Bloc Party and the Fourth Estate

Published August 23, 2012

ABOVE: KELE OKEREKE (FAR RIGHT) WITH HIS BLOC PARTY BANDMATES

For the first time in his career, Kele Okereke looks like he might be having a bit of fun. Whether purposely misleading the press (“I hope I haven’t been fired,” Okereke told NME late last year) or simply grinning behind the camera (compare the cool stoicism of 2005 breakthrough “Banquet” to the playful lunacy of 2012’s “Octopus“), the Bloc Party frontman has never looked happier.

Four, out this week courtesy of Frenchkiss, is a brazenly uneven and altogether stunning exercise. Forgoing the weighty self-seriousness that characterized previous releases (2007’s Weekend in the City and 2008’s Intimacy, respectively), Okereke plays the part of revisionist historian, singing with newfound confidence as though those two records had never happened. “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,” writes Okereke from his personal blog.

Interview recently caught up with Okereke following a performance at the Vieilles Charrues music festival in Carhaix, France, where we discuss pet goats, the differences between Project Runway and Jersey Shore, Philip K. Dick, a Bohemian existence in New York, brownies, and banjos.

JOHN TAYLOR: Where are you right now, Kele?

KELE OKEREKE: I’m in France. I’m at some festival, backstage in my tour bus. Looking at a gray sky. Where are you?

TAYLOR: I’m in Chicago, looking at a gray sky as well.

OKEREKE: [laughs] Awesome.

TAYLOR: I noticed that the song “V.A.L.I.S.” is a reference to the Phillip K. Dick book of the same name, and you had mentioned the book previously on your Twitter account. What led you to write a song about it?

OKEREKE: I had started writing a song about a conversation I was having with a future version of myself—it was originally called “The Other Me,” and then I started to read VALIS after having read The Man in the High Castle. I loved VALIS immediately. I loved the unreliable nature of the narrative. When the main character got a message from himself, from the future, the whole thing suddenly struck me as being incredibly resonant. So, I thought I should really try and pay some sort of homage to the book. Philip K. Dick was a visionary, prophetic writer. [pauses] Can you hear me well?

TAYLOR: I can… it may be that I have a bit of a cold. Have you ever had to do an interview while sick?

OKEREKE: Yeah, I have done interviews while sick. I once did an interview with my head in a neck brace. I was recovering from a road traffic accident, and I was in hospital. I still did the interview, and the journalist had no idea. It was great. I’m a real professional.

TAYLOR: [laughs] I saw an interview where you recalled meeting producer XXXchange, who helped you out with recording your solo record, The Boxer. The traffic accident you were mentioning, is this the same one where you accidentally ran over him [XXXchange] by bike? Or was this a different accident?

OKEREKE: No, that was something else. Wow, you have done your research, haven’t you? [laughs] I’m going to have to have my wits about me today.

TAYLOR: I probably won’t be able to keep up with you, then. I’m still adjusting to the big city—I grew up on a farm.

OKEREKE: Oh, really? Did you have livestock?

TAYLOR: I did, I actually had a pet goat at one point.

OKEREKE: Me too! I mean, it wasn’t a pet, but my parents in the village where they’re from in Nigeria, they had animals. They had goats, and chickens, and whatnot. And I had a pet goat. But they killed him and they ate him. It’s a sad story. Did you kill and did you eat your pet goat?

TAYLOR: [laughs] I didn’t.

OKEREKE: [pauses] Sorry about that. I just got a call coming through to do an interview and I was like, “I’m already doing an interview. Jesus.” I can’t do two interviews at once. That would be very disrespectful.

TAYLOR: You didn’t have to hang up! I once did an interview, and there were four other people on the line.

OKEREKE: It must have been fun being the third wheel.

TAYLOR: I did have fun. There was a Project Runway judge on the line.

OKEREKE: Was it Tim Gunn? I like Tim Gunn. I watched the last season of Project Runway quite religiously. I watched every episode. I think Project Runway is my favorite reality television show; at least they’re making something. They’re not sitting around in a house, fighting, and having sex. And being obnoxious. I like culinary shows as well. They’re quite nice.

TAYLOR: They’re certainly more thoughtful than Jersey Shore, for sure.

OKEREKE: We have a similar television show in the U.K., and it’s the same thing. A bunch of people from a part of the UK that everyone thinks is just kind of trashy, just acting in a super trashy way. I think those sorts of shows are gross, but you know, if that’s the cultural barometer at the moment, then maybe it’s good to know about it. Maybe it’s good to know that this is what passes for entertainment at the moment. Because you wonder what’s coming next. When do you reckon we’re going to get running live execution television? Because that has to be around the corner.

