mxdwn sat down with Kele Okereke of Bloc Party to discuss the band’s latest release, Alpha Games. This is the first album the group has dropped in 6 years, with fans celebrating the end of their hiatus. We learn though that there was never meant to be a prolonged hiatus in the first place. The band had written these songs starting in 2018, but as they were preparing to release them the COVID-19 pandemic stopped them in their tracks. The theme of the album, however, remains just as relevant as it was in 2018. Okereke describes how every song on the album relates to the ugliness of today’s world, reflecting how people constantly try to screw each other over to come out on top. We also talked about how Alpha Games’ sound has been compared to their 2005 album, Silent Alarm, and why the comparison both is and is not accurate.
mxdwn: So you were really passionate that “Traps” be the first song heard on the album. Can you explain why to me?
Kele Okereke: I think because we knew when we were writing the song in 2018 and 2019, in soundchecks when we were touring for those launches, we just knew that it had this energy about it. Whenever we played it, our crew would stop doing what they were doing and just listen. I don’t know, that’s the kind of thing— this intangible quality— I was kind of looking for with these songs, for Alpha Games, with this sense that we didn’t have very many rules. The only real rule was that we had to write the music together. With us all being in the room, we had to spontaneously create this music together just so we would know what it felt like. So we would know what it felt like performing the songs. With Hymns, our last record, it was great for us because it was a transitional time. We recorded that record as we were writing it in the studio which was very liberating. But then at the end of it, we kind of had to work out how we were going to play it to people. Whereas with Alpha Games, we knew we had to have the songs completely written, and there’d be no surprises about how a song made us feel. It’s one thing to write a song in the studio and then translate it live, and then it’s another thing to know that it has something about it whenever you play it. There are songs that we wrote with Hymns that maybe sounded like good ideas but just didn’t work live, and I didn’t really want to do that with this album.
mxdwn: That makes sense. This is the first album you guys have had in six years. And then with the pandemic and everything, especially, what was it like coming back together for this? Has your dynamic really changed at all, besides having to figure out how you want to perform the songs live?
KO: I mean, it was kind of interesting because we actually were ready to make this record at the end of 2019, the start of 2020. But obviously, the pandemic happened. So we didn’t do anything for a year and a half. So it was super frustrating because we were really ready to go at the end of 2019, and we kind of had to sit on our hands. And in that year here sitting on our hands, I made a solo record for The Waves, which was really just about keeping me sane and making sure that I didn’t try to take the Bloc Party/Alpha Games music somewhere else. I could just put it on the shelf and know that because I was being creatively fulfilled by making this solo record, there wasn’t the fear that I was going to try and turn it into something that we didn’t want it to be. Because we were also clear at the end of 2019 that this is what it should be. So I was just worried that I was going to try and— I don’t know— sabotage it? I don’t know, something like that. It was great to get into the studio last year to actually record Alpha Games and just know that these three-and-a-half years of waiting had come to an end. That now it was recorded and it was going to come out.
mxdwn: Yeah, I saw that Russell also released his first EP in I believe, January. So is it kind of hard to balance you guys’ solo careers with Bloc Party?
KO: I can’t really speak for Russell, but for me, is it hard to balance? No, I guess I’ve kind of got this thing going, or I had this thing going where I would make a Bloc Party record and then make a record by myself. It was a nice balance because it meant that I was able to have this familiar kind of environment with people that I’ve been working with for a very long time and feel very comfortable around. But then I was also able to challenge myself and put myself in situations with people that I didn’t really know to try something different with different producers, different musicians, different beat makers, different kinds of art teams. It’s been really kind of galvanizing going off and doing this, making these records, and I guess the music that I make as well. Just working with so many other creative people. It’s a very liberating feeling to be able to experience how somebody else does something and then take back the things that you learn to the group that you’re in.
mxdwn: It sounds like there’s probably a nice bit of creative freedom being able to go back and forth between projects and experiment one way on your own, and then another way with a Bloc Party, and you can kind of just keep trying new things then.
KO: Yeah, I think so. It still doesn’t feel boring. It still feels like I’m learning the whole time. I’m learning about my voice, I’m learning about playing the guitar, I’m learning about writing songs. So it still feels exciting. I still feel like I have something to prove. So, yeah, I like this balance of working in Bloc Party and working by myself. It’s a bit like having an affair, making you appreciate your marriage or something. That was an awful joke, sorry.
mxdwn: No, you’re totally fine. So it’s not like you’re really prioritizing one versus the other. You’re always kind of looking at both.
