29 Nov
Kele Okereke Dishes the Goods Over Chinese Broccoli

Bloc Party’s highly anticipated third long play, Intimacy, was released digitally in August almost overnight, with almost no publicity or announcement. Many thought it was to avoid leakage and piracy, but Bloc Party insist it was simply because they wanted to get their music out. Well, they dropped the physical CD out 2 weeks ago, with some bonus tracks. In our opinion the record is great — no, it’s no Silent Alarm, but it is a continuation of their sound strengthened by a generous amount of artistic growth. As usual, great songwriting enhanced by intricate and at-times stunning production flourishes courtesy of co-producers extraordinaire Garret “Jackknife” Lee and Paul Epworth, aka Phones.

We’re obviously fans here, and went to see them when they came around on their last tour — as well as stops in NYC. LIAS’s Santiago Winters linked up with singer and guitarist Kele Okereke over heaping dishes of Chinese food to discuss their recording process, the difficulties of living up to a worshipped debut, and the magic powers of broccoli…

Read entire Q&A after the Jump

On your last record, Weekend In the City, you mentioned that you wrote and recorded a couple tracks, including “The Prayer”, in the studio, and that you really enjoyed that process. Did you write more tracks that way this album?
Yeah. Half the record we wrote in the studio. The other half were songs we’d written throughout the year, and we just, you know, made them good. But half of it we wrote completely in the studio.

What’s the difference in the process — how does that work exactly? You guys are all plugged in and mic’d in the studio?
How it works is, we’ll have a really basic form of music, be it drum beat or a guitar riff or a chord sequence, and then we’ll work out the song with the four of us in the room playing. We’ll just record it straight onto the computer and then let the song evolve by adding programmed drums or synthesizers or stuff we’re not really used to doing. Also, it’s a different way for us to write songs because you can be as adventurous as you want that way.

How does the song develop?
With “Mercury”, that was just a drum beat that Matt [Tong], our drummer, actually had. He was playing this drum beat, we recorded it, then we changed it, programmed it, so it was a programmed beat on the record. And then, what happened was, just listening to the beat I had an idea for a horn line and we programmed a horn line in over this drum beat. And then I sang a vocal, and then Russell added some synthesizers. There wasn’t really any form to any of it; it was just one idea sparks up another idea sparks up another idea. And that’s how we did the songs. In some places I had a guitar riff—like “Biko”—and in some places I had a chord sequence—like “Signs”—but that was all. Russell would go away and write keyboard lines, and then we’d just add stuff on top of each other, and then before we knew it we had the basis of a song.

Will you guys go home separately and mull it over, spark a melody or bassline?

It tended to be, though, not us going away. It tended to be just us in front of a computer, reacting spontaneously to what we were hearing. I guess it was more an intuitive process, but I enjoyed it more that way than the other session.

Everybody is very musically talented in the band—I know even your drummer plays a lot of instruments. So is there ever the case of too many chefs in the kitchen, or do you guys click pretty smoothly?
I think we have an understanding of how we work now. A lot of mixing was done when other members weren’t there, actually. A lot of those songs, Matt and Gordon [Lissak] have come in and lay down their parts, and then Garret [Jacknife Lee], the producer, and I would sit down and edit things and put it together. Because I don’t think really it would work if all four of us sat around the computer just suggesting things. You’d kind of buckle. It’d be very hard to progress or to see an idea into fruition if everyone’s saying “You should be doing this.” So the others would play parts and go away, and I’d be sitting with it, stewing over it, trying to work out where it’s going, for the most part.

Is it fair to say, then, that you’re more of the composer than anybody, as far as you edit it more than anybody else?
Yeah, I guess so. The thing is, though, that was still essentially what we did for the first two records as well. The others would write stuff and I’d listen to it on my own and work out what I liked and what I didn’t like. It’s no real difference, it’s just that this way working is far more instinct because we’re recording to produce it rather than sitting with it in a rehearsal room for four weeks, working out what I like about it and what I don’t. That’s how we’ve always worked.

In reference to Weekend In The City, one of you guys said that it’s very hard to be judged by one record. You said by the third or fourth album, it’d be much clearer who Bloc Party is as an entity.
I didn’t say it—it was probably Matt. Matt’s quite wise like that.

