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Bloc Party Reborn: A Conversation with Kele Okereke and Russell Lissack

on February 10, 2016, 12:00am

It took a reality check to break Bloc Party. The pioneering UK indie art rock group had slowly started to dismantle in the latter half of 2013 when drumming virtuoso Matt Tong announced his departure. But it wasn’t until March 2015, midway through writing new material for their fifth album, that bassist Gordon Moakes exited stage left, and the band’s new reality set in. Confounding people’s expectations is nifty, but not when it comes with an identity crisis.

With only lead singer Kele Okereke and guitarist Russell Lissack remaining, Bloc Party were forced to confront the question of what really gives a musical group its identity. In pop, at least, fans tend to remain faithful to the band as long as the music doesn’t shift too much or the disbanding members aren’t integral to the vocals or songwriting. Just look at The Rolling Stones: Only three of the original members are still in the band, but the critical core of their voice remains intact.

“It’s always been me and Kele writing the songs together, so flash forward to now and that’s still the same,” says Lissack over the phone from London. Two members down and four years removed from their last album, Bloc Party is ready to move on with the release of their fifth full-length, Hymns. If 2012’s Four was about traversing back in time to the core components of what made 2005 debut Silent Alarm ring loudly, Hymns concerns itself with a new future. Their songs have more in common in narrative than they do genre; “The Prayer”, “Better than Heaven”, “The Healer”, and “Only He Can Heal Me” differ greatly, but the push and shove here is how these spiritual relics inspire the band’s rebirth. Hymns confirms that the band has found relief in transparency, in the nostalgic idea that redemption and rebirth can only happen when something has broken.

Consequence of Sound recently spoke with Okereke and Lissack about their creative progression over the years. The pair talked frankly about who they were as Bloc Party and how they’re using the lessons of their past to figure out who they will become.

bloc party hymns album Bloc Party Reborn: A Conversation with Kele Okereke and Russell Lissack

You took a four-year hiatus after your third album, 2009’s Intimacy. Kele focused on a solo career and, Russell, you formed your band Pin Me Down and joined Ash. Then you returned in 2012 with Four, which was when the band started disbanding. Matt (Tong, drummer) left, and then Gordon (Moakes, bassist) left last year. Did you have a sense that things were coming apart?

Russell Lissack (RL): We took a break because everyone was feeling quite frazzled, and we felt the time apart was healthy for everyone. Like you said, everyone got the opportunity to try out new ventures and get away from the touring cycle. During the Four tours, it didn’t take long for old habits to come back to the surface again. So, after a while, it felt like this is why we took a break in the first place, and we realized that the same things are going to happen all over again. Everyone reached the point where we realized it’s not going to work any longer. Things went down, the change happened, which meant Bloc Party was able to continue.

How did Bloc Party set themselves apart in the beginning?

RL: In the beginning, what we were doing felt like it was a reaction to what was happening around us. The pop music at that time was dreary. I don’t want to slag off bands from that period, but it felt like everyone was doing the same thing. We wanted to do something completely different.

Bloc Party also hit the scene well before the Facebook, Instagram, Twitter Bermuda triangle. Do you think it’s harder for a band to make it now than back in the early ’00s?

RL: I was talking to my friend about this recently and wondering how much of a role music plays in people’s lives now. We are the last generation that grew up spending all our money on music: going to concerts and clubs, buying records. It was the definition of who you were. In the UK, culture was divided into tribes where every person was kind of defined by music. Music is still there, but because of the way that people access it, it plays such a different role in younger people’s lives. It’s certainly a different climate musically to how it was back when we first started, especially in the UK. At that time, the focus was really on guitar music. Now, pop and electronic music are more prevalent in the UK.

Kele Okereke (KO): I think it definitely would be harder being a new band starting now because I feel like there’s less focus on music these days. We’ve been going for 12 years, and at this stage, people understand who we are or have a sense of what we’re about. There’s an international audience of people who are interested in our music, and that’s something I’m very thankful for.

So you already have a narrative to introduce your band. I can imagine it’s quite challenging to balance being able to step back and do your own thing and yet still remain invested in Bloc Party. You’ve been somewhat blessed to have your own solo career, Kele, releasing Boxer in 2010 and Trick in 2014. Was it important to uncover your own identity?

KO: For me, I’ve always seen them as separate entities. When I work with solo music, I’m completely in control of every aspect of the artistry, and when I work in Bloc Party, it’s a collaboration and everyone’s bringing ideas to the table. Everybody’s ideas are just as valid as mine, and that’s still exciting to me. Every time we write, someone says something about the music that I hadn’t even anticipated or expected, and more so how they play the music keeps me excited. Russell is always showing me these brilliant, new things.

You’ve also featured as a vocalist on numerous tracks. Even The Chemical Brothers brought you on for “Believe”. I can imagine all those different outlets must reward you with some sort of artistic vitality that brings out a different life force creatively from you.

KO: I feel lucky I can experience both worlds. I could be selfish and separate, then also be part of a group, and there’s comfort in that. It’s quite simple: It’s great to have the opportunities and be able to express yourself in such different ways.

Did you find that there was one specific moment in your life that made you start to see super-clearly — or at least clearer? What do you consider your biggest victory to be in terms of gaining perspective?

KO: Right. I’ll tell you the truth. You know I didn’t really want to make a solo record ever? The first time I did was because the other guys in the band wanted to have a break. We had made three records in a very short space of time and travelled the world everywhere, and I just wanted to be creative, and that’s how the solo record started. Prior to that, all my creativity had been drawn only from Bloc Party, and that was the only way I knew how to be creative. I realized when I was making the Hymns record that I actually didn’t need to be in Bloc Party in order to be creative. I could do that with other projects and by myself. I think that was my watershed moment.

