Three years ago, Bloc Party looked dead and buried. Now they’re back with a brand new line-up and a deeply personal fifth album – but some of the old wounds are still raw, finds Ben Homewood in this week’s NME cover feature
Kele Okereke’s lurid orange Hawaiian shirt and matching shorts is a bold wardrobe choice for a drizzly October morning in West London. But this is Bloc Party’s first UK performance in more than two years, and the frontman is keen to make a big impression. Since their run of urgent, essential releases in the Noughties, Bloc Party have made only one new album – 2012’s underwhelming ‘Four’ – been on hiatus twice, and shed two original members, bassist Gordon Moakes and drummer Matt Tong.
You’d be forgiven for assuming they’d split, which is why today’s live radio session at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios is so crucial. After five turbulent years, Bloc Party are returning with new songs and two new members, 36-year-old bassist Justin Harris and 21-year-old drummer Louise Bartle. Fifth album ‘Hymns’ is due for release in January and they’re headlining next year’s big NME tour, having originally supported The Killers on the same tour at the start of their career in 2005.
Like The Libertines’ improbable renaissance this year, Bloc Party’s comeback is a big deal. They were one of the biggest and most important bands of the Noughties indie boom – their 2005 debut ‘Silent Alarm’ rocketed into the Top Five and was named NME’s Album Of The Year. Their aggressive riffs were indie-disco dynamite, but they were played with an aloof intelligence that inspired a legion of similarly attired devotees. Even Oasis seemed riled by their ascent; in 2007, Noel Gallagher labelled them “indie sh*t”, while Liam went for “a band off University Challenge”. Kele was always a riveting interviewee: outspoken, sarcastic and frustrated at constant questions about his ethnicity, Catholic upbringing and ambiguous sexuality (he came out as gay in BUTT magazine in 2010).
Yet, even as far back as 2005, Kele had raised the issue of band unity when he told Pitchfork: “Sometimes we get on; sometimes I really hate them.” Although the band pulled themselves back from the brink to make ‘Four’, Tong finally quit midway through a tour in 2013, announcing his departure via email. Bloc Party’s sullen headline performance at Latitude that summer was Moakes’ final appearance. Kele returned to his solo career with what appeared to be a sense of a relief. But once the dust settled on the ‘split’, he ultimately realised that Bloc Party was an institution worth saving.
Kele’s garish get-up at Maida Vale suggests that age – he’s now 34 – may have mellowed him. He exchanges grins with guitarist Russell Lissack during a frenetic version of old classic ‘Banquet’ and looks pleased with how the band navigate new songs ‘The Good News’ and ‘Exes’. “This is the first day of Bloc Party Mk II,” he announces.
Crammed behind a mixing desk in the warren of studios an hour later, Bloc Party 2.0 are doing their first interview. It’s polite and slightly awkward. Kele conducts proceedings, pointedly trying to involve his new bandmates and enthusing about a recent bonding curry. Justin and Louise smile shyly.
Portland-born Justin is one half of eclectic indie duo Menomena, who supported Bloc Party in 2008; he said yes immediately when Kele asked him to join late last year. Londoner Louise’s recruitment was different. Kele got in touch after finding videos of the former session drummer – who was 11 when ‘Silent Alarm’ came out – playing on YouTube. The new quartet have played just four gigs together and only Justin signed up in time to feature on ‘Hymns’ (recorded early this year), but Kele insists the reincarnation is the real deal. “It feels like a new band. The chemistry and energy are different. It feels like the spirit is the same, but it’s in a new host.”
There’s not a whisper of past upheaval until the subject of touring comes up. When it does, Kele suddenly doesn’t seem so mellow. “I didn’t really enjoy being in this band for various reasons over the years,” he says cryptically. “All I want is to enjoy travelling and writing with people I like.”
“Does that mean I’m not invited then?” jokes Russell, quickly diffusing the tension and allowing Kele to park the subject. And with that, Bloc Party shuffle off to the vending machine to buy Quavers.
Over breakfast with Kele in South London a week later, things get prickly pretty quickly. He’s catching a flight to Germany to DJ that afternoon, has just shaken off a cold and seems tired. We discuss his hectic week, during which Bloc Party made a video for new single ‘The Love Within’, a space-age floor-filler that hinges on Russell’s chewy guitar work. “I’m trying not to obsess or fret or scrutinise,” he begins. “No offence, but this part [interviews] isn’t really the most fun for me. The pay-off starts when we get in front of people.”
Kele moved to Clapham from East London’s Shoreditch four years ago and the change of scene had a significant impact. “It’s the best decision I ever made,” he says, echoing a lyric from 2007’s ‘Song For Clay (Disappear Here)’ (“East London is a vampire/It sucks the joy right out of me”). Now free of “vomiting City boys” and able to buy milk “without bumping into someone from a band”, he lives on a quiet street with his boyfriend and their dog.
‘Hymns’ was conceived at this new retreat. Whereas Kele’s second solo album, 2014’s
‘Trick’, was inspired by clubbing, ‘Hymns’ is a product of holing up with the curtains drawn. Kele wanted the songs to “have the reverence I associate with spiritual or devotional music”. The result is a spacious, serene record with none of the fiddliness of previous Bloc Party albums. ‘Into The Earth’ and ‘Only He Can Heal Me’ are some of their sparsest songs yet, and the emotional ‘Exes’ (a track about “looking back with sadness” that Kele’s boyfriend apparently hates) is given some extra heft by a male gospel choir.
