The Bloc Party frontman shared his stories about meeting Vanilla Ice while wasted, working with Olly Alexander and his impending graphic novel
Thank you very much for letting me into your comment section! I hope it was as much fun for you as it was for me. Peace out bitches!
A lot of Bloc Party’s older catalogue consist of songs of protest. With George W Bush, music formed part of an effective and pervasive counter-culture, but against Trump no level of artistic rejection or cultural disdain seems to have any effect. Has music lost its protest power?
I don’t know. I hope it hasn’t. I’m angry. And I’m still angry six months into the Trump administration. It’s odd with me because Fatherland was recorded in the summer of 2016, so although there were rumblings on the horizon I didn’t think that we would be in this position. I didn’t think he would actually become president. So it feels slightly odd to release Fatherland now because the vibe is quite chilled, but I don’t feel chilled. I feel the opposite of chilled. What I’m working on now is going to very much express that anger.
A Weekend in the City is my favourite Bloc Party album, I felt it really captured the disconnect one can feel being an ethnic minority in London: the feeling of walking between two worlds but belonging to neither truly. Do you feel this is still true today?
I feel this is still true and worse now. With A Weekend In The City, I think a lot of people were down on that record at the time because they thought it was super critical. But I feel that the perspectives on that album have more than been validated recently in the last few years. I was very worried as a young person about the West lurching to the right. And I think it has quite spectacularly in the last few years. It still makes me sad when I think of where we are right now but I am hopeful that this period is the end of something rather than the start of something. I hope people will come together to carve out a new way and a new path. That’s what I really, really hope happens.
Has the music scene changed for the better? I don’t know so much about the current scene, I live in a bit of a bubble. I have my corner of the world and I’m allowed to do what I want to do. I don’t go to gigs much anymore. If I go out it’s mainly to clubs where you’re surrounded by people who look and think like you. So I couldn’t say what the boardrooms of labels look like – the ethnic make up of the people who make decisions about who to promote. I imagine it’s still very much a white boys club. It definitely felt like that at the start of our career and I imagine not much has changed but I might be wrong.
How do you feel about foie gras these days?
I’ve never been a fan of it at all. Not the taste and not the process. So I don’t know how it ended up in the song.
Scott McLennan asks:
After a solo DJ set, you once danced onstage during a Vanilla Ice performance at an Australian music festival. Surely this would have to be one of the most surreal interactions you’ve had with a fellow “artist”, but do you have any stories to top it?
You know what, it’s funny you’re asking me this. We’re moving house at the moment and I’m putting all my life into boxes at the moment. I came across this picture of myself with my best friend and Vanilla Ice. I can’t remember the experience I was so, so wasted at the time. But I do remember somebody filmed it and that’s the only reason I know it happened.
Do you have a party trick?
When I get drunk I feel like I can do quite good impressions. But only when I’m drunk. Am I better at them when I’m drunk? It’s more that I think I am. It’s not famous people I impersonate, more people that I know.
Do you prefer building sandcastles or snowmen?
Sandcastles. Because I’m not really a big fan of snow. In fact I hate the cold. Whereas sandcastles are made at the beach and it’s likely to be warm. That’s a more pleasurable environment for me.
Have you spoken to Eddie Argos since the incident in Catch?
I haven’t spoken to him since the “incident” [they once had a fight in a Shoreditch bar] but I saw him at an awards ceremony in Germany. He was presenting an award to someone and I won an award for something. Sadly he wasn’t presenting it to me – that would have been amusing. But I don’t wish him any ill will. I’m surprised he’s still alive actually.
How do you go about writing lyrics? Having read that a lot of your early Bloc Party lyrics were inspired by how you felt in the years after university it would be interesting to see how you managed to transfer those thoughts to paper.
It’s changed over the years. With every album it’s different – certainly for the first three Bloc Party albums we made I used to have pages and pages of notepads filled with lyrics. And when we were writing music I would find lyrics and try to shoehorn them into the musical structures. Over the years I’ve started to feel dissatisfied with that process. Nothing would really scan properly. So when I started making solo records with the Boxer I took a different approach. I started to have a much freer approach. Just using initially little phrases and then writing the songs around that rather than trying to shoehorn ideas into these musical structures. I found that rewarding, and it kind of evolved through the years. It’s my preferred way of writing now – to let the music dictate how the song is going to work. I have a notepad on my phone so whenever I have a lyrical phrase I write it down so I don’t forget it. Whenever I’m writing a song I bring the notepad up and see if there’s anything on there that will work. There’s an element of spontaneity.
