Arguments, apologies and scouring YouTube for drummers: how Kele got Bloc Party restarted

The frontman admits ‘it sometimes felt frosty’ in his band. But now, with two new members, he’s ready to clear up why they split and how they made their sensuous comeback

It was onstage at Latitude in July 2013 that Kele Okereke realised Bloc Party could go on no longer. Earlier that year, they had parted with drummer Matt Tong, after a lengthy break had failed to halt what Okereke describes today as “non-stop bad vibes”.

Onstage in Suffolk, there was an incident that meant bassist Gordon Moakes would also be swiftly departing.

“I’ve seen the footage of that performance,” says Okereke, with a nervy, knowing smile. A smile he does whenever he senses a difficult subject approaching, or that he’s on uncomfortable ground. “There’s a song where somebody makes a mistake and … well, I guess Gordon makes a mistake. And I say something to him, and he kind of responds, and I realised at that point that this was as far as our relationship was gonna go. I’ve never interfered with anyone’s performance before, and I thought that if that was the state of our relationship, it felt fitting that this should be our last show together.”

And so we find Bloc Party in 2015 with two new members – bassist Justin Harris, previously of Portland band Menomena, and 21-year-old Louise Bartle, who was discovered after Okereke and guitarist Russell Lissack scoured YouTube for drummers. There’s also a new album, entitled Hymns. It’s a record that places much emphasis on stillness and restraint, containing some of their most serene music. And it’s a record that almost never got made; Okereke thought the band were finished until Harris and Bartle arrived to rejuvenate their sound. “It’s amazing how they’ve reinvigorated our existing catalogue,” he says. “I think we have a different groove now.”

Certainly, Hymns is a departure from previous album Four, which was in places an abrasive affair. “It’s not my favourite of our records,” admits Okereke. “I knew that the next thing we did had to come from a more sensual place.”

The title comes from Okereke’s renewed fascination with religious music: after discovering his old hymn book at his parent’s home, he began bombarding Lissack with gospel and devotional songs, in the hope that Lissack could absorb them into Bloc Party’s sound. “Kele often sends me challenges, and it’s a challenge I enjoy,” says Lissack, who formed the band with Okereke in 1999. “How am I going to interpret it? What will I do with the instrumental side of things?”

Okereke is at pains to point out that he is not religious himself, and that Hymns is not a religious album. “My parents are very religious people and that’s something I have a profound respect for,” he says. “There is is something in their lives that they’ve given over space for something that is higher than them. I don’t subscribe to those views but I understand that feeling, because I get it when I listen to music.”

In this sense, Hymns can be viewed as subversive in places. One song, Only He Can Heal Me, takes its titular gospel message and repositions it as something that could easily be a love song to another man.

“I feel that song can be interpreted in a number of ways,” says Okereke, smiling. “I’ve always liked those sort of songs.”

Click here to watch the video for Bloc Party’s The Love Within.

There are plenty of other songs on Hymns open to interpretation. Exes, for instance, was written partly as an apology from Okereke to former friends and lovers he felt he hadn’t treated well in the past, but it hasn’t gone down well with his boyfriend, who is so uncomfortable with its lyrical content he refuses to play it in the house. Does this upset him?

No, he says: “We have different musical tastes and personally I wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with someone who was all about what I did. I think there might be the danger they were falling in love with something that was illusory.”

To hear Okereke talk about personal relationships at all is a surprise given how guarded he was when he first started giving interviews around 2004. Back then, alongside bands such as Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party revitalised a flagging UK indie scene. Yet they were far more wary of the spotlight than their peers. Okereke particularly struggled with the idea of his private life being examined by the press. He remembers those early days as bringing mixed blessings: on the one hand he got to live his dreams and travel the world, on the other he felt scarred by journalists expecting him to talk openly about his sexuality or his family life.

Fame brought other bracing encounters, such as when Liam Gallagher said they looked less like a band and more like a team on University Challenge: “You see them and you’re just waiting for some geezer to start asking them questions,” he sneered.

This, of course, was part of Bloc Party’s charm. They were nerdy, earnest and refreshingly anti-stardom. They could also be – once the dictaphones and notebooks had been packed away – cheeky and entertaining company. So do they look back on such rock press scraps now with a smile, or with horror?

