The occult sex. The nightclub riots. The duplicitous snakes slithering through his social circle and the underworld figures, embroiled in dubious double lives, lurking on the outskirts. When questioned about it all, Kele Okereke often covers his face with his hands, a little cornered, wary of opening Pandora’s Box on his personal life.
“I feel like one day I will be able to be honest about what this record is about… where this is all coming from,” he says, “but I don’t think I can do it right now. I’m having to dress it all up.”
The record is ‘Alpha Games’, Bloc Party’s long-awaited sixth and the album that launches a new, rejuvenated era for one of Britain’s most enigmatic and imaginative art-rock bands. The initial burst of success and acclaim from their run of ‘00s albums – 2005’s million-selling debut ‘Silent Alarm’, 2007’s US breakthrough ‘A Weekend In The City’ and 2008’s electronic doubling-down ‘Intimacy’ – ushered them down the well-worn rock’n’roll path towards musical fractures, indefinite hiatuses, drug issues and sudden splits. Original drummer Matt Tong left the band in the wake of ‘Four’ in 2013 and bassist Gordon Moakes departed two years later. Kele previously told NME the former was down to “someone doing cocaine and someone not being into it”.
Today however, the fighting fit and confident frontman shares the interview sofa in a north London practice space – fresh from intense rehearsals for a tour set to peak at the nearby 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace in May – with Louise Bartle, the drummer who has been in the band since began touring their last album, 2016’s ‘Hymns’ (but is only now appearing on a Bloc Party record). She joins Kele, guitarist Russell Lissack and ex-Menomena bassist Justin Harris (another 2015 arrival) in a line-up that’s bound to rile the it’s-not-Pixies-without-Kim brigade.
Unexpectedly, Kele agrees with them. “Yeah, we’re not the same band,” he nods. “There might be aspects of this sound that are familiar, but the band chemistry is different, and to be honest we’re more excited about that, because seeing what Justin and Louise can do as musicians – seeing it every day when we were in the recording studio and writing these songs – I was just blown away all the time by what they were capable of.
“Obviously we have a history and a legacy but I’m more excited about the energy that the band has right now, because it’s not something we could have done in the past. With no disrespect to our previous members, I feel that the musicianship is in a place that it never was before. I’m excited that we’ve only really scratched the surface of what we’re capable of.”
Following on from the more meditative, spiritual ‘Hymns’, ‘Alpha Games’ hits like a roundhouse of pounding, math-sy funk-punk, compulsive clubland EDM, quasi-metal and oceanic pop-gaze – plus bits of sci-fi ‘Ant Music’, drum’n’bass and post-punk babblings about two-faced backstabbers that sound like Love Island: Aftersungone bezerk. All told: a powerful comeback.
“There were always moments of that [edginess] in our past catalogue,” Kele argues, “but there’s a precision there that wasn’t there before, if I’m honest, and there’s a swagger that wasn’t there before. I’m keen to see where it goes.”
The punch of the record originated on a ‘Silent Alarm’ tour of 2018 and ’19. In playing their debut in full reconnected, Bloc Party with their formative energies –a tough mentality and momentum to keep up when, with the new album written, the pandemic shut the band down for two years.
“It felt like we were sitting on our hands,” Kele recalls. “We had this record ready to record and we couldn’t do anything about it because our bass player lived in the States so he can’t physically do anything. I didn’t let myself think too much about the record – the thing that I was worried about was that I didn’t want to get bored of the music. I didn’t want to feel that we had to take it somewhere else because we were sitting on it for such a long time.”
Louise spent her lockdown getting over a break-up with one partner and Hinging herself a new one (“the first time I met her was in my flat, which is a bit intense,” she laughs). Kele was in “hibernation newborn mode” anyway, since his second child Eden was born via surrogacy six months before COVID hit. “That year I lost a lot of friends, they spun away not to return, it was for the best,” he sings on ‘Of Things Yet To Come’, suggesting it was a time of shedding friendships that had run their course.
“A lot of the record is about looking back wistfully at relationships that you had in your life that have ended,” he says, “but hopefully have taught you something about yourself.”
