It's been four years since frenetic London rock quartet Bloc Party released their last album Intimacy, and since then, the group has endured near-constant rumors—not all of which were unfounded—of infighting, acrimony and break-ups. In 2009, the band decided to take a year off and regroup a year later to determine if Bloc Party had a future. Thankfully for fans, there's a happy ending (for now), as the group's appropriately titled fourth album Four is arriving on August 21.
For frontman Kele Okereke, though, the break didn't mean a stop to his creativity. In 2010, he released his debut solo album The Boxer, continued working on his novella and just "talked to people in bars and overheard conversations" during his year-long escape to New York City. Right before taking the stage at BBK Live Festival in Bilbao, Spain, the singer reveals to Fuse just how close the band came to breaking up, why he lies in interviews (current one excluded!) and how it feels to be back.
So is “Welcome back” the right phrase for the band?
Kele: Well, it’s a little bit strange for me because the others in the band are saying how weird it feels to be back on stage. Our drummer hasn’t played for like two years. For me, it just feels like a continuation since I was touring in 2010 and 2011.
Was the band ever officially broken up or was it more of an extended hiatus?
Kele: No, we never officially broken up but we hadn’t really left on the best of terms. We knew that we were going to have to get together in a year’s time from announcing the break to discuss what we were going to do. I think until us meeting, we had no idea if there was going to be a future. It was either going to go one of two ways.
But last year, you told NME that you followed guitarist Russell Lissack in New York and saw the rest of the band outside a rehearsal space, where they were playing without you. Was that legitimate beef? Band misunderstanding? A misquote?
Kele: No, that was completely not true. I have a bit of a habit that if I’m not engaged in interviews, I just start making stuff up. We weren’t allowed to talk about what we were doing because we really didn’t know if anything was going to come out of this, so I just spun this story and it ended up being like this huge trending thing on Twitter and everyone was freaking out that they were making an album without me. I just thought, to be honest, it was funny and if anyone had actually read what I said, it was so obviously ridiculous; the hiding behind corners spying on them. But if people wanted to believe that, that’s fine. I had a perverse laugh about it.
So how close did it really get to being over?
Kele: In 2010, I didn’t even want to think about music. I didn’t know if I wanted to be in a band. I thought the only way it would be possible is if we became a different band and our personal relationships and our music turned into something else. I didn’t want to go back to how it was.
In a post announcing the new album, you said that "in the past we have tried to hide the passion with which we perform, tried to obscure it, manipulate it so it didn’t resemble us anymore." What’s different now?
Kele: I think there’s a sense of perspective having had time away from the group. We had a chance to have lives outside of the band. One of the big problems we had in 2009 was we’d go from touring around for a year to going in the studio to making another record to going back out to tour another year. It felt like we were on a conveyor belt. There’s only so many times you can do that without a certain amount of friction starting to arise. How do you diffuse that?
You've said, "I wanted to watch the world from a distance… but then 2011 happened." What specifically were you referencing or was it the general tone and sentiment of what was going on in the world?
Kele: Yeah, I think it was more the fact that when I was living in New York, I was quite isolated; I wasn’t really watching much television or feeling aligned. I’d go three or four days without even speaking to people; I was just working on a book. I wasn’t really keeping track of global events, but whenever I did turn on the television, it felt like something awful was happening somewhere, and I guess that started to fit in with how I was viewing the world. And I started to question what it was I was doing and my purpose. I started seeking out music rather than avoid it, and it became clear that these ideas and songs are going to have to find an outlet and form of expression.
When the four of you reunited in the studio for the first time, was there still a chance that you wouldn't record anything based on past differences?
Kele: I think we didn’t know when we met in 2010, but once we started writing the record, it became clear that there was something there. But it took weeks for us to get the first few songs in, and by then we knew that we had it. But we were just walking around on eggshells in the beginning; there was a little bit of uncertainty partially because we hadn’t made any music together for two years. We didn’t know how it was going to feel, but it came back to us for sure.
Butch Vig told us when Garbage reunited after eight years, they spent the first three or four hours just drinking wine and telling crazy stories. Was Bloc Party's first day in the studio similar?
Kele: Well, the first day that we met, it was slightly weird just because we hadn’t really had any contact with each other for the last year. The first hour was slightly awkward, but then it just became clear that we had some issues we had to resolve and we all aired our grievances and talked about if we were going to record, this is how it was going to have to be. And it seemed that we were all on the same page so it made sense that we should at least try it again in a studio to see what was there.
When you were 23 years old, you said that “aging is something I find terrifying. Everyone is always telling you your youth is the best time of your life and it is, but I can’t help feel the clock’s ticking and time is running out.” Now that you’re 30, what are your thoughts on that statement?
Kele: I feel that I was partially right in some respects. And I think that’s part of the motivation as to why we have been so productive in these seven years. Because you only have a short space of time to make this music which will go on to outlive you and hopefully go on to touch and influence and inspire people, even after you’re dead. So I think that may be part of the reason why we’ve always worked hard. But then as a 30-year-old looking at the rest of my life, I can see now that I see the world in a very different way to how I did when I was in my 20s. The issues that you had—the problems or the traumas—as a young person, you realize maybe aren’t so important in the grand scheme. You see that life will carry on and it’s really about being here in the moment as much as you can, and I realize that now.
Would you want to start working on new solo material or do you foresee staying with Bloc Party for a while?
Kele: I have absolutely no idea about the future. Part of the problem we had in 2009 was that it felt like our lives had been completely mapped out for us, so I’m quite reluctant to go back into that mindset. I think we’ll have a conversation at the end of this period and we’ll see how we feel. There’s a part of me that thinks if this record was our last record, I’d be quite satisfied because it was really like, “I’ve never felt more satisfied by recording than the way I feel now.” I never felt like we brought what was in my head so succinctly onto tape than we have with Four, and I felt like it’s come full circle to what the band’s about. Being out on the road, we get very restless as a band and we all start writing. And if we start writing again, that means that the songs will have to come out in some respect. So I’m just waiting to see how we feel whilst we’re on the road.
You said a similar thing after Silent Alarm was released, but for a different reason. At the time, you said that if it ended now, it'd be okay because you weren't expecting any accolades or success anyway.
Kele: Yeah, that’s exactly right, but the issue is if we start getting more ideas. If we go out on the road and more inspiration comes and then I know we’ll feel obliged to make another record and that’s fine, but there is a part of me that thinks life is always going to be like this when you’re a musician. You’re going to be traveling the whole time, and although it’s great being able to see the world, it can sometimes mean that your life—your other life, your real life—is put on hold. And I don’t know if I want that anymore.
On a lighter note, Nerve.com recently voted you Number One in their Sexiest Man in Indie Rock article.
Kele: Mmm, brilliant. I mean, I guess it’s based on something that you can’t control, but it’s nice and flattering. Don’t worry: I’ve already instructed the rest of the band to make sure that that’s the only way they can address me: the Sexiest Man in Indie Rock.