“I didn’t personally find it so enjoyable,” says Okereke. “Any idiot can generate column inches by saying something incendiary but I’d rather people were talking about me because of the music I was making.”

Would Liam still have a pop today, given that Okereke has bulked up significantly since those skinny indie days?

He laughs: “I don’t know. I did meet Liam Gallagher once. In an elevator, at Wembley Stadium for Live Earth. I thought: ‘If it’s going to go down, it will go down now’. But it didn’t. He was very polite, actually.”

That’s almost disappointing. Did you bring up the beef?

“No, no, I’m not so into getting into people’s faces unless I really have to.”

Click here to see the new lineup performing Exes for BBC 6 Music in Maida Vale.

This may be true: in fact Okereke thinks that not airing grievances might have contributed to the tensions that had been simmering within Bloc Party before Tong and Moakes left the band: “We never, perhaps to our detriment, verbalised to each other any issues that we might have had. We never got in each other’s faces or threw punches. And I think maybe there’s a merit in doing that, to say: ‘I’m hurt.’ Instead, things would just simmer. It sometimes felt frosty.”

Like Blur, they often seemed an unlikely bunch of comrades: four wildly different personalities who spent little of their spare time together. While this might not be unusual in a touring band, where personal space comes at a premium, there were always rumours within the industry that Bloc Party weren’t getting on, that the band weren’t enjoying themselves.

“They’re two different things to me, though,” says Lissack. “Regardless of whether we had any issues, I still enjoyed performing. I still enjoyed making the music. That’s enjoying what you do, isn’t it? What you’re talking about is not enjoying the company of the people you’re with, but a lot of people enjoy what they do while not enjoying some of their colleagues.”

“But it is a big part of it,” chips in Okereke. “If you’re not getting on with the people you work with, it is a big part of the experience.”

Despite such allusions to tensions and bad atmosphere, Lissack and Okereke both say they don’t want to comment any further. “They [the other members] are not talking about it so I don’t think I should be airing our dirty linen in public,” reasons Okereke. Which would be admirable, if he hadn’t then gone on to let slip more tantalising details to the press a few dayslater. Speaking to the NME, he said: “I can tell you it was about someone doing cocaine and someone not being into it, that’s all I’m gonna say.”

So what really happened? A few weeks after we meet, I call Okereke to discuss these more recent allegations, but he says that he has been instructed by his management not to say any more. Then, a few days later, he gets in touch to say that he feels the need to go against their advice and explain what he meant after all.

He says the quotes were reported accurately, but that they were never meant to imply that Tong or Moakes had a drug problem (Tong declined to comment and Moakes didn’t reply to an email request). What actually happened, says Okereke, is that someone around the band had been taking drugs, and that the individual band members had different opinions on it.

“This then led to a big argument and that’s the situation,” he says. “I don’t want people to think Matt and Gordon were cokeheads, and that’s why we had to lose them. And I don’t want their families thinking that.”

Which, with no more details being offered up, leaves the situation sounding about as clear as mud. Whatever the truth, Bloc Party appear happier now. The former members have their own projects to concentrate on (Tong is drumming in Algiers, Moakes playing with Young Legionnaire). And as for Bloc 2.0 ….

“It was important that we met up before we played together,” says Bartle. “So that you could be like :‘OK, you’re a human, you’re nice. I think I’m all right as well, so we’re gonna get on. It was a bit daunting [joining an established band] but getting to know Kele and Russell made it less so. They weren’t all: ‘We’re really cool musicians, we’re sick.’ I thought: ‘These are nice people so it’s fine.’”

“Old experiences are exciting again,” says Lissack. “Going on tour or doing BBC sessions, things we might have been a bit jaded by before, are new to these guys so it feels like we’re doing them for the first time, too.”

“I just love watching them play,” concludes Kele. “Louise is a machine, whereas I always thought Justin was the best bass player I’d ever seen.”

He smiles, and this time there’s nothing nervy about it. Instead, it’s the beam of a man who knows that his band are all finally singing from the same hymn sheet.

Hymns is released on Infectious on 29 January


Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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