It’s not that Kele Okereke doesn’t want you to look at him, it’s just that he doesn’t want to look at himself. “I hate doing it with the cameras on because the whole time I’m just focusing on myself and I’m not really engaging with what I’m saying,” he concedes honestly, requesting we go old school audio for today’s chat. “It’ll be a better interview this way…”
It’s understandable why the Bloc Party frontman would want to have his head (if not his face) fully in the zone; heading into the release of the band’s sixth LP ‘Alpha Games’, Kele, long term guitarist Russell Lissack, bassist Justin Harris and drummer Louise Birtle are sitting on an album that instigates deep dives into the current political quagmire and delves into the band’s own storied musical past. Far from mellowing with age, it’s Bloc Party’s most immediate, powerful album in years - one populated by murky, sinister motives and a constant sense of modern life’s dark underbelly. When we suggest that there’s a certain viscosity to the record, a sort of slithering unease, the singer hums with satisfied agreement.
“I guess the thing I was conscious about with this record was that I wanted to keep the ugliness in,” he begins. “In the past, I think I would have made everything rosy and veered towards happy, positive endings because in my twenties and thirties I was more of an optimist. But right now, in these last four years, I think we all feel that something has changed.
“I don’t feel optimistic about the future or that we’re heading towards a good place. Look at what’s happening in Ukraine right now: one man’s solipsistic vision of how he sees the world is causing so much pain and suffering to people, and that’s where the strong man, my-way-or-the-highway attitude takes us. So I felt like it was important not to sugarcoat or try to hide [those ideas], because we need to be aware of what’s happening and that we’re sliding backwards.”
“I was conscious with this record that I wanted to keep the ugliness in.”
— Kele Okereke
In conversation, Kele is pointed and specific in his targets. The album, he explains, took shape in 2018 and 2019 as Theresa May’s Conservative Party began to fracture and turn on itself amid the Brexit negotiations; the “backstabbing and skullduggery” that he was witnessing, as such, informed the landscape for ‘Alpha Games’ and the nastiness splashed across it.
Lyrically, however, the frontman was keen not to root the record in any specific political storyline but for something wider and more insidious to come to the fore. “I really wanted to capture the sense of people fucking each other over but looking each other in the eye; of it not being about institutions or overarching systems, it being about pushing someone out of the way to get to where you want,” he explains. “I think that’s really the core of the record: what happens when we stop treating each other with respect and think only about ourselves?”
It’s a question that’s written all over ‘Alpha Games’’, from its purposefully macho-baiting title outwards. “We be the kind that aint got no scruples / We be the kind that break the law,” go the sneering wideboys of ‘Rough Justice’, before ‘The Girls Are Fighting’ enters, populated with bar brawls and bad men. Recent single ‘Traps’ (an immediate, insatiable entry into the top tier of Bloc Party’s best work) has a seedy, predatory undercurrent to its lust, meanwhile the scattershot drums and propulsive growls of ‘Callum Is A Snake’ are punctuated with the climax of a soon-to-be-legendary burn: “Ooh, you’re a snide little fuck…”
Musically, meanwhile, the album’s wares are muscular and tight, in turns riffy and menacing, then full of big cathartic melodies. In short, ‘Alpha Games’ sounds more like OG Bloc Party than Bloc Party have done in years. “It’s funny looking back at the records we’ve made and seeing how, from ‘Silent Alarm’ through to ‘Alpha Games’, each album was an attempt to move further away from the record that preceded it,” Kele muses. “Over the years I think we wanted to get away from doing things that were the most natural for us, but with Louise being brought into the band with her youth and her openness and ability, it gave us licence to go back there and play with that abandon that we haven’t really played with for a while.”
Crucial to the change too was the band’s decision to acquiesce to some rare nostalgia in the form of 2018’s ‘Silent Alarm’ tour. Setting up a practice room at each venue (“It’s good to know that I can still feel creative, that I’m not just a jukebox…”), the quartet began writing ‘Alpha Games’ from a place that was literally wrapped up in the physicality and spirit of Bloc Party’s celebrated debut. For a band so intent on forward motion, what made them want to indulge in a second outing of their past? “I remember saying [previously] that I’d never want to do anything like that, so then the fact that I’d said it and it existed in cyberspace made me think that well, rules are meant to be broken,” Kele chuckles. “I thought there was something quite perverse about agreeing to do it, and that felt quite enjoyable. I’m a massive troll, but that’s how I roll. That’s how I troll…”
“That’s the core of the record: what happens when we stop treating each other with respect and think only about ourselves?”
— Kele Okereke
If a greedily-received anniversary tour is his idea of pranking the internet, then Kele Okereke is probably the most generous troll that a fan could ask for. But more than that, the singer - and Bloc Party’s - moves over the last few years suggest that maybe there’s a side to them that we’ve had wrong all along.
“I feel like, at the start of our career, we kind of got this rep as being bookish or heavy, and then that became [our thing]. I used to have to answer questions about being shy and then before you know it, it becomes folklore even if it’s not really true,” he recalls. Instead, the Bloc Party of today seem revitalised and less bothered about adhering to any old fashioned notions of indie purity. If they want to go back and play the hits, they will; if Kele, having just turned 40, wants to make the most gnarly album he’s made in nearly two decades, then he’ll do that too. “I don’t spend that much time slumming it with international socialite terrorists. Not since the kids arrived,” he jokes of his first-hand experiences with the subjects that populate ‘Alpha Games’, but there’s also the caveat given that he’s “lived a life”, one that hasn’t just been spent with his nose in a book.
Enthusing about his love of the wordplay found in rap and grime (“It’s really funny, lyrical music that maybe people don’t see because it’s Black musicians doing their thing”), before waxing lyrical on his need to always be fulfilling different ends of his musical spectrum (“I need to experience opposite ends of things at the same time to feel that I’m balanced. I think it’s because I’m a Libra”), Kele seems content revelling in all sides of his creative self. And on ‘Alpha Games’ the result is a thrilling, visceral testament to letting go and following your gut.
“I remember [on the ‘Silent Alarm’ shows] thinking, ‘I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to do this night after night’,” he recalls of the physically-demanding setlist. “But we were able to do it. And I was kind of surprised but also I wasn’t, because over the years I’ve realised that you can do anything you want if you really want to do it.” We’ll call that game, set and match.
‘Alpha Games’ is out now via Infectious / BMG.
More like this
Squid, Lynks and Sad Night Dynamite are also set to perform.
Hayley Williams revealed the inspiration in the latest episode of BBC Sounds’ Everything Is Emo.
Their despair at the state of the world is tangible.
It’s the latest preview of sixth album ‘Alpha Games’, out next month.