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Photo by Philip Cosores

It’s still always been you two since you met during the ’90s, but you can’t ignore there are new bodies and minds in the mix now. Does the new lineup of Justin Harris from Menomena and Louise Bartle still feel like Bloc Party, or did you ever think of relaunching under a new name?

RL: You know, Louise is only 21. She’s an amazing drummer for how young she is. We had already started recording the album and still hadn’t got a drummer and looked everywhere for one. And then someone forwarded us a YouTube video of her playing, and we were really impressed. We asked her to join pretty much straight away. Justin’s band, Menomena, supported us in the US in 2009, so we already knew he was a great musician and a nice person as well.

KO: Russell and I started the band, and all the music that everyone has ever heard on Bloc Party has come from Russell and I. We write all the songs and all the music, so I never felt the change in the lineup meant us needing to change our name. I was conscious about how we stay true to the legacy of what Bloc Party is about, you know? The way I rationalized it is that one of the big things about our band now is how much it felt like all the musicians were now pulling their weight. The songwriting finally felt like a real democratic process. Our previous members weren’t the best players in the world, and I think they would even admit that. They certainly had their own unique musical voices, which helped give Bloc Party a sound. I felt the only way we can move forward is considering that we didn’t need to sound like our previous members. The new members needed to have their own musical style and musical voice in order to make something new, and I feel that we found that with Justin and Louise.

Your voice is distinctive, Kele, so it’s difficult not to sound like you, but was there a prolific moment during the progression of this record?

KO: I feel that, like, having made seven records now, five with Bloc Party and two on my own, I have a sense of what the process is. I’ve realized what the function of making music serves. I realized that I’m doing this because I wanted to do this, because it’s important to me to express this. It’s not about the money — there’s something in me that I need to expel. There’s something inside that I need to get out. The most important thing to me is that I’m being authentic and that I document where I am right now.

Just like a placeholder, I suppose.

KO: Exactly. And then whenever I hear a track from A Weekend in the City, it takes me back to where I was in my 20s, when I was making that record. I think about the conversations I was having and the people that were in my life during that time. That’s the same with every record, documenting a period in my life.

Do you feel like you could say significantly more now than you could on Silent Alarm or even Four? Considering the time that’s passed and the collaborators you’ve worked with, could that influence your creative evolution?

KO: I’ve always committed myself wholly when writing lyrics, and I’ve always tried to give all of myself. I don’t think it’s solely connected to people that are in the band or not. The messages that I choose to write an album for are totally dependent on what I’m feeling at the time. People often talk about my music being confessional. I still don’t think any of my records have felt particularly confessional, like using the names of people I know. I’m more a storyteller. That’s more exciting to me: telling stories to convey an idea as opposed to it being a confession.

I wonder, then, if some of your darker or more melancholic songs, like the beautiful slow motions of “Fortress” and “Drugs”, reflect a melancholic or paranoid part of you, or do they just result from momentary moods?

KO: I think that mood has always been there. In our first record, there were moments of intense, frenetic energy, but there were also moments of gentleness, like “Blue Light” and “So Here We Are”. We’ve always been excited about the different type of musical range, and over the years, we just developed more tools for expressing every mood, whether it’s aggressive or not.

And now you’re heading toward a sound that as you said “hugged you rather than hit you.” I think the song “So Real” is probably the closest you’ve gotten to a Bloc Party indie pop ballad.

RL: As an artist, it’s really important to evolve over time. To be 12 years later making the same music shows a lack of growth and depth. It wouldn’t keep you creatively inspired or stimulated. I want to listen to songs and not know where they’re going next, like “So Real”. I like to be taken on a journey.

So, what aspects of vocal technique and composition do you think about now, Kele, that you didn’t necessarily think about before?

KO: Wow, if I hear anything from Silent Alarm, I just cringe. My voice has changed so much, and I can hear it now! I’m going to say the same thing when I look back in 10 years’ time at Hymns. That’s just part of being a functioning creative person. You always try to make yourself better.

Russell, can you relate? What about the juxtaposition of manipulated electronics and loud guitar strings is appealing to you? What do you value most in your new music?

RL: It’s been a weird one for me. When we wrote this record, I was listening to a lot of electronic music, but the inspiration I took was how I wanted to use that in guitar effects, and it’s now 90% of what I’ve done on this record. A lot of this doesn’t sound like it’s a guitar, and everyone has jumped to the reasonable conclusion that it’s an electronic record. I knew how I was doing things, so I took that for granted. It shouldn’t matter how someone makes music or what instruments they’ve used. I know people are judgmental, especially people who traditionally like music that’s created with organic instruments. So, I’m finding it a weird position to be in that people are judging music on what they think it is rather than what it actually is. It’s an odd place for me to strike that balance into what we do creatively as opposed to what people hear. My favorite part of what we do has always been playing live. In that realm, I get to play these songs so people get to see that we’ve been reborn, still playing our instruments and not fiddling on our laptops.

When I saw that you were coming back with two new members, the word “rebirth” trailed behind a lot of your press releases. Do you feel like this is a natural progression from everything you’ve been doing for the past 12 years, or is it really a new beginning?

RL: Having Justin and Louise has been a rebirth for us. Kele and I have our ups and downs personally, but as a music relationship, it’s always been really strong. Bringing new guys on board is just bringing in a new ingredient to let us continue.

KO: Honestly, I think it’s the next step. I don’t know what the future’s going to look like, but I feel that right now it just feels right.

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