Bloc Party on ‘Alpha Games’: “We wanted to go back to a rawness and an honesty”
Bloc Party have continually evolved as a group from release to release. With their latest album, Alpha Games, featuring Kele Okereke (vocals/guitar), Russell Lissack (guitar), Justin Harris (bass) and Louise Bartle (drums), the band arrive at something unique in their catalog. That’s no surprise. Okereke has never followed a carefully mapped trajectory, rather responding to where he is at come the end of a given project.
As a result, his own output is varied, from albums that capture Bloc Party’s distinctive sound, rooted in angular riffs and propulsive rhythms, to expressive solo records and even a musical. The latest result of the evolutionary process, Alpha Games brings a distinctive warmth and sincerity to the band’s sound. Even so, the record never loses sight of the signature sound and energy that makes the band so unique. As much as it might feel like the result of a grand plan, the record came about from four musicians meeting each other in the middle.
What were you trying to do musically and artistically with this project?
KELE OKEREKE: There wasn’t really so much of a concise overview whilst making the record. The only real guiding principle was fired up by the energy from those Silent Alarm shows. We felt we wanted something that had some kind of energy to it. With our previous record Hymns, Russell [Lissack] and I had made that record on our own in the studio. It was a very “studio” experience. We knew that this time around, we didn’t really want that.
It’s sonically very different from Hymns. I’ve read a few things suggesting you’re getting back to your post-punk roots.
For us, it was really about taking everything that we knew and had learned over the years that we’ve been making records and just trying to make something that was the perfect synthesis of what we were as a band, what we enjoy naturally. There were some edgier, Wire-y moments, but there are also some moments that we’ve not really explored before. I think people will see that when they hear the record.
I definitely hear elements of post-punk and early Bloc Party, but the thing I think is really interesting about this project is the trajectory across it. There are a lot of songs that are softer, warmer. It really flows in a unique way. I was curious about that aspect of the album.
What you were saying about familiar sounds, there’s definitely kind of a jagged edge in places to the music, which to us felt quite exciting because it was not really something that we allowed ourselves to explore for a while. What you were saying about the openness and the warmth, I think that really comes from the players. It comes from Justin [Harris] and Louise [Bartle]’s musicianship. It’s the first record that we’ve made with Justin and Louise.
I just kept noticing little things in the way that Justin played. He has a much looser, open, groovier feel as a bass player than our previous bass player. I personally noticed things swinging a bit more than they had in the past. That was exciting to me. The same with Louise — she’s such an incredible musician. She’s inventive, but she also has a precision that I don’t think we’ve had in the past with our previous drummer. So it was exciting to me just to see those little nuances in their playing.
I’m glad you mentioned the groove aspect. It’s something I hear across your whole catalog, but it really pops on this record. When I think about textbook post-punk, a lot of it is very anti-rhythmic, undermining or contorting the body in some respects. But your music is always saturated with groove. You do have these musical disruptions, especially at the end of riffs or phrases. It feels like it’s running off the rails a bit. But then it just hops right back into the groove.
It’s hard because Bloc Party is a collaboration; it’s everyone bringing their ideas and their playing and their musicianship to the table. We all like different things. Our attitude to composing is we all find a space that we can exist [in] together. Sometimes that can be sweet and melodic, and sometimes it can be dark and distant. I don’t feel wholly responsible for where the songs veer to. It’s really based on just this suspension, this balance between four different ways of doing things, four different musical perspectives. When it works well and it sits together, it’s really exciting, and I was reminded about that, letting everybody do their thing and seeing where it ends up.
What else was different about this project?
One of the things that was interesting for me, that I hadn’t really spoken about at all, when we were talking about the sound of the record and how it [was] feeling familiar, but also different, was definitely Louise’s voice. Hearing a female voice in the mix was something that I’d never really experienced in Bloc Party. It’s probably best heard on “If We Get Caught.” I really liked how all the voices worked together, and it’s something I’d love to do more of. I’m already having ideas about where we can go next with that.
How did that process of writing go for the band?
This record had quite an interesting, long gestation period. We started writing it in 2018 after we came off the road for Hymns. We’d have short sessions where we generate material and tweak things, but because our bass player Justin was in the States, we couldn’t get together that much. So we would just send initial ideas to each other, but it wasn’t really until we started doing the Silent Alarm shows that we started sound-checking the ideas and working them through that they started to take a shape.
With this record, it was about the energy the four of us could make. The record we made prior was a very “studio” experience, where you’re only really limited by your imagination, whereas this time it was very much about, “What can we do just between the four of us without taking it to a bigger place?” I think the last time we had that sort of experience of us all just being in a room together making the record was probably when we were making Four.
How much did you think about the studio experience vs. playing the music live when you made the record?
When we first started, we had a very different idea about what recording would entail and how that would bleed into the writing process. With our first album, everything was worked out prior to us even getting in a studio. We were quite famously resistant to the idea of making things bigger and taking advantage of the studio setting with that first record. It was a battle with our producer at the time. Subsequently, I personally have really enjoyed embracing the possibilities that the studio can bring to the writing process. With our earlier records, there was definitely that sense of exploration.