KO: I mean, yeah. I think so far, yes. I’m not really prioritizing either. Obviously, Bloc Party is what I do that makes me the most money. But at this point in my career, I’m not really thinking solely about making money. Bloc Party, it’s a band and it’s a brand and it’s kind of a business. It’s like its own business. It’s nice to know that that’s working in the background. And then it also gives me the freedom to follow my interests and do things that excite me and keep me passionate about music. I feel lucky that I’m able to experience both.
mxdwn: That’s really cool. And then I guess you guys have been working together again sooner than we realized since you were doing this all the way back in 2019. But either way, was it difficult at all after what, maybe three years? Wow yeah, only three years since it was 2019. But was it difficult to jump into it together? Or was it just like picking up where you guys left off?
KO: Yeah, it was pretty much just picking up where we left off because by the end of 2019 we had all the songs. We didn’t write any new songs. We had all the material. We were going to go into the pre-production phase with the producers, Nick Launay and Adam Greenspan, but they couldn’t come over here. We had to pause the project whilst the pandemic happened. So as soon as we got the green light, they came over here, and we just kind of played the songs. We spent, I think two weeks or a week relearning the songs and then another week, two weeks of pre-production with us just playing the songs again and again and again for Nick and Adam. They would suggest things and we would try different arrangement ideas, but yeah, we were all very focused, and we were confident with what we had.
mxdwn: There’s been a lot of comparisons to the songs on this album to Silent Alarm. A lot of fans are feeling really nostalgic. How do you feel about that? Are you guys trying to return to your roots or, is it just kind of a coincidence?
KO: No. I mean, I’m slightly nervous. It seems like in the way that things become reduced in news cycles and press releases, I feel like the narrative is suggesting that it’s like Silent Alarm Part Two and it isn’t that at all. I will say that we wrote a lot of this music whilst we were touring, doing the Silent Alarm shows. So I think that naturally some of that energy bled its way into the songs that we were writing. Personally, I feel like we’d kind of forgotten the outpouring of energy in that record because it’s not a record. As soon as I make a record and it’s done and it’s released, you kind of don’t listen to it anymore because it’s not really yours. When I listen to our previous records, I just hear the sound of us recording them. It’s hard for me to separate that kind of process. So you don’t really listen to it. I mean, I don’t really listen to records once they’re out there. But having to go back and listen to Silent Alarm, I was kind of reminded of just how frenetic and explosive it all was in terms of the playing and the way that I was singing. It just felt like there was so much energy being expended, and I’d kind of missed that. I’d missed that feeling. So when we were writing Alpha Games, there was a sense of wanting to push ourselves physically. There was certainly for me a sense of wanting to push myself in terms of what I could do with playing the guitar and singing. I haven’t really had that mindset since the start, really. As we got more into the process of making records and recording, we’ve kind of explored that side of the process, but I feel like we weren’t really trying to push ourselves to show-off, for lack of a better word. And I feel like there’s an element with Alpha Games of wanting to show-off again, to show the world what we can do.
mxdwn: That’s really cool. And do you feel like you’ve successfully shown that off?
KO: Yeah. I feel like we’ve certainly given everything that we can, I’ve certainly given everything that I can to these songs. I don’t have any regrets or any sense of, “we should have done this.” I feel like I feel quite at peace with them. Because we’ve been sitting on them really for a very long time and we’ve really kind of agonized about the arrangements and things. There’s a lot of thought that has gone into this record from our side because we’ve had the luxury of time and the luxury of years of inactivity. I’m saying this now, ask me in six months and I’ll probably be like, oh, I hate it. I really want to do something else. But right now I feel like it was an accurate document these last few years, for sure. I’m happy. And that’s all you can ask for, really. It’s not about chasing perfection. Making records isn’t about chasing perfection. It’s just about capturing a moment and knowing that you are as true to yourself in that moment as you could have been. So I feel that we’ve done that. I certainly feel that there’s nothing yet that I’d like to change.
mxdwn: That’s good. And I definitely get that because I like to do photography, art and creative stuff like that. And it’s like, okay, if I look at the piece at first when it’s done, I’m like, this is awesome! I love it. And then I stare at it a little too long and now I’m like, oh, God, I hate this.
