Bloc Party frontman Kele Okereke is in Lausanne, Switzerland. The 26-year-old answers his cell phone while strolling down the sidewalk. He claims to be wearing nothing but a Speedo. "That's how they do it here," he says. "See, and you thought Bloc Party was all about doom and gloom."
Okereke forces a laugh. In a few hours, he will perform at a packed theater. The room will throb with propulsive dance beats decorated with dissonant guitar noise and dreamy sound effects. Okereke will sing about unrequited love, the allure of hard drugs and a host of other topics that are far from cheery -- but attendees will cheer, most likely wildly, at the conclusion of each song. "For me, the best concerts are communal, everyone in the room feels connected. That's what I really want to promote, that everyone experiences that moment together," Okereke says. "Our music isn't the most light, kind of party vibe, but we always try and get people off on the energy and intensity of the music."
When Bloc Party released their debut album Silent Alarm, the British music press hailed it as a masterpiece. The disc blew up across Europe and also proved popular with hipsters here in America. In February, Bloc Party issued the more ambitious but equally dreary follow-up, Weekend in the City. "It's about life in cities all over the world -- New York, Paris, Tokyo," Okereke says. "Capturing how people relate to their own downtown, people in bars and clubs, shopping, in restaurants -- it's supposed to be an exploration of what people do with their leisure time."
Weekend in the City just missed cracking the Billboard Top 10 and has made Bloc Party a major player in the states, a rare feat for a British indie rock band. The price of success for the musicians has been two years of touring virtually nonstop.
"I think the glow has started to wane a bit," Okereke admits. "But it's a fantastic feeling playing to people who want to see you, thousands of people who wanna get down."
Bloc Party kick off their U.S. tour with a Tampa Bay debut Monday at Jannus Landing in St. Petersburg. The jaunt will take Okereke and his three bandmates across the country with dates in places like Denver and Kansas City before wrapping in California. "I really enjoy playing the States, I think more than the U.K., because there's something about traveling on a bus in a foreign land -- it makes you feel like a traveling soldier, like you have purpose, like everything is new and exciting."
Okereke ponders each question. When he responds, the words often come too quickly, bump into each other and turn into a tangled mess. But the singer doesn't let his stammering stop him. He just slows down and starts over until the words flow properly.
"You start writing -- I don't know why you start writing [songs]," Okereke says. "There's something inside you that needs to be expressed. You do it because there's nothing else you can do. There's that sense of urgency.
"It's that stuff you can't articulate in everyday life," he continues. "I remember when I started, it felt so nice to have this sense of internal dialogue, something private but that was real. I guess that's where the desire came from."
Okereke was born to Nigerian parents in Liverpool and raised in Essex, near London. He writes songs that find him on the outside looking in, reflecting on a pub culture and post-9/11 world that he disdains. On "Hunting for Witches," the second track on Weekend in the City, Okereke imagines a man sitting on the rooftop of his house with a "shotgun and a six-pack of beer" waiting to take aim at foreigners. Throughout the album, one gets the sense that the singer doesn't exactly feel at one with British society.
"It's difficult; you're here [in England] and lived here all your life and have friends who grew up on the same avenue, but you're still kind of made to feel like the other -- that you're different," Okereke says. "I wouldn't refer to myself as English. English is a term for white Anglo-Saxons. It's weird. It's the same thing all over the world. All positions of power in the Western world are maintained by a certain social structure and certain race, and there isn't any access for people with opposing views.
"Although one doesn't feel like you're being blatantly discriminated against, there's always that feeling that your view is different. It's like reading how the news is positioned. It always takes a bias, with England on the threat from external agents like Eastern Europeans or Islamics or young black hoodies who are going to steal your phone. Although nothing is explicitly said, you're fully aware of the subtext."
Weekend in the City opens with "Song For Clay (Disappear Here)." It places the listener inside a shady nightclub where people drink flutes of Champagne, snort cocaine and "suck each other's faces." The song "On" mines similar subject matter. But on "Waiting for the 7.18," Okereke sings about killing time doing crosswords and Sudoku.
"I haven't stepped foot in a club in a year and a half, well, that's not true, maybe once," Okereke says. "I never really enjoyed clubbing, especially in the U.K. -- it's really indebted to drunk culture."
Okereke points to the football fanatics who get all riled up watching their team and then go out looking to bash someone. "You get this burly white male who does this job he hates, and his only bit of fun is starting fights with people," Okereke says. "There is this twin element of fun and violence in the U.K. that is very disturbing. You go to a northern town on a Friday or Saturday night and there are countless people with bloody noses and black eyes."
Not exactly a Monday night in downtown St. Pete. But for the thousand-or-so indie kids likely to congregate at Jannus, Bloc Party's pain-soaked lyrics should suffice.