It's a balmy Monday in September when I meet Bloc Party on Jimbaran Bay, located on the southwest coast of Bali. The previous afternoon the band flew in from Spain, and they're scheduled to jet back home to England a few hours after our chat. Last night they headlined one of the five stages at Soundrenaline, an annual two-day festival that takes place at Garuda Wisnu Kencana, a vast "cultural park" in a former quarry featuring towering statues of Hindu deities (the largest is an impressive 75-foot bust of Vishnu). Thanks to the relics of mined limestone hills that fragment the landscape like Brutalist apartment blocks, it makes for one of the most impressively strange backdrops for a gathering of 10,000 plus excitable music fans.
As the quartet slowly drift into the hotel lobby, suitcases in tow, they look a bit blurry-eyed, but it's from whirlwind travel rather than rock star hedonism—the band passed out soon after their set. Their crew on the other hand, made the hotel re-open the bar, and within a few hours they'd sunk $300, or "Three Million Eight Hundred Ninety One Thousand Five Hundred Fifty Rupiah." Everyone finds this hilarious, mostly because it looks so utterly decadent typed out in words on the tab, which their still cheery but very hungover tour manager Nick is settling up.
"It was like two in the morning, so it was bedtime," says bassist Justin Harris, explaining his absence at the impromptu aftershow. "I mean I would have been in the pool. I do like pools."
"I needed food," says 22-year-old drummer Louise Bartle, Bloc Party's other new addition. She was 11 when the band's debut album, Silent Alarm, came out. "I was huuungry."
Bloc Party—completed by its two founding members Kele Okereke and guitarist Russell Lissack—have spent the majority of 2016 on the road, touting their fifth album, Hymns, which was released in January. It's a tour cycle that culminates in a huge headline show at Hollywood Bowl this Sunday. Making chit chat while we wait to grab some lunch down the road, I ask them about their plans for the rest of the year.
"We're taking some time off for personal reasons," says Kele. Sounds ominous. I ask him if he's OK and the singer emits an awkward laugh. "You know, I mean, I'm fine. I don't know, it's just, uh, ow!" He hits his funny bone on the arm of the chair. You're not making a very convincing case, I say. "No, I just feel like sometimes you need a bit of time out for other things in your life… so that's what's happening at the end of this year."
The crowd at Soundrenaline Festival in Bali
My first experience interviewing Bloc Party took place in the fall of 2004. I was a stowaway on their tour bus, following them from London to Lille to Amsterdam as they opened for Interpol. Bloc Party were shy, bookish sorts who had yet to drop their first album, and I was a rookie journalist. Interpol, meanwhile, seemed like seasoned rock sophisticates. So when the NYC band suggested we take mushrooms after the show in Amsterdam—because the last time Interpol had seen Nietzsche's face on the wall of a club restroom—we all agreed. For me that night stretched on endlessly, constantly surrounded by a jumble of people. I felt oddly dislocated. Today we all laugh and agree that it was definitely not our best drug experience.
"I think when hallucinogens are involved you see a different side of someone, so you're right, I like to think we're bonded for life," notes Kele. Back then the South London-based band were one the most exciting new acts in the UK. Incisive songs like "Helicopter" and "Banquet" still stand up today as indie anthems that stitch together mathy guitars jagged enough to eviscerate and choruses by turns brooding and smartly pop. Bloc Party rode in on that mid-aughts wave that saw indie go overground, and by the end of 2005, after the release of Silent Alarm, these skinny, soft-spoken boys—a lineup which included bassist Gordon Moakes and drummer Matt Tong—were mainstream draws.
"When I think about that [time], I think how lucky we are to release the right record at the right time because it's stood us in good stead," says Kele. "We never felt part of the scene even though there were lots of bands coming out that we were being likened to. We didn't really feel an affinity to any of them, so I feel like us standing on our own [now] is really how it should be, and I'm happy."
At this point, having lost half their members, the fact that Bloc Party are standing at all is pretty remarkable. After completing promotional duties on their third album Intimacy, the band decided to press pause for a few years, breaking away to work on various solo projects, including Kele's 2010 debut solo LP, The Boxer. They eventually reconvened to record Four. But midway through touring the States in 2013, Kele began to lose faith. He explains they were falling into old patterns and realized that despite the sabbatical, nothing had really changed. First Matt quit after an argument at Governors Ball; then, two years later in 2015, Gordon left, too. When I push them for more details Russell highlights issues that split many a relationship, professional or otherwise: close proximity and ultimately an inability to communicate. Previous press reports also pointed to someone around the band taking drugs, and, to quote their interview with The Guardian, apparently "individual band members had different opinions on it." There seems little point in raking over the particulars in detail today.
