Like many in the United Kingdom, Bloc Party frontman Kele Okereke says he was in “utter disbelief” when he heard the results of Brexit, a recent referendum where the British voted to leave the European Union. Critics have said the decision was tied to growing xenophobic sentiments in the U.K., and the vote has already had dire economic consequences, including the British pound falling to its lowest level in decades.
“It was quite a heartbreaking day,” Okereke said in a phone interview with City Paper. “My initial reaction was quickly followed by a sense of panic about what was actually going to happen; we still don’t really know. It’s been discussed every day, but I feel like in a very short time, the entire status of British politics has changed, and no one really seems to know what’s coming next.”
Bloc Party has been a staple of English indie rock for nearly two decades. At the peak of its fame in the mid-2000s, the band’s brand of frenetic angst appealed to teens and twentysomethings. Today, a few hiatuses and several different band members later, Okereke says he hopes Bloc Party provides an escape from all of the outside noise and unrest around the globe.
“I think we definitely are living in a very charged time. It seems like there’s conflict and discord happening all over the world, and with that as a backdrop, it’s hard not to be affected. I feel that,” says Okereke. “I’ve written in the past about the current social mood, but I also feel there are certain records that we’ve made that have been an attempt to shut all that stuff out and express what’s happening internally.”
Internal examination and spiritual reflection are noticeable themes of Bloc Party’s new album Hymns, released this past June.
“Hymns is a very different album in terms of the mood,” says Okereke. “We really wanted to capture something that had a sense of stillness about it, whereas in the past, lots of our records have been about expending energy. This is the first time we wanted to make something that felt gentle. So, to me, it feels like a very different record, but it’s still us.”
On the new album, Okereke and lead guitarist Russell Lissack are joined by new band members Justin Harris (bass guitar, keyboards, saxophones, backing vocals) and Louise Bartle (drums).
“This is the first record that we’ve made with our new lineup,” says Okereke. “It was a very interesting process making this album because on one hand, it felt very familiar, but on the other hand, it felt completely new. So it’s been fun learning how to be a band, and listen to each other, and experiencing all of that stuff again. It’s been fun getting a new perspective on things.”
It’s clear Hymns is an evolution. With titles like “Only He Can Heal Me” and “The Good News,” the album is dealing with some different themes than Bloc Party’s previous offerings. Other songs like “Different Drugs” — which Okereke says is his favorite song to play live right now — are more familiar, with lyrics like “I’m tryna broach the distance / That’s growing in our lives / From the night until the morning / Like we’re on different drugs.”
“We started the band in our 20s, a very formative sort of time. I feel that we’ve evolved as human beings as much as we have as musicians. It feels like we’re in different places in our lives now than we were when we started the band, and I think our music reflects that,” says Okereke. “I think, over the course of your life, the things that inspire you don’t really change that much, but as an artist, you find different ways of expressing them. I’ve always personally written about what’s been going on in my head and in my life. All the records we’ve made, to me they feel like documents of where I was as a human being at the time of the making of that record. When I think of each of our records, they take me back to a certain place: I can remember the conversations I was having, and the music that was inspiring me, and where I was in the world.”
Right now, Okereke says he’s been kind of removed from music coming out from other artists. Instead, he’s been listening to older records, like the vocal group The Ink Spots and 1990s musician Elliot Smith.
“I have absolutely no idea what is going to inspire me next,” says Okereke. “But that’s kind of the joy of making music, making records and making art. It’s the challenge and not knowing what’s going to come next that’s thrilling in the process. There isn’t a prescribed formula when it comes to making music.
“You just have to be open and responsive to what’s happening in the universe and what’s happening in your life.”