However, Kele doesn’t want ‘Hymns’ to be perceived as an overtly religious record. He was raised in Essex by Catholic Nigerian parents and had to go to church every week until the age of 20. “I’m not a religious person. There are lots of things about organised religion that are stupid or harmful, although there is something beautiful about giving yourself over [to a higher power].” Rather than religion, ‘Hymns’ is about honouring the things Kele holds sacred, namely “nature, water, light, the moon and sex”.
The latter is the focus of ‘Fortress’, in which Kele sings in falsetto about sheets and sweat over muted beats. “The arch of your back invites… DESIRE” he whispers, before revealing “I’m a fool for the sight/ of all the gold between your thighs”. The steaminess is inescapable, but Kele insists it’s not gratuitous: “It’s about cocooning yourself away from the world with someone you love.”
Kele let Russell in on what he was doing in September 2014. The pair – friends since forming Bloc Party as teenagers – had seen each other sporadically since that Latitude gig, often discussing the possibility of reviving the band. Asking Kele when he really decided that the band had to make a fifth album prompts him to stare at the table. Looking up he begins an answer that lasts nearly 20 minutes.
“I knew when our ex-drummer left that I wanted to make a record. I didn’t until then. Things had got so cold between us, I thought it was time to step out. When he made a French exit it gave me some desire to do this again, I realised it could be fun.”
He looks down again before continuing. “It’s weird talking about this. This is the first time I’ve spoken about the dynamic between us and I’m torn. I’m conscious they [Gordon and Matt] are probably gonna see this, but I want to be honest. I don’t want to throw them under the bus or hurt their feelings and I still care about them as people, but I realise that if I’m gonna talk about it I need to do it honestly. So maybe I shouldn’t. I think some things are going to have to stay private. We all got what we wanted. They have the freedom to do what they want and I have a renewed desire to make music in the band.”
Kele is no longer in contact with Gordon or Matt and admits that ‘Four’ was affected by bad blood. “We’d had a break, ostensibly because we weren’t sure if we wanted to be in a room together, and those feelings manifested again. It was clear that was how it’d always be – that’s the reason I thought, ‘I don’t actually wanna do this.’”
He starts to answer a question about what happened at Latitude in 2013, but catches himself again. “I don’t want to talk about this actually. My one real memory is that we had an argument onstage and it was at that point I realised we were going to carry on without Gordon. Our relationships wouldn’t recover.”
What was the argument about? “I can tell you it was about someone doing cocaine and someone not being into it. That’s all I’m gonna say. People think bands breaking up is sexy but often it’s super mundane, like not flushing the toilet or washing up. It’s often not about the flashpoints but deep-seated issues.”
Kele is wary of sounding like a tyrant, but insists that Bloc Party Mk I had reached an impasse. “It was [change] or stop. I love what I do, so they had to go.” He concedes that the new line-up might initially feel wrong for “people who have known us to be a certain way for a long time… but those fans don’t own Bloc Party. I’ve always been adamant I know what’s good for the survival of the band.”
Kele is excited by taking the new-look band out on the road, and especially at headlining next year’s NME tour – “we’re gonna bring it really hard” – but a lingering uncertainty is obvious. “Will the same things go wrong again? We’re only going to do this if we want to, so that’s something I can’t say hand on heart until we tour. I love making music with Russell and Justin and I’m looking forward to doing it with Louise. All we can hope for is making music that excites us.”
On the phone a few hours later, Russell is more upbeat. The guitarist is walking his dog near his Essex home and he enthuses pretty much non-stop about Bloc Party’s return. “There’s a lot of positivity. This record came from me and Kele writing in a room together, which is how we started. It feels like the first time.”
Russell is still in occasional contact with Gordon and Matt, and puts their departure down to touring strains, making a comparison with the Big Brother house. “Kele and I are both guilty fans! It’s interesting to see how behaviour rapidly declines if you’re in close proximity and haven’t eaten. Tour life can be similar.”
What will Bloc Party do differently this time round? “Well, there’ll be a lot more punching each other in the face!” Which may be as close as we get to an admission of what actually went down back in 2013. There’s an awkward pause before Russell quickly adds: “No, seriously, the only thing is to limit touring.
“I love Bloc Party,” he finishes, “we’ll be hanging out every day for the next two years, not knowing what’s gonna happen. It’s exciting.”
With an absorbing new album in the bag, a much-anticipated tour on the horizon and two new members injecting fresh life into the band, Bloc Party are poised to revive the glory days of 2005. Of course, it wouldn’t be Bloc Party without a certain degree of anxiety – but that is what’s fuelled their best music. Don’t call it a comeback, but Bloc Party are fighting fit once more.
Bloc Party headline next year’s NME Awards Tour 2016 with Austin, Texas, alongside Drenge, Ratboy and Bugzy Malone. The annual tour will begin in Cardiff on January 29, stopping off in Southampton, Bristol, Nottingham, Newcastle, Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Cambridge and London before a final gig on February 12 at Birmingham’s O2 Academy. Tickets are on sale now.