Later this year, Bloc Party will return to Australia to play their debut album, Silent Alarm, in full. That febrile, nervy, agitated album released in 2005, still feels like every tense and uncertain 20something who just isn’t fitting in but isn’t sure they want to anyway.
Wind Back Wednesday returns to that year and an interview with frontman, singer and discomforted-in-chief Kele Okereke who was still dealing with, still reeling from, everything that lands on you when you make an album declared an instant classic of its time.
HE’S JUST KELE FROM THE BLOC
On the streets of “sunny Dallas” Kele Okereke has found if not peace then at least some escape. No one is calling his name from across the street or badgering him for a slice of his life, or a ticket to the next show.
Anonymity has been a rare commodity in the past year for the singer and principal songwriter of Bloc Party. The 23-year-old from South London has been feted, as only the next big thing can be in the music press, but also it seems is fated to be seen as some spokesman for intense, agitated loners.
You get that when the first song on your debut album begins with “It's so cold in this house/Open mouth swallowing us/The children sent home from school/Will not stop crying.” It is the kind of gloomy but vaguely poetic lines beloved of intense, agitated loners who know the world would be against them if it gave a toss about them at all.
You get that too when your music incorporates the tightly wound edginess and dark end of the disco rhythms of laugh-a-minute types such as Joy Division and Gang Of Four. We’re not talking someone hanging upside down above the stage and bellowing “let me entertain you” here.
Given the strong sales worldwide of the Bloc Party album, Silent Alarm and the rapid sale of tickets for shows such as their Sydney gig at the Metro, you could say that misery likes company except for the fact that these jerky, danceable and outright hummable songs are anything but miserable. And nor is Kele – pronounced Kelly – Okereke.
He’s even chuckling as he answers the phone on the hot, sun-bleached Dallas street and ponders the first question: are you taking a break from saving the world, being the future of rock and probably even finding the cure for male pattern baldness.
“I think there is no rest for the wicked. My job is a 24-hour job,” he chuckles. “It’s not a job it’s a responsibility, it’s my life.”
Still, even if he isn’t miserable, it’s clear that Okereke is pretty intense. His photos always find him stern, his political stance remains resolute (George W Bush doesn’t fare well in several songs on Silent Alarm, in song Okereke declaring “he's born a liar, he'll die a liar/Some things will never be different … just like his Dad, the same mistakes”).
And rather than enjoying his moment in the sun, and not just in Dallas, he’s trying to get past the hype and lavish praise so he can worry about the next album he will make with drummer Matt Tong, guitarist Russell Lissack and bass player Gordon Moakes.
“I don’t really take [the hype] seriously. There’s no point,” Okereke says. “My job is to produce music. Same as the praise, it’s nice to get it but if that’s why you’re doing it you’re wasting your time. Of course it’s nice to know that it’s affecting people but really I can’t let myself dwell on that. I’ve got to make a second album which has to be better. I don’t think we’ve made our best album yet.”
There’s no way to express it in print and you certainly can’t hear it when he sings but Okereke has a quite pronounced stutter. It’s not commented on – what are you or he supposed to say anyway? – but it does play at the back of your mind as you imagine the teenage Okereke. If you think being the strange kid or the black kid or the kid with a question mark over his sexuality is hard, add to that the inevitable cruelty accompanying being the stuttering kid.
It makes it understandable then to see Okereke being quoted in a recent British magazine article saying he wanted to show you can empower yourself as a loner, to be the example for others that Radiohead and Suede were for him as a teenager.
“I didn’t actually say that in the interview. A lot of things in that were made up,” objects Okereke politely. “I never said I wanted to empower loners. I never said I wanted to form some sub cultures.”
I explain that to him that I read his quote as essentially saying he wanted to show it’s not the end of the story if you’re a loner. And that it isn’t merely a matter of proving yourself by selling 20 million albums.
“I think you’re right, that’s something in that in what I was saying,” he says. “Of course, it’s not about selling 20 million records. If we wanted to sell 20 million records we wouldn’t sound like the band we are. It’s easy to sound like stadium rock for accountants and people who work in banks. It would be completely the most unfulfilling thing for so for me it’s about making records that touch people in the way OK Computer touched people or the way Nirvana touched people. With the way music is digested now in the world it is an afterthought and no one takes it seriously any more. The way I used to listen to things obsessively knowing the words to every song, the days of that sort of thing have gone.
“I find it quite sad and there’ll never be a band like the Smiths now, inspiring complete devotion, that there’ll never be something subversive with so much apolitical punk music now. And I think people are sad and nostalgic and it’s why they relate to us in a way, we have a depth a seriousness missing from a lot of music.”
While he may be right generally this seems overly pessimistic for someone who has the evidence in his own fans to suggest there are still plenty of people for whom a band can matter.
“I think you’re right, I get a lot of emails from teenagers offering their own interpretations of songs which suggest they have walked away with an understanding or a willingness to delve into it. And that’s inspiring,” Okereke says. “Hopefully we move people in a real way, not in a one album to buy this week and then move on way.”
One of these interpretations, made not just by teenage fans but by many critics, is of a barely hidden anger in the Bloc Party songs. The frantic energy, the tense delivery and coiled spring of songs such as Like Eating Glass, suggest aggression being unleashed. But it’s just as likely that instead of aggression, this nervy approach suggests vulnerability. The vulnerability of the outsider.
“I think that’s pretty fair,” says Okereke. “I think a lot of the energy and the anger and the intensity came through in songs which were written years ago when were just starting to play. There are other emotions coming through. The anger that a lot of people see I see as focus, an urgency. Maybe there isn’t the clarity but that’s where my head was at as a 20-year-old confused about the world and looking at the world for the first time.
“At the beginning of the year there was so much talk about us being the next Franz Ferdinand, us being some widespread blanket pop band but I knew we were making something far darker, more brooding than that. It probably disappointed a lot of people who came expecting a pop album but the people who buy those sorts of records don’t want the hard work, don’t want to be confronted with realities.”
He laughs now and, possibly remembering that not only were some of those Franz Ferdinand fans the same people who bought Silent Alarm but Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos was an early fan of Bloc Party who invited them on tour as a support act, Oberke adds a little sheepishly: “I probably shouldn’t say that as I’ll probably get into trouble.”
But he won’t let the point go.
“I think we produced a very dark contemplative album, not the next disco pop record.”
Bloc Party playing Silent Alarm will be at Red Hill Ampitheatre, Perth, November 24; Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne, November 27; Hordern Pavilion, Sydney, November 30; Riverstage, Brisbane, December 1.