I have this theory, because I was in the States last year, and every single time I walked into a bar, they seemed to be playing Ultimate Fighting. Which, I probably think is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. But, I have this theory that, one of these days, somebody is going to die live on television on one of those shows, and it’s going to become the most watched thing ever. And when that happens, I think the floodgates will be opened to have live executions on television. Well, not like live executions, but shows where there is the possibility of a fatality. I think that’s just around the corner. And when that happens, we’ve done it. We’ve officially regressed to Roman times.

TAYLOR: I was meaning to ask you, how long ago were you in New York? I heard you just moved back to the UK.

OKEREKE: I was in New York from April 2010 to April 2011. So yes, a few months I’ve been in the UK.

TAYLOR: Did you enjoy your time in New York?

OKEREKE: Yes. It was quite an interesting experience for me, I was there. I was writing. I wasn’t doing much. I was trying to finish a short story I had been writing called “Midnight on a Bicycle. I had been writing for the last three years, and I thought I needed to go somewhere else, to have no distractions. Or to have a different set of distractions than the distractions I had in London. So, how was it? Well, my time there was interesting. I was living in a kind of bubble. I was just setting up, walking around, eating. Writing, speaking to new people… it was quite a Bohemian existence. But everybody that I met there in New York seemed to be super, super stressed, because they were working so hard just to get by.

I didn’t really realize how brutal New York can be in terms of work. Everybody is working as hard as they can, 24 hours a day, and they all have this fear that if they don’t work hard, somebody else is going to come up from behind them and take what they have. I was forever meeting neurotic people, and neurotic, stressed-out people. I think it might just be because of Manhattan. I don’t know if it’s different in the different boroughs. But it was an interesting experience for me. I was having the most relaxed time of my life, in a city where everybody was completely stressed out the whole time. It was an interesting period in my life.

TAYLOR: I saw that you had posted about cheese on your Twitter account, specifically Jarlsberg. Did you have the opportunity to try some good cheese while in New York?

OKEREKE: I’m not really a big cheese fan. I got into Jarlsberg because my best friend from high school was a fan, but for the most part I have to avoid dairy. However, whilst I was in New York, I did really get into eating brownies. I liked that place called Fat Witch Bakery in the Chelsea Market. My favorite was the butterscotch brownie.

TAYLOR: How have you changed in the four years since the last Bloc record?

OKEREKE: I think in those four years off, making a record by myself challenged the notions of what I was about as a singer, songwriter, musician, and creative force. I learnt so much from working with XXXchange that I really can’t even relate to that period before I met him anymore. Also, I turned 30 last year. I know it’s a cliché, but I felt a lot of things kind of fell into place that year.

TAYLOR: Talk to me about “3×3.” It sounds a bit, if I had to describe it, “gothic.” I’ve never heard you sing that way before!

OKEREKE: “3×3” is probably the most intense song I have ever sung. It’s interesting you say gothic – to me, the song is a spell, or more correctly, an incantation. The song is really about black magic and making a pact with someone. Continually making records is only really interesting if you are forced to challenge yourself – challenge notions of what you are supposed [to be] about. I see this record as being a reaction to the past, but I see every record that we had made as being a reaction to our previous records. I’m excited about where Bloc Party go from here. If we make a fifth record, I can guarantee it will be nothing like Four.

TAYLOR: Describe Four in four words.

OKEREKE: Violent. Dense. Beautiful. Tender.

TAYLOR: Before I forget, I wanted to confirm something about the new record – I was listening to it last night, and I believe I heard a banjo.

OKEREKE: Yeah, there’s a banjo on “Real Talk,” one of the songs on the record. Unbeknownst to me, in our hiatus, [guitarist] Russel [Lissack] had been practicing his skills on the banjo, and he’s really good at it. He was really itching to put some banjo on the record. I was initially resistant to the idea. I didn’t want the record to be seen as some sort of like, country-hick music. But he played it quite masterfully and quite subtly. It’s a super faint trace. And now, I really like it. It made me realize that, you know, in a collaborative process, you’re not always going to see eye to eye about things. But it’s important that everyone gets an opportunity to speak their minds, and to do their thing. So yeah, there is a banjo on the record. And, there might be more . . . in other places. [laughs]

FOUR IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON BLOC PARTY, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.