In times of uncertainty human beings tend to long for external guidance. For some this could be specific people, for others it’s maybe art. The past years of certain right-wing movements and a global pandemic even made various people turn to religion, questionable politicians and various conspiracy theories. Some of us tend to go certain lengths just to bring a bit order to the chaos. To me, music has been a lifelong source of inspiration and a constant coping mechanism with … well, existence itself, I got to say. Within that artistic cosmos there are certain characters that provided a bit more guidance and had a heavier impact on my life and the understanding of the world than others. Kele Okereke is such a character and Bloc Party are a band that provided that aspect of guidance to me for a long time. Their first albums were musical allies during my twenties as I was trying to figure out my place in the world. Silent Alarm opened up a new musical world to me, A Weekend In The City helped me to understand society (and its corruption) a bit better while a record like Four guided me through the uncertainty of post-graduation life. The music you fell in love with during that time might stick with you for a lifetime. I think that’s scientifically proven somewhere. So, in that understanding Okereke’s songs were crucial companions on the path of becoming the person I am today.
However, it’s been a few years since Bloc Party provided that sort of comfort to me. The original line-up fell out in 2013, 2016’s Hymns album was a transitional record that Kele made with fellow founding member Russell Lissack before the new members – Louise Bartle on drums and Justin Harris on bass – even joined the group. It was, well, a difficult album and although I never fully underlined the mixed feedback it received from fans and critics I get, while it felt a bit like a letdown. The reflective and quite spiritual content of its songs didn’t match with my life back then and for the first time the guiding light of Bloc Party dimmed, although it never fully went out. But of course that was only the outside perspective because for songwriter Kele Okereke it actually marked a huge personal shift as he explained to me in a phone call a few weeks ago. “After making Hymns I felt a bit liberated as an artist,” he tells me. “I cared less about what people say about me and during that time music started to have a different function for me. Lyrically, I had to inherit the space that was important to me even if it didn’t mean anything to anybody else.”
Although Kele stopped reading reviews and things like this article here years ago, he was aware that he was conscious that Bloc Party basically became a new group in 2015 and it was destined to backfire. “We were struggling as a band with a new line-up, we were looking for purpose,” he confirms. “You really need to ask yourself questions like ‘What is it what I want to say?’ and ‘What is it that I want to do?’ in such a situation.” But unlike people from the outside Kele sees where the band is going and he sees how all these records are connected to each other. “Bloc Party is never about certain records, it’s about a journey,” he tells me. Something clicked within him following Hymns which lead to three more solo albums, a musical and now – at last – to Alpha Games, the long awaited sixth studio album by the British indie rock institution. Was it worth the wait? Will it provide guidance and allow a reconnection? Well, the stakes weren’t exactly low before I approach the album and this interview.
Starting a new chapter
The story of Alpha Games is also the story and sound of this group growing together following the release of Hymns. Touring that album and going on a global Silent Alarm legacy tour in 2018 and 2019 really shaped these four as a unit and helped them to grow together. Kele also acknowledges that.
“I feel very thankful that we got the chance to have two touring cycles following the last album which allowed us to assimilate out musicality and welcoming Louise and Justin to the group. It wouldn’t have been the same way if we just met and were forced to instantly record a record together. We now have a mutual understanding of how we play. We were able to actually become a band before recording together and I think you can hear that on the record.”
And indeed – while its predecessor was a soft and laidback experience Alpha Games spits fire and energy from start to finish as it reunites Bloc Party with the furious guitar-driven energy of their early days. Tracks like the mighty comeback single Traps, garage rocking opener Day Drinker and the nervous Callum Is A Snake feel like a perfect blend of familiar sounds from their first four albums. While listening to the record even I as a fan can’t help but to notice how consequent Kele, Russell, Justin and Louise return to the musical comfort zone of the group. I ask Kele whether he felt any pressure to “play safe” this time. He laughs and partly agrees – “it’s a fine line, isn’t it? Doing what you are doing while also avoiding to repeat yourself.” He tells me that he wrote about 30 to 35 songs which is quite a lot (and will hopefully result in a not so long break before a potential follow-up) and he was destined to push things forward while also following his instinct. While he enjoyed the process of writing and recording Hymns in the studio with Russell nobody was keen to repeat that process. “The album needed to be about the energy the four of us can create together.” And that’s why it actually took so long. While the band was ready to record by the end of 2019 the Covid-pandemic forced them to postpone their plans, especially since bassist Justin lives in the United States. “We were sitting on our hands for almost a year,” Kele says. “It was a strange thing to have these songs and can’t touch them.”
But remote recording wasn’t an option because that’s not what the sound of Alpha Games was about. “Historically, I’m not a person who likes to sit around and do nothing,” Kele explains. “There was a danger of me deconstructing the songs of ‘Alpha Games’, further experimenting on them and therefore changing their original character.” Instead he got himself distracted by turning to Instagram where he started regular sessions in which he revisited songs from his back catalogue along with a few covers. Especially the number of Bloc Party rarities he performed were quite fan-pleasing. For the songwriter it wasn’t just about lockdown procrastination, it also became an almost therapeutic experience. “It gave me a sense for the body of work I made in the past,” Kele explains. “Usually you tend to go from one project to another, you don’t stop and pay attention to what’s already there. Those Instagram forced me to listen to my own history and it was a constant creative adventure. It was quite a proud moment.” For a workaholic that loves to focus on the future, it was a chance to embrace his own artistic past and make his peace with it, maybe for the first time ever. And it also resulted in last year’s experimental solo LP The Waves, Pt. 1 which helped Alpha Games to become what it was meant to be. Finally, in the summer of 2021, the band could record these songs in the form they were always envisioned.