Do you remember your first guitar?
Yes I do remember it. I bought it from the music shop on High Street North in East Ham where I lived with my parents. I think it’s a chicken shop now. But yeah, it cost £80 and it wasn’t like a fancy guitar in the slightest. I knew nothing about guitars. I just liked the colour – it was sleek and black and had a red scratch plate. That was the first one I bought but it wasn’t very good. I think it was a Yamaha … an Argos catalogue guitar.
Why did you choose this particular music style to express your feelings on fatherhood?
I think it was a combination of things. After making my last solo album Trick I spent a lot of time in clubs, DJing and playing electronic music in very sweaty packed spaces. It was incredibly enjoyable connecting with people on that level but there was a point where I started to miss the intimacy of just performing by myself. I was starting to miss the guitar. You have to be careful with dance music because you can start to think it’s the only way to make music. The style came to me when I thought it would be nice to make an album full of lullabies for my daughter. That was really how the album started – I wanted everything to just be my guitar and a voice. As the project went on it got bigger, I worked with other musicians. But I wanted to make songs that I could sing to her easily.
What is your stance on #GrimeForCorbyn and are you supportive or sceptical of Corbyn’s ability to enthuse the younger generation behind a progressive political agenda?
I’m definitely not sceptical. I’m definitely pro-Corbyn. When the right wing newspapers kept saying they felt he was unelectable I remember feeling frustrated because it felt like they were shaping the narrative for their own ends. Look at how they destroyed Ed Miliband. It’s not right. So it feels incredibly validating that Corbyn has resonated so strongly with the youth. Because young people are the future. He’s clearly in it for the right reasons. I’ve become used to ignoring or viewing what the media says with a form of scepticism. Did music make a difference? I’m not so sure. That kind of thing, of course I see the appeal but I’m also reminded of when someone like Tony Blair met with Britpop musicians in the 90s just for cool points, so I’m somewhat sceptical of that as well. It feels like every image these days that we see has an element of spin about it so I’m still wary of those sorts of things. But I feel it’s good, ultimately, if it encourages discussion and debate.
What was it like working with Olly Alexander on the new album?
Great. I feel very lucky I was able to work with him because I’d been a fan of his band and him really for a very long time. I remember reading something that he wrote about the use of pronouns in pop music for gay artists that I thought that was very perceptive and intelligent – just that the use of pronouns was the last frontier for gay artists. There are lots of gay acts that avoid using the term he when singing about same sex desire. It will just be a neutral term, whereas Olly understands from what I read that there is a long way to go for gay musicians in being able to describe love and desire authentically. So I was very happy to sing a romantic duet with him on my album, because I couldn’t think of a precedent of any out gay musicians singing a love song to one another without having to hide behind codes. It was nice to put that all out there.
What are the differences in making music 10 years ago and now?
This is probably a question about the mechanics of the industry and whatnot but I feel that I can’t really answer it. I can only really speak about my particular journey and as a creative person and because we were lucky at the start of our career, to have an element of success, we’ve never struggled to make records. The only struggles we’ve had is the personal struggle that any artist has. I feel that the music I’m making now is different to the music I was making ten years ago, but that’s to be expected.
The new album is called Fatherland. I guess that this reflects two “themes” that influenced your songwriting for this album: your relationship to your father and your sense of belonging.
Is that so? And has getting older changed your feelings and thoughts relating to these two themes?