"It was never like we were at each other's throats, it just felt distant really," Kele elaborates. "Ultimately we were four British young men that didn't really know how to speak together about things that were going on in our lives. Obviously losing members isn't a nice feeling, but if we hadn't parted ways with Matt and Gordon, I wouldn't have wanted to make more records. I'm sure they're happier doing whatever they're doing."
Although they're not in touch, Kele says he ran into Gordon's wife at an airport not too long ago and catching up was nice. He remains sanguine: "People come into your lives, and they go. I don't wish them any ill, and I hope that the feeling is mutual. I have a lot to be thankful for, for meeting them, but I'm also aware that relationships end and it's not anybody's fault."
Bar tabs settled, we take a short ride to a restaurant down the road and settle down for lunch. Bloc Party seem instantly more at ease. It's clear the personnel change has refreshed the group dynamic. First came Justin, one half of Portland indie rockers Menomena, who Kele and Russell met when the band toured with Bloc Party in 2009. Aside from admiring his musicianship, Kele was drawn to what he describes as the bassist's easy-going, California disposition: "I thought he had a nice temperament."
Like a dog? "Yeah. Basically like a golden retriever," laughs Justin.
"That you are," agrees Louise.
"I think what Kele is trying to say is there was a Justin-shaped hole in their lives," concludes the long-haired bassist, who looks like Jesus if Jesus were a sun-kissed surfer. Apparently the only time they've seen his sunny vibes darken was when they were in a restaurant and the waiter forgot his food. "I think I just said, 'Where's my fucking food?'" The rest of the band laugh. Justin adds quickly. "It wasn't very nice; it wasn't that guy's fault."
The band discovered Louise, rather improbably, after being impressed by her drumming skills on YouTube. "I wasn't super familiar with all their music," says Louise with a shrug. "I think I knew 'Helicopter,' as everyone probably does. I was quite young when Silent Alarm came out. I probably wasn't listening to that kind of thing in my teenage years."
Being an entire generation older, Kele has found it exciting to share the music that's shaped them with Louise. Moreover, the fact that she's never been in a proper band before Bloc Party means it's been fun to see the world, and thus the tour-life grind, through her fresh eyes. I ask her if there's anything the guys have turned her onto that's really changed her outlook. I'm thinking musically, but she says: "Umm... I dunno, maybe the gym?" Everyone cracks up again. Certainly both Kele and Russell are noticeably more ripped than they were back in 2004.
Earlier this week Bloc Party released "Stunt Queen," a buoyant cut of skittish beats and vibrating synths, their first 100 percent collaborative composition, jammed out in soundchecks while on tour. Hymns, meanwhile, is almost entirely the work of just Kele and Russell, a creative partnership that began in 1999, which Kele says is still evolving. Even after all these years, Russell continues to teach him things he "couldn't possibly imagine." Unusually, they selected the album title before writing a lick—the lack of vowels and the power of the word pleased Kele. He likens the beginnings of making a record to working in the dark until the momentum propels him in the right direction.
Hymns is Bloc Party's most expansive, joyous, and intimate record to date. Russell's usually frenetic riffs now envelop the songs with a reverbed blanket of guitars, while overall Kele is a world away from the self-conscious 23 year old I first met years ago. You can see it in the way he dances onstage and how he converses with the crowd: He's now at home in the spotlight. This confidence is also notable in his lyrics, which are at times eye-poppingly honest. Raised Roman Catholic, the 34-year-old rejected religion pretty early on, but, like many these days, he continues to delve into spirituality on his own terms.
"Hymns is an attempt for me explore what I find sacred in the world, and what I feel should be celebrated: human relationships and a sense of reverence for nature," he explains. "That's what I learned when I was making the record: those are the things I hold dear."
There are moments when the sonics are almost monk-like ("My True Name"); lyrics frequently circle back to the stars above, the earth beneath, and a trip down to the water ("The Good News"). "Fortress" is unquestionably the most openly sexual song he's ever penned, each line sung in an almost reverent falsetto as he maps the heat between two people—the build up, the union, the post-coital haze. But it's not all lust; Kele pushes to articulate the connection that pulls deeper than carnal desire.
"Sex and intimacy is really the closest thing to my heart, and as a songwriter and lyricist, those ideas have always been there—the comfort and the protection that somebody else, like a lover, can afford you is something I've always found fascinating and magical," he says. "It's always been something I've been quite keen to write about."
