Judging a book by its cover seems like a far too simple solution, especially when an old favourite of yours suddenly shows up in a changed design. It’s easy to denounce the new BLOC PARTY as a lame rip-off or the desperate attempt to keep the economical successful indie formation running after drummer Matt Tong and bassist Gordon Moakes both left the group in the past two years. The forthcoming fifth album Hymns sees remaining founding members Kele Okereke and Russell Lissack at a turning point in the band’s biography. The odds seem to be against them, especially after the album’s first single The Love Within received mixed critics and even the first live shows with new members Justin Harris and Louise Bartle showcased the obvious struggle to combine past and future of BLOC PARTY within one set. It ain’t easy for Kele Okereke these days but on the other hand it never was.
The elephant in the room is omnipresent when I meet Okereke on a cold December night in Berlin. Before we talk about Hymns and the future we need to clear up a few things about the past to find out what went wrong in the aftermath of the group’s 2012 LP Four. He ows us an explanation. It turns out the problems date way back to when the band first went on a hiatus back in 2009, following years of non-stop touring, recording and releasing music. Those years felt like a rush in retrospect to Okereke and might have damaged the inner chemistry of the group to an irreparable degree. Four was an attempt to rejoice in a reduced and raw way, a simple and pure rock record of four friends performing in a room together. It turned out to sound that way but for Okereke it quickly became clear that it couldn’t be farther away from reality – the friendship was gone and so was his personal desire to record another pure and backward-sounding rock album.
From the outside I got the impression that ‘Four’ worked as a symbol of you guys renewing the energy and chemistry within the band. It felt as if BLOC PARTY were whole again but now I get the feeling that this was a wrong assumption from the start, right?
Kele Okereke: Yes, indeed. It was. I think it’s even more bittersweet when you point it out that way. We had all these ideas of what it’s gonna sound and feel like. But then quite quickly we realized that we haven’t changed as much as we thought we would, following the hiatus. We eventually all realized that this was the way it might always be like and I personally started to think: ‘Well, then I don’t actually want to do it.’ Once we parted ways with Matt things got a bit more positive.
Back then, following the release of ‘The Nextwave Sessions‘ and Russell’s hopeless-sounding hiatus announcement it really felt like the end of BLOC PARTY. Have you felt that too?
KO: The only time I thought we won’t make another record was back in 2013 when we were touring the States. The vibe wasn’t very good; it felt pretty negative and I know it needed to end. By that time, afterwards, we decided to part ways with our drummer. It took that decision for me to realize that I actually enjoyed touring and being on the road. I forgot about that fact. The problems were based on a personal level. Same went with our bass player which whom we parted ways afterwards as well.
‘Old’ Bloc Party found its natural conclusion
Was Matt’s departure the trigger that set Gordon’s decision in motion?
KO: When Matt left it all took us by surprise. We sensed that he wasn’t very happy but he had his own issues to deal with, so he needs to talk about, not me. With Gordon it was different. I sensed that after our final gig of the Four tour, back at the Lattitude Festival. Something happened on stage and I realized that this wasn’t going any further. It was a lack of respect and the day after Lattitude I spoke to my management and said: ‘If we want to carry on it has to be only Russell and I’. So, I spoke to Russell and he agreed, we spoke to Gordon and he agreed as well so it was a mutual decision.
Sounds to me as if it was a natural conclusion and that it took you the process of the last album and the tour to finally realize this…
KO: Absolutely. We had all these great intentions when we started working on Four. We wanted to be a certain type of band, capture that raw energy and all these ‘rock elements’. But quite quickly after we started touring I realized that I’m not that much into that kind of super heavy music. I don’t really like performing in such a ‘macho’-rockstar posture. That’s not really the guy I am. Maybe it was more what Gordon and Matt were into and I tried my best to fit in, to maybe keep BLOC PARTY alive at that time. I think Russell feels the same way as well.
Did Russell and you ever thought about getting rid of the name and just start a new band to make a clear cut?
KO:It was something that went through our heads for a short time but in the end it has always been Russell and me who wrote all the music and lyrics on those records. We did the same on Hymns, starting the ideas together and asking the others to contribute their thoughts later. The progress hasn’t changed that much. We felt that we were more BLOC PARTY than anybody else so there was no need to change the name.
When talking about what happened Okereke sounds very reflective but also destined to let bygones be bygones. We might never fully understand what went wrong but it looks like artistic indifferences played a big part and that their musical tastes just grew apart over the last years. Four turned out to be a one-off ‘accident’, it seems. Matt and Gordon are now happier in the traditional rock setting of ALGIERS and YOUNG LEGIONNAIRE while Kele and Russell continue BLOC PARTY in a progressive and forward-thinking kind that has always been their favourite way of creating new music. Okereke got no problems with those who accuse him of being the ‘dictator’ of the whole project anyway from the start with the other band members barely having any ‘rights’. It’s another far too easy assumption, although parts of it are true as he explains:
‘It was always my band, I always wrote the songs, did the interviews and had to stand up in front of the people. So, I am okay with it. In our band every musician had a very important role and I think that still is the case. I like bands were you can hear every musician and you’re not just focussed on the lead singer or stuff. I was always the guy who decided everything anyway so not much has changed.’