With A Weekend In The City and Intimacy, things got bigger. The sound of what we were doing became a bit more studio reliant. We went back against that with Four, and it was very much about the sound of us. But with Hymns, it was something that we were again exploring. Each record has been a different process, a different way of using the technology. But with this record, there was a sense that we wanted to go back to a rawness and an honesty.
At the same token, the way that we’re perceiving it is just what this record needs to be. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the next record has to follow down this path because we’re all fans of a wide range of music and musical styles. I feel like anything’s on the table, really. What’s going to serve the songs best? What’s going to serve the record best? I think it was important that this felt quite contained. It isn’t necessarily where we’ll go next.
The other factor that is interesting, given what we’re talking about with the band’s development, is your solo work. You’ve made a lot of different music in the last few years, from your most recent solo record to Hymns to writing a musical. Do you think of it similarly, like, “I just make what I want to make”? Or is it, “Here is something I can’t do with Bloc Party”?
I feel that the only constant when making records for me is the sense that as soon as I finish a record, I start thinking about the next one. It’s not premeditated, but it’s a process in [which] you switch off when you finish your records, and then you gradually get excited by things as you start living your life again, thinking about other things and having space in your life for other things. That informs where you’re going.
I feel very lucky that, as well as a career with Bloc Party, I’m able to make records by myself and take my own ideas as far as I want to take them, as opposed to working with other people and collaborating and such. I get to experience two different types of creativity. I get to collaborate with people, but I also get to be quite singular with my own personal projects. I see now that that has been a real godsend in terms of my creativity and being able to still feel inspired. It’s just great because it always feels like you have something that you are compelled to do. I think with my own set of records, I’ve started this conversation that is solely my own.
How do you characterize those two different processes, of working collaboratively vs. solo? Do you see challenges or advantages to either or something at least that is peculiar to each?
I’m very lucky that I’m in the band that I’m in. I’m still constantly inspired by watching the musicians that I’m in a room with. I’m still learning from them in the way that we’re all learning from each other. I feel quite blessed to know that. Russell and I started the band. It was just the two of us, and there’s so much shared musical history between us. If I talk about a guitar delayed sound on a Trail Of Dead record or from a movie that we liked when we were teenagers, he’ll know what I’m talking about.
That history has endured throughout the years. I feel very safe making music with him, and I always have fun. At the same time, I’m aware that there are other things that I like to explore, and it’s not necessarily music that fits in the world of Bloc Party. I think it’s important to let Bloc Party be what Bloc Party is.
I’ve been doing a lot of sessions recently, working with lots of young musicians and people that I wouldn’t musically immediately come into contact with — pop singers, rappers. It’s been fascinating going in cold and being aware of a completely spontaneous energy and trying to harness that. It’s been a thrill to have those sorts of experiences as well because you’re constantly kept on your toes. I think that’s important for creativity, to feel like you’re slightly out of your depth because it’s exciting. It pushes you into different places.
I wanted to ask about a few particular songs. “Traps” jumps out to me. It has a really dense sound. I’d say it’s the most “rock” song on the release to my ears. It’s heavier, less jagged. Very unique in its own right.
“Traps” was one of the first ones that we were writing that excited us. We knew we had something, and it just had this insistent feel. It’s been interesting seeing some people react to the directness of the lyrical content and being slightly weirded out because I’m never really someone that’s sung directly about desire. I think the perspective in the song, to me, feels kind of creepy, but that was the point.
If people are grossed out by it, I feel like that was the point; this song [is] about a quite sinister seduction and the stealing of someone’s innocence. That was what I wanted to get across in the song. This song is ostensibly about desire, but also about something a little darker because that was the core of what I wanted the record to feel like, this sense of underlying menace. In terms of the sound of the song, I don’t know what we were thinking. In my mind, it feels like something off Bleach or something [where] we were going for that twisted, fast energy. Obviously, it ended up somewhere else, but it felt to me like that was the intention, something relentless.
One of the songs I was thinking of as open and warm is “Of Things Yet To Come.” That represents the other pole of the record for me.
It’s a very beautiful moment. It still feels like it’s a sad moment. Lyrically, I guess it’s about regret on some level. We wanted the record to feel up, or to have this momentum. We were conscious about songs that brought that down, and this is the only song that we included on the record that has that kind of reflective energy. It’s such a beautiful song, and I think the central theme of regret is something that still works in the context of the album.
The last one I wanted to ask about is “Sex Magik.” You said it was your favorite song on the record. I was curious why.
When I say it was my favorite, I just remember when we were recording it. Every single time I would hear it whilst we were tracking it, I just felt that it had this hypnotic energy that I didn’t get tired of at all. It’s hard when I say favorite because all the tracks are your favorite at some point, but that’s the one [where] I just remember being completely hypnotized by the rhythm. It’s hard talking about this song because it came from a memory that I had completely forgotten about; it resurfaced a few years ago. Looking back on it, I realize that there are parts of that experience that I wasn’t so reconciled to, you know? Without being too literal, I feel there is a sense of innocence being stolen. I think that’s maybe why it resonated with me whilst making the record, really.
This interview appeared in issue 405, available here.