To keep his mind off the Bloc Party album, Kele recorded his fifth solo album ‘The Waves Pt. 1’, a stark, atmospheric and introverted record built solely around looped guitars, piano and voice: “The isolation made me have to dig deep into myself to just work out what it was I was doing, what I was about. I had to get musical fulfilment in a different way. The looped nature of the record was in part about making music that was going to calm me down.”
What does he get out of the solo records that he can’t get from Bloc Party? “The thing about good bands is that it’s a collaboration between all the members and that’s what’s exciting,” he replies. “That’s why it’s thrilling: the alchemy of different musicians and what they can bring to it. I get that and I live for it. But at the same time I like being able to take an idea on my own as far as it will go and not have to share it with other people. It’s two different ways of working but I enjoy them both. It’s a bit like having an affair and then coming back to your wife.”
If the downbeat ‘The Waves Pt. 1’ was perfectly suited for pandemic release, ‘Alpha Games’ seems designed to soundtrack the return of Roaring Twenties social life and all its associated undercurrents and tribulations. ‘Callum Is A Snake’, for example, spares no barbs in giving a friend who turned out to be a “snide little fuck” both barrels. “He’s a composite,” Kele explains. “Everybody has something in their life that they’d really like to put on blast and let them know a few things about themselves.”
And on ‘The Girls Are Fighting’ – an album stand-out that sounds like a songwriting scrap between Depeche Mode, Adam & The Ants and The Proclaimers – Kele details a night at a club called Infernos, which descends into a Jäger-fuelled bar fight with “blood on the dancefloor, extensions on the bar”.
“It’s a combination of stories,” Kele says. “I’ve seen that scene so many times in nightclubs all over the world. How things can go from nought to 100 in seconds, drinks flying, hair being pulled, stilettos on the floor, boobs out. It’s something that I’ve got a taste for… those moments of watching violence erupt from tension – I’ve always been perversely quite attracted to those times. People display a part of themselves that they rarely display.”
Kele’s reluctant to dish dirt and name names, but that song – along with ‘Rough Justice’, which concerns his obsession with the secretive sides of the party elite – feeds into the album’s core purpose: to reflect the conflict in society which the frontman sees filtering down from the morality vacuum at the top of global politics; not least our Prime Minister’s Partygate scandal.
“A lot of the record is about looking back wistfully at relationships that have ended”
“Boris has been proved to lie to Parliament and nothing has happened,” he says. “They’re waiting, hoping that [partygate] is going to go away and because of the war it looks like the pressure is off him. But it hasn’t gone away. It might not be dominating news cycles but it hasn’t gone away. He’s gonna struggle meeting ordinary people in public. Someone’s gonna come up to him and say, ‘While you and your friends were partying in lockdown, my nan died’. Everywhere he goes, someone is going to come up and tell him that. We mustn’t forget that.
“How do you explain to your five-year-old child that the person who is in charge of us, our leader right now, is a liar and is continually lying and continually getting away with it? He’s not operating in a vacuum; it has consequences. Yeah, I do think it feeds down.”
Never more disillusioned with politics across the world, Kele wanted ‘Alpha Games’ to reflect what he considers “a real stepping back. From 2018, when we started writing the songs, we were going through such a period of turmoil in this country, and on a global scale with Trump’s presidency through to Boris being elected and all the Brexit shenanigans that were going on. For me there was a real stepping back. I never felt so disillusioned with what I was seeing on a political scale, all over the world. Everywhere, every day, I was reading stories about people lying to each other and trying to get ahead of each other and manipulating each other to get their own outcomes.
“It just seeped into me. I think that’s why there’s so much conflict in the music. You hear people trying to do each other over – even in the title there’s this sense of rivalry, submission and domination, which was something that I kept seeing everywhere. You see it in the newspapers and on the news and it starts filtering into how people are interacting with each other on the street, at bus stops or in the queue at Sainsbury’s. It felt like we were entering into a quite dehumanising time and I wanted to capture that – the sense of ugliness.”
