Love, Sex And Heartbreak... Laced With Judeo-Christian Imagery

20 November 2015 | 4:26 pm | Simone Ubaldi

"Music is his religion... If you call a record Hymns there will always be someone who will think that you're a raving Christian or something."

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Kele Okereke went to see a Hanif Kureishi talk about punk rock, and left filled with thoughts of religious devotion. The author of My Beautiful Laundrette and The Buddha of Suburbia, who Okereke has long admired, made an offhand comment about the death of evangelical art in the postmodern era. "He said that any mention of a religious dimension to art is somehow looked at with complete suspicion these days. In the past, art and religion were completely intertwined. Where did that disconnect come from?"

Okereke was raised Catholic but does not consider himself religious. Music is his religion, it just happens that his earliest experience of music was singing hymns as his Catholic primary school. "That's when I first heard my own voice," he says. He had no idea what the words signified, but he felt a sense of fellowship and community with the people around him.

"In the past, art and religion were completely intertwined. Where did that disconnect come from?"

For the fifth Bloc Party album, Hymns, Okereke chose to make votive art. Stripped back and plaintive, it is a deeply vulnerable exploration of the sacred and divine. "I wanted to refer to the forces that I found moving. That's why there are so many references to nature and bodies of water, to the ground beneath our feet, to light.

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"If you call a record Hymns there will always be someone who will think that you're a raving Christian or something. I've been very clear that I'm not, but I don't mind if people think that I am. This record has come from a very different place than all of our previous records. It's come from a very personal place and it's a record that I felt, as an artist, that I needed to make," Okereke explains.

On Hymns, songs about love, sex and heartbreak are laced with Judeo-Christian imagery — metaphors that could play awkwardly to an indie-rock crowd. "I'm not really concerned with how it's going to be received," the singer shrugs. "There will always be someone who's not going to get it, or people who will want to misconstrue things, but I've learned to shut those voices out and focus on the people that do get it. The most magical thing about being an artist is being able to share what you've created and having your work touch people in ways you could never have imagined. I'm just grateful I have a platform to share my words and work with people."

That platform almost ceased to exist, as Bloc Party went on indefinite hiatus in 2013 and lost two of its original members shortly afterwards. Only Russell Lissack remains from the original line-up, although he and Okereke were always the core players. "I think our relationship is symbiotic. He needs a direction or a focus, and that allows him to shift whatever is in his way to get there. He'll move mountains," Okereke says. Lissack's flexibility has enabled the spiritual shift in Bloc Party's sound, though he is not a spiritual person. "He's like a total atheist!" Okereke laughs. He sent Lissack gospel music and Indian spiritual music to give his bandmate some direction for Hymns, but they never discuss the quasi-religious leitmotifs. For Okereke, their working relationship is sacred enough. "Every time we sit down to write music, I hear something that I couldn't have imagined. That's a really incredible feeling — to have that sense of wonder every time we play together."