By keeping it a big secret, Bloc Party have turned their new release into the main event, writes Craig McLean
KELE Okereke is not the kind of singer to get carried away with himself. Certainly on stage with his band Bloc Party, he's a charismatic figure, leading the London four-piece through their ferocious indie clatter, but offstage he's hesitant and faltering, and not just because of his stammer. Today, though, his often doomy demeanour is nowhere to be seen.
"We released (the single] 'Mercury' a week before and I thought people might have put two and two together and think we might have more material ready," he is saying. "But no one did. So that was good."
He's talking about the very unexpected release of Bloc Party's new album, Intimacy. Talk about lightning Solomon Grundy speed: the band told fans they'd completed their third record in a late-night webcast on Monday, August 18. On Tuesday they issued a press release. On Thursday you could buy a download of the album from their website (with a physical version following in October). Radiohead? The Raconteurs? Beck? Pah! None of the music world's recent fleetfooted innovators have outpaced Bloc Party.
Ask him why they've done this, and Okereke refers to an interview with BBC 6 Music's Steve Lamacq around the release of their 2007 album, A Weekend In the City. In it they said that news of 'modern record' releases often leaked early, so you got them online three months in advance. The buzz of a new album appearing had dissipated.
"And we remember being teenagers, when (Oasis's] Be Here Now came out," the 26-year-old frontman says now. "Everyone at school rushed out to get it at lunchtime and listen to it and talk about it the next day. That doesn't happen any more."
Bloc Party wanted to restore the idea of a new album's release as an event. "It was a case of, well, why do we need to sit on the record for six months – if it's finished, why don't we just put it out there? We're lucky that we have an international fanbase, so we know people will be excited by it."
We're in Dublin, in the grand house that dominates Marlay Park on the city's outskirts. Out of the upstairs window we can see roadies putting the finishing touches to a huge stage in bright mid-afternoon sunshine. Bloc Party are performing here tonight, part of a summer run of huge outdoor shows across Europe and America. They're supporting The Killers in front of some 32,000 people, and Bloc Party will play a fistful of new material. It's a mark of the vigour and punch of Intimacy's songs that they go down a storm with the Dublin crowd.
And this is the best thing about Intimacy: it's a crashingly innovative album, a techno-enhanced reboot of the kind of thing British indie guitar bands are supposed to do. The single 'Mercury' (also released with no fanfare in early August) is a swaggering mix of belligerent brass and staccato percussion, topped off with Okereke's yelping, soaring vocal. 'Zephyrus' is like The Aphex Twin remixing a choir of Gregorian monks on a mead comedown. 'Ares' is the sound of three-way war between squealing electric guitar, clattering drums and chopped-up vocals.
All told, Intimacy picks up where last year's between-albums, dancefloor-oriented single 'Flux' left off: this is a band less about square old riffing and plucking and more about reimagining what a rock band can do. When it came to writing and recording they even set themselves parameters: Bloc Party would only work on the first 10 songs that they wrote. And they would split the production duties in half: five songs overseen by Paul Epworth (Primal Scream, Kate Nash) who produced their staggering debut, 2005's Silent Alarm, which was NME album of the year (beating Arcade Fire and Franz Ferdinand), Mercury nominated, and went platinum a year later. A further five tracks are produced by Jacknife Lee (REM, Snow Patrol), the man behind A Weekend In The City.
"You know what the parameters are. You aren't stifled by having too much choice. You know what you have to do in this time frame to make it work. Whereas if we had a whole year in a studio it would have been a very different record. That's the conditions that Bloc Party thrive under: having to work quickly."
Okereke thinks this was part of the problem behind A Weekend In The City: the band had 30 songs to choose from and overanalysed them. He also has twinges of regret over that album's lyrics. Thematically it crystallised Okereke's thoughts about being a young black man living in happenin' East London: with the lurking shadow of casual racism, security paranoia, hangover twitchiness and general urban stress. It felt like a fairly accurate chronicle of the times, but Okereke regrets the more polemical, finger-wagging aspects.
"I should have resisted that kind of 'statement' record. That's kind of why with Intimacy I didn't really think at all about what I wanted to say, I just wrote from the heart. That's the first time I've done that."
Okereke is a deeply private person, a legacy of his upbringing (he's the son of devout Nigerian immigrants) and his discomfort with the rumours concerning his sexuality. Today, for legal reasons he also has to keep schtum on the recent incident at a Spanish festival where he was allegedly assaulted and racially abused by members of Sex Pistol John Lydon's entourage.
Unfortunately for him, though, the lyrics on Intimacy are set to invite probing questions for a long time to come. They chart the rise and fall of a relationship with an unnamed (and non-gender-specific) party. The hammering 'One Month Off' ("I can be as cruel as you…") is about "being in love with someone who's younger than you and has not been faithful". 'Zephyrus', he admits, "was an apology to someone… It can be quite hard when you're in a relationship, and you're never there because you're touring all the time."
He explains that 'Biko' is not a reference to the murdered anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko; rather it's a term of endearment in Igbo, the language his parents speak. "It means 'dear', like when you're beseeching someone to do something…"
An album called Intimacy could be thought of as soft, reflective and quiet. But this is a record buzzing with agitation and upset – and, in several parts, with beauty.
"I thought the title would be a double bluff," he smiles. "You'd think of wet balladeering. You don't think it's gonna be ugly or harsh. But that's what relationships are really like. It's not just about good times."
For a rock star who can easily command big stages around the world Okereke is a complex and often confused guy. On the one hand he's defensively private; on the other he's boldly direct.
"I'm the guy who always thinks the glass is half empty," he concedes. "Maybe anxiety is the natural state for me. So it takes more to be positive about things."
With their inventive new album, Bloc Party are set on shaking things up. That, rather than partying and posturing, brings enjoyment for Okereke. And, it later transpires, he's hellbent on keeping that mood going. This week just past, Bloc Party announced the release of a new single. It's called 'Talons'. It's not on Intimacy (although it will be on the CD version). More power to their itchy, restless elbow.
• Intimacy is out October 27; Bloc Party play Glasgow Barfly, October 19 as part of the MTV Gonzo Tour.
From Superheroes to University Challenge
• Bloc Party toyed with various other names, including Union, Superheroes of BMX, The Angel Range and Diet.
• The band got their break when they went to a Franz Ferdinand gig in 2003 and gave Alex Kapranos and Steve Lamacq a copy of their single 'She's Hearing Voices'. Lamacq went on to play it on his radio show, declaring it "genius".
• Bloc Party were frequently compared to Gang of Four when they arrived on the scene. They didn't take it well, announcing that they had never "particularly liked" Gang of Four.
• Death From Above 1979, Four Tet, Mogwai and The Streets have all remixed Bloc Party tracks.
• Liam Gallagher has observed that Bloc Party look like a University Challenge team
• Okereke has always refused to discuss his sexuality but last year said: "Britain has always had a love/hate relationship with gay public figures."