace Offering.” How important is it for you to sort of switch up things vocally while making an album?

It’s important. As a musician, I’ve always felt that it’s important to challenge ourselves to try and reach a bit further than what is expected and I think I’ve always tried to do that with all aspects of my musicianship. The brilliant thing about living in the time of internet and information is that it’s really, really easy to access information from different periods. And to see something that can blow your mind and be a way of performing, a technique, or a guitar-playing technique, there’s always something new to discover about playing an instrument. I think that musicians who claim that they know everything… it always makes me laugh when I hear that… It makes me laugh when musicians say they have mastered their craft because there are so many… there’s always a new way to come at your musicality. You just have to be open to exploring. Yes, certainly with vocals, I definitely strive to the places that I’ve not necessarily been before. When it works it’s kind of exciting because you’re coming to new grounds.

Something else that I really liked was the flow of this record. It has some really dark moments, then some more hopeful and soothing moments, yet it ends on a very melancholic note. Is that something you guys pay a lot of attention to while putting the album together?

The tracklist? I think tracklisting is incredibly important, because the order in which you sequence songs can make a record or break a record. So it’s something that you kind of have to pay attention to and that only really comes from being fans of music and listening to records, and also kind of making sure that you listen to the record all in one go, as you know. That’s something that we had to do a lot when we were sorting out the tracklist, that’s the only way to really know it. That’s the only way to really know for certain what if something’s in the right place or if it’s in the wrong place… to listen to the whole record, and identify the journey that is taking you on so yeah, it can be quite kind of time-consuming, but then at the same time, it’s my job as a musician, so I need to, there’s nothing more important to be doing with my days than listening to music. So it’s kind of fine.

Now, we briefly talked already about the fact that you’re having a show today. You already have a tour announced in May and June, are you also planning to hit some festivals and can we see BLOC PARTY somewhere in Finland soon?

I’d love to come to Finland. I think the majority of our touring – we have a handful of shows this year – is up in the air. Some of us have children now, so touring is something that we kind of have to be very careful about how you organize, because we have to make sure that we’re here for our families, but yeah, I’m pretty sure we’ll be coming to some festivals. If not this year, then definitely next year. So we’ll be on the circuit next year.

Looking forward to that!

Written by Laureline Tilkin