KO: Yeah. You have to protect yourself against that kind of second-guessing. You have to trust your instincts because, I mean, you have to be able to know when to edit. You have to know when also to trust what you intended to say initially before everyone else has an opinion on it. You know, I think we’ve gotten better at that.
mxdwn: And then going back to more specifically the songs on the album, you mentioned how “The Girls Are Fighting” aims to capture the moment of a sweaty nightclub. So what made you guys want to have the music video take place in a boxing ring instead?
KO: Well, I feel like the kind of title and stuff, this idea of two women, two girls, kind of fighting, it just seemed to be prescient. And I just felt it’d probably feel a little bit tacky to have girls brawling in a nightclub with broken setters and a boob hanging out or something. I think that would have been too literal. But I think the nature of the music, there’s something quite gladiatorial about the fighting that occurs in that video, and it’s not at all titillating or anything like that. To me, I see strength and tenacity. It seemed to make sense, really. So that’s why we wanted to depict strong women, you know, take the kind of boy element out of the situation and just have two women, two women competing, just to show their tenacity, really.
mxdwn: Yeah. And I absolutely loved it, too. I loved those kinds of choices because you could have easily been like, yeah, these are two sexy women really like, fighting and getting in it. But instead, it was very real. It was very, well, kind of violent. And it would have been so easy for you guys to go that other way. And I love that you didn’t.
KO: I’m the father of a daughter. I have a five-year-old daughter. It was very important to me because obviously there is something slightly uncomfortable about the video with the violence and whatnot. And there was a part of me that wasn’t sure that I wanted to go that far. But then I felt that we had to go that far because, I don’t know, I felt it was important to show. I mean, it wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t had the violence, if it didn’t really feel like two female MMA fighters. And it’s weird, I can’t even watch that stuff when it comes on the TV. I can’t watch like, MMA fighting. It’s something I have a problem with, and I remember when I lived in New York it seemed like every bar that I was going into would have like, the mixed martial arts fighting on in the background. And it was just these people battering each other in the background of everything going on. There’d be these images of people, this ultra-violence while everyone was having a good time drinking beer or whatever. It just seemed so weird to me that this was part of the backdrop, these super violent matches. So, yeah, I’m not someone that can watch that sort of stuff. I can’t even really watch boxing. But it felt that, I don’t know, it felt that we needed to show the strength of these women in this video. We needed to go there for that.
mxdwn: That’s awesome. And then I was wondering if I could also get the story behind “Callum is a Snake,” because that was a pretty intense song. So I was kind of curious about it.
KO: Yeah, everybody keeps asking me, “Who is Callum? What did he do?” And for a start, Callum isn’t his real name, so there is a real person, but his real name isn’t Callum. I think I’d get in trouble if I did that, but I think it’s less about him, and for me, the song is about the sense of putting someone on blast, letting them know that there is a line and you’ve crossed it and you are no longer invited to the party. To me, the song is about respectfully telling someone that you’ve had enough of their antics. And it’s weird, I’m not really someone that enjoys confrontation or conflict at all. It’s something I always try to avoid, but I realized in this record there’s so much conflict and confrontation. It’s kind of like the marrow of the record. Everyone is fighting and everyone is manipulating and trying to get ahead of somebody else. And I think that’s why the title makes sense, really. Alpha Games, this sense of jostling to be on top. If you’re on top, then somebody else has to be on the bottom. If you’re going to be the dominant one, somebody has to be subordinate. That’s kind of what all the songs touch on in some way for me.
mxdwn: Yeah, so you definitely have your albums that are a bunch of small stories. Do you definitely think this one is like one overarching story?
KO: No. To me, it’s a series of different vignettes, really. I think it’s kind of like a collection of short stories I made two years ago. Like two years ago, I worked with a friend of mine, Matt, a scriptwriter. Working with him and observing his process of weaving stories out of words gave me a new appreciation for, I don’t know, I guess storytelling. I think I’ve always had elements of that, but I think subconsciously it really seeped into my mindset with this record. These disparate stories that all seem to somehow be connected, different examples of people kind of being the worst to each other, really.
mxdwn: I think we’ve definitely seen a lot of that during the pandemic especially.