Although the songwriter claims that there wasn’t really an overview or guiding intention for the record there seems to be a subtle theme that runs through these songs that tend to focus on bleak characters, stories of corruption, questionable morals and lots of not so pleasant aspects of human nature as Kele explains:
“‘Alpha Games’ is the sound of a neurotic and frustrated experience. All of these songs felt a little bit like outlets to me. These last three, four years have been very turbulent times on a social and political scale. Especially here in the UK with the whole Brexit saga and warring fractions within the government.”
No more happy endings
On a subconscious level that feeling of conflict sneaked its way into the songs. “There was so much underhanded behaviour we were getting furious about. It wasn’t intentional but once you observe it 24/7 it simply affects you and the people around you.” The band leader has always been pretty good when it comes to the documentation of life’s less pleasant sides and in that way Alpha Games does indeed follow a similar tradition like the outstanding A Weekend In the City. However, compared to their sophomore album which had a few moments of love and humility in there, this new record isn’t heading for happy ends. “In the past positive and uplifting aspects were more important to me in my songwriting but I didn’t want to do it this time and simply reflect on what I was seeing. And I don’t see much hope around right now. And I think that goes for a lot of people.” There is a certain bitterness in a message like that and for someone like me who is looking for answers and guidance in this music the key take away reads a bit like “Humanity is fucked, we’re doomed. That’s it.” Therefore Alpha Games is a fitting album for that strange late-capitalistic desire for a certain almost apocalyptic event. In the second decade of the 21st century aspects like an impending climate crisis, an ongoing pandemic, war treats from Russia and the decline of democratic structures really fuel that notion. Frustration and despair dominate the sound of Bloc Party in 2022 but they are transformed in energetic rock and roll tunes that will hopefully have an cathartic effect on the audience of the band’s upcoming world tour. Maybe the guidance I’m looking for can be found in the mosh-pit this time.
Despite the pessimistic character of these songs Kele still remains excited for the future, especially the one of Bloc Party. Especially following the moments of solitude in lockdown the joy of collaborative creativity is something that still excites him. “And as much as I love making records by myself I feel thankful for having these people around me that still inspire me. I still get blown away by watching Russell play the guitar. I can have the best of both worlds now.”
And the fire was burning hot and heavy during the recording of this new body of work. “There were lots of moments during the recording where I felt we play in a way we haven’t played before. Justin has a lot more swag in his bass play. Louise is very precise when it comes to drumming so I heard all the beats and rhythms way more defined than in the past.” Multi-instrumentalist Louise Bartle is the new secret weapon of the band (she also leads her own band Novacub in which Russell plays as well). Despite her fearless energy behind the drums she’s also providing lots of backing vocals on a few songs, most prominently on one of the record’s rare hopeful moments, the lovely If We Get Caught, towards the end. Kele loves these moments especially as he tells me “It’s something I’d like to take further in future because Louise got such a great voice. I see us going into a certain direction with this and it’s kind of exciting.” I wouldn’t be surprised to see a duet between the two on a future Bloc Party record.
Re-evaluation in a time of crisis
Unlike Hymns, Alpha Games really feels like the overdue official start of that second chapter in that ongoing journey of Bloc Party. It took a bit longer than expected but now it feels like all the strengths of the group are back in full shape and there’s this desire to … well, attack again. Kele Okereke, who turned 40 last year, confesses that he had a few doubts over the past years but especially the process of that album and the forced Covid-break helped him to redefine his artistic purpose. “I still get quite passionate and excited when I hear new things. I still get the feeling of wonderment and I’m lucky to still have that. Especially following the pandemic and the lockdown I feel like my journey as a musician isn’t over. I really thought about why am I doing that and what am I getting from this.” Those past two years of uncertainty gave him a boost of confidence to face whatever happens next.
Well, and maybe that’s one takeaway from the record for me personally. Maybe the songs can’t provide that level of guidance anymore, maybe it’s okay to seek for inspiration somewhere else. Kele does that as well as he explains: “Now that I am in a functioning professional rock and roll band I tend to listen to music outside of that musical cosmos. It’s simply more engaging to me.” My declining interest in certain aspects of that old indie rock world can relate to that. Still, the first listening sessions of Alpha Games partly send shivers down my spine. There’s something in these songs, the punchy riffs and melodies that still resonates with me and although nostalgia plays a big part in my ongoing admiration for Bloc Party, it’s those new songs that reignited my love for them. As you get older it’s okay to look for guidance and inspiration in other places outside of music and that’s something I realized as well over the past years.
And maybe once again the timing of this release resonates pretty well with me. I recently announced my departure from NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION after ten years. This will be my final long-read piece here for quite some time. I remember that writing about their 2012 single Octopus and its following album Four were one of the first things I did for this blog so it’s kind of sweet that it goes full circle here. Alpha Games will forever be connected with this moment. And I’m pretty sure that the songs of Kele Okereke will continue to inspire me as well as they will inspire new generations of listeners. “Once you send your art out to the world it exists forever,” he sums up towards the end of our call. “People will be enjoying things I’ve done long after I’m gone and that’s quite an impressive thought. It’s a privilege to do that so we always have to make sure to fully commit to the art.” Find your passion and keep pursuing it despite all the obstacles that might occur – it is indeed a privilege and over the past years we learned how fragile this privilege can be. Thanks for reminding me about this once again.
Bloc Party‘s comeback LP Alpha Games is set to arrive on April 29 via Infectious/BMG and there’s also a tour happening soon.