I feel that certainly the first kernel of the record came when I was visiting Nigeria with my dad last year I think, to visit my grandmother. I’ve only really been to Nigeria four times in my life and it’s something that I’m kind of fascinated about – the land that my parents came from, that I technically come from but I don’t have such a connection to. It’s odd for me to think about this but when my parents moved from Nigeria to the UK, they were intentionally taking us out of their home and implanting us in another culture. Although I grew up in a Nigerian household it was kind of schizophrenic because they wouldn’t teach us the native language Igbo – they didn’t want us to get accents because they felt it would be harder for us to assimilate to the British way of life. Which I can see where that came from because they obviously had issues assimilating here for that reason. But the sad reality of that meant that growing up I felt quite divorced from Nigerian culture. So to go back to this trip with my father, it was really important for me to see Nigeria with open eyes and to connect with it and to connect with my father who I’d maybe been quite distant from in the past. Getting older I am definitely more committed to immersing myself in Nigerian culture. It’s important for me and also for my child to have an understanding of our ancestry and where we come from.
Glyndŵr Smith asks:
You have stated that though you were brought up religious, you wouldn’t define yourself as such, but how much does spirituality influence your life and work?
I feel that spirituality is something that very much influences my work. Certainly at the moment. It’s always been in the background, thematically, of the music I make. It underpins a lot of discussions I have with my family, because my parents don’t really understand how I can’t have the same ideas as they have. And Hymns was an attempt to explain to primarily my mother, how I see the world. How I view spirituality. What are the things that I hold sacred? Respect for nature. A respect for each other. A respect for sex. As I grow I realise that I’m starting to see that I have quite a lot of pagan tendencies in the things that I enjoy. I feel that’s something I’m still exploring really.
Reckon I’ll be able to fight to your new album?
That really depends on your psychological makeup. I don’t think it’s traditionally sparring music but I’d love to be proved wrong.
What’s your favourite Pixar film?
Toy Story 3. I think all the Toy Story films are good – great examples of storytelling that works on lots of different levels. I vividly remember this scene where they’re all going into the incinerator. The way the toys all look at each other as death is upon them is something I will never forget. I’m looking forward to watching Disney films again with my daughter and deconstructing them and seeing what they say about gender.
Favourite Menomena song and record?
So many to choose from. I really love that band – they’re one of my favourite bands of the last decade so it’s a real honour to have Justin play with us. Wet and Rusting is still one of my favourite songs of theirs, on Friend And Foe. I just love the balance in that song – everyone is doing their own thing but it seems to make a very magical suspension of space and rhythm.
What happened to the novel?
It’s still there. It was a collection of short stories that at the last minute I lost my nerve about. I remember reading about the reaction to James Franco’s debut novel – people really had the knives out for it. I’m not naive. As a musician, working in another discipline I would probably be subject to the same scrutiny. Although the stories documented a time I was living in New York, I was worried and am still worried that it’s not so cohesive. And I want the first book I put out there to feel cohesive. It’s still there and I’m toying with the idea of releasing it as a graphic novel. Or working on it in the future. I hope it will see the light of day but not right now.
Which Bloc Party song holds the most meaning to you today and in what way?
Into The Earth from Hymns our last record still feels prescient to me because it’s a song about the relationship between me and my partner. And the reality of looking into the future together which is something I’ve never really had to do before. So that’s a song that I guess feels the most relevant to my life now.
Has becoming a father changed had more or less impact on your songwriting than you thought it would?
It’s hard for me to tell because the songs on Fatherland were written before Savannah was born. Because we knew we were having a child, I guess the record is mainly concerned with the thoughts I was having when I knew I was going to become a father not the actual reality of becoming one. It’s hard to tell. What I’m writing now for the next project is more concerned about the world we’re living in right now and like many people I’m quite frightened about the world we’re living now and we’re going to be leaving to our children. So yes, I guess becoming a father has changed my perspective if I’m honest.
Kele Okereke is in the building
Kele Okereke has had what can only be described as a restless career. As frontman of Bloc Party, he was at the forefront of the mid-noughties indie boom, rejuvenating British guitar music alongside bands such as Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys. His solo career has proved an outlet to indulge his love of electronic music, with albums The Boxer and Trick. Along the way, Okereke has appeared on the cover of Attitude magazine, bickered with Oasis and written for the Guardian about identity politics, homophobia and Destiny’s Child.
Recently, Okereke became a father for the first time – and the experience informed his forthcoming third solo album, Fatherland, which represents another stylistic change for the singer, away from the dancefloor and towards acoustic folk. Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell are among the influences, while Olly Alexander and Corinne Bailey Rae are onboard for duets.