My question is this: Do you agree with that statement?
I totally agree with that. Well no, I don’t totally agree with it, I agree with it to a certain extent in that he’s right, we are getting closer to who we are as a band for sure, but I think that by the fourth record, or even five or ten records down the line, there won’t be a definite sense of what we are as a band because that’s always changing. Records can only be a document of what you’re feeling at that specific time. Weekend in the City was a document of how I was feeling at the end of 2005 and the start of 2006. I was going out too much, partying too much, and I think that really bled into the record. But by the time the actual record was released in 2007, I wasn’t really in that space anymore, mentally, so it can be very hard to be enthusiastic about talking about it. For this record as well, it was definitely what I was feeling toward the end of last year, and that was really the main motivation in getting it out quickly—so that I wouldn’t have to be doing six months of press before the record came out, where I was already losing the will to live or something. I think a record is only a document of where you’re at. There isn’t a definitive record, I think.

Is there a general loose concept or theme to the new album?
I guess that’s for other people to decide, really. The title Intimacy came right at the end of the process. This time around, I intentionally didn’t want to rationalize my thoughts too much. I didn’t want to plan what I was going to say, I just wanted to write what I thought, what I get emotion from. And because of that, because there wasn’t any overview, a lot of the songs come from a very similar place, of what I was going through towards the end of last year. But that wasn’t intentional. If anything, I was trying not to do something like that.

You were consciously trying not to have a theme.
It kind of bummed me out in 2007 the way that people perceived Weekend In The City to be a concept record—it seemed, like, really removed. I was just fed up talking about it; it seemed really convoluted, so with this record I promised I wasn’t going to have any overview. I was just going to go in and write what I was feeling.

[Our plates of seared tuna with Chinese broccoli are brought to our table. Kele pokes the plate of food gingerly]

I love Chinese broccoli.
Yes, so do I. Although, the best part for you though is the dark part, and sometimes they remove that and they give you the stalks, and I hate that.

Is tuna a super food?

I think so. Yeah, absolutely. They say that fish oils are super-antioxidants.
Everyday I have a blueberry smoothie, because that’s a super food.

I also love wheatgrass.
Wheatgrass? Yeah, that’s not too popular in the U.K. No one really sells it.

The other one is Vitamin E.
Yeah but like, how do you get Vitamin E?

Pills, I guess. That’s how I get it.
Aren’t multi-vitamins a bit of a con, though?

Yeah, multi-vitamins cos they’re too much for your body to absorb. But I just take a pure Vitamin E pill because I’ve read a lot of anti-aging things about Vitamin E.
You shouldn’t be worrying about going old. I’m really excited about going gray and all that. I really am. I’ve got really small wrists, and I can’t wait to get man-sized wrists.

That’s your goal in 2009? Get some man-sized wrists?
Yeah. And to go gray. No, that isn’t my goal, but I’m not afraid of it.

Oh, I’m not afraid of aging either — however, I’ll eventually get there. If I can be fifty and still be at the health of a forty-year-old, great. Then when I’m sixty, I’ll be, you know, forty-five, and etc. If I can slow the process, I’m cool with that.
For guys, it’s kind of better when they get older. Actually, I should probably not say that.

Ok, so back to Intimacy. You purposely, consciously tried not to have a general, holistic concept. But a lot of the songs seem to be break-up songs. Is that accurate?
Some of them are, but you know, it’s not only moaning about a break-up. There’s lots of songs about falling in love, and lots of songs about being in love—it’s not all bad stuff. It would be boring to be writing the exact same song ten times, you know.

Well, even a break-up could happen in infinite ways.
Yeah, but there is some positivity. Songs that are supposed to make you feel positive about love.

Silent Alarm also had songs its fair share of break-up songs, like “This Modern Love” and “So Here We Are”. Do you find that you fluctuate between relationships?
It’s not that I fluctuate necessarily between relationships. I was in a very long relationship, longer than I’ve been in in the past, and it came to an end toward the end of 2007, and that was a difficult time for me because that’s the most constant thing that I’d had in my life for the past four years. One of my real wishes I guess in life…I do find it very hard to like…I’m really dismissive of things and people, and once I’ve formed an attachment with someone, once that goes, it’s a really difficult thing for me to deal with. And that’s definitely a recurring theme off the album, is songs about love ending. It’s something I find very difficult. It’s not easy to invest in people. Especially in the situation I’m in now, where I’m in a band, and I’m a recognizable face, I find it really hard to trust people.

And you’re also inundated with opportunity too, I suppose.
Yeah, but you know…

Is that fair to say?
I can’t really talk about that. I’ll get in trouble.

