Festival No.6 are delighted to welcome the mighty Bloc Party to Portmeirion as one of the headliners of this year’s festival.
The new album Hymns is a rebirth for Bloc Party. After 16 years as a band, over three million albums sold, countless world tours and awards and four studio albums, Kele Okereke and Russell Lissack are taking it back to where it all began.
As the title suggests, the fifth Bloc Party record is about faith and devotion, but it is not, Kele insists, a religious epiphany. “I grew up in a religious house so I’m fully aware of the imagery, but I’m not Christian. It’s not something I subscribe to.” Instead, the concept came to him after seeing the author Hanif Kureishi, whom Kele has admired since he was at school, talk at the Southbank Centre in London. The author of My Beautiful Laundrette and Intimacy was discussing evangelical art and how unfashionable it has become. “And that point stuck with me because for me, it seemed like for me music had originated in a religious place. The first music I ever heard was hymns at school. I started to think, if I was going to make music that had a spiritual dimension, that was sacred to me and to the things that I held important, how would I do it?” says Kele.
The result is a record that sounds like a band growing and changing, pushing new sounds via new approaches, and resulting in more free, less constricted Bloc Party. “When we started this band, we were all about being loud and spiky, and all the sounds had to confront,” Kele explains. “With the way I sang, the way the drums had to fill every moment, was very confrontational. After making Four, which was very abrasive, I wanted to make something more sensual, that took you in and hugged you, rather than hit you around the face. It was nice to let the atmospheres take over, to pull everything back, as opposed to it being a fight, or a dueling match.”
To get to the point of being able to make another album, however, the band had to navigate a tumultuous few years. They took a hiatus after their third album Intimacy, in 2009, during which time Kele focused on his solo career and DJ-ing, and Russell formed his band Pin Me Down, and joined Ash. They returned in 2012 with Four, and a subsequent world tour, during which original drummer Matt Tong stepped away. He was followed a year later by bassist Gordon Moakes.
“We’ve had break of two years now,” explains Russell. “We got to a point where the lineup had to change to allow us to go forward.” Kele adds, “It was clear at the end of 2013 that it just wasn’t working. If Matt and Gordon hadn’t left, we wouldn’t have carried on as Bloc Party. It’s the most awesome job in the world, being in a band, being able to create music and art and it affect people. It makes me feel sad that I felt back then that it was something I was going to walk away from. I never want to feel like that again.”
Kele and Russell soon realised that a new album was inevitable. “Bloc Party started with just Kele and I, and we used to write the songs together, and we found other people and grew from that. It feels like that’s happened again,” says Russell. They started writing together, just the two of them, in 2014, and were joined at various stages by the two new members who have made Bloc Party a four-piece again: bassist Justin Harris, whom the band met in his previous guise as part of the Portland indie rock band Menomena, and drummer Louise Bartle, a 21-year-old that the pair discovered on YouTube, and who “blew us away. It’s good to have someone bringing that energy of doing it for the first time. It’s made us all excited about going forward.”
Their enthusiasm for this new period in the band’s life is palpable. “Now we’ve written this record and met two brilliant people, it’s flowering again,” says Russell. We’re really excited about the songs and we’re desperate for people to hear them and to start performing them.”
Hymns marks a departure for the band sonically, too, with Kele and Russell trying sounds and approaches that they have never previously explored. “You can hear the space in the record, and it’s space that wouldn’t have been there if we’d tried to write it with four of us in the room,” says Kele.
We can’t wait to see the reborn Bloc Party take to the main stage at No.6