Kele Okereke’s ‘Vandal’ makes a bold statement. From its sonics, which fuse rigid math-rock and loose funk, to the artwork that sees Okereke burning a copy of The Smiths’ album ‘The Queen is Dead’, it’s an unabashed offering – the sort of powerhouse track that could only be made by an artist wanting to shake up the world’s order.
The lead single from the Bloc Party frontman’s sixth solo album ‘The Flames Pt. 2’, the rest of the record follows suit. The new LP is a sequel to 2021’s ‘The Waves Pt. 1’, and while NME described its predecessor as “light on words, heavy on meditation”, ‘The Flames Pt. 2’ is more restless and urgent.
“For the previous 15, 20 years I’d been a touring musician and [then the pandemic hit and] all of that came to an end” Okereke reflects, speaking to NME in his publicist’s office in North London. Working on ‘The Waves’ during the Covid-19 lockdown, he explains that it: “was really about an outlet to express a feeling of being lost at sea. I didn’t really know what was happening, [but] through documenting it, I was able to see a path through it.”
For ‘The Flames Pt. 2’ it was different. “I knew there needed to be a sense of action with whatever the follow up were to be. It needed to feel a lot closer in your face” he explains, adding: “’The Flames’ is much more of a call to action, realising that you had to summon something from within yourself if you wanted things to change.”
Ahead of the album’s release, Okereke sat down with NME for the latest in our In Conversation series to go deep on creating the record, and to discuss the influence of SOPHIE, the evolving legacy of Bloc Party and supporting Paramore on their upcoming tour. Here’s what we learned.
‘The Flames Pt. 2’ is the second album in a four-part series
‘The Waves Pt. 1’ and ‘The Flames Pt. 2’ are the first two releases in a four-part series, with Okereke revealing to NME that part three will be titled ‘The Singing Winds’. The series is his first foray into creating a more conceptual project, with the interconnected albums linked by the four elements, fire, water, earth and wind “and how their qualities can resonate throughout us”.
“What I’m most excited about is the idea of all four of the records working together, as some of the songs, the themes and the characters will be reappearing throughout the project,” he says.
While it may have been Okereke’s first substantial foray into concept-central albums, these projects do have a precedent. “‘Hymns’ [Bloc Party’s fifth album] was a very interesting record for me as it was the first time I looked internally, at the things that I held sacred” he explains. “These albums are a continuation of that way of thinking.”
SOPHIE was a major influence on ‘The Flames Pt. 2’
Across both Okereke’s solo records and Bloc Party’s inimitable catalogue there is an evolving taste in music influences, from ‘Silent Alarm’ which draws from ’70s post-punk, to the synth-pop that colours a lot of Okereke’s solo releases, including ‘The Flames Pt. 2’. So, what has he been listening to recently? “I’ve been listening to this little-known artist, Beyoncé…have you heard of her?” he says with a laugh. Scrolling through the recently played on his phone, he adds: “I went to the ABBA musical, which blew my mind a bit”, also quoting Doechii as someone he’s been into recently.
Another artist Okereke’s been listening to, and who had a major influence on writing ‘The Flames Pt. 2’, is SOPHIE, the pioneering hyper-pop producer who sadly passed away in 2021. “I was listening to the music of SOPHIE a lot in lockdown when I felt I needed to dance. I couldn’t go out to dance, so it became very special to me,” he explains.
His relationship with touring has changed
When the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020 it put live shows and touring on pause, and although for Okereke being grounded was initially a shock to the system, after adapting to the ‘new normal’ going back to life on the road elicits some hesitance. “I’m finding touring a lot harder these days, hence I haven’t really done so much of it” he reflects.
“We have two children, and our son was six months old at the start of the first lockdown, so I’ve been home the whole time and realised that I liked that,” he explains. “I like waking up in the same bed and having routines.”
There are positives though: “I don’t want to sound ungrateful. As a young person it was a beautiful way to see the world and meet lots of people, and to share the things that you’ve made with people, and to see how what you’ve made brings joy to people. It’s a lovely thing”.
He concludes: “So it’s not all bad; but at this point in my life, we can cut right back on the amount of touring”.
Being called an “elder statesman” of indie makes him feel old
Alongside six solo albums, Okereke is also celebrated as a co-founding member of indie legends Bloc Party. The group arguably defined the British-indie boom of the mid-noughties, with an influence that is still seen in 2023.
With Bloc Party’s debut album ‘Silent Alarm’ now edging closer to its 20-year anniversary, does Okereke feel like an ‘elder statesman’ of indie? “[that] makes me feel old!” he laughs. “I’m completely thankful that [Silent Alarm] connected with people; but it’s at that point when I hear any record that we’ve made, I hear the things I’d do differently if I had the opportunity to do it again.”
“But that’s the same with every record, and that’s why I think I’ve made so many records over the years,” he adds. “That says more about me than the record – I’m a restless person.”
Bloc Party’s enduring influence is more apparent than ever
Paramore have spoken extensively about how Bloc Party influenced their latest album ‘This Is Why’. Speaking about them on her podcast Everything Is Emo last year, vocalist Hayley Williams said: “From day one, Bloc Party was the number one reference [when writing new music] because there was such an urgency to their sound that was different to the fast punk or the pop punk or the like, loud wall of sound emo bands that were happening in the early 2000s.”
Later this year Bloc Party will be joining Paramore on the road, supporting them at their upcoming arena dates. How does it feel to get such high praise from the pop-rock powerhouses? “It’s lovely. They’ve said so many nice things about our records”.
“Our drummer Louise is a big fan so has been giving me lots of recommendations of things to listen to, so I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.”
It’s not only Paramore who are digging into the Bloc Party discography though. Recently Okereke has found that their more recent albums are gaining a lot of attention among younger audiences. “Bloc Party have been writing in the last week, and I’ve been getting the tube with my guitar. I got on the tube, and someone stopped me and pulled up his phone to show me he was listening to a song from our record ‘Four’.” On the same journey he was later stopped again: “That was interesting to see as for the most part you can go about your day without thinking about what you do…I think it was maybe because I was holding a guitar!”
Kele Okereke’s ‘The Flames Pt. 2’ is out now