Silent Alarm reminds me of a very particular era where I was broke and living in an East London apartment where the lights would periodically go out because we'd forgotten to manually top up the electricity meter. I split my time working at a second hand clothes store and writing about music I believed in. London was kind of kicking my ass, but it was my city all the same. One of the things that has always stuck with me about the album, too, was despite our mushroom experience, how hard it was to get beyond talking about just music with Kele. Although I've enjoyed friendly hellos with Kele and Russell over the years—for a time I lived in the same apartment block as Kele and his then-boyfriend—I've always remembered our first interview as somewhat lacking in rapport. There's no doubt I was a clumsy inquisitor, and Kele is also in his least favorite position when the voice recorder is blinking red. Back then I knew he was gay (he's since said he identifies as queer), but he had yet to talk about it in the press. I have recollections of skirting around this issue in the hopes that he'd gift me with some sort of "scoop," but it soon became apparent that was never going to happen, and that was OK, too.
Kele began opening up in this arena to select press some six years ago, when he appeared on the cover of Attitude and, around the same time, discussed his difficulties coming out to his Nigerian parents in Butt magazine. In recent years more and more artists and public figures have felt it's important to be vocal, or at least visible, in the LGBTQ community and beyond. Tegan and Sara recently told me how in the beginning of their career their inclination was to be out but quietly so, yet as time's gone on they've become more and more active when it comes to LGBTQ rights. In Ellen Page's 2014 coming out speech she noted that aside from being "tired of lying by omission," she felt she had "a personal obligation and a social responsibility." I was curious if Kele had felt a similar shift. Compared to 12 years ago, is being outspoken something he feels is important—not to fuel the invasive machinations of the press—but because just being visible could help others? And then our conversation in Bali starts to get a little uncomfortable.
"I've always been out, I've never been ashamed of my private life," he says. "But even this question now, you're bringing up something as the journalist that I'm supposed to then talk about, and it's like, if I want to talk about my life, I should be the one that's talking about it. It's very weird to feel like you're not in control of how you're presenting yourself, and as a young person, as a 20 year old, I just wasn't prepared to deal with that. That's kind of what I objected to at that time. So yeah, I don't know what the answer is to that question." It's right about now that I wish we were still laughing about reps and protein shakes, but I muddle on, suddenly as inarticulate as I was back in '04.
"I still have some issues about it because, in that period it wasn't my choice, I feel like it was taken from me," he says. During which period? In the very beginning? "Yeah, but even to go over this is like going back into a place I don't really want to go," he continues. "I remember that interview you did, where you were trying to get me to say something and I wouldn't say it, and I had to tell you, off mic, that I didn't want to talk about this, so it's weird to be back in this situation years later."
He follows this with a nervous laugh. I apologize. I feel dreadful. I didn't mean to offend. "No you haven't, you totally haven't," he says. "You're just doing your job, and I know now after years of doing this that I'm in control of the situation: Somebody else doesn't have the power, I have the power."
Lunch finished, and, with time ticking aggressively on, we head back to their hotel for a few quick snaps on the beach. Justin is the only one sticking around, traveling to Bali's eastern coast to maybe do some surfing and soak up the sun before returning to the Pacific Northwest. Russell is heading home to his wife and young son. As we make our way to the ocean, Kele pulls away from the others. He wants to tell me something. We slip off our shoes and pad across the crescent stretch of hot, white sand.
"I'm starting a family and becoming a father, so that's why we're taking some time off at the end the year," he explains, squinting into the horizon. "We're preparing to have this newborn in our lives. And we need some time to adjust to that. It's going to be an interesting time at the end of this year."
Now standing at the shoreline, the waves crash to meet us, just cool enough to be refreshing. "I just want to touch… I just want to get some sea on my feet," says Kele. "It's been in planning for two years. Yeah, it's super exciting and kind of scary, but I think all young parents probably say that."
We pause and kick our feet around in the water. I tell him I feel a bit emotional. I'm happy for him and his boyfriend. "I'm excited and slightly scared, to be a dad. But I just said that a minute ago. I think that's kind of it. That's all I need to say. Thank you."
We rejoin the rest of the band as they pose for a scant few shots before time is called and they have to rush back, throw their bags in the van, and drive to the airport. Just after the final frame we say our goodbyes, and as the others meander back to the hotel, Kele jogs to the shore one more time before heading home to London.
Kim Taylor Bennett is OK with admitting sometimes she's not the most articulate interviewer on the bloc(k). She's on Twitter.