As the co-author of Leave To Remain, a 2019 musical about a mixed-race gay couple finding love in the shadow of Brexit (potentially creeping towards the big screen as we speak), Kele saw the referendum as a divisive moment not just for the country but for his own worldview and cultural identity.
“That was the point that I started to look at what being British meant to me,” he says, referencing the nationalist wave it unleashed. “I guess a little part of me died a little bit; a little part of me has become a lot harder in a way that I wasn’t before. The fact that ultimately the majority of people in this country wanted it to happen hasn’t made me feel good about a British identity. I feel like there’s a crack in me right now and that’s what I’m more interested in writing about, exploring that.”
On album closer ‘The Peace Offering’, the line “the system always wins” suggests a sense of resignation. “I’ve always felt that my worldview has been kind of positive,” Kele says, “but I’ve not really felt so positive these last few years, thinking about where we’re headed. This is a dark time in this country and I am hopeful that it will change, but I don’t see how. I don’t think the gatekeepers want it to change.”
Okereke may shun the ideological warzones of social media – he’s only on Instagram to post music, and follows no-one – but he’s well informed on the endgame of today’s politics of division. Talk soon turns to Ukraine, Putin’s plans, chemical weapons, fuel costs and WWIII: “It’s something that is paralysing, this sense that we’re probably closer than ever to nuclear Armageddon, but we’ll see. I’m trying to pay close attention to the moving parts.”
“I’ve always felt my worldview was positive, but I’ve not felt so positive these last few years”
NME tries to lighten the mood by bringing up ‘Sex Magik’, a song seemingly about having sex in a forest with someone who turns out to be a witch. That’s just as dark a path, it turns out.
“It was a memory that I’d completely forgotten about,” Kele reveals. “It’s a very short dalliance with someone that was maybe into things that I didn’t really understand at the time. It was an experience a very long time ago where I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into.”
An occult thing? He shifts uncomfortably. “Yeah, and I didn’t really understand that until further in. I don’t think you can really talk about the occult without people having preconceptions about what you’re talking about. For me, it’s enough that people that understand will understand and the people that don’t understand won’t understand. It was a very short experience with this person, but it seemed to resonate with what the record was about. I guess, on some level, it was really… an abuse because I didn’t really understand what was happening.”
The theme of people being taken advantage of runs surreptitiously through the record, like the spike in a drink. “It’s in [pounding first single] ‘Traps’ as well,” Kele explains. “Everybody thinks it’s a fun kind of song, a slightly leering, sexy song, but to me it’s always felt a little bit darker because it’s about taking someone’s innocence, someone that isn’t aware of what they’re stepping into. ‘Sex Magik’ and ‘Traps’ are kind of the opposite perspectives of the same thing.”
in just a couple of months, Bloc Party will take all of this angst with them to Alexandra Palace. The fact that they can sell out such a venue almost 20 years into their career speaks volumes as to the sustained appeal of bands rooted in the ‘00s.
“What’s most important for me is that it still feels exciting and it still feels like we have something to say,” Kele explains. “With everything that we’ve done outside of the band, it’s really made me appreciate what the band is and what it stands for. Maybe in the beginning there were tensions between us that are just part of the natural growing pains of being in a collaborative creative process with other people… [But] we were always allowed to do what we wanted.
“[Lots of] great bands, as soon as they start becoming successful, start having their edges shaved off and it becomes a lot more palatable and whatnot; that always seemed kind of gross to me. So I feel quite lucky that we’ve been able to not have to do that.”
“There’s a precision and a swagger in the band that wasn’t there before”
Bloc Party’s longevity is rooted in their dignity too; in always following their sonic instincts without grasping for popularity, taking considered steps when the time was right and making honesty their golden rule.
“I personally am quite proud that all of the records that we’ve made – they all seem to say something to me about the person I was at the time,” Kele smiles. “I know that they were real; I know that I put something of myself into them and I still get a kick thinking that even after I die, people are gonna be able to hear this. It’s such a gift to be able to leave that with people, so I’m just thankful that I don’t regret anything.”