KO: Yeah, for sure. Obviously, the pandemic was kind of a trying time for lots of people, but I guess for me, probably the biggest inspiration to the tone of the record really came out of what I was observing happening in this country [England] with regards to our government, like in 2018 and 2019. I don’t know if you’re aware, but obviously, after Brexit happened, there was a lot of toing and froing internally in the government about how it was going to go down. And there were lots of warring factions of the same government that wanted the opposite thing, and it was just fascinating seeing how sneaky these politicians were in their ambition and in their interests. It felt like I was watching an episode of House of Cards. But every night there was some kind of new twist, a new plot twist, while the whole country was split down the middle, wondering if we were going to leave Europe or if we weren’t going to leave Europe. That kind of backdrop with these kinds of behind-the-scenes manipulations, it just really seeped into what I wanted to write about. I really wanted to capture this sense of people doing each other over, people lying to each other whilst looking at each other in the eye. This sense that nobody had any sense of integrity. That’s kind of where I wanted the songs to be. I wanted them to feel quite ugly, and I feel like they do feel like that. So I’m kind of pleased.
mxdwn: It’s kind of nice to know that that ugliness isn’t strictly reserved to the States.
KO: Yeah, obviously I’ve been paying attention to what’s happening in America, and I think a big part of everything that is happening on this kind of geopolitical scale was precipitated by Trump winning the election all those years ago. It just felt like the whole world just moved. This whole world has lurched to the right, and we’re just seeing this kind of strong man, this political strongman identity popping up in so many places. And what we’re having right now in Ukraine. One kind of twisted, narcissist’s vision of how he thinks the world should be has caused so much pain and destruction for so many people. That’s what happens when you don’t treat people with respect. That’s what happens when you don’t respect people’s humanity. This is where that kind of division leads.
mxdwn: Yeah, I think a lot of people around the world will definitely be able to relate to those themes from both a few years ago, to right now. Honestly, who knows if we’ll ever not be able to relate to it.
KO: Yeah. We’re not out of the woods. Let’s see what happens with Russia on a world scale, because this thing with Ukraine isn’t the end. He— Putin— clearly has a vision. So let’s see. I don’t think we’re entering into a good time. If anything, it’s the opposite.
mxdwn: I guess we’ll see if that’s true. And then are there any other songs on the album that you really favor that maybe click as the most passionate while you were writing them?
KO: They’re all kind of important in different ways. But I think the first song on the record and the last song on the record, to me, should leave quite the impression. Certainly the first song, “Daydream.” It’s about sibling rivalry. Like, what better way to display that kind of Alpha Games dynamic than the way that brothers fight, the way that a younger brother and an older brother will fight, and just how that can cast a shadow over your whole life if you leave it. I feel like that to me, feels at the essence of what the album is about. I think “The Peace Offering,” the last song on the record, feels quite important because, in so many of these songs prior, there’s so much discord and confrontation. But with “The Peace Offering,” it feels kind of haunting because it’s just so cold. It’s like what happens after the anger, the fire of anger, burns out and you’re just left cold and numb. There’s no healing. It’s just like a scar, like a limb has been removed. So, yeah, I feel like those to me feel like the start and the end of the record. They really do feel like the start on the end of the record for me.
mxdwn: That’s pretty perfect. Yeah, I have to say that that last one was probably my favorite to listen to.
KO: Thank you.
mxdwn: And do you have any other music videos planned? Can we look forward to any more of those coming out for this album?
KO: I’m not sure. I think we’re going to wait and see. I think the focus at the moment, right now, is just playing and learning the songs and performing them to people. We’re really, really excited. I’m really excited to play these new to the people because it’s been years. Years of us sitting on it, so I’m really excited to just get it out there.
mxdwn: Yeah, the band I last interviewed I know felt pretty similar where it’s just like, oh man, we wanted to perform this live when we wrote this years ago. Are you pretty excited to get back to the live performances, too?
KO: Yeah, for sure. It was kind of nerve-wracking. We did a handful of shows a few weeks ago, and it was crazy. Just like I didn’t let myself think about it, but we hadn’t been on stage for like three years. It felt kind of like riding a bike, really. It was a bit tentative at the start, yet all the memories came flooding back.
Photo credit: Marv Watson