Take “Trojan Horse” [from Intimacy]—it’s pretty nostalgic, where you talk about looking into someone’s eyes and you know that something’s changed, something has ceased to exist. That pretty much nails it. It seems to be looking back at a relationship and there’s a real sadness…but more distinctly, a nostalgia about what once was.
Yes, that is correct. It’s a similar thing also with “Like Eating Glass”—that’s a song about a relationship ending—and also “Flux.” We wrote “Flux” at the end of last year.

Then how did you write “Like Eating Glass” if you were in a relationship when you were writing it…
Because you know, Silent Alarm wasn’t really at all autobiographical. There were some remnants inspired by true events, but that issue that I was talking about earlier about not being very good with relationships ending is something I’ve always had a problem with in my life, and it fascinates me and frightens me a little. I guess in “Like Eating Glass,” that’s just a fictional kind of divorce happening, but that’s not saying that I’m the son involved in it. But it is still an issue, obviously, that defines me a lot. I very rarely write autobiographically. For the most part, it’s an abstract idea that you try to communicate and present it in an understandable scenario. That’s for the most part how I write. You take aspects of your life and you embellish them. With this record, Intimacy, though, I feel I’ve been the most honest about things in my life that I’ve hardly ever been in lyric writing. That’s not to say that it’s better or worse, it’s just…

More personal.
Yeah, you know. The next record won’t be like that.

Is that a reference to the title, then? Is that the allusion of “intimacy”?
The title really came at the end of the process. We did all these songs about, these kind of odes — two-person conversations between lovers, or friends, or people who used to be lovers that now hate each other, or people that were in love. All these songs where someone else has been addressed as a form of affection, and the concept of intimacy just seemed to fit, really. Songs about intimacy, or songs about feeling close or removed from people.

I don’t know what it is particularly about your lyrics, but there is a sense that they’re very personal. Also, even if they’re abstractions of a certain way you’re feeling—for instance, you said A Weekend In The City was how you were feeling at that time and that each album is a personal document of where you’re at at that moment. So even if they are slightly fictional, there is a foundation that seems to be very personal.
I think it’s actually the idea of storytelling, isn’t it? That you can create a situation that people can relate to, that resonates with people, without necessarily having lived it. I’m just a storyteller, really, that’s all my job is as a lyricist. I’m trying to convey abstract ideas in a language people can understand. There’s been a real trend, certainly since the ’90’s, thinking things have to be earnestly real. Like how real is he? That people have to seem to be suffering for their art, but I don’t think so. It’s like writing a book or something, but it’s really about the strength of the idea, and at the end of the day it’s all language. Just because something seems emotional and earnest doesn’t mean it’s better. I don’t know what I’m trying to say. I think what I’m trying to say is, there is a skill in: can you be able to talk about emotional things without necessarily relapsing into your own experiences? There’s a skill in being able to talk about something that affects people. And I don’t know if I’m there yet, but that’s definitely somewhere I’d like to explore more, somewhere I’d like to persevere down. Because after all, it’s kind of arrogant, all these songs about “I, I, I, I…” It’s boring.

Who are some of the storytellers, it could be musical or literature or anything, who reflect what you’re saying?
David Bowie’s a prime example of someone who adopts a character, is constantly adopting characters, to tell stories rather than just writing about what he thinks the world is. He’s putting on a mask. I think that’s a very healthy thing as well, separating your personality from what it is that you do.

Having a voice, sort of.
But not necessarily being your voice. It’s like Beyoncé inventing alter-egos. She goes out and performs every night with this alter-ego, Sasha. And when she comes offstage, she’s Beyoncé again, and she’s a businesswoman. She’s not that crazy thing onstage.

You guys aren’t obviously Beyoncé-huge, but you are big enough where I suppose…
Big in the game?

We do all right. I have to keep reminding myself, actually, that as a twenty-six-year-old, this is a great thing to be doing. When you’re playing to thousands of people every night, that actually care about what you say, that’s a form of influence that not many of my friends have. People care about what it is you’re creating and you’re surviving at the end of the day off your own crazy impulses. You’re making a living off your imagination, and that’s a great thing. Not many people have that at all in life. It’s not something that lasts forever, but it’s a good thing to be doing as a young person, for sure.

On that note, how important do you think this album is for you guys and your legacy?
I don’t know. It’s our last album of our European record deal. So after we’ve made this record, we’re essentially an unsigned band.