The rest of BLOC PARTY is okay with the course, especially bassist Justin Harris who wasn’t very happy with the basic democracy in his former band MENOMENA as Kele explains. ‘They were never able to make decisions and therefore eventually stopped being a band,’ he reports. ‘You need someone to lead this whole thing.’ More than before the charismatic frontman takes his role as the leader serious to give his band a chance to stay alive. Hymns is a direct counter reaction to what went wrong on Four. It was designed to sound more sensual, warm and a bit laidback. Kele transports the feeling of his 2014 solo LP Trick into the microcosm of his band, starting from scratch. Russell and him composed first ideas together on late 2014, sent over the files to Justin who lives in Portland so he could add his parts. ‘Later, we invited him over to rehearse with us and it felt pretty good,’ explains the singer. ‘At that point the studio ideas became more band ideas.’
Kele Okereke: ‘There is something in me that is holy’
While Harris is an old friend of the band the story with Louise Bartle is a different one since Okereke discovered the new BLOC PARTY in the internet where he immediately was impressed by her drumming skills. She adds an entirely different background to the equation as he points out:
‘She is 21 and therefore ten years younger than me which is quite a difference. She also doesn’t come from a rock’n’roll background, she was a session musician. That itself gives her a different attitude than being a writing musician. We needed to learn how to be a band to give her a fitting environment because we haven’t really done that.’
‘Hymns’ feels very intimate and calm, especially compared to the raw and loud ‘Four’ which dealt a lot with societal topics. Was that your intention?
KO: I don’t think it was intentional. There are moments of intimacy, relationships and how we deal with each other but for me it’s more a record about faith, about having a spiritual understanding as a human being. It’s not about a specific religious idea as I am not a Christian or whatever. There is something in me that is holy and the record was an attempt for me to understand and explain that. That’s why there are so many references to the earth, the sky, the stars and a lots of ‘going to the water’ because that’s where I personally feel most connected to something. I like being amongst nature; that’s when I feel the presence of god. I don’t need a church for that. Hymns is about my connection to whatever I consider sacred and that also includes sex, love and intimacy as well.
Did you first need to turn 34 to be able to finally express that spiritual feeling?
KO: There’s always been a spiritual dimension to the music I make. Let’s just take A Weekend In The City which had The Prayer as a lead single back then. We always had elements of that but turning 30 made me think about my life a bit more, what it means to be a human being and all these things. I somehow felt quite hollow after releasing Four. It didn’t felt like myself and knew that the next record had to come from an authentic place.
Is it hard for you to connect these new songs with the old band back catalogue as it to me feels a bit like you want to ‘run away’ from that past?
KO: Those songs from different periods are still quite connected. Still, I felt kind of reluctant first when we start practicing these old songs with Justin and Louise. We just finished the record and wanted to focus on these songs and the future. But, of course, we understand that when you go on the road, performing at festivals, that you need to have those classics in your set. For some people Hymns might be too different but on the other hand I’m excited about the fact that we might get new people on board who are discovering BLOC PARTY through these new songs. And that’s how band’s basically grow, by reaching new people.
Would you already consider the four of you as real unit by now or do you still need to work on that?
KO: We are at the start of the progress. We’re jamming a lot and I think that’s the best thing we can do at the moment. Talking about music, sharing music and getting to know us better. This all needs to happen very fast because we as a band have the history of the past ten years; a history that Justin and Louise aren’t part of yet. But that’s a good thing as it allows us to become something else. It would be a bit flat to just be the type of band we were ten years ago. Having new members on board was mainly about how to deal with the band’s legacy and how to remain true to what we were about. And that also meant that we didn’t need the technically best musicians in the band. Gordon and Matt weren’t the best musicians as well but they had their own distinctive musical voices. They were confident in how to present themselves and write interesting and dynamic parts. And that’s what we are aiming for with Justin and Louise as well.
You’re not afraid of the reaction to the new songs and members then?
KO: I am not. Every new record you release needs a certain amount of time before the songs enter into the public’s consciousness. I think it always takes around ten months or so before people actually ‘get’ the songs. At least that’s the impression I got over the past years. We would not release a new album if we weren’t sure about its quality. For some people it’s going to be hard because the face of band changed that much. But others might not even remember what the other two members look like. (laughs)
And maybe that’s the lesson fans need to learn first before they can embrace the new BLOC PARTY: There is no singular perception of this band, it has never been as basically every album sounded different than the ones before. Constant progress is the force that kept this band going from early on, even if a lot of people still don’t get that. Over a decade into the industry Kele is relaxed when it comes to this aspect: ‘I don’t listen to those critics anymore because people always find something to rant about,’ he confesses. ‘Even when we released Silent Alarm, people were arguing that it didn’t sound like our first EP.’
Hymns is an intimate and soulful new facet in the ever changing BLOC PARTY concept. The tender and reflective Fortress might sound like a Kele solo recording while tracks like Into The Earth or the tender Exes sound like a more melodic version of the band’s earlier days. The psychedelic electronic groove of Different Drugs will surprise the listener as much as the blues rock attempt of The Good News might. You can call this album a lot of things: aftermath, transitional, reflective, melancholic or if you’re against it maybe even ‘lame’ but it’s the natural next step in the group’s evolution. Just don’t expect edgy indie rock floorfillers on it because there ain’t. But they might return on a follow-up which Kele is very determined to record as soon as possible:
‘My main goal for 2016 is to write music again with these new people around. That’s how we going to grow. We have to work out how to write new music quickly and instinctively or else we’re not going to remain.’
Whether you like it or not but BLOC PARTY aren’t done yet. It’s a risky way Kele and Russell decided to take but these guys never enjoyed to choose the easiest possible path. And maybe that’s one reason why they are still around unlike other bands from their generation, why people still talk about them and why you will eventually end up picking that ‘book’ again because you are just to curious to see what will happen on the next page.