Is that with Wichita?
Yeah, Wichita. So I don’t know. It’s going to be interesting. Gordon just had a baby, and everyone has a life outside of this. This will be interesting to work out what we’re going to do. In my mind, it kind of feels like a chapter’s ended. It feels like we’ve made three records that I’m really proud of, and now we’ve just got to go away and have to work out exactly what we want from this.

It’s by no means the end of Bloc Party, is it?
No, so long as we keep enjoying what we’re doing.

It seems, maybe going back to that earlier comment where Matt said that by the third or fourth record you guys would be more precise, or there’ll be a greater detail in the painting that is Bloc Party, it seems that this is a pretty integral album, because your first one was so well-received, but the second one was a bit trickier. It’s really interesting, because your second record last year was one of the best albums of 2007 and also one of the most disappointing. When we discussed it last year for Best of 2007, you guys were mentioned on both lists—by the same people. And I was one of them. I loved the record, but maybe people were expecting more hits, or more “Blue Light”, or expecting more something…?
The way I see it, this is the classic problem the contemporary bands have to deal with where they had really successful debut records and everyone’s talking about them everywhere at the same time, and there’s nowhere to necessarily go from that. Ever since The Strokes, there’s been a real trend of bands having a really hyped debut record, you know, “Yeah, Yeah, Strokes…”

Everybody. Interpol…
Franz Ferdinand, Interpol…

Arctic Monkeys.
Yeah, and then because there’s some other new band that everyone’s going crazy about, because you’ve got your Vampire Weekends or your MGMT’s every year, coming out for that year, no one really wants to see development. Admittedly, I don’t think a lot of those bands are very good. I think that with Weekend In The City, we caught a lot of backlash because our record was well-received the first time around, but well-received in a way that I don’t really think ever got what the record was supposed to be about. All the positive press I read about our first record, never once did I see anything that confirmed what I thought was good about what we did. It was all sort of vague praise. For me, I stopped reading all the reviews and stuff toward the middle of touring in the middle of 2005. It was weird, you were in a position where people were saying you were good, but they weren’t saying why you were good. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time and not necessarily people getting what it is you do. Silent Alarm, I think it’s a good record, I’m proud of it, but I can pick holes in it. I’m just pleased that we still have the hunger creatively to do things and to push ourselves in different directions, and if we didn’t have that we would just write the same record, and no one would really want that either.

It’s true. Older bands, like Soundgarden or Sublime, or even older acts like Def Leppard and The Police, they blew up on their third album. Bands were allowed to get big on their third and fourth record…
But that doesn’t seem to happen too much anymore, unless the band doesn’t get a lot of critical exposure.

I think labels drop them. I think that’s the problem.
I think with Kings of Leon, as an example—I don’t know how they’re perceived in the U.S., but they’re a band that got bigger and bigger and bigger in the UK, but that was because no one gave them much credence the first time around. They weren’t pushed in everyone’s faces, because there wasn’t that kind of overkill initially. People were allowed to feel that they were constantly going and there were new fans. I think it’s the double-edged sword, it really is.

It’s very rare, maybe Modest Mouse…There’s only very few bands that have recently been given the luxury of slowly growing. And when you’re finally discovered by somebody, you have a body of work to reference as opposed to one album, and you have more angles you can go on. But when you have one album, people are expecting one angle.
Yeah, but the good thing is though, we’ve sold just as many copies of A Weekend In The City as Silent Alarm, so I think people are still buying our records. It would be frightening if there was a drastic change in album sales. I think people still seem to care about us, even if they don’t necessarily hear a song, but they like us, they’ll trust that we can do something well.

So as the picture of Bloc Party becomes more defined, each album becomes more important or less important? Do you feel that this is a pivotal album in your career? You said it was a chapter closing. Is there any set of importance on this album, or is it just an album?
It’s just an album, as far as I’m concerned. I’m writing the fourth record in my head right now. It’s not make or break. We’re in a position now where we know how it works. We know that we’re not necessarily maybe as cool as we were in 2005, but I think the people that we matter to, we’ll matter to. And though the saying is that nobody really matters to anybody, I’d be happy knowing that there’s a core of people that trust what we do and who are responding to it internationally, that’s enough for me.

I think the fact that you guys are selling out everywhere, and you’re playing bigger and bigger venues, and you’re playing South America, that’s evidence of that, right?
It is. I guess it’s just the fact that